Anything Goes

Editor's note: Mark Hicks is one of the country's most widely read and respected bass writers. He has penned countless articles for Bassmaster Magazine, B.A.S.S. Times and other publications.

April 11, 2011
Douglas Lake insights

I just got off the phone with Mike Cole, owner, lure designer and one-man show for the Pure Poison Jig Company. I was interviewing him for a future Bassmaster Magazine article on slow sinking jigs.

Cole makes two slow sinking jigs, the Warhead and the Slow Fall Swimming Jig. Besides being a fishing entrepreneur, he is also an avid eastern Tennessee bass fisherman.

Cole can drive 10 minutes from home and launch his boat in Watts Bar, Tellico or Ft. Loudon. He also fishes Lake Douglas a dozen or more times a year, which is the site of the next Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open.

I'll be fishing that event as a nonboater. When Cole mentioned Douglas, I couldn't resist picking his brain about what is likely to happen during the early June tournament.

First of all, the bass will be postspawn. There may still be some spinnerbait fish, and some of the competitors will probably get on a flipping bite, Cole believes.

However, most of the bass will be caught 10 to 20 feet deep from rocky humps, drops and creek channel ledges. Offshore cranking will catch good limits, but Cole thinks the winner will be dragging a football jig much of the time.

Specifically, Cole believes his Pure Poison Smashmouth Football Jig in the Smokey Mountain Craw color could anchor the winning bags.

"I sell tons of football jigs to guys that fish Douglas," Cole says. "When the bass go deep, it's hard to beat draggin' a jig there."

It comes as no shock that Cole is partial to his Smashmouth Football Jig. But aren't all football jigs pretty much alike?

Cole makes a convincing case that the Smashmouth is superior. The jig's main feature is a 29-degree eye that's slightly higher than the hook's point. This pulls the jig straight up on the hook set and buries the barb in the roof off the bass' mouth or through its nose, Cole claims.

When you set the hook with other football jigs, the bait pulls straight out of the bass' mouth. You miss many strikes and lightly hook bass that throw the jig when they jump.

I'm all too familiar with bass spitting football jigs at me. I will definitely have some Smashmouth Football Jigs in my tacklebox when I fish Douglas.

Before I headed home after the last Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open at Lake Norman, I did a quick photo shoot with Alabama's Jimmy Mason. The photos are for an upcoming B.A.S.S. Times story on bulging spinnerbaits.

When we took a short break, Mason let me make a few casts with his baitcasting outfits. Dobyns Rods and Lew's Reels are two of his sponsors.

Since I make my living writing mainly about fishing, I'm supposed to be up on all the latest gear. My bad.

I had never heard of Dobyns Rods. I was impressed with them. They are light and sweet casting.

I didn't backlash the super light Lew's Speed Spool reels, which is saying something. I can thoroughly backlash any baitcasting reel ever made. It's almost a point of pride.

We headed back to the ramp after taking the photos I needed. As I loaded my camera gear into my truck, Mason talked on his cell phone. I didn't know it, but he was talking to the folks at Dobyns about giving me one of their rods. They agreed.

Mason was putting tackle away in his boat when I stopped to say goodbye. He handed me a Dobyns flippin' rod.

"Take that home with you," he said.

"You sure?"

"Yeah, I just talked to the boss. He said it was OK."

Should I have accepted the rod? Maybe another writer would have turned it down.

Me? I snatched that rod and drove home like a bandit.

Back home, I matched the Dobyns flippin' stick with a 5.5-ounce Shimano Core baitcasting reel. The outfit is so light that I've had to adjust my pitching motion.

I plan to stick with it until I get in the groove. This combination will make pitching and flippin' nearly effortless.

I might not need the flippin' outfit at Douglas, but I'll surely bring it, just in case.

March 28, 2011
Norman: Everything it shouldn't have been

The Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open at North Carolina's Lake Norman was everything it shouldn't have been.

And more.

There shouldn't have been much spawning going on during the late March event. There was.

The largemouths shouldn't have been on their beds before the spotted bass spawned. They were.

Since spotted bass far outnumber largemouth bass at Norman, the tournament shouldn't have been a largemouth slugfest. It was.

