EUFAULA, Ala. Bink Desaro was obviously disappointed when his stellar flipping/pitching effort along Lake Eufaula's grasslines fell just 3 ounces short of victory. But the 34-year-old rookie Tour pro from Boise, Idaho, never let it show.
Instead, he hugged his opponent on the weigh-in stand when the scales showed his four day total of 76 pounds, 11 ounces would not be enough to overcome Denny Brauer for the Alabama CITGO Bassmaster Tour title.
"I'm just honored to be here with a fisherman like Denny," exclaimed the popular Desaro, "because he's been one of my heroes for years, even out in Idaho."
Indeed, Desaro's strategy for spawning bass on this famed 45,000-acre Chattahoochee River impoundment mirrored something the Missouri pro might have done himself: Find a shallow grassline in a protected cove and work it with a flipping stick.
Desaro's cove included long stretches of mixed vegetation growing from the shoreline to a depth of about 4 feet. To fish it, he used his favorite technique of power flipping, rigging a Reaction Innovations Sweet Beaver plastic crawfish (black/blue) with 80-pound-test SpiderWire and a 1-ounce sinker.
"I was simply trying for reaction strikes," Desaro explained, "because once the sinker crashed through the grass and the crawfish reached the bottom, I'd lift it slightly, shake it, then pull it out if nothing hit. I was targeting the thickest clumps of vegetation I could find in 1 to 2 feet of water, and over the four days, I don't think there's a blade of grass in that cove I haven't seen."
Although his closing limit of 24-5 was the second-heaviest daily weight of the tournament and included a Purolator Big Bass weighing 7-4, Desaro only caught seven bass the entire day.
"I was catching both spawning and postspawn bass," he said, "but I never saw any of the beds, and none of the fish ever took the bait very well. I lost big fish on both the second and third days because I just never got solid hook sets.
"The fact I kept losing fish told me they were still there and gave me the confidence to stay in the area even though I wasn't getting a lot of bites. One 150-yard stretch in all the vegetation I fished seemed to produce the most consistently all week, although I never got a bite there today."
Despite finishing in the runner-up spot, Desaro still collected $38,000 for second place, plus $2,000 for his Busch Daily Big Stringer and Purolator Big Bass on the final day of competition.
Ben Matsubu doesn't consider himself a good sight fisherman. In fact, he wasn't looking forward to the late March event at Lake Eufaula.
So, he decided to approach this Alabama fishery just like he does Toledo Bend Reservoir, his home lake. He spent the entire week pitching a weedless Yamamoto Senko to visible fish cruising along the edges of scattered vegetation. Repeating the tactic back and forth along five different 100-yard stretches of shoreline, he weighed in 72-15, capturing third place.
Pitching a 5-inch Senko (watermelon/red flake) on 16-pound-test Sugoi fluorocarbon line, Matsubu generally kept his boat in about 14 feet of water and threw the slow falling stickworm as much as 10 feet ahead of any cruising bass he could see. As each fish approached, he would simply twitch the lure slightly to entice a strike.
His best two days were in the opening round, when he brought in 20-6 (for seventh place), and the third day when he added 23-10 (second place). Other big bass did not replenish those he caught, however, for on the second and fourth days, he caught just 13-10 and 15-5.
Skeet Reese had hoped to spend his entire week at Lake Eufaula sight fishing. But when that pattern faded, he started targeting thick vegetation instead, believing the heavy fishing pressure of recent weeks might have literally pushed bass off their spawning beds.
Although not an easy way to fish, the pattern worked for Reese, who captured fourth place with 20 bass weighing 69-15, for $20,000.
The California angler primarily relied on a 3/8-ounce Terminator Jig (black/blue), alternating it occasionally with a generic tube lure (watermelon/ red flake) rigged on a 1/2-ounce tungsten weight. After losing the sight fishing bite, he concentrated on flipping isolated thick grass, keying on water 1 to 2 feet deep and staying fairly close to the Lakepoint State Park weigh-in area.
Of all the pros in the tournament, only Ron Shuffield concentrated on deep water. His strike zone was 10 to 25 feet deep. He used a 3/4-ounce Stanley Jig (black/blue) with 17-pound-test P-Line fluorocarbon line and targeted steep bluff banks for postspawn bass. He finished with 65-5, to collect the $15,000 purse for fifth place.
Originally planning to fish ledges, Shuffield had to abandon that pattern early in practice. He moved to steeper shorelines and long sandbar points where, with his boat in about 30 feet of water, he could pitch the jig close to the bank and work it down the drop.
The majority of his bass came between 8 and 15 feet, when he could find isolated cover with the jig. His best day came in the first round, when he caught a total of 12 fish and weighed in 23-8 to temporarily hold down second place.
NOTES & QUOTES
Fish Fishburne, ESPN/BASS tournament host and emcee, likes to drive fast - and he has the speeding tickets to prove it. Now, however, thanks to Detective Sgt. Dave Mansue, a 25-year veteran of the West Windsor Police Department in New Jersey, Fishburne just might escape his next violation in his adopted home state of New Jersey. Competing in the Alabama CITGO Bassmaster Tour as a nonboater, Mansue provided Fishburne with a police department hat, shirt and two courtesy cards, better known as "Get Out of Jail" cards. An avid angler, Mansue finished 40th at Lake Guntersville and 17th at Lewis Smith Lake.
