Bass fishing lessons for the ages

On the first day of practice for the 2007 Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on the California Delta, I hopped into the boat of world-beater Kevin VanDam. We’d been introduced through our mutual friend Mike Auten, and Kevin had agreed to let me fish with him.

As we idled away from the dock, he called his wife and sons to wish them a good morning, then turned to me and asked, “Who are you practicing with the next two days?”

I responded that I’d made tentative plans to fish with a couple of his colleagues, but noted that nothing was set in stone.

“I’d rather you fish with me all three days,” he said. Not a question. A statement.

I’m not naïve enough to think that the greatest bass fisherman who ever lived felt that my skills with a rod and reel would help him to win an otherwise unwinnable tournament — although I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t enter my mind for a nanosecond. No, KVD was going to do well whether or not I practiced with him. Still, since he didn’t know at that time whether I was trustworthy, and given the occasional tattletale nature of some of his peers, he felt it was best to keep all of his practice habits, and everything he found, within the 20 foot confines of his Nitro that week.

What followed were three absolutely incredible days of fishing. We caught plenty, to be sure, but the real benefit was watching how Kevin broke down the water. It was also a treasure to observe just how precise and unerring his instincts can be. We’d idle down a mile long canal and he’d point at three spots that looked like everything else we’d just passed, and sure enough as we fished our way back those spots would produce the only fish, the most fish or the biggest fish.

For a weekend angler like myself, that’s the pinnacle of a learning experience. As a writer, though, I’ve had the opportunity to observe many of our sport’s greatest anglers. Combined with the six B.A.S.S. pro-ams I’ve fished, I’ve shared the boat with about a quarter of the current Elite Series field, along with at least a dozen who no longer fish with B.A.S.S. Reminiscing about the time in KVD’s boat got me thinking. Which of these other experiences have been most valuable?

Here are three, in no particular order, with a brief explanation of the lessons learned:

1. Jeff Kriet

2008 Elite Series Lone Star Shootout (Falcon Lake, Texas) | Third Day of Practice

If you’ve watched Kriet on TV, or met him at a tournament or sport show, you’ve seen the real Jeff Kriet. On the 30-minute ride from Zapata, Texas, to the ramp, as he chugged Diet Dr. Pepper (my favorite drink too – bonus points for that), he regaled me with stories, talked smack and pretty much kept me laughing the entire time. That continued throughout the day in the boat. Meanwhile, I got to watch how a true deepwater expert operates his electronics, as he found subtle offshore structure. I also got a better understanding of the most effective and longest-running partnership on the Elite Series operates when he’d intermittently call best friend Mike McClelland. The calls were short, but I noted that he was brutally honest. There’s a fair amount of lying, sandbagging and misdirection at every level of fishing, so to see how their work benefitted each other was an eye-opener.

Perhaps most importantly from my perspective, we caught the snot out of them. Kriet pulled up on one little ridge, lined me up for the cast, and told me to catch as many as I wanted. “They’re only 2- and 3-pounders,” he said. “They won’t matter in a tournament on Falcon.” He was right, but I had a good time swinging on them.

Finally, he’s one of the few pros who ever gave me a really solid piece of advice on how to improve my catch during the upcoming tournament. He pointed out that because the lake was very full, there was a ton of cover that couldn’t be seen from the boat. He noted that my pro partners would likely get the first and best shot at the obvious cover, but that I could level the playing field (and make them more comfortable) by casting in the lanes between the timber and bushes. I tried his strategy, and on the final day, it provided two good culls that moved me up 10 to 15 places.

2. Gary Klein

2005 Bassmaster Classic (Three Rivers, Pennsylvania) | First Day of Competition

Gary Klein was a last-minute addition to the field at the Pittsburgh Bassmaster Classic. He’d identified what he felt was an unfair wrinkle in the points system in the B.A.S.S. Elite 50 events, then lobbied B.A.S.S. to correct their mistake by putting him into the Classic (as well as the following year’s event on Toho – for scheduling reasons, anglers could qualify for two Classics through one year of tour competition). The powers-that-be eventually ruled in his favor, but it meant that he missed the entire pre-practice period for the tournament. All he’d really get was the single day of practice two days before the start of the tournament.

When I got in the boat with Klein that Friday morning, he knew exactly what he was going to do – drop shot the many bridge pilings in the vicinity near the launch. He’d determined that there were plenty of fish there and felt that he wouldn’t have to waste a lot of time locking through to other pools or idling through long no-wake zones. His strategy proved to be prescient as VanDam eventually won on similar nearby cover, albeit using a different presentation.

I had not drop shotted at that point in time, and Klein himself was relatively new to the technique. He’d “forced” Aaron Martens to teach him after Martens won the 1999 California Invitational at Lake Oroville. Klein, like Martens, is an incredibly detail-oriented tackle tinkerer, and six years after an on-the-water tutorial from Martens, he was still refining his system. I was privy to his thought process, and it helped me to determine not just the nuts and bolts of the system, but how a Hall of Fame angler teaches himself a new technique. It made me want to drop shot and it made me understand that there are no shortcuts (well, I suppose a lesson from Aaron Martens or Gary Klein counts as a shortcut) – reading about it in a book is a good start, but it takes hours upon hours on the water to really dial in any presentation.

3. David Wharton

2003 Bassmaster Tour (Toledo Bend, La.) | Third Day of Practice

It’s been just about four years since Wharton died, and I sometimes fear that his legacy will be lost because he wasn’t flashy and never won a Classic or AOY title with B.A.S.S. In a sport where you’re only as good as your next tournament, one thing that many of us have been bad about it is preserving the sport’s history (two exceptions to this rule are Ken Duke and Terry Battisti, the latter of whom runs, to which I contribute).

In addition to sampling his exceptional shrimp etouffee, I had the good fortune to practice with David for three separate B.A.S.S. tournaments, and those experiences helped me to understand why he was “the man” on many East Texas waters in the 1980s and 1990s. If you watch old tapes, for example his victories on Sam Rayburn and Lake Murray (he won twice on Murray), you’ll understand his mastery of grass fishing – the understanding of how to find little bald spots and turns in the grasslines with what we’d now consider to be prehistoric electronics. Indeed, I’d put his grass skills up against those of anyone else I’ve fished with or ridden with.

During the two days we practiced together for the 2003 Bassmaster Tour event on the California Delta, he absolutely destroyed a legion of 4- to 6-pound fish with a spinnerbait. He also taught me a ton about swimming a paddletail worm over grass and led me to a 7-pounder on the technique. The paddletail didn’t help me in that tournament, but I’ve since used it a fair amount on the Potomac River, my home waters. On Day Two of practice for the 2004 Bassmaster Tour event on Guntersville, he put me on the closest thing to an East Texas Rat-L-Trap bite you can find in Alabama. By my estimate, I had a best five that would have weighed 19-20 pounds. By his estimate, they easily would have eclipsed 21. He’d caