Category Blog

At the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest benefiting Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on Lake Travis, I’m going to face my first seriously hot tournament of the year. Keeping my cool in Austin might be tough because of some of the factors that will probably play in to the tournament.

Most of the guys I’ve talked to are nervous about fishing Travis. It’s a lake that most of us haven’t ever fished, and it has its own set of challenges. There are many, many small fish in Travis, so it will be a challenge to get keepers. Recreational boat traffic, especially big boats, could make the water choppy and rough. The mornings should be flat and nice, but I think that around 10 o’clock — especially as we get into the weekend — it’s going to be a zoo.

Some people are asking me if the boat traffic will disturb the fishing. I’m sure it will, but not for the reasons you might think. I think these fish are probably pretty accustomed to the traffic, but it will make it hard to fish some areas because of the waves. Travis is narrow, and it has hard walls on the sides in a lot of places. That will make the water rebound and amplify the waves.

What does that mean for us? If you’re making a 10- or 12-mile run, that’s going to be a rough ride. I’ll be alright in my Phoenix PHX, but you still have to stay extra vigilant whenever there are other boats around and complicated wave situations.

Meanwhile, the Texas weather could present its own challenges. Austin is notorious for pop-up thunderstorms, and I know from prior experience, that area can get a lot of lightning. I don’t think that is going to happen as the forecast is for record-breaking highs and no precipitation.

I’m actually looking forward to fishing Travis — it has some really clear water that could be killer for my new Suijin bait from Picasso Lures. It’s a scrounger-type bait that we’ve been working on for a couple of years with all kinds of cool features like an assortment of bills that help me dial in the action. I can’t wait to try this out on Travis. With the water as clear as it is, the wind could play a big factor in this tournament. The lakes we fish out west are very similar to Travis. Because it’s windy the majority of the time here, if the wind doesn’t blow during the tournament, it could make fishing very challenging.

The weather is going to be hot for this tournament. Fishing in the heat can be very draining and dehydrating, so I combat that with drinking a lot of water and eating a lot of food. I also take every precaution I can to prevent overexposure to the sun — even on my hands. I’ve been wearing gloves while fishing for many years and Simms makes an awesome pair called SolarFlex SunGlove. I put those on first thing in the morning and forget about them. They don’t affect my fishing in any way, but they do keep my hands protected from the sun. And if you think about it, when you’re fishing, your hands are in direct sunlight most of the day. You can’t put a hat over them like you do with your face.

When I take people out fishing, I always see that their hands are getting sunburned, so I’ll give them a pair to wear. They leave them on and end up liking them because they don’t have to reapply sunscreen constantly. Many of my friends are still wearing the same pair I gave them, and they don’t go out on the water without them. I can’t stress enough how important it is to protect every part of your skin from the hot summer sun.

It’s been two years since I fished the Sabine River on the Bassmaster Elite Series. Back then, I had a shot to win but couldn’t catch squat on the last day. I still finished third, but the outcome has been gnawing at me ever since. Now, it looks like I’ll have to live with that finish for a little while longer, since the tournament was postponed due to high water.

Adaption is always part of tournament fishing, even adapting to not fishing a tournament.

Speaking of adapting, a lot of things have changed at Sabine since the last time I was there. I was planning on making major adjustments going into the early spring tournament to fish a body of water that is greatly reduced this year without Louisiana in the mix. In a place that already fishes kind of small, that’s going to be make things interesting when we do eventually get back there later this year.

At Sabine, there’s a lot of bank-specific fishing. It’s fun, and you catch a lot of fish, but you also catch four or five dinks to each keeper. There’s a 14-inch limit there, not 12, and the keepers get more shy with every passing boat. That means I’ll be going through a lot of plastic as trailers get torn up by small fish. It also means we’ll all have to be extra patient with each other if the river gets crowded.

Honestly, I’m excited about it, though. I was excited to drive over to Texas last week, and I’m kind of bummed that we have to reschedule. But the water would have been extremely treacherous to run at high speeds and B.A.S.S. made the right decision.