It shouldn't have taken more than 15 pounds a day to win. It did.

On two practice days just prior to the tournament, I fished with Lee King of Cherryville, N.C. King had entered the tournament as a boater. I was a nonboater.

Since King knew Lake Norman fairly well, we did more looking than fishing. We found several buck bass on beds in the backs of quiet pockets, but no big females.

We surmised that the big mamas wouldn't show up during the tournament because a severe cold front was in the forecast.

Bobby Lane of Lakeland, Fla., made us look like dummies. On the first tournament day, Lane weighed 18-pounds, 13-ounces, of largemouths to nab first place. He plucked every one of his bass from beds.

Bedding largemouths also accounted for the 17-8 that Tracy Adams of Wilkesboro, N.C., weighed for second place, and the 16-7 that Gerald Swindle of Warrior, Ala., weighed for third place.

At that point, it appeared that the tournament shouldn't have been won with anything but bedding bass. It wasn't.

Fletcher Shryock of Newcomerstown, Ohio, found a batch of prespawn largemouths 25 miles upriver. They yielded 49-9 to Shryock, which earned him a boat, a pile of cash, and a trip to the 2012 Bassmaster Classic.

I did learn something interesting from King during the practice days we fished together. At one point, he fished a stretch of submerged, visible stumps in 3 to 4 feet of water. He threw a skirted jig over the stumps. The jig appeared to have a 1/2-ounce or heavier head.

The jig splashed softly and sank no faster than a Senko-type worm. When King gently twitched and paused the jig over the stumps, its twin curled-tail dressing would flutter while the skirt folded back and bellowed out.

The bait is the Original Stalker Swim Jig. The head is molded of a durable plastic. It looks just like a regular Stalker Jig, but there's no lead in the head. The light jig shows bass a bulky profile with a slow sinking, finesse presentation.

King had four bites in less than 10 minutes on the Stalker Swim Jig and shook them off. He also picked off a nice spotted bass later in the day by skipping the Swim Jig under a boat dock.

On the first tournament day, I was paired with 23-year-old Floridian Joe Ventrello. He wore his ball cap hip-hop style with a flat bill. It appeared that a plug from an iPod had been permanently installed in his right ear.

I asked Ventrello what kind of music he listened to when fishing in a tournament. I expected rap.

"Mostly country," Ventrello said. "It relaxes me. It helps me slow down."

Ventrello's boat was a 1999 Ranger powered by its original 150-hp outboard. The boat was well-kept and rigged with all the necessities, including dual Power Poles, big-screen Humminbird electronics and a new MotorGuide trolling motor.

Ventrello never floored the outboard and maintained a top speed of little more than 50 mph.

"I've gotta make the outboard last until I can buy a new one," he said.

Speed wasn't an issue because Ventrello fished close to the official ramp.

I liked this young guy. There was no communication gap, since we had competitive bass fishing in common. He was competent, confident, and he worked hard in practice and kept an even keel during the tournament.

We twitched jerkbaits over shoals and brushpiles during the morning hours. Jerkbaits had produced Ventrello's bigger spotted bass in practice. He caught a half dozen or so spots. The first three measured over the 14-inch length limit and included a beautiful 3-pounder.

I caught half as many bass on a jerkbait and never boated a keeper.

Once the sun got up, Ventrello visited several backwater pockets where he had found bedding bass. He broke off a 3-pounder, landed a pair of 2-pounders and left a 5-pounder on the bed that wouldn't bite.

We finished the day twitching jerkbaits over a shoal near the official ramp. That's where I caught my only keeper of the day, a spotted bass that went 1-11.

Ventrello weighed 9-15. The next morning he started on the 5-pounder he had failed to make bite. He hooked the big largemouth, pulled it 2 feet and it came off. His day went downhill from there. He brought in only one bass.

On Day Two, I drew Thomas Vickers of Salisbury, N.C. Vickers is a hot stick at Norman. He qualified for the 1996 Bushmaster Classic through the Federation, which was held at Alabama's Lay Lake. Vickers finished a respectable 18th.

