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Ignoring the Pros
By Paul Crawford

Since joining the on-line community a few years ago, I've chatted, posted, and emailed a lot of bass fishermen about approaches and techniques. We've long heard B.A.S.S. trumpet the impact of their professional trail on weekend fishermen, but until you've talked to people all over the country, it's hard to appreciate just how big of impact that has been. Lures, patterns, presentations, equipment, all have been adopted throughout the country and even the world based almost solely on tournament success at the professional level. It has certainly been a great thing in uncounted ways and has definitely improved the level and success of bass fishermen everywhere. But there has been a trap many, and perhaps all fishermen have fallen in, depending too much on what the pros have done, learning by example instead of working out the problem based on knowledge and theory. We unthinkingly buy the latest hot bait, work the latest rage for a pattern or technique, approach a lake based on how a pro approaches it, generally rely on memory rather than thinking.

The thing the vast majority of fishermen forget is, this isn't how the pros do it! They don't fish a tournament based on what is working for someone else. A pro relies on his own knowledge and intuition, and you only see the results of who guessed right this week. Sure, information is shared among the pros, and the wise professional would never overlook an approach that is beating his own. But for the most part, they fish to their own personal strengths using what they think will work and relying on their own experience. And perhaps the most overlooked factor in our follow-the-leader world is, unless you are a touring pro, you will probably have better success doing something different that a pro.

It's a different world the pros live in. They are experts in the craft, for sure, but have substantially different problems to worry about than you do. It's a new and strange lake every week. Different conditions, different water, different pattern. And you never read about 10th place, so you're always fishing for the win, a big gamble you normally loose in any sport. They also simply have a lot more time over a very short period to work out a pattern on a particular lake. If you took a week of vacation and fished every day, would you fish it the exact same way every time out? And perhaps the thing we forget the most is, they don't always catch fish. In fact, I dare say the average stringer for the average pro on the average day is less than your average club fisherman. I remember the rather confused look on one of my hero's faces a few years ago. Rick Clunn, one of the best fishermen ever to climb in a boat, was a favorite to win the Bass Masters Classic since they were hitting crank baits that year, one of Rick's true strengths. The tournament was indeed won with near record weights coming on crank baits. Rick? Two fish for just over 3 pounds in 4 days of fishing. But would you want to put your money in against him for a tournament held this weekend on your home lake? And, of course, perhaps the biggest difference between a pro and a weekend fisherman, the pro is there is make a living, not necessarily to have fun.

So, if we're not suppose to do what the pros do, what are we suppose to do different? Maybe nothing radically different, but we need to take advantage of the opportunities that a pro can't.

First is our approach to our home waters. Jimmy Houston wrote in his recent book that, "I never fish over 10' deep. The 10% of the lake that's shallow has half of the fish and I don't have time to learn the whole lake." What's wrong with that statement? Basically, the last part. You do have time to learn the whole lake, and it's well worth your time to do it. From knowledge of seasonal patterns, we know the fish don't always prefer the shallows, moving deep in summer and winter. The fish that do stay shallow get a lot of pressure from other fishermen and are either caught and kept when they reach 3 or 4 pounds, or they grow wise and wary of any bait we throw at them. So, if you want to target the fish that has less pressure, tend to be bigger fish, and are less affected by weather or temporary conditions, it pays off to learn those deep haunts where the big fish live. You don't have to do so all of the time, or every time out. But on those days when the shallow fish don't cooperate, why not burn a little gas, move way off shore, and see if you can find something interesting. A lot of great deep structure or cover is marked on maps. There are old road beds, farm ponds, bridges, even entire towns flooded by the reservoir in deep water just waiting for you to explore them. If the wind or waves means it's not a good day, try next week or next month. It may take years to really get to know a lake and explore her secrets. A pro has only a few days to learn a lake. You live there, take advantage of the fact.

Along the same lines, pros tend to cover large areas of water and cherry pick the fish. The pro doesn't have the time to locate those honey holes that normally have at least a few fish. The pro has to keep moving and searching, try 40 or 50 spots in some cases in a single day, (you haven't lived until you spent the day in the back of the boat with a pro fishing a run and gun dock pattern.) Do the math. With running time, you're talking around 3 - 5 minutes per hole. The fish had better bite quick to catch up with these guys. This may be great, (unless you're buying the gas), as long as the fish are predictable and cooperate when you get there. But you've got the time to find those reliable spots over time and concentrate on those. There may 50 similar points on your lake, but you have time to cull down to the 5 or 6 best ones that normally hold fish without hitting every point every day. This lets you stay in productive water longer, giving you a much better chance at boating fish. Any you can keep in mind the Fisherman's Mantra, "Never Leave Biting Fish Looking for Other Fish." To a run and gun pro, 2 or 3 minutes without a bite means move. If you know you're in a good spot, then keep in mind that if you catch 1 legal fish every hour, you'll be culling and have a good limit by the end of the day.