A lot is different there this year, but one thing that isn’t going to change, regardless of the tournament date, is the wicked southern sun. It’s easy to forget, but the Sabine River is almost at the Gulf of Mexico. So even though we aren’t dealing with mid-summer, sweaty heat just yet, we are still dealing with the sun. By the time we get back, things could be really, really warm down there.

That’s something I think a lot of people who fish are getting smarter about, too. Almost all of us know a fisherman who has had skin problems due to the sun, and people are starting to ask me more about that kind of stuff. So, I’ll tell you what I do to fight it off — I  use UPF gear that works everywhere in the country.

Back in the day, I used to battle the sun with giant sombreros. I guess they looked kind of cool, but they also flopped around a lot…and there was no chance they’d stay on your head if you were running. Nowadays, people kind of forget about big straw hats and sombreros. I replaced the big hat years ago with a baseball cap and a couple of Simms SunGaiters.

If you’ve seen pictures of me ninjaed up on the water, I’m wearing a SunGaiter. I’ve seen a lot of pictures of me with these on lately, probably because I forget I’m wearing them. They’re fitted, so they have more material in some places, and less in other places. Instead of a regular shape, they have really unique dimensions that really sit great on your face when you pull them up. With the SunGaiter, I’m able to tuck the fabric into my shirt to get complete protection, and I’m basically wearing UPF sunscreen without having to apply and re-apply lotion all day. I can also pull my SunGaiter over my hat when I’m running, so I don’t have to worry about it flying off as much when I’m looking for more fish.

Along with Simms Solorflex gloves and my pants and jersey, I’m 90 percent covered from the sun by UPF 50 gear, which is a big deal when you’re out on the water for days on end.

All of that leaves me free of sunburns and floppy hats, so I can focus on adapting…and focus on winning. Eventually, I’ll be able to bring that focus back to the Sabine again this year.

We should talk about this at some point. I know, I know, it’s Bassmaster.com, but there’s no way around one of the coolest and most annoying species to a bass fisherman on the water—pike. Since I’ve been up north so much lately, I figured this is as good of a time as any.

Northern guys can relate. Southerners, let’s talk about pike. I don’t mean the chain pickerel that hang around in Alabama or Tennessee. I mean the big, northern, toothy critters that the British guy chases on TV. First, they’re awesome. Second, they’re really frustrating to fish around. I want to share a few tips for bass fishing around them for those of you who like to tempt fate in their waters.

In my last blog, I mentioned pike in passing. Most anglers know that they’re hyper-aggressive. They’ll rip up your spinnerbaits, tear through soft plastics and demolish any hardbaits in their path. And, they like to hang around schools of smallmouth too. Bottom line: You’re going to feel your stomach sink around a school of them. Want to run a grass line with a spinnerbait? Pike will eat your lunch. Feel like tossing a jerkbait? You better have deep pockets.

I’ve found this to be especially true on lakes like Champlain and Cayuga. Cayuga, for real, is full of them.

Most of the time, if I catch a pike, I turn the other way and use them as a sort of natural barrier. Often, I find a school of bass in the opposite direction. But sometimes that doesn’t work, either because the bass I want to catch are around the pike or because I’m being hard-headed like most fishermen.

If you want a way to fish around them, try a steel leader. That will reduce the action on your bait some, which is why I don’t use them, but at least you’ll be able to fish around them. You’ll be able to catch the pike and not lose your bait; they won’t bite you off. You can pick those up a most tackle stores up north or order them online. They’re not as thick as bulky saltwater wires and most are even designed to minimize the impact on hardbait action. Still, there’s a reason many guys fish with a ton of soft plastics up here, and part of it is the dent predator fish can put on your wallet.

When I’m fishing up north, pike are annoying, but there’s one species that will make anyone nervous in a tournament situation. My eyes are always on the lookout for muskie.

Todd Faircloth told me a story about a large muskie that grabbed a 5-pound smallmouth repeatedly at St. Clair when he won there in 2015. I’ve had them boil at my boat, and I’ve had them eat smallmouth that were right beside me before taking off. A lot of guys lose fish to them; I hear stories every time we fish St. Clair.

I respect muskie, but once they’ve locked on to your fish, there’s nothing you can do.