During practice, Vickers was on heavy spotted bass, including some 4-pound giants. The big spots weren't home on the first tournament day. Vickers caught over 30 spotted bass, culled three times, but he weighed only 7-4. His nonboater partner also culled fish and brought in a three-bass limit that weighed nearly 5 pounds.

I was looking forward to catching a slew of bass with Vickers, albeit small ones, after so little action on Day One. Given the active fish Vickers caught the first day, it shouldn't have been hard to catch our limits the second day. It was.

The air temperature had dropped into the mid 30s overnight. Morning broke bright and crystal clear. The spotted bass didn't appreciate the weather change.

I caught maybe six spots total and boated two that would keep. One of them came on a jerkbait; the other on a shaky head worm. Vickers probably boated a dozen spots, but only four keepers. One keeper came on crankbait, another on a Carolina rig and two more on a Zoom Fluke.

I could complain, but, honestly, I truly enjoyed myself. Lee King, Joe Ventrello and Thomas Vickers were wonderful companions. I'm looking forward to the next Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open at Lake Douglas in June.

March 21, 2011
Moon over Norman

On March 19, 2011, the full moon was closer to the earth than it had been in 16 years. This celestial event is called a "Supermoon."

Some people believe the Supermoon is partly responsible for recent catastrophic events, such as the earthquake and tsunamis that hit Japan. I don't know about that, but the moon surely influences when bass spawn.

I spoke with Lee King of Laurens, S.C., the day before the Supermoon. He said there were already a few bass on the beds at Lake Norman, N.C.

King lives about 45 minutes from Norman, which is the site of the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open, March 26-28. He's fished a dozen or so tournaments at Norman and believes things are shaping up for a slugfest.

A warming trend and a hard rain 10 days prior to the tournament may combine to make for a super tournament in the wake of the Supermoon. The rain swelled the lake to full pool and put a stain in the clear water.

Even though there is some early spawning going on, King believes most of the bass will be on a prespawn feeding binge during the tournament.

"Many bass will be caught from boat docks and from brushpiles in 6 to 10 feet of water," King says. "Secondary points in creeks should also be good."

Crankbaits and jigs will score big at Norman, King believes.

"A jig wins a lot at Norman," he says. "You can skip it under docks where you can't cast a crankbait."

Since I'm fishing Norman as a nonboater, I'm going to heed King's advice. I'll probably have two rods rigged with jigs and one with a crankbait. I also intend to give jerkbaits, wacky-rigged baits and shaky head worms a workout.

Many docks at Norman have a tall stationary walkway that leads to a floating platform, points out King. If the water continues to warm, there will be bass in the shallows beneath the walkway.

The platforms float over deeper water and hold bass more consistently. However, cold weather could push the bass to brush piles out from the docks in even deeper water. This would make the shaky head worm a big player, King opines.

Spotted bass are more abundant than largemouths at Norman, but King doesn't believe the tournament can be won with spotted bass alone.

"You'll need at least one largemouth kicker in your limit every day to win," King says.

Largemouths and spotted bass are caught from the same places, but some areas of the lake have more largemouths than others. King believes it will take at least 14 pounds a day to nab first place and a Classic berth.

Retired Bassmaster pro Guy Eaker of Cherryville, North Carolina, agrees. Eaker has fished Norman since it was impounded in the early 1960s.

"I watched them build that lake," Eaker says. "It's where I got my start tournament fishing."

Norman was once one of the best bass fishing lakes in the country, Eaker claims. A fish kill in the '80s put a big hurt on Norman's bass.

"Spotted bass got into the lake about 10 years ago and that really helped it come back," Eaker says. "Now you catch five spots for every two largemouths."

Another plus for Norman is the blueback herring. This baitfish species took hold at Norman seven or eight years ago and has provided much-needed forage, Eaker claims.

"The blueback herring really helped," Eaker says. "There are some quality spots in Norman now — 3-pounders."

Then again, Eaker believes largemouth bass will be the difference maker. His favorite area for largemouths at Norman is Mountain Creek, which has fertile water and bigger bass.

Eaker expects Mountain Creek to be crowded during the Open event, along with the rest the lake.

