Two weeks ago at Lake Chickamauga, I earned my first win on the Bass Pro Tour. It was a very special week and it’s a win that means a tremendous amount to me for many reasons. I wanted this win for my fans, sponsors and especially my family – my wife Sherry and my two sons, Jackson and Nicholas – they are the foundation and inspiration for my successful career.
When Chickamauga showed up on the Bass Pro Tour schedule this year, it got my attention. Cranking offshore ledges on the Tennessee River for hungry postspawn bass is absolutely one of my favorite ways to fish. However, a lot has changed in the competitive fishing world since I last fished a ledge tournament in 2018, especially in regards to offshore fishing.
There’s little doubt that the advancements in sonar technology have been mind-boggling in the offshore game. From Down Imaging to Side Imaging to MEGA 360 to different types of forward-facing sonar beams – it’s all changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up with. Everyone is waiting for the next silver bullet and each innovation does something amazing.
With all of this, however, comes a very fine line: if you don’t keep up with the new technology, you can get left behind in a hurry; however, if you rely on it too much, it can burn you. So the real question becomes how do you mix, match and apply all of these technologies in a way that suits your own fishing style the best? That’s a question I had to ask myself going into Chickamauga.
Fishing the Fine Line of Technology
When using new fishing technology, there’s one fundamental premise that guides my way through the applications of these advancements: no matter how good fish finders get, there’s still no substitute for the one tied to the end of your line. You can’t grind bottom, rip through grass or deflect off a stump with a graph. It takes a lure to sniff out the real nooks and crannies to provoke a bite. And that’s the approach I took going into Chickamauga: I wanted to find fish that could only be found by…fishing.
Just to be clear, that doesn’t mean I turned off all my electronics and just started casting around aimlessly. Specifically, I wanted to find shallower fish that couldn’t be targeted by idling around and counting dots on a screen. Given the pressure TVA lakes get, bass are onto that game.
My primary area was a creek channel that ran through a vast 8- to 10-foot flat out to the main river. The schools were relating to the creek channel, but were sometimes roaming on top of the flat and would wander as far as 50 yards off the creek channel. Idling around up on top of that flat looking for them only spooked and scattered them around even more. Instead, I fished down the submerged creek channel using Lake Master mapping to guide me down the contours.
I matched the mapping with MEGA 360, which would scan across the tops of the flats. Out in those flats the 360 showed subtle features like high spots, harder shell bars, stumps and even schools of bass.
I kept my footprint to a minimum by positioning my boat in the deeper creek channel and moving around only on my trolling motor. I targeted the isolated features up on top of the flat in 8 to 10 feet of water with a Strike King Series 5 crankbait. When cranking deeper along the actual creek ledge break, I opted for a 5XD for more depth.
When I spotted a school on the 360, I basically had to sneak up on them because they were extremely wary. Most of the time the schools would not react to my initial casts at a traditional angle. I could literally feel the crankbait hitting and bumping fish that would not bite. The trigger to firing up the schools was to change my casting angle. As I worked around a school at different angles, I would eventually find the cast that would trick a fish in the group to bite. Once that happened, the whole school ignited.
Trusting the Process
Though I fished several places during the week, I spent a lot of my time fishing up and down the same submerged creek channel. Each day I learned more and more about when and where the fish were setting up in the flat and along the ledge. Each day I got more in tune with the area, especially in terms of where they positioned later in the day when the current picked up.
During the week, four other competitors had fished the area as well. But none of them made it to the Championship Round, so I had the whole area to myself the final day. That was critical in being able to move around and stalk the area quietly.
By the final day, all the ingredients were in place to have a chance to win. I knew the exact rotation to make based on water flow. I knew the afternoon would be the time to make my move. And I had a few tricks up my sleeve on getting them to bite.
The one thing I had not achieved all week, though, was maximizing a flurry to its fullest potential. Once the first fish bites in a school, the clock starts ticking. There is a small window in which you have to operate at maximum efficiency to take full advantage of the opportunity and I had not done that. Something always got in my way and killed my momentum.
Going into the final day, I was determined to execute flawlessly on a flurry at some point in the day. In the third period, the current started running and I saw a school piled up on top of the ledge on the 360. I ripped the crankbait through them multiple times and never had a bite. I moved around to the other side of the school and on the very first cast from a different angle, one crushed it and the school ignited.
Over the next 25 minutes, I executed perfectly in keeping that school fired up. I never got a two-minute penalty for a fish landing violation. A majority of that school were scorable bass, instead of time-wasting non-scorables. I stayed positioned perfectly off the school with 360 and spot lock, making the exact same cast every time. I used my Hydrowave on the offshore schooling setting with a 60-second delay to help mask my presence. All were critical components in extending the length of that flurry to as long as possible. I caught my two biggest fish – a 6-pounder and a 4-pounder – towards the very end of that flurry.
If I had done something to cause that window close just a few minutes earlier, that’s 10 pounds I don’t catch.
The result was a 12-bass flurry to the tune of 30 pounds. The whole week had been a building process leading up to that exact moment. Executing perfectly when that opportunity presented itself is what I live for in this sport – it was a very special week indeed.