I’ve really got no answer for you there. Wire leaders are supposed to help, but what do you do when a 5-footer has your bass?

Luckily, muskie aren’t as prevalent as its smaller cousin, the pike. But that doesn’t stop me from freaking out when I’ve got a big smallmouth on the line. Smallies like to run far, and because I sometimes  have to fight them on light line, I’m always aware that a muskie can come up like a shark and snatch a fish that could be worth thousands of dollars or more.

For a guy that grew up in California and lives in Alabama, toothy predators make fishing up north really exciting. But there’s also a danger that your prized fish could be mauled at any moment— just something to think about the next time you dream of catching northern smallmouth.

The day before I left Alabama to drive back up north, I was up late. I didn’t get to bed until 3:30 a.m. – but that’s not because I was sweating bullets over a return to competition at St. Clair – I was up playing Halo with my kids before they went to bed and then finishing up the last of the packing.

Crazy as it sounds, that’s what you do after you win a Bassmaster Elite Series tournament. You get hundreds of phone calls and text messages and you try to respond to them all. You take a lot of pictures, shoot a lot of videos and then head home to grab a little spare time with your family. That time is worth more to me than the trophy, but I’m not going to lie – the trophy is pretty sweet.

I had about a week and a half at home before pointing the truck and camper north again. In that time, I had to regroup and gear back up for Detroit. Everyday life doesn’t stop when you win an Elite Series event. I still had to repair the camper – re-siliconing a lot of the joints – which is one of my least favorite jobs. I had to put a new water pump in the camper and sort through a ton of tackle, which is a tedious back-breaking task.

I carry a bunch of tackle. My boat is full of it the camper is full of it, but even still, there’s a lot of stuff that I’m carrying up north that you won’t find me with down south. I leave about a third of my usual tackle behind when I drive up to smallie territory. I leave a lot of my big plastics like big swimbaits, creature baits and big worms at home. I leave some of my larger crankbaits at home too.

Why? Some of that has to do with the weather. A lot of times the water is rough up north this time of year, and I don’t want to damage my hardbaits. Some of that has to do with natural predators like pike and muskie coming after your bait, and sometimes even after your bass. And I’ve lost quite a few jerkbaits over the years to pike and muskie (more on that next time).

So what gear do I take north? Spy baits, tubes, drop shots, jerkbaits, topwater lures and spinnerbaits just to name a few (which also get taken out by pike in the grass). I arrange them in tackle boxes (thanks Bass Mafia), and along with the usual stuff, I take along some new baits to test out in the weeks leading up to the next Elite Series event. Some of those, I’m really excited about.

I won Champlain using some new hooks from Gamakatsu. They’re a Texas-rig-style worm hook, but I use them on swimbaits, soft jerkbaits and just about anything else you would Texas-rig. They’re called the G-Finesse Heavy Cover Hook, and they’re unbelievable compared to anything I’ve ever used before; that’s no line either. Sometimes at expos and shows, you’ll find me at the Gamakatsu booth obsessing over hooks – that’s how we made these. The penetration on them is ridiculous. They’ve got a coating that acts almost like Teflon, and the tournament grade wire they use makes the steel more rigid and stronger. I’m super excited about them, and they’ve definitely got a place in my hook box.

I’m got new colors in the Realis 110 and 120 jerkbaits, newly designed worms from Roboworm, new Aaron’s Edge rods from Enigma and an awesome scrounger-style bait called the Suijin that I think is named after some mystical water creature from Japan.

I’ve been fishing with and tinkering with those types of baits since I was 8 years old in the oceans and lakes in California, and this one is going to be perfect. Natural swimming action, lifelike presentation, it’s got it all, but it’s not quite on the market yet. Stay tuned for that one.

In the meantime, I’m saying goodbye to my wife and the kids, and I’m back on the road. After a few weeks at home, I might not be well-rested, but I am regrouped – and I’ve got some awesome new gear to test out while fishing some of my favorite northern lakes.

I’ve never won at St. Clair, but I feel comfortable up north. And I’m really looking forward to escaping the heat and wearing my Simms jacket again.