"There are three other tournaments going on that weekend, and one of them is a big one," Eaker says. "That'll make things tougher, but I still expect to see lots of limits weighed in."

March 7, 2011
Norman countdown

The snow has been gone for a few weeks now, and the ice is off the pond up the hill from my humble southern Ohio abode. I keep threatening to hike to the pond with a few rods and limber up my casting arm.

It's something I really should do well before the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open at North Carolina's Lake Norman later this month. Since Norman is a short cast from Charlotte, its banks are dotted with copious boat docks.

Those docks provide abundant cover for Norman's largemouth and spotted bass, and they're sure to play a major role during the tournament. Dock bass reward pinpoint casting and the ability to skip lures under these manmade covers.

Cast poorly, and your offering will land too far from the dock to pull a bass from beneath it. Or, worse, you'll slam your bait into the dock or a pontoon boat moored to it. Bass aren't inclined to bite when their ears are ringing.

I fish so infrequently that my casting accuracy isn't what it should be. As for skipping, I have serious shortcomings.

I do passably well with spinning tackle and baits that are easy to skip, such as a wacky-rigged sinking worm or a light tube. With a jig or a shaky head worm, I'm an embarrassment to the bass fishing fraternity.

My inability to skip with baitcasting tackle is a frustrating liability. I know anglers that can skip with a baitcaster all day and never get a backlash. They tick me off.

So, when I fish the Norman tournament as a nonboater, I will have a spinning rod rigged with a wacky-rigged Yum Dinger specifically for skipping docks.

I'll also have another spinning rod rigged with a shaky head worm. I caught several spotted bass at Norman on a shaky head several years ago when I fished there with Cleveland, Ohio, bass pro Frank Scalish.

We were there doing a photo shoot and snuck away a few hours each day to do a little fishing. We plucked bass from docks and submerged brushpiles. And, we were fishing Norman the same week in March that the Bassmaster Open happens this year.

Another bait that caught several bass when I fished with Scalish was a suspending jerkbait. It pulled bass from under docks and up from brush piles. I'll do some research on Norman before my next blog and provide updated information.

At this point, I figure my nonboater tackle will also include a flippin' rod, a baitcaster for small cranks and topwater plugs, and another baitcaster for casting jigs. Hmmm, maybe a spinning rod for drop shotting, too.

One of the perks of being a fishing writer is that I sometimes have an opportunity to play with tackle that is beyond my means. I've been casting a GLoomis NRX Bass Casting rod in my yard lately. It's a 7-foot, 1-inch, medium action baitcaster.

The NRX sells for $495. Talk about sticker shock! I was also shocked when I picked up the rod for the first time. It is so light I didn't want to let go of it for fear it would float into the stratosphere.

The rod is matched with another new product, a Shimano Core MG 7.1:1 gear ratio reel that weighs only 5.5 ounces. It goes for $369. At that price, I'm sorry to report that it casts like a dream.

This combination makes for effortless casting. Very impressive.

I also put the Core reel on one of my flippin' rods. Wow! The weight reduction makes flipping and pitching much easier. No doubt, you'd really appreciate this reel after a long day with a flippin' stick.

Feb. 16, 2011
Toho reflections

Yesterday was Valentine's Day. I normally bring a dozen roses to my wife, Debbi, at the office where she prepares taxes for H&R Block.

This year, I waltzed into her office during business hours with my guitar in hand. It was a first. I'm a closet guitar player. I strum with 10 thumbs and have a voice like a bullfrog with laryngitis.

Debbi was sitting behind her desk. When she saw me with my guitar, her jaw dropped from surprise, or maybe it was terror. Hard to tell. I stood before her and stumbled through my rendition of Bob Dylan's, "If Not For You."

Nobody ran out the door screaming, and Debbi wasn't fired, so I guess it could have been worse. My musicality is sorely lacking, but at least the lyrics ring true. They're at the end of this blog.

The bass waters near my Buckeye State home are still locked under ice, but warmer weather has finally melted the snow. I haven't picked up a rod since fishing the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open last month at Florida's Lake Tohopekaliga.

