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Monday Morning Quarterback at Clear Lake, California

By Russ Bassdozer

Some say Mondays can get you down. I suppose it's no one's favorite day. Especially not a great day for an angler who may have had high hopes of winning a tournament over the weekend.

Here's an interesting mood piece I penned in a Monday frame of mind. I reckon it's a mood you've not much seen conveyed in fishing literature before. Please enjoy.

Last week, my team tournament partner and I, drove sixteen hours to Clear Lake, California to fish there for the first time. This was for an Angler's Choice TOC (Tournament of Champions), Top three teams would win a boat, and almost $125,000 would be awarded to the top 21 teams. We finished 23 out of 96 teams.

We didn't know much about Clear Lake but wrangled four practice days off from work. The first thing we noticed as we backed the boat out of the dock were the tremendous amounts of a small minnow species visible everywhere on Clear Lake's surface. One fellow called them Mississippi silversides that had been introduced into Clear Lake (don't know when) in order to naturally control a pesky gnat population. Sheets of these sheeny silversides were twinkling everywhere, rising through the early morning foggy smoke on the water. The Mississippi silversides were snapping up gnats that flew too close to the surface.

It was comforting to see the shimmering sheets of silversides all day in areas we were fishing, but the bait that most comforted us remained out of sight, appearing only on the graph, most often stacked in 17 to 22 feet of water. Don't know exactly what baitfish species these were, but numerous larger fish arched onto the graph, apparently bass, hunkered on the bottom below these baitfish stacks. It truly was a continuous string of bait and bass in many areas, extending up and down this 17 to 22 foot depth contour. Often it formed a wall so to speak of bait and bass practically encircling an offshore rockpile or running full length right down a row of docks or length of shoreline. At times, these stacks of baitfish and bass would be a bit shallower or deeper but truly lit up the screen in 17 to 22 feet of water. Whether there was a thermocline or other reason for lining up along this depth, who can say? But finding these stacks in this particular depth of water became the prerequisite for our pattern.


A week earlier, we had been on a purple dropshot worm bite on Lake Mead at the US Open. So it was only natural to pick up rods where we had left off. Indeed, the purple dropshot proved to be the best way for us to pry the majority of our Clear Lake bass out from under these baitfish stacks. It was a simple matter of metering around until bass showed under the bait balls. Drop a purple worm over the side, and bean them on their heads. What could be easier, you say? But it was a tricky bite. In fact, it was the identical non-committal type bite we had faced on Mead. Lots of tiny ticks and taps and nudges then letting go. We had to force-feed and slowly finagle the fish for them to pick up again and clamp on tight. There were plenty of bass showing on the graph, tons of enticing tugs, but we could only convert about one of every six hits into hook-ups. It seemed promising and productive at the time. We did catch the majority of our fish (about 20-30 each day) this way.

In hindsight, it was a deceptive trap we were duped into by these bass. We were seduced by the hollow allure of more action from smaller fish. They were mostly 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 pounds with only an occasional three plus pounder. As much as we hoped and tried, we just couldn't get them to weigh enough for us to win by worming. We devoted an ample portion of our prefish and precious competition time trying to get these stacked concentrations of fish to come up bigger. They didn't. It was action-filled and fun but ultimately unrewarding. Let that be a lesson to you. Sometimes you must pry yourself away from stacks of fish that won't win to locate the few and far between fish that will.


The bait and bass stacked in 17 to 22 (more or less) feet of water were still the key to our pattern. We just shouldn't have fished them. They were the outlying tell-tales that gave away the areas where coveted bigger bass were tucked under docks, roaming on rockpiles, points and other rubbly bottom features. Bigger bass were either slightly inshore or downwind from wherever we metered this outlying breakline of bait and bass.

Most days were mild and sunny with windless spells. Yet moderate to stiff breezes rose and fell throughout each day. On the graph, we'd watch the outlying lines of bait and bass bellow downwind (and ideally drift shallower). Like the outlying bait and bass, we'd also meander up toward the docks, rockpiles and shorelines downwind from whatever zephyr arose. The wind was our friend. Wind made bigger bass easier for us to catch.


The scuttlebutt we gleaned about Clear Lake before we headed there was that big jigs and big crankbaits were working. Indeed, several of the bigger bass we bagged during prefish banged such baits. Our productive jig colors were black/blue and brown/purple. Slow bottom-bouncing a Purple Essence Norman DD14 got pounded around wind-blown rockpiles by a few solid bass. In fact, consistent bottom contact by whatever lures we used seemed to be a requirement all week.


We did catch a number of fish on Carolina rigs. More precisely, Mojo Rockhopper rigs. The Rockhopper truly excelled on Clear Lake, a place we've heard held a notorious reputation for burying jigs and sinkers with Davey Jones. But not one Rockhopper went to a watery grave. I scratched and crawled Clear Lake's sharp lava rock bottom with the same two Rockhopper sinkers (a 3/8 and a 1/2 oz) for six days without losing either. The majority of rig bites came when the Rockhopper had to kick its way through the roughest rock bottom patches. Far fewer bites were encountered away from the roughest bottom patches in an area.

The trick to not getting stuck with a Rockhopper is this - when it won't pull out and the rod tip starts to load up on a snag, simply drop the rod tip, mending slack into the line. Then simply pick the rod tip up. This incredibly easy maneuver is much easier than pulling against the snag with all your might. The rod drop lets the Rockhopper sidestep the snag rather than muscle its way through it.

The 3/8 Rockhopper did chatter, start, stop and beat more of a staccato stutter against bottom. The 1/2 oz Rockhopper was a somewhat deader drag on this particular lake. Do you feel such details matter? Who knows? However we did have more bites on the more erratic tap-dance of the 3/8 oz rig.