There’s nothing like catching a big bass; it’s a rush, it’s exciting, it’s the most fun you can have in the sport, and it’s a feeling that I’ve been chasing since I was a kid. And as a guy who catches my fair share of big fish, I can tell you there’s nothing like watching someone else catching one right in front of you. But one of the sad truths about bass fishing is that some fish get sick or even die once they’ve been caught. It happens for all kinds of reasons, but I want to specifically address the fish that are being put in the livewell for a tournament — especially in summer.

Taking care of your livewell is so important. It gives those bass a chance to survive and thrive after weigh-in. Over the years, I’ve learned a few ways to help keep the livewell working well so more and more people can keep catching the big, healthy bass that make fishing fun.

One of the most important things any angler can do is to clean your livewell every time you use it. It’s not hard, and it makes a big difference in keeping fish healthy and as stress-free as possible. To clean mine, I take a little minnow net — like the kind you can get at the pet store for catching goldfish — and I kind of sweep the inside of my livewell. By the time I’m done, that little goldfish net is almost halfway full of stuff like scales and debris that the fish either spit up or poop out. (It happens.) Crawdad pieces and little rocks they suck up when they try to eat — that kind of stuff all goes right into the strainer on your livewell and does a really good job of clogging it up. I really think this alone can help improve your livewell’s water quality by up to 90 percent.

Speaking of livewells, it’s also super important to make sure the fresh water coming into your livewell is dropping in from above the waterline. A lot of boats have pumps that push water in below the water line, but I like to go back there and re-plumb it so that it gives your fish a little waterfall; I’m serious. A waterfall can help agitate the surface and aerate very efficiently. A capable person can do the plumbing on their own, but if you’re nervous about it, take it to a boat dealer.

Once your livewell is all clean and set up right, there are still some things you have to do to help keep those tournament fish alive and well. Try to be aware of the water temperature that you’re pulling fish out of. If you’re pulling them up from 10 or 15 feet of water or more and you put them in water that your well is pumping from the surface, it could be 10-plus degrees warmer than the climate they just came from. This is a big issue especially going into the summer when the water temps are climbing and bass are in their weakest state postspawn. For years, I’ve grabbed a few bags of ice at the marina to cool the water down in the well in those conditions.

It also helps me to keep an eye on my livewell pumps. Depending on water temps, I run it a little differently. If the water is over 75 degrees, I usually run the re-circulate on manual while keeping the freshwater pump on auto. If it’s really hot or the fish are in postspawn, I run both pumps on manual. If the water temperature is colder than 75 degrees, the fish are using less oxygen so I’m running both pumps on auto, and if it’s below 65 degrees, I’m only running the freshwater pump on auto. Of course, if you have a monster bag of fish in your livewell, you need to adjust that as they are using more oxygen.

I don’t use them very much, but a lot of the Elite Series guys have had great luck with fish additives like the T-H Marine G-Juice. That stuff seems to help calm the fish down and keep their stress levels low.

Even if you’re not a tournament fisherman — if you’re a weekend warrior just catching bass on your local lakes and rivers, there are some other things you can do to help keep big bass alive after the fun is over:

  • Invest in a rubber landing net. It will be a little more expensive, but it’s easier on the fish than a regular nylon one. We aren’t allowed to use nets in tournaments — and I think that helps protect the fish — but if you need one, rubber is the way to go.
  • When you land a fish, try to keep it off the carpet. A lot of fish get sick and die because of carpet contact. It removes a protective layer of slime they have on their scales, and they can get infections and parasites when that’s gone. I think carpet contact should be a penalty in every tournament because of that, and it’s something you can practice on your own that’s free.
  • Finally, you can upgrade your hooks to have less of an impact on the fish. I’m really picky with hooks, and my Gamakatsu hooks have a smaller barb that makes a nice, clean hole. They don’t make a big rip in the fish’s jaw, and that’s a big deal when you put them back in the wild.

The bottom line is this: Fish care is super important. I’m always learning new things, but these tricks have been battle-tested and I know they work. I never have fish issues anymore because of my livewell. If I do have a fish issue, it’s usually because of where the fish was hooked. It’s hard to help what happens under the water in their world, but we can all pitch in to help these fish once they’re above the surface in our world.