My next tournament, the second Bassmaster Southern Open at Lake Norman, happens in late March. It seems an eternity away.

I've been thinking back on the Toho Open, which I fished as a co-angler. You can read about my Toho fishing experiences in my previous blog. But, there's much more to any tournament than what you did or didn't catch.

Every tournament is an adventure. And, since the Bassmaster Opens bounce around the country, each venue presents a vastly different backdrop. Shallow Florida lakes like Toho, with their fields of aquatic grasses, are unique.

I wish my daughter Valerie had been able make the trip with me to Florida. She would have enjoyed the balmy weather and the heady experience of seeing dozing alligators and zipping down boat lanes that cut through thick fields of Kissimmee grass.

Valerie couldn't come because she had started registered nursing classes. She recently passed the state exam to become an official LPN. Hip-hip-hooray!

The people you meet while fishing tournaments are a huge part of the experience, especially the anglers you share a boat with. We have our black sheep, but, overall, I can't think of a better group to hang with. We are brothers and sisters that share the same love of competitive bass fishing.

I was talking with my partner Mark Mauldin of Knoxville, Tenn., prior to takeoff on the first morning of the Toho tournament. He pointed to a fisherman named Ott Defoe in a nearby boat.

"He qualified for the Elite Series this year for the first time, Mauldin said of Defoe. "I expect he'll do well. He's one heck of a fisherman."

Defoe, from Knoxville, Tenn., spotted Mauldin and eased over to us with his electric motor. As he chatted with Mauldin, Defoe fetched a few baits from his boat locker and tied them on.

At age 25, Defoe is tall, lean, and agile. He moves about his boat with such ease and familiarity you get the feeling he practically lives there. He probably does.

I gave Defoe high marks for style. Although style trumps substance in the entertainment industry and with career politicians, it doesn't amount to much in sports.

Substance in our sport is green fish in the livewell. They weigh the same whether you catch them with the grace of a ballet dancer or rumble around your boat like the proverbial bull in a china shop.

Later that day, we came across Defoe while fishing an expansive field of Kissimmee grass with other vegetation mixed in. We were in a boat lane near the shoreline, Defoe was in another lane about 50 yards toward the main lake.

Defoe was slipping along slowly, perched on his front deck and peering into the water for bass beds. As he did so, he was casting ahead to the edge of the grass. His casting motion was deft, sure and effortless.

No question about it, Defoe has style. What about substance?

Defoe showed substance while fishing the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Opens last year. He qualified for the Elite Series by finishing 13th at Lake Okeechobee, 6th at Smith Lake and 34th at Lake Seminole.

When the smoke cleared after the Toho tournament, Defoe was in 4th place with 61-7 pounds. That's a whole lotta substance.

"If Not For You" by Bob Dylan

If not for you
Babe I couldn't even find the door
I could even see the floor
I'd be sad and blue
If not for you.

If not for you
The night would see me wide awake
The day would surely have to break
And it would not be new
If not for you

If not for you my sky would fall
The rain would gather too
If not for you I'd be nowhere at all
I'd be lost if not for you.

If not for you
The winter would hold no spring
You couldn't hear a robin sing
I just wouldn't have a clue
If not for you

If not for you

Jan. 25, 2011
Toho's skinny dipper blues

My southern Ohio yard was covered with 6 inches of snow when I headed for the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open at Florida's Lake Tohopekaliga at 3:30 a.m. The white stuff finally melted from the landscape when I neared the Georgia state line several hours later.

It was 70 degrees when I drove into Kissimmee, Fla., that evening. I can't think of a better remedy for a Midwest bass angler suffering from cabin fever.

I had entered the Toho tournament as a co-angler. My biggest concern was that I would draw partners that were sight fishing for spawners. That never happened.

My wish was to be paired with anglers that were casting to submerged hydrilla in 4 to 6 feet of water outside the visible fields of Kissimmee grass, lily pads and other aquatic vegetation. That never happened either.

My first-day partner, Mark Mauldin of Knoxville, Tenn., wanted to fish Lake Kissimmee. We had a late flight, so he wisely decided to fish the south end of Toho for a few hours rather than wait in line to get through the lock.

