I was lucky enough to spend a week in Fort Worth, Texas this month covering the Bassmaster Classic, an annual event put on by B.A.S.S. called the “Super Bowl of Bass Fishing”. This year’s three-day tournament took place at Lake Ray Roberts, a reservoir built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1980’s. The lake, with over 29,000 acres of water, has brush piles in the deep water for habitat and closer to shore, dead trees and tree stumps. The shore itself is bare in some places but most of the shoreline is surrounded by trees or brush.
The 54 anglers fishing the Bassmaster Classic were allowed three days to pre-fish this lake. This time was important, since no major tournaments had been held here before by B.A.S.S. and most of the anglers had never fished this body of water before.
So, how does a tournament angler break down a lake and figure out where the fish are and what they’ll bite? I got to find out when I spent the final practice day on the boat with Chris Johnston, a resident of Ontario, Canada who fishes the Bassmaster Elite Series for a living.
Johnston told me on his first practice day he quickly determined the bass were not off shore in deep water as many expected. Instead, because of unusually high water in the lake, the bass were hanging out close to shore in cover.
Next, Johnston had to figure out what kind of cover the largemouth bass preferred. He found it wasn’t the dead trees, flooded grass or small trees that held most of the bass. Instead, it was the freshly flooded green leafy bushes, which were thick on top but bare below, that provided the bass both cover from predators and shade from the bright Texas sun.
With this knowledge in hand, Johnston set out to fish as much of the lake as he could over the next two days where this grassy brush was found. Starting out on the final practice morning, I sat in the back of Johnston’s boat and watched him flip a lure into the brush, covering an entire bay for an hour and a half without a bite. When asked if this depressed him, he smiled and replied, “Oh no. We just eliminated an area I don’t need to fish during the tournament.”
We headed to another part of the lake and Johnston began flipping his lure into the green brush again near shore. In a 25-yard stretch Johnston got bit by bass five times in just a few minutes. Johnston marked this location as a waypoint on the map on his bow-mounted fish finder and explained this was a “high percentage area”, a place he could quickly race into, fish, and then leave for the next “high percentage area.” Over the course of the day Johnston found four of these key areas he was looking for to fish during the tournament. Johnston said his goal was to find close to 40 of these high percentage areas during his practice days.
There are two key things to remember if you are going to pre-fish like this. First of all, this tactic works best when conditions are stable. If a major cold front or storm comes in, where the fish are and how they behave can change. Likewise, it’s hard to cover an entire lake to eliminate the marginal areas and find all the high percentage areas by yourself. Johnston was fortunate his brother, Corey Johnston, was also fishing this tournament and the two essentially split up the lake and shared the pre-fishing information they learned with each other.
Last but not least, it’s important not to hook the fish you find while pre-fishing. As Chris Johnston explained, nobody wants to win the pre-fishing event by catching a whole bunch of bass because that is a surefire way to have a poor tournament performance.
The reason? Those bass might leave the area you hooked them in. Even if they don’t leave, they will likely not bite anything again for up to three days and when they do bite, it probably won’t be on the same lure you hooked them on the first time. Bass may not be the smartest fish in the water, but they are smart enough to learn. That’s why Johnston fished on the last two practice days with a soft plastic lure and weight with no hook. With the bites he got, Johnston would try to figure out the size of the fish biting based on the weight of the pull on his rod. Needless to say, when he got into what he thought was a big one, that became a prioritized place to return to.
In the end, Johnston’s pre-fishing went very well. He finished in the top tier of anglers every day of the competition and ended up in 8th place, catching just over 40 pounds of bass and earning a $21,000 paycheck for his efforts at the Bassmaster Classic.
1. Chris Johnston early morning fishing at Lake Ray Roberts – J. Kruse
2. Chris Johnston pre-fishing at Lake Ray Roberts (higher resolution) – J. Kruse
Written by John Kruse – www.northwesternoutdoors.com and www.americaoutdoorsradio.com