We let the bass sample an assortment of brownish, greenish and black/blue Carolina rig baits. Most worked, but the baits we favored best were Senkos in colors 913 (green pumpkin/luminous chartreuse) and 918 (peanut butter/jelly), lizards in 919 (green pumpkin/chartreuse) and Yamamoto Kreatures in 194J (watermelon pepper) with hand-dipped chartreuse tips.

We did feel a spruce of chartreuse helped us. We concentrated on the two lower arms of the lake below the Narrows where the surface water clarity ranged from dark chocolate to milk chocolate. Although named Clear Lake, clarity was nil. In fact, the trolling motor plowed up clouds of rich brown surface sediment in some places. I think you could have sown wheat on Clear Lake this week. So some chartreuse seemed helpful in such sediment-filled water.


Exasperatingly, many of our Carolina rig bites were much like the non-committal quick ticks and touches we experienced with the dropshot worms. Also like the dropshot worms, the rig baits mainly got us smaller 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 pounders this week.

Rather than listen to what our own fish were telling us, we listened to other people. Dock talk around the parking lot was that Carolina rigs, dropshot rigs, Texas rigs and all manner of Senkos were catching monster bass for fellow contenders - stringers of 5, 6, 7 and 8 pounders were spread by word-of-mouth wildfire. We hoped the raved-about worm bite would happen to us too. It didn't.


As luck would have it, we had one ton (one ounce) spinnerbaits still tied on from our recent foray on Lake Mead. Slow-rolling and lumbering the big blades across bottom proved the most productive way for us to entice Clear Lake's three and four pounders. Seven of the ten bass we weighed in competition succumbed to the heavy bottom-hugging blades as did most of the threes and fours we fought during prefish.

Threes and fours were important to us since we reckoned it would take 18-20 pounds per day to win. Five four pounders a day would win it. Four threes were fine too, provided we could get one kicker fish of six to eight pounds.


Early morning is a special time on Clear Lake. Life is on the move. One dawn, a cheery unafraid fox greeted us a rod flip away. Several otters were busy sculling for breakfast. Herons and egrets waded stiller than stone as flight formations of flap-mouthed pelicans wheeled overhead. It's gratifying to be on the water, to feel you belong there, even one thousand miles drive away from home.

Early in the mornings or whenever the wind rose, we found the bigger bass active in 4 to 8 foot shallows. The beginnings or ends of tule berms signal depth transitions (and/or changes from soft to hard bottom). The berm ends were high percentage spots to find bigger shallow bass. Isolated short docks, abandoned and overgrown with tules further raised the odds for hefty bass to be anywhere underneath their derelict walkways or dock tee ends.


By late morning (10:30 or 11) or whenever the wind wasn't strong, our bigger bass options diminished to deeper rockpiles or under the outer tee ends of longer, deeper dock rows. The first and last docks in a deep water row were high percentage spots and could have bigger bass anywhere along their outward sides, especially the shoreline pockets adjacent to tules or under the walkways. Deep docks in the middle of a row tended to have bigger bass only under the tee-ends in 12 to 25 feet of water. We caught mostly smaller bass below three pounds in the open water between docks or the open water in front of docks. Small concrete boat launches between docks were sure bets for smaller bass.

The heavy one ton blades worked equally well in shallow or deep water. However, tight-line sliding the one ton blades out from under the deeper dock tees enticed the majority of our threes and four pounders all week. Constant bottom contact was so essential. If the blade wasn't on bottom, it would not get bass. It helped to forget you even had a blade and just slide the one ton out from under as if you had a jig. That slow. At times (usually closer to the boat), you could feel the blades stop turning and a flick of the rod tip was required to get them rolling again.


We tried several blade combinations and colors - double Willows, Colorado/Willow and Willow/Indiana in gold/silver or white/silver. Most worked equally well up shallow. In deeper water, we settled on a small gold Colorado and a silver size 5 Willow which seemed we could keep deeper better than other blade configurations.

A spruce of chartreuse seemed desirable. Either a chartreuse/white skirt or chartreuse worm laced under a white skirt. With the chartreuse/white skirt, we'd stuff an 031 (pearl/silver) or 237 (daiquiri) hula grub under it at times, just to big it up a bit and get that twirly twin tail motion, but they'd whack it as well without the hula.

In the end, the majority of top ten finishers 'fessed to using jigs and crankbaits. Soft baits factored into at least two top ten finishes. The first place team claimed 7 of their 10 winning bass bit creature baits. Another top ten team credited their catch to Carolina-rigged watermelon w/gold flake Senkos. That's fine for them. As for us, we didn't get many weighers (over three pounds) for six days of trying dropshots and Carolina rigs.

There's no doubt big Clear Lake bass will whack dropshot and worms - but not enough big fish decided to oblige us to win this weekend. If we wanted to win, we probably should not have dropshot worms. The signs were there. Somehow we didn't see them.

When you come home from a fishing excursion like that, persons tend to ask you, "Did you have fun?" Two days road time to get there, two days to get back, six days of fishing ten times harder than you'd ever work at your job? Fishing against 190 other highly-skilled anglers whose only reasons to be there are to beat you, your buddy and everybody else? You know, that is fun.


Most of us won't admit, some of us may not even realize, that we're probably all destined to have more poor fishing trips than excellent ones. Doesn't matter whether you are a an avid weekend recreational angler or a pro tournament veteran. We'll all have more below average than above average fishing trips. There's nothing wrong with that. Take a look at any top pro's career. No one wins even a small fraction of the events that they lose. And, if you had an accurate objective account of your own fishing trips, most of us make many more ho-hum than humdinger trips. Nifty thing is, we anglers remember the good days like they were just yesterday and we obliviate any recall of the slow days before the next weekend begins.

Fishing is always like that. - Russ Bassdozer

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