Mauldin picked off one bass by punching a heavy Texas rigged bait through a small mat of gator grass. Reeling a Skinny Dipper through sparse Kissimmee grass put another keeper in his livewell. He also missed a few light biters on the Skinny Dipper.

The Skinny Dipper, from Reaction Innovations, has been around a few years, but I had never heard of it before arriving in Kissimmee. It's a cross between a 5-inch, boot-tailed swimbait and a worm with shallow ribs.

You rig the Skinny Dipper with a big hook and a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce weight. The weight can be on the hook's shank or pegged to the line. This slender bait slithers easily through nasty grass. It's a hot deal in Florida.

The basic retrieve is a slow, steady reel that keeps the Skinny Dipper within a foot of the surface. It's similar to fishing a spinnerbait. When you fish it on braided line, as I did, the bites feel like a hard knock, as with a spinnerbait.

I set the hook whenever I felt that jolt. Big mistake. Mauldin told me that you must stop reeling when a bass strikes a Skinny Dipper. Then you wait until the fish turns before setting the hook.

That sounds great in theory. But I hadn't picked up a fishing rod in months, and I was pumped to catch a bass. I simply could not make myself hesitate when I felt a bass belt the Skinny Dipper. This happened three times that morning. I jerked the bait away from every fish.

Mauldin and I passed through the lock at 10 a.m. We were the 70th boat to do so that morning. Mauldin caught four more bass in Kissimmee. Three by punching gator grass and one by casting to what appeared to be a bed near a clump of Kissimmee grass.

I caught one by punching the thick stuff with a Yum Wooly Bug. I lost another keeper on the same rig. It shot out of the grass when I set the hook and landed next to the boat with a mile of 65-pound braid lying limp on the surface. The bass was gone before I could reel up the slack.

Mauldin's limit weighed just shy of 10 pounds. My keeper went 1-13. When I went through the weigh-in and saw some of the huge bass that were brought to the scales, I realized I wasn't out of it.

A few of those Toho heavyweights the next day would make for a big jump in the standings.

The next day I fished through rainstorms with Lee King of Laurens, S.C. King had culled a small limit of buck bass the first day by swimming a 6-inch Zoom Speed Worm with a 3/16-ounce sinker.

The Speed Worm is another lure I had never fished before. I vowed not to cast the Skinny Dipper the second day, and I wasn't too keen on trying the Speed Worm. The retrieve with both lures is the same.

I boated two bass by punching gator grass with the Wooly Bug. King landed a limit and had several other hits on the Speed Worm. He was reeling the worm through Kissimmee grass and dead lily pad stems in the shallows.

It was getting late in the day, and I needed another fish to fill my three-bass, nonboater limit. King suggested that I try one of his Speed Worms.

I soon had a Speed Worm rigged with 15-pound fluorocarbon line. It took all of 10 minutes to catch a 2-pounder. With about 45 minutes left to fish, I landed a 4-pounder on the worm.

Since you normally must hesitate when a bass bites a Speed Worm, as with the Skinny Dipper, why did I have better luck with the worm? It's because the strike with the Speed Worm felt more like the "tic" you feel when hopping a worm. I instinctively dropped the rod tip before setting the hook.

Was the lighter bite due to the fluorocarbon line knotted to the Speed Worm as opposed to the super sensitive braided line I used with the Skinny Dipper? Maybe. I'll have to experiment to figure that out.

While fishing with King, I noticed that he was using some innovative baitcasting reels from U.S. Reels. They don't have a typical level line guide, which incorporates a worm gear and a pawl. An angled, rotating bar does the job.

Also, the spool on the SC1000 that King used to fish the Speed Worm rotates backward. The line winds onto the bottom of the reel's spool, and the spool turns toward you during the cast. King claims that this reduces backlashes and increases casting distance.

Although I didn't fish with King's reel, he easily made long casts and never suffered a backlash.

With any major bass tournament, there's always a disparity in the weights registered by the top anglers and those that fail to earn a check. This was especially evident at the Toho event, which fielded 193 boats.

Bassmaster Elite Series pro Gerald Swindle won with a whopping 80-13. I was happy to see him claim his first B.A.S.S. tournament.

