Make no mistake, the big winner the most dominant force in the 36th annual CITGO Bassmaster Classic was Mother Nature.
On a February week typical of Florida in early spring, the weather both teased and tormented some of the brightest fishing minds in the world. Mother Nature's fickle moods tested both their patterns and psyches en route to turning Classic XXXVI into an endurance contest as much as a pressure-packed fishing tournament.
First, she significantly limited what the 51 Classic contenders could learn during the official three-day scouting foray a week before the world championship by bringing in a severe cold front that dropped temperatures into the low 30s and interrupted the best-laid spawning plans of the Kissimmee Chain largemouth. Then, she teased the Classic pros and fishing fans everywhere with a warming trend that had big, egg-laden female bass swarming the shallows during the lone Classic week practice day.
After a day off of the water, the competitors returned to the four lakes for an opening round where overcast conditions and a slight wind allowed sight fishing and produced a record breaking day now etched in Classic history books. Day 2 brought intermittent sun and clouds, along with a breeze that was just a hint of things to come.
By the time the Classic field had launched for the final round, overnight rains had muddied up shallow patterns, a passing line of thunderstorms had delayed the start of the day, and a temporary break in the weather greeted them.
That was the proverbial calm before the storm as Mother Nature unleashed her fury in the form of cold, torrential rains and relentless 20- to 25-mph winds. Here is how the Top 5 anglers met the challenges of the unpredictable Florida early spring conditions:
Luke Clausen: Weather worked to his advantage
In the end, the only guy who had an appreciation for the challenging weather conditions was winner Luke Clausen (56 pounds, 2 ounces), who caught his big sack (a record 29 pounds, 6 ounces) on Day 1 and then concentrated on not fumbling (14-15 and 11-13) away his lead while the patterns of his competitors faltered.
"The weather was (what) I was hoping for," the Washington pro says of the final-round rain-and-wind blitz that enabled him to cling to a 4-pound, 6-ounce lead. "We had a southwest wind blow all night, dirtying up those banks, and a northeast wind in the morning that dirtied the remaining cleaner banks. So, it eliminated a bunch of water, and I was able to get those few key bites to hang in there. It definitely stopped a lot of other people from having a really good chance to make a run at me."
Indeed. But the roots of Clausen's victory were planted in his strategic decision not to indulge in sight fishing for visible spawning bass (like Preston Clark, who had 29-1 the first day). Instead, he targeted bedding bass in deeper (3 to 5 feet) lily pad patches in the lower end of Lake Kissimmee (an area called Jack's Slough).
"I found these fish on the (lone) day of practice," Clausen recalls. "I was flipping mats the week before. I was actually catching them pretty good, but the weather changed, obviously. So, I wanted to find something else. I found that area, and it was actually stronger than the flipping pattern."
Primarily using a 6-inch junebug-colored Mann's HardNose curled-tail worm, Clausen spent almost the entire Classic rotating through select groups of pads determined to mine the area for all it harbored. ("I didn't have much choice. It was really all I had.") And that persistence was the biggest lesson he provided with his performance in Classic XXXVI. (Clausen also boated bass by using a ribbon tail worm, brand unknown; a spinnerbait, brand unknown; and a drop shot rig with a small finesse worm, brand unknown.)
From his past experience with Florida lakes, Clausen realized that to survive the finicky weather he would have to fish methodically and thoroughly (making multiple casts to each spot). But it was his experience on the wind-swept Columbia River that enabled him to battle the kind of unyielding winds that would crumble ordinary fishermen and still somehow detect strikes in a gale on soft plastics.
"I'd actually cast the worm out there and put my rod down on the water so the wind couldn't blow my line at all. I was pretty much just reeling very slowly so that my worm dragged across the bottom. There was no way to hold the rod up. The wind would blow a bow in the line and it would blow the worm back to the boat."
By continually learning his area and refining his pattern, Clausen was able to figure out that certain pad groups were most productive and seemed to be replenished by bass forced out of the supershallow water that was becoming increasingly muddy as the tournament progressed. Some of his biggest bass came from root systems that didn't seem connected to visible pads.
Luke Clausen: Classic details
Lures: Texas rigged junebug-colored 6-inch Mann's HardNose curled-tail worm.
Tackle: Unpegged 1/8- to 3/8-ounce weight, 5/0 Owner Z-Neck hook, 16-pound test Sunline Sniper fluorocarbon line, 7-foot G. Loomis MBR844 heavy-action rod, Shimano Chronarch 100 reel.