Following that train of thought, you'll notice that other than Larry Nixon, (another of my heroes), the Texas Rig plastic worm is an obsolete antique among the pros. The pros are fishing for big fish and need to cover water, so a Carolina Lizard is the preferred tool of the trade. You can see this trend in the local tackle stores. Where once half of the store was filled with plastic worms, now spinner baits, crank baits, and such have pushed them into one or two small aisles mixed in with just as many lizards, soft jerk baits, and craws. Yet, at one time, the estimates were as high as 90% of all fish were caught on plastic worms. What Happened? Well, even though there are a 1000 ways to effectively fish a plastic worm, they are all pretty slow presentations, extremely unsuited to run and gun styles. So, if the pros gave up on them, most of the locals did as well. But I'm here to tell you worms still work as well as ever and I can't think of anything as reliable as the plastic worm under all conditions in all seasons. Again we've let our thoughts on what works for a pro on a strange lake overrule our own experience in well know waters.

The same can be said for any of the slow presentations. If you know you're in a good spot, slow down and work it thoroughly with a known good bait instead of chasing fish that may or may not be there in less productive water. Think of how much fun catching fish on a slow top water can be. Why do we all think we're Zell Roland and skitter a Pop-R or maybe a buzz bait across the top, and if that doesn't work, give up on one of our favorite, and most productive baits? Even slow rolling a spinner bait in deep water is being forgotten when it was all the rage only 5 years ago. I recently saw an article in a local paper giving advice from one of the touring pros. This pro said the only productive way of fishing a spinner bait was right under the surface and you had to be able to see the bait at all times to know when to set the hook. Bull Hockey! Over the last 10 years, many more fish have been caught on spinner baits by working them in 10' -15' of water over heavy cover right down on the bottom by pros and weekend fishermen alike. Perhaps America's Favorite Fisherman, Bill Dance, (Number One on my list of heroes), has tried to teach us for years that spinner baits put more vibration and are easier to work with a single blade than with a tandem. Another World Class spinner bait fisherman, Hank Parker, rarely uses anything under a ounce bait in water over 3' deep. But head to the tackle store and try to find a single blade bait or one oz or better. Slow rolling baits take valuable tournament time and is unsuited for covering vast amounts of water quickly, (I say that because that's what's preached, actually I cover the water pretty good with a oz single willow leaf.) The poor weekend fisherman reads all of this stuff in the magazines and believes it, passing up what his own experience and the advice of other excellent fishermen tell him.

Now for a few dirty words, things that illegal to do in a tournament, but are perfectly legal ways to fish that we now thumb our noses at just because they are against tournament rules.

Try Trolling. Yeah, idling around with the big motor and with a bait trailing out behind. Before the advent of tournaments and trolling motors, (note the name), this was the way to catch numbers and big bass. Entire classes of baits were made just for trolling applications, (now mostly in the hands of collectors or prized possessions of the few that still practice the technique.) Trolling is not illegal in walleye tournaments, and is standard tournament practice for locating fish. It still works big time for locating bass as well. If you're out prefishing or searching for new off shore structure, chances are pretty good you're spending a lot of the day idling around with the big motor anyway. Why not set a deep running crank bait behind the boat just to see what you missed? Mark a school of something suspended in 15' off the edge of a ledge? Don't know if it's crappie, bass, bait or trash? Troll through the middle of them and if it's bass, you're sure to find out! One of the pros dirty little secrets is that they also spend prefishing time trolling. Head for the lake on a Tuesday practice day and watch how they map out likely looking points or weed beds. Why do it? It's effective! If it's not against the rules or laws, then it's foolish to pass it up if you're out to find concentrations of fish.

