#FBF – Closing the door on the 47th Classic
Each instalment of the Bassmaster Classic brings us lively stories, peopled by the characters who fish it. And by those who do not. The 47th edition will be remembered as one of the most unique incarnations of bass fishing’s most major event.
Some of the most important players had a profound, but invisible, influence. At least one of them wasn’t even a person.
The influence of man has made its mark on Lake Conroe. The lower two-thirds of the lake is wall-to-wall seawalls and docks. There is no grass or other nursery habitat to hide young-of-the-year fingerlings. Mature bass gorge on the easy pickings and grow big. But survival rates suffer and the overall population is relatively small.
Ott Defoe addressed that issue, “The thing is, on the south end there ain’t a whole lot of spawning habitat to begin with. I think that’s a large part of why this place doesn’t have a lot of recruitment because, on the south end, there ain’t a whole of places for them to spawn and once they do, that fry gets ate up quick. I think that, combined with all the pressure, and so few parts of the lake being productive – it just doesn’t add up very well.”
Somewhere above the Hwy 1097 bridge the urban sprawl of a major city ends and Houston’s watery playground reverts to its wild ways. There’s even a huge flat called ‘The Jungle’.
But even in the wooded reaches of the small lake man’s influence can be felt in the form of fishing pressure. The Ghost of Anglers Past is a major character in the story of the 2017 Classic.
Brent Ehrler led the first two rounds of the Classic. He thinks fishing pressure caught up to him on the final day.
“I only got a limit on 2 of the practice days and that’s fishing 12 hours a day. This place has just been getting pounded lately. The Big Bass Tour was here. They had 800 anglers in the tournament. There’s a Tuesday-nighter, a Wednesday-nighter every week. Normally, when you go to a lake, and you hear about these little tournaments, it’s not a big deal because they have 10 boats, but every night they have 40-to-50 boats fishing these tournaments so that’s a lot of pressure and this is a small lake. It’s a really small lake. It just fishes tough.”
Mike Iaconelli put himself in contention to make a run at another Classic title. He laments the heavy hand of nonstop tournament activity on Lake Conroe.
“This lake is notorious for (producing) very few bites anyway, but I think a lot of the pressure leading up this event took its toll this week. I was keeping tabs on it and it was like, every week, there was a Saturday tournament, Sunday tournament, a Tuesday-nighter, a Wednesday-nighter I mean, what the heck, at some point those fish get real conditioned. And I think there was extra excitement leading up to this tournament so there were more derbies than normal so this lake received a tremendous amount of pressure. And I think that caught up with us this week.”
James Elam was surprised at how slowly keeper bites would come. “It took me until the 3rd or 4th day of practice to figure out that this is not a numbers lake and they have to be 16 inches anyway so you just don’t catch a lot of keepers. I only had the limit one day.”
Steve Kennedy, by contrast, came into practice prepared for a tough bite to start with. “We knew coming in that we were fishing for 7 or 8 keeper bites a day.”
Defoe’s experience reflected the norm. “The first day I caught 8 keepers; lost a couple. The 2nd day I caught 5. The 3rd day I caught 5.”
Fishing pressure wasn’t the only reason 3 of the top 5 finishers didn’t even catch a limit all 3 days.
“We had 30-mile-an-hour winds the first day and then we turned around and had a post-frontal bluebird day, which is always my Achilles heel, and I came in with 4 fish,” said Kennedy. “The weather played a big part in that.”
Elam noted that the weather had been influencing the fish long before the anglers arrived. “They didn’t have a cold winter. They probably got fished all winter and they were probably up shallow all winter, getting thrown at all winter so that doesn’t help.”
Big fish were the key to success.
As Defoe admits, so was a bit of luck. He caught 9-pound, 9-ounce anchor during the final round. “I caught it on a Cover Pop. It’s a new lure from Storm that’s coming out at ICAST. It’s a big popper style bait that walks, basically, in place. I threw it up there to what I thought was a bed and I worked it aways. I actually started to reel it in and the fish chased it out to the brush and followed to the outside and ate it.”