Going into the third and final day, Swindle was leading with 55-5. He was one of 12 pros to qualify for the final round. It took about 31 pounds to make the cut.

Although these weights are impressive, most of the field didn't fare nearly as well. It took only 21-6 on the boater side to nab 40th place and the final check. It's as if most of the anglers were fishing a different body of water from the leaders.

What separated the contenders from the also-rans were Florida bucketmouths that weighed 8 to more than 11 pounds. If your limits on the first two days of the tournament had just one of these gorillas, you were likely to make the final 12 cut.

That's exactly what Chris Lane of Guntersville, Alabama, did. His first-day 19-2 limit was anchored by a bass that weighed nearly 10 pounds. The next day his limit included four buck bass and a largemouth that weighed 5 pounds or more.

Lane caught his biggest bass by blind fishing beds. Some of the other top finishers were sight fishing for bedding bass. The reason so many competitors weighed anemic limits is that few of Toho's big females had moved up. There were mainly buck bass in the shallows, and that's what most of us caught.

However, Swindle stuffed his livewell with giant bass by fishing submerged hydrilla beds with lipless rattling crankbaits and Carolina rigs. His partner on the final day, Marlon Crowder of Tampa, Fla., caught three bass that weighed 21-6 and won the Triton boat.

Swindle was the guy fishing offshore hydrilla that I was hoping to draw. Such is the feast or famine nature of the co-angler.

After the weigh-in, I checked out of the motel and stopped at a Hess gas station to fill my tank. I shucked my rain-soaked tennis shoes and socks and donned dry footwear. I bought a Godfather's pizza and a large black coffee, and I drove north through the night.

I arrived home an hour after sunrise, opened the door and was slapped with -7 degree weather.

I was tempted to head back to Toho.

Jan. 12, 2011
Turned on for Toho

I'm pulling my tackle together for the first Bassmaster Southern Open of 2011 at the Kissimmee Chain in Florida. Since I'm fishing this one as a nonboater, I need to pare my gear down to what I can carry in one trip to my partner's boat. It's a mind-bending challenge.

Once that job is finished, I'll stuff everything in my ancient, beat-up Nissan Altima. It's hanging tough with over 220,000 miles on its odometer. We have much in common.

I'm leaving my Ford F-150 pickup home to cut expenses. That should allow for the gas money I give to my partners. I'll be sharing a motel room with Texan Dave Mansue, who is fishing the tournament as a boater. That'll save a few more bucks.

I'm hoping to get enough work done so I can head south four or five days before the tournament begins. Mansue said I could join him on practice days. I also know several other boaters I could ride with who are also fishing the event.

I could use a few extra days away from Ohio's frigid winter weather to warm my bones in Florida. The forecast here is 8 inches of snow. I also need to loosen my casting arm. I haven't picked up a rod in months.

The weather will play a huge factor during this tournament. It happens at the same time in January that Dean Rojas landed a limit of bass in 2001 that weighed 45 pounds, 2 ounces. This still stands as the heaviest five-fish limit ever at a B.A.S.S. tournament.

The 2001 event was a full-blown bed-fishing extravaganza. Several days of warm weather coaxed the bass to move en masse to their spawning beds the evening before the tournament began. Rojas was one of the few competitors that caught onto this, and he took full advantage of it on the first day of the event.

After that, all the pros targeted spawners. Big bass were so commonplace that 8-pounders didn't raise eyebrows.

I'm all for warm weather, but the last thing I want as a nonboater is an all-out bed fishing tournament. I find no joy in watching my partner sight fish fat, egg-laden, nesting largemouth while I'm stuck in the hinterlands on the back deck.

I'm hoping to draw boaters that are on prespawners. An ideal situation for a backseater would be casting lipless rattling crankbaits to offshore hydrilla. That's how Terry "Big Show" Scroggins won an Open there in March of 2007.

Scroggins fished 22,700-acre West Lake Tohopekaliga, which has lots of hydrilla. However, he caught mainly postspawn bass, which won't be the case in January.