Technique: Used his reel to slowly drag the worm along the roots of lily pads where bass were spawning in 3 to 5 feet of water. Made repeated casts to each pad clump. The hard nose section of the worm allowed Clausen to pull it through lily pad roots without sliding down his hook shank, fouling the retrieve.
Rick Morris: All by himself
Veteran Virginia pro Rick Morris enjoyed a rare luxury in a modern-day Classic: an area all to himself. And that was likely the biggest key to his runner-up success with 51 pounds.
Morris, 44, made the long run (94 miles round trip) from the Lake Tohopekaliga launch down to the Kissimmee River. He was the only angler to spend time in the channelized river, which is unlike natural tributaries. It was straightened years ago to enhance barge traffic and its oxbows were allowed to silt in. As a result, it hasn't been on most Florida anglers' radar for a long time.
That could change now that Morris highlighted a sizeable population of quality largemouth in the straightaway below Lake Kissimmee.
"There were a lot of big fish in there more than I thought," says Morris, who had limits weighing 18-7, 18-14 and 13-11. "I didn't have much success elsewhere during practice, and the river is a place where I've done well before. When I saw the forecast called for wind, I felt it could work in my favor."
Resembling a canal, that section of the river is lined with various types of vegetation in 3 feet of water before giving way to a depth of 30 feet or more. Morris found that windy conditions seemed to move bass that were suspending in deeper water into the grass along the bank. He focused most of his efforts there.
"I was fishing the windy points along the channel edge," he notes. "As the days went on, I started to learn the better banks."
Morris seined those grassy spots with a Rad Lures' Chatterbait hybrid jig and War Eagle spinnerbait (both 3/8 ounce and white with a chartreuse trailer). "Today, the bite was so tough because of the extreme northeast wind and the barometric pressure. Every fish I caught was on the keeper hook," he says of the final round.
Rick Morris: Classic details
Lure: 3/8-ounce Rad Lures Chatterbair hybrid jig; 3/8-ounce War Eagle spinnerbait (both white with a chartreuse trailer).
Tackle: 65-pound-test braided line, 7-6 RPM Flipping-Pitching Special heavy-action rod, Pflueger president reel.
Technique: Only angler to target the Kissimmee River, Morris concentrated on the windy grass points along the channel edge.
Ron Shuffield: Couldn't pull the trigger
Live by the frog, die by the frog.
Arkansas pro Ron Shuffield learned that painful lesson en route to his best Classic effort in 15 tries. After solid rounds of 18-15 and 21 pounds, he boldly predicted victory if he was on the receiving end of five bites on the final day. Shuffield got three times that many, but managed to boat just three fish weighing 7-15 (three day total: 47-14). "It just wasn't my day," he laments. "I always said that when it's your time to win a tournament, you can't help but win."
Shuffield, 50, concentrated on an area on the north end of Lake Kissimmee where he targeted pads and hydrilla in 2 to 4 feet of water with a pair of black swimming-frog type baits. In open water or sparse grass, the seven-time BASS winner utilized a Stanley Ribbit and then switched to a Gambler Cane Toad for the thicker, matted cover.
A key to his success was that he stayed with the frogs long after other anglers had abandoned them because of the high winds.
The problem is that topwater frogs are notorious for their high "release" rate despite the best efforts of seasoned veterans like Shuffield. Over the course of three days he endured more blow-ups than probably any man in the Classic.
"The wind trashed the areas I had the most confidence in," he says. "I knew if I could win the Classic, it would be in that area. But it was so trashed, I wound up having to find other areas. I could still get bit if I could find the right kind of water," he comments. "The right area had clear water that was not getting too much wind."
His most productive spots were located just outside of considerably thicker vegetation that sheltered bedding bass. Shuffield theorized that the holes in the hydrilla were stopping points for bass that had just finished spawning. "I was keying on hydrilla mats and working the frog over the holes," he adds. "But when the wind started blowing, it was harder to see those holes and the chop on the water killed some of the action of the baits."
Ron Shuffield: Classic details
Lures: Black Stanley Ribbit and Gambler cane Toad (swimming frogs).
Tackle: 3/0 Zoom Horny Toad hook, 65-pound-test SpiderWire Stealth, 7-6 Fenwick Techna AV flipping stick, Abu Garcia Tomo reel.