Kennedy’s biggest bass was likely his most memorable. “I had a 6-10 the first day that I caught on a green pumpkin jig with a Zoom Super Speed Craw. I pitched it into some brush, didn’t get bit. Started reeling it in and she smoked it on top – probably the only reason I got her in.”
Ehrler caught a 9-12 and a bunch of other fish using an overlooked technique. “I caught a good percentage of my fish this week pitching a Yamamoto D Shad. I was fishing it weightless. There’s something about that bait, the way it falls. I was fishing it like a Senko. It falls differently than a Senko.
“The first day of the tournament is when I got clued in on that. I caught my big fish on it. I was able to go right behind guys – they’d be right in front of me and I would watch them and they wouldn’t catch anything and I’d go through there and catch 4 or 5. That was a key bait for me this week and it caught the big fish as well.”
Elam caught fish, including his biggest at 7 pounds, 14 ounces, on a lightly weighted Senko. He too caught ‘em behind competitors who struck out in front of him. “I was fan casting, blind. All those bigger ones came out deeper where you couldn’t have seen them if they were on a bed. A lot of people were fishing around the bushes. I was fishing out in front of that, like, in the 3-foot zone.”
If you can believe it, Elam has a back-up bait for the Senko, which is generally thought to be the ultimate back-up bait of all time. “There’s a few fish I’d miss on the Senko and I’d flip a Jackall Chunk Craw in and get those.”
Iaconelli caught all of his biggest bass, including that chunk y’all saw on BASS Live the final morning, on a Carolina rig with a 6-inch lizard, or a shaky head.
As did Elam, Ike credited location more so than lure for his big bites. “They came out deeper in about 8-to-12 feet on little high spots, little hard areas. They were mostly post-spawn fish.”
Fifty-one of the fifty-two competitors would like a do-over here or there. Mistakes ran the gamut from not tightening a reel’s drag to not re-tying often enough to lure choices and spending too much time in unproductive water.
Their biggest undoing was probably that they carved an already small pie into even skimpier slices while Jordan Lee only needed one full day on a loaded point to take the trophy.
Picking the right spot was the ticket. That the concept of pattern fishing is a lost art is debatable. But there was no place for it at this year’s Classic. The lake was too small for that.
“I told everybody, going into this tournament, I had one spot,” said Lee. “It had some big ones there.”
Lee found his spot just above the mid-lake bridge. The flat point looked like so many others that squat at the mouths of coves on Lake Conroe. Lee could not make similar spots produce, hence, no pattern fishing. Everything hinged on the one spot. The hard bottom was 5-to-6-feet deep and only dropped a foot or so in depth.
High winds and cloud cover rendered the spot worthless on the first day.
On Day 2 Lee returned to the point with an empty livewell at noon. He would grind a Strike King 5 XD crankbait across it. When a fish would latch on, many more followed it to Lee’s boat. “I caught a 7-7 and a school of 5-to-6-pounders followed it. It was like the water just turned black.”
Lee caught 21 pounds that afternoon.
That night Lee was in 15th place, seemingly out of contention. But he shared a glimmer of hope as he spoke with AnglersChannel.com. “If the sun will stay out tomorrow and I can hit the spot 3 times and let it rest for an hour in between, I can probably catch 5 off it.”
Lee spent the entirety of the final round parked on the point. He mined it with a football jig and a Strike King Rage Craw trailer to catch 8 bass and cull to the heaviest sack of the tournament at 27-4. He ran his total weight to 56-10 which gave him a winning margin of 1 pound, 9 ounces over Kennedy.
Ehrler was disappointed to drop the lead when it counted most. “Obviously, it sucks. I’ve been in this position before. I’ve been up there and not won. I’ve come from behind and won as well. It stings the most when you’re that close.”
Conroe fished so tough that even Lee, who, ironically lives in Grant, AL (civil war buffs will catch that one) felt he had been defeated. “There was not a thought in my mind all day that I had a chance. Being that far behind this group of anglers . . . it was just my day.”