Toho also has abundant native aquatic vegetation thanks to a drawdown done by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2004. The drawdown killed undesirable vegetation and allowed eelgrass, bulrushes, Kissimmee grass, ponds weeds and lily pads to come back.

Fisheries biologist Marty Mann, the project manager for Lake Toho, says that the bass follow a predictable pattern during their prespawn through postspawn cycle. Their first move is to the outside edges of grasslines, such as Kissimmee grass and eelgrass.

As the water warms, the bass move to shallower "intermedial" vegetation, typically to lily pads where they spawn on the pad's root system. Next, they move into a skim of water and spawn near things like arrowhead pads. Then they follow this pattern in reverse.

"We've had a pretty cold winter, which has kept the bass offshore for the most part," Mann says.

A warm spell two weeks prior to the tournament moved some of the bass to outside grasslines, points out Mann. "If it stays warm, they'll move in," he says. "If it gets cold, they'll move back out."

Many anglers will pass through the locks at Toho to gain access to a canal that links other tournament waters farther south, including Lake Cypress, followed by Lake Hatchineha and then Lake Kissimmee.

Bass at 5,500-acre Cypress spawn in Kissimmee grass and bulrushes. When not spawning, they feed offshore in hydrilla and eelgrass.

Hatchineha, with 14,500 acres, has a narrow zone of vegetation around its shoreline. There's plenty of eelgrass here but not much hydrilla.

"For whatever reason, I catch a lot of big bass in Hatchineha on a buzzbait," Mann says.

Kissimmee will draw most of the anglers that lock through. This is because of its large size — 44,000 acres — and the variety of aquatic bass habitat that grows there. You'll find hydrilla in North Cove and Tiger Bay, points out Mann. There is also a wide diversity of Kissimmee grass, bulrushes, lily pads and eelgrass throughout the lake.

Luke Clausen locked through and ran to the southern end of Lake Kissimmee when he won the 2006 Bassmaster Classic. That tournament happened in February, which is normally the peak spawning month. Clausen picked off his bass by casting worms to lily pads.

What does all this mean for me? I had better be prepared for anything. I have no idea which lakes my partners will fish or which baits and patterns they'll be using to catch bass.

Jan. 4, 2011
Making history

When I read that legendary bass angler Roland Martin will be competing in the 2011 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Opens, I couldn't help but smile. I'm old enough to remember his domination during the first two decades of B.A.S.S.

Martin still has the most impressive resume of any bass pro, including these B.A.S.S. records: 19 tournament victories, 19 second place finishes and 9 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles.

In 1980 and '81, Martin won three consecutive tournaments. These were at Lake Okeechobee, Toledo Bend Reservoir and Lake Eufaula.

I regard this as the most stunning achievement in the history of our sport. Many will disagree with me, but I believe Martin has yet to be surpassed as the greatest bass tournament fisherman ever.

I don't idolize Martin, but I certainly respect his fishing skill and what he's done with it.

Martin retired from bass tournament fishing in 2005 at age 65. He stated that he could no longer compete with the young guns of our sport. I don't believe Martin lost his ability to catch bass. After nearly four decades of competition, I suspect he lost interest and desire.

Martin continued to host his long-running TV show and pursue other interests. I figured his retirement would stick. His show is a good gig. Then again, I wasn't surprised that, at age 70, Martin is giving it another shot.

Why? I think the layoff recharged Martin's batteries. The Bassmaster Opens' win-and-you're-in-the-Classic format is probably another major incentive. When you've won as many tournaments as Martin has, winning one tournament out of three sounds like good odds.

And the only thing missing on Martin's resume is a Classic victory. Maybe he decided to put it on his bucket list.

Can you imagine Martin winning the Classic at age 71? I can. Even if he falls short, he will surely generate loads of interest in the Bassmaster Opens. That's a good thing ... a very good thing.

Since I'm fishing the Bassmaster Southern Opens this year as a nonboater, it's possible that I might draw Martin in a tournament.

Part of me likes the idea of fishing with a true legend. Another part doesn't relish fishing behind Martin no matter what his age.

If Martin's batteries are recharged — and I believe they are — he isn't going to leave many bass for a backseater.