Billy Schwach of Charleston, S.C., brought in 7 pounds, 14 ounces the last day to win the amateur division at Lake Eufaula with a three day total of 11 bass weighing 32-9. A night shift employee at Home Depot, Schwach used both a Lucky Craft Pointer and a Yamamoto Senko while fishing with Steve Daniels, Randy Romig and Mark Davis. Schwach finished 13th overall in last year's Southern Open Division, despite not even owning a boat. He has unusual local sponsorship, too, including the Charleston Non-Surgical Center, Ledford's Pest Control and Williams Carpet Center.
HARD LUCK AWARD
Texas pro Charlie Hammack earned the Unlucky 13 Award at Lake Eufaula for his 13th place finish, missing his first Top 12 cut by just over a pound. Hammack opened with 20-13, which put him in fifth place overall. But the next day, despite catching more than 15 bass, the best he could manage was 11-11, giving him 32-8 for the two days 20 ounces behind Alton Jones, who took 12th with 33-12.
NASCAR AND BASS
Professional bass fishing is often compared to NASCAR, and now ESPN/BASS has a direct contact with the auto racing organization in Ed Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway. Clark competed as a nonboater at Eufaula, his first BASS event. Although he did not qualify for the finals, Clark did bring in five bass each day while paired with Stephen Browning and Jim Bitter, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Describing bass fishing as his "major hobby," Clark also fished the one practice day during the 2003 Bassmaster Classic and hopes to do so again at this year's event.
BEDDING BASS BLUES
Late on the second afternoon of the tournament, Texas pro Cody Bird faced the ultimate dilemma that all sight fishermen hate to even think about: Should he continue to work the 5-pounder he could see on a bed and risk being late to weigh-in, or leave and be satisfied with the 1 1/2-pounder in his livewell? Bird decided to make one last pitch and caught the fish, but he was still one minute late and was penalized 1 pound. He actually still gained 2 1/2 pounds after the penalty, but the lost pound cost him five places in the standings. He finished 33rd.
LOTS OF DRIVING
Marty Stone knows Lake Eufaula pretty well after this season's tournament. That's because after bringing in 15-5 from a spot 20 miles north of the Lakepoint State Park weigh-in the first day, he naturally ran back to it the second morning. At 11 a.m., however, he was still waiting for his first bite, so he ran back down the lake 20 miles below the weigh-in. After catching four small bass there, Stone decided to try his first spot again and ran the 40 miles back upriver. He never had a bite there, and finished in 60th place with 23-1.
California pro Mike O'Shea fished a big 7-inch A.C. Shiner swimbait the first day of competition and caught two 4-pounders on the same cast with the swimming plug. His amateur partner, Robert Miller, did even better after O'Shea gave him one of the lures, catching bass weighing 6-3 and 7-2 during the day. They were simply casting parallel to the shoreline and covering water 4 to 8 feet deep. Miller eventually finished second in the amateur division with a total of 30-15.
Brent Chapman finished 16th with 31-8, and his experience reflects some of the challenges the pros faced during tournament week on Lake Eufaula. Chapman never caught a single bass weighing over 3 pounds during the three practice days. But he targeted the same 50-yard stretch of grass, lily pads and logs during competition and finished with 10 bass - each averaging more than 3 pounds. The action always came early, too. After 9:30 a.m. each day, Chapman never had a bite on his plastic lizard.
For two days, it looked as if North Carolina pro David Fritts had regained the crankbait magic that led him to the 1993 Bassmaster Classic title. Using all three of his specially designed Rapala crankbaits - the DT-6, DT-10, and DT-16 - Fritts brought in 20-10 the first day for sixth place. Then he added 16-13 the next day to climb to third. However, Fritts managed just one small bass on the third day after local fishermen took over his area, and he finished 10th overall with 39 pounds. He was finessing the lures very slowly around shallow wood cover less than 5 feet deep, catching both prespawn and postspawn bass on the edge of a cove. Sometimes it took 10 to 15 casts to the same target to bring a strike, he said.
Michigan pro Art Ferguson learned a valuable lesson on the first day of practice at Lake Eufaula: Don't put sunscreen on your lips. Ferguson did, and suffered a case of sunscreen poisoning when he licked his lips later and swallowed the lotion. A short time after applying the sunscreen he began feeling woozy and tired, and slept for 30 minutes in his boat. He awoke, started fishing again, and soon had to lie down once more. This time he slept for an hour. He finally returned to his motel room and slept another six hours. When he woke up and tried to figure out his illness, he read the label on the sunscreen bottle, which read in part, "In case of ingestion, seek medical assistance."
TAKE MY LINE
Georgia angler Emory Dunahoo Jr., claimed sixth in the amateur division, thanks in large part to the 4-pound, 8-ounce bass he caught the third day while fishing with eventual third place finisher Ben Matsubu. Both were fishing Gary Yamamoto Senkos, but Matsubu was also using fluorocarbon line, which sinks. Matsubu let Dunahoo spool some of the fluorocarbon line onto his own reel, and soon after, he caught his one fish.
Even though Florida pro Mark Rogers pulled into a section of Lake Eufaula shoreline early the first morning and promptly caught a 4-pounder with a spinnerbait, he thought the water and cover were better suited for a jig, so he changed lures. Moments later he caught a 7-pounder, and thee flips later caught another bass, weighing 9-6, that eventually gave him the Purolator Big Bass Award at Eufaula. All three fish came along a 10-foot stretch of shoreline.