It’s time to regroup. This year was disappointing because last year was so phenomenal. A Top 25 finish is still pretty good, but it’s not where I want to be. It’s left me with a lot to think about.

It’s a long drive from Mille Lacs back to Birmingham, and I do a lot of reflecting on the road. That’s how you learn—you think about your mistakes and try to remember them so you don’t do them as much next time. My next B.A.S.S. event isn’t until February, which means I’ve got a few months to think about this year versus last year.

Everybody wants to know what went wrong. I want to figure it out too.

Last year was exceptional. I don’t want to say it was easy, but I had a lot of good days. I caught just about everything that bit, and I won AOY. This year, I’d like to go back to every tournament and do it again because I missed a lot of fish and opportunities, and I normally don’t do that. That’s how it is in fishing—you mess up and you want to go back.

The only time that I felt I had a chance to win in 2016 was on the third day of the Classic. That last day, I was in a position to win, and Edwin just smashed them. He had a phenomenal day and smoked everyone. But I didn’t know that on the water. When we were out there, I still felt like I had a chance to win, and when you feel like you have a chance, it’s much more exciting.

It’s more fun when you’re in contention for a trophy. It’s so much more exciting when you’re in the Top 12. That’s where all the action is.

Last year I was close to winning four times. I won twice, and it was the greatest year of fishing I’ve ever had. That’s what you go for every season.

Outside of the Classic this year, I didn’t feel like I gave myself a chance to win, and I’m not totally sure why that is.

I took two months off from fishing—not purposefully, but it happened because of a busy year. That’s not a good thing for me to do. It’s like riding a bike—you never forget how, but with time off, you won’t be able to ride as well when you come back. The same thing happens in fishing.

When you fish all of the time, it keeps your instincts sharp. Your thinking process is sharper and you make quicker and better decisions, and I feel like my mental game wasn’t where I wanted it to be in 2016. When your instincts aren’t sharp, your mental game suffers, and fishing is such a mental thing.

What else went wrong?

It could have been the weather. We had floods. We had dark pre-fish days where it’s kind of windy and overcast, and sometimes that makes it hard to learn new places. That seemed to make the fish a little funky and a little off for me. For other guys, it may have played to their advantage.

I also didn’t pre-practice a lot this year. So yeah, I don’t know exactly what went wrong this year, but reflecting helps.

When you look back on a season, you don’t want to forget about the good, but I think a lot about the bad. I’ve always done that; I’ve always second-guessed myself and thought, “Man, I probably would have done better if I had followed my intuition.”

Sometimes it’s about following your gut feeling. But other times it’s about working on flaws in your game. And I know that I need to work harder at fishing around people, because on some lakes that’s the only option. It’s not that I don’t like people—I just don’t like fishing around them. If I find fish on a spot in practice and someone’s on it during the tournament, I will pass by and look for another spot. That’s something I’ve got to work on. I don’t like moving in on people, but sometimes you have to.

I may have been in a position to do much better several times this year if I would have been more aggressive on lakes like that.

So what do I change? How do I bounce back?

I’ll deliberately spend more time on the water for fun. I’ll go home and reorganize my tackle. I’ll tweak a few things like I do every year, but to get back on track, there’s not much I can do but reflect on what happened and try to regroup. I’ve got to be ready when it all starts up again. I’ve got to be in the right frame of mind.

A lot of guys have a down year and bounce back to win AOY the next year. Swindle is a great example of that. Brent Chapman is, too. Guys can come off of a slump to win it all.

This year, I missed the excitement. I felt a little left out. In February, when it all starts back up at Cherokee, I’ll be finished reflecting and I’ll be ready. I don’t like missing the Top 12.

And I already have the motivation to come back.

One of the most important things to happen to me in my professional tournament fishing career occurred in a place that might surprise you. I was on a mountain bike somewhere between Tampa and Daytona Beach, Fla.

Let me explain.

Some of you may already know that I’m a pretty serious runner. I try to run at least two times a week during the Bassmaster Elite Series season, usually 5 to 6 miles at a time, and I feel like 15 miles is a good week for me. I wish I could run 30 miles a week, but I never seem to have time for that during the hustle of the season.