Another variation is now called "strolling". This is simply using a trolling motor for it's original intent. Take a big heavy Carolina rig, spinner bait, or similar, set it out behind the boat, put the trolling motor on medium speed, and go run the edges of your favorite structure. Works like a champ! This is an old guiding trick that's one of the easiest ways to locate fish and have a new fisherman catch a few. Again it's great for mapping new structure while checking for fish at the same time. And you may find more than fish as well. I've stumbled across a number of dynamite brush piles located on ideal structure using this technique. I also use it routinely when moving between two primary areas close to each other on some larger structure. More than once I've found the fish feeding well off of where I expected them to be on a shallower or deeper pattern. And like guiding, this is a great way to introduce kids, wives, or other new fishermen to the sport without slinging a spinner bait into the weeds all day without a bite.

Probably with worst dirty word to tournament types, "live bait." In Florida, just about every guide uses live shiners when they take out their customers. It's more than just a tough day on the water if you can't get bit using shiners around weed beds. So, if you're dead set about wanting to catch big fish, you'll never beat live bait. Artificials normally catch more fish, but don't come close to the average size. For the trophy hunters, live bait is the way to go. If you're out running a weed bed or shore edge, why not set a shiner out behind the boat? Even you're prefishing for a tournament where live bait won't be an option, wouldn't be nice to know the fish are there but just not hitting what you're throwing? If you've got a 12 year old in the back of the boat holding his first 8 pound fish, it really won't matter if he caught it on a shiner or a plastic worm, the smile is just as big. I've heard all the arguments about the "sporting chance", about hurting the fish when they swallow a hook, and it depletes the big fish population. I don't buy into any of it. Research and studies have long since shown there is no impact on numbers or average size of the bass population on lakes where live bait is used regularly or on artificials only. It may hurt your feelings if you're in a tournament not getting a bite while you watch a shiner or crawfish fisherman boat fish after fish, but it's sure not the other guy's fault.

What to talk about extremes in spot fishing? Try Stitching! If you're unfamiliar with the term, this technique requires that you double anchor the boat to keep it from moving. Then use a natural weight bait, (like a crawfish for live bait or a Slug-O for artificials), throw it out there and let it settle to the bottom, (a process that can take a minute or two all by itself.) The point the rod towards the bait and use your left hand to gently and every so slowly take up the line alternately holding it with your index finger or pinkie and draping it across your hand. The bait will crawl across the bottom and about a foot a minute. Make sure you use plenty of pauses between stitches, (also make sure to let go of the line if you get bit.) This technique can easily take 15 to 20 minutes a cast. Does it work? You Bet! If you're in spot with even a few fish hanging out, chances are you'll catch a fish on every cast, including the biggest one down there.

Or take it even one step further, Dead Worming. Take your worm, throw it out there, then don't move it. This is one technique that any tournament angler should get good at. Takes infinite patience and a lot of confidence in your spot, but given that, it's deadly on the most sluggish fish. Perhaps the most famous example of dead worming was Larry Nixon a couple of years ago in Arizona. In prefishing, he had located a big bed some 60 miles up river from the launch point. He had seen a big female in the area, but every time a boat came anywhere near the ledge where the bed was, she'd take off to deep water. The last day of the tournament, Larry was way behind in weight, and after catching a small limit, decided to gamble on getting a big fish. He took the one hour run up river, and sure enough the big fish took off to deep water as soon as the boat approached. Larry took a little craw and dropped a few feet in front of the bed. He then fed out line while the boat drifted down river several yards until he past the next bend, and then just sat, (can you imagine being his draw partner during all of this?) Sure enough, about a half hour later, Larry felt a little tick and set the hook. Larry's bass went over 12 lb. which earned him Big Bass, won the Tournament, and was responsible for a number of new sponsors and bonuses for breaking the Arizona state record during competition.

Not enough patience for hawg hunting? Rather catch a bunch and have steady action? Try Micro-Light fishing. I've got a little rod I keep in the truck for fishing emergencies, (like passing a borrow pit on the way home from work.) This rod is 5' long, rated for 1/32 oz to 1/8 oz lures and 4 lb. line maximum. I use 3" Slug-Os, 2" Shad Assassins, 4" hand poured worms, 2" Gitz-Its, and 2" craws along with the standard ultralight hard bait fair. It will be a sad day when I can't boat 50 fish with this little rig. Now admittedly, 40 of them will be well below the legal limit, and I might only land a single two pound fish in a day, but it's serious fun and extremely reliable in the shallows. Again, if you're taking a new fisherman with you, remember to have fun, and this defines the term.