Technique: Swam the frog through scattered clumps of hydrilla and Kissimmee grass in 2 to 4 feet of water. He opted for the Ribbit in open water or sparse grass and the Cane Toad in thicker, matted cover.
Terry Scroggins: Big show closes
Terry Scroggins, one of two Florida pros in the Classic, came into the world championship as one of the heaviest favorites in years and the man supposedly with the best chance to become the first home state angler to win the event. Whether it was the pressure of such expectations or the wrath of the weather, Scroggins, 37, had a roller-coaster ride that saw him sandwich two mediocre rounds (10-14 and 7-11) around a second-round charge of 28-6 to finish in fourth place with 46-15.
"I lost this tournament on the first day," he says. "Nothing I did seemed to work."
His disappointing performance was part bad timing, part poor decision-making and part Mother Nature. It began when he drew boat No. 50 and a late departure time that meant others would reach the visible bedding bass first prompting him to immediately abandon plans for sight fishing. Instead Scroggins opened with a shallow flipping gameplan in Lake Toho that failed him. He wised up and moved deeper on Day 2 where casting two Zoom soft plastics (a Trick Worm and 3-inch prototype craw) around deeper pads produced his big stringer in Lake Kissimmee.
Scroggins had Clausen looking over his shoulder entering the final round, but the heavy rains arguably hurt his area more than anybody's spot. It muddied up his best places and nullified his outside pad pattern.
"I had to move to the inside of the padline to find some clear water," he explains. "I got plenty of bites, but the fish were smaller. I could never get a good bite there."
The key to his success was his intimate knowledge of the Kissimmee Chain, which allowed him to continually move and find unfished areas throughout the tournament.
Terry Scroggins: Classic details
Lures: Junebug Zoom Trick Worm; 3-inch black-emerald prototype Zoom craw; 5-inch watermelon-red flake Yum Dinger.
Tackle: Worm 4/0 Gamakatsu straight-shank hook, 3/8-ounce Penetrator weight, 16-pound-test Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 6-8 Airrus Ultra XL rod, Shimano Chronarch reel; stickworm 4/0 Gamakatsu EWG hook, 16-pound-test Gamma Edge fluorocarbon, 6-6 Airrus medium-heavy rod, Daiwa Z Series reel; flipping craw 1 3/8-ounce Penetrator weight, 4/0 XPoint hook, 65-pound-test Stren Superbraid line, 7-6 Airrus extra-heavy rod, Daiwa Z Series reel.
Technique: After flipping heavy cover without much success, Scroggins backed off and fished deeper (4 to 5 feet) outside lines of lily pads.
Kevin VanDam: Stumbled at the gate
With an opportunity to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive BASS event, defending champion Kevin VanDam came into this Classic with high hopes. But he stumbled out of the gate finding himself with a 15-pound margin to make up and never recovered.
Still, the Michigan pro made a gallant comeback effort, but had to settle for fifth place with 44 1/2 pounds. Not bad for a guy who opened in 25th place, but well below the standard that KVD sets for himself.
VanDam was the model of consistency (14-2, 14-15 and 15-7) while others' success fluctuated with the weather. Surprisingly, he settled into a pattern that involved fishing supershallow (inches to 1 foot) Kissimmee grass and reeds in Lake Kissimmee. His 15-7 final effort, the largest of the final round by more than 3 pounds, came in the face of incredibly challenging weather conditions.
Switching to different lures and tactics each day, VanDam was disappointed with the results, but admitted being proud of the adjustments he made along the way. That included laying down a Strike King 3X Zero soft stickbait after two rounds and switching to a 3/8-ounce Strike King Premier Elite spinnerbait to counter the final's windy, rainy conditions.
"Under those conditions, I knew my best chance to catch a big string was to fish a spinnerbait real slow around vegetation in that wind," VanDam states. "That really paid off. I just never ran into any giant bites."
Kevin VanDam: Classic details
Lures: Green pumpkin/red flake Strike King 3X Zero soft stickbait; golden shiner 3/8-ounce Strike King Premier Elite spinnerbait.
Tackle: Stickworm 20-pound-test Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon, 2/0 Mustad hook, 7-foot Quantum Tour Edition PT KVD medium-heavy rod, Quantum Energy 1160 PT reel; spinnerbait 25-pound test XPS monofilament, 6-10 Quantum KVD Spinnerbait rod, same reel.
Technique: Recovering from a slow start, VanDam fished the spinnerbait slowly through wind-blown vegetation.
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