I wasn’t always a runner, though. I played a lot of volleyball into my late teens, worked out a lot with weights until about my mid-20s, jogged a little bit and mountain biked 10 to 12 years ago in my early 30s, but running was never a part of my everyday lifestyle.

That is, until the 2010 Ragnar Road Race in Florida.

My wife Lesley had taken up running as a means to keep up her health and strength, and she and some of the wives of other Elite Series anglers – Brent Chapman’s wife Bobbi, Todd Faircloth’s wife Angie, Randy Howell’s wife Robin, etc. – decided that they wanted to run the Ragnar Relay, which is this cool overnight road race where you run as a team, with each person running three legs.

It’s a serious run, too: 200 miles altogether from Tampa to Daytona Beach.

That first race in 2011, I took my mountain bike and escorted some of the girls along the course of the race. They ran a bunch of night legs in some desolate areas, so I peddled along with them to keep them company and help them feel safer.

Watching them run that race was really fascinating. I watched them run the streets, paths and highways of Central Florida, watched the way Lesley ran her three legs, and I found it totally inspiring. Lesley ran her legs really, really strong – 8 minutes a mile or less – and she ran some long 5-, 6-, and 7-mile legs. It really motivated me.

Not long after that, at the age of 38, I got serious about running. I had seen the benefits to Lesley’s health, had seen her become stronger and healthier, so it was a no-brainer. It was also the best thing I could’ve ever done for my tournament fishing career.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FISHING AND FITNESS

Let me make this clear: standing on a trolling motor all day, day after day, is not good for your body. Blasting across 4-foot waves in a bass boat is not good for your body. Virtually none of the things we do as professional anglers are beneficial to our backs, our legs, our arms, our necks, our shoulders. I hear some people say, “You’re getting a workout while you’re fishing!” That’s true to a point, but we’re working out all w-r-o-n-g.

Leaning most of your weight on one leg (in flip-flops!) might indeed exercise the muscles you use for stability, but not in a beneficial way. None of those movements are natural. You’re actually damaging your body.

It wasn’t easy when I first started getting serious about my running. I felt awkward, I was out of shape, and I really didn’t know how to run properly. When we’re kids, we can just take off running and run all day, and it’s just fine because our bodies are flexible and healthy. As an adult, I found that I had to do some research on the best way to run so I wouldn’t get injured.

Lesley was really helpful with this – when she decides to do something, she always tries to do it the right way, so she had researched running cadences, how you’re supposed to step, the proper form, where your feet are supposed to land, etc.

Once I started doing it right and got past the first few weeks of being sore and tired, I started to feel the benefits of running almost immediately. I find that I almost never feel fatigue now, despite the fact that I don’t sleep nearly enough during the season. I feel that my mind is sharper and I’m more focused, because, let’s face it, it’s hard to be mentally focused when you don’t feel great.

Running also makes you more health-conscious in general. You become more aware of nutrition and the way you fuel your body, because you definitely can’t keep up a 15-mile-a-week schedule if you’re not eating properly (more on this in my next blog).

I’m 43 years old today. I’m 6-foot-2, and right around 187 pounds. That’s 30 pounds less than I was when I started running when I was 38. Without a doubt, I’m in the best physical shape of my life, and it’s absolutely benefited me in my career.

How so? Well, in 2013 and 2015 – the years I most recently won Angler of the Year – my average finish in tournaments held in the second half of the season was seventh. I finished in the Top 10 nine times, and my lowest finish was 17th in those late-season tournaments. Some of that is maturity, some of it is the fisheries, but a lot of it is my physical conditioning.

I can see guys getting worn down the later we get in the season, but I actually felt like I get stronger now as the year progresses.

The bottom line is that I feel great. I tell a lot of the Elite guys all the time, “You should start running!” because I know how much it would help them, both on and off the water.

BASSfest at Lake Texoma kicks off the second half of the 2016 season, and I’m ready to push myself as hard as I need to as we continue from there on our northern swing to New York, Maryland, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In the meantime, I think it’s time to go for a run.