Follow-the-leader is not limited to articles in magazines. Any given tournament day will prove the old saying, "boats breed." Woe to he who catches a nice chunk in plain view on a slow day. You can get surrounded by boats faster than Custer was surrounded by Indians. There are just a ton of guys out there who prefish with binoculars. I'll be the first to admit I've taken a close look at where or what someone is throwing if they are catching fishing and I'm shooting blanks, it's part of the game. But what do you do when the invasion starts on the few fish you've got located? Just continue to fish! I can't count the times that I've sat in the middle of a pack of boats, caught a nice limit, cashed a check, and none of the 20 boats around me could catch cold. The reasons are simple. First, I'm fishing my water, so chances are pretty good I've setting on the best spot in the area, know exactly what structure/cover I'm throwing to, having worked it out in prefishing. Second, I'm fishing my bait, which is what I've decided will give me the best chance to catch fish under those exact conditions. Third, if I'm catching fish, then I've already found the right presentation, speed, color, etc. to fish my bait, in my water, and everyone else has to guess. Most of the time I can't even keep up with someone else in my own boat throwing the same lure if he's on a roll, with him trying to help! How is someone suppose to do it from a hundred yards away? If you're on fish, don't worry a second about another boat moving in on you. Chances are good that even if that boat starts catching fish, it's fish that would not have fallen prey to what you're throwing, else they'd already be in your livewell. And if you're stuck being a follower rather than a leader on a given day, be smart about that too! Check the bait and presentation as best you can, matching it to sometime similar but that is also one of your strengths and that you have confidence in. And don't try to out compete someone on their own water, find something similar. It's a very rare situation indeed when the fish are only feeding in one single spot on the whole lake. Rather than jump in there with all of the rest, check your known spots or a map for something that's the same pattern, but isn't getting the pressure. Even if the spot that the other boat is fishing is one of your own best spots, go to a back up. You're best days will normally come when you have a population of fish all to yourself and you can experiment with them to your leisure. Just don't get run off a good spot because another boat shows up.

Maybe the biggest difference between what the pros do and what you should do in a club tournament concerns what fish you target. In a big tournament, you've got over 500 other pros to beat out and a nice limit doesn't get you even an at-a-boy, much less a new sponsor. So you're always looking almost exclusively for that big bite. You figure you need a 3 to 4 pound average on any given day to even come close. Come club tournament time with 40 - 50 other people and a point championship to worry about, it's a whole different game. In club competition, it's getting that limit every time out that's important, and the size will take care of itself. If you weigh in a limit every tournament over the year, you're almost sure to cash a check or two on the way and be in the running for your championship. It's tough to do if that's your goal, and almost impossible if you're hunting for big fish all the time. And this is a decision you have to make before you go out, not after you're on the water. A pattern most club fishermen will notice is that the day's big fish came early, but only on the good days will it be the anchor for a limit. More times than not, the big fish will have one or two other fish with it, but the tournament will be won with a stringer of chunks, most of which were also caught early. You can't do both. You either have to target the chunks and throw the baits that get you the limit, or you have to dig in for that hawg and hope you can find something to go with him. Fishing for big fish is done with big fish baits in heavy cover working slow and thorough. Fishing for limits is done in an area or pattern with smaller and/or faster baits covering water and taking the fish that are active and feeding. Prime time for either case is first thing in the morning on your best spot and you can't be in two places, throwing two different things at once. Make the call of which way to go before launch, and make it clear to the day's partner before you start, (saves valuable fishing time otherwise wasted on arguing on the type of water you need to be fishing.) My personal choice is I always go for the limit then take what I can get flipping or working deep offshore structure later in the day. Then again, I've never won a B.A.S.S. national tournament either.

So, all of this said, what does it mean? In a phase, "Trust yourself." Everyone who is successful is learning all of the time, weekend sport fishermen through the tournament professional. You can't just close your eyes and ignore what the professionals say, but you can't depend on it either. To be successful and enjoy what can be a frustrating sport, you must learn to think things through for yourself, apply what you have learned, and learn from the experience you have on the water, good, bad, or indifferent. There is always something new to learn, the trick is to not forget what you know already. When the chips are down, it's just you and the fish in an uneven battle where the fish has all of the advantages. The pride in catching a trophy or winning a tournament is not that you were lucky on that day, it was that you applied what you knew and used your skill to execute a plan that worked that day. When necessary, trust your own judgment, ignore the pros, and reap the benefits of doing it your own way.

Paul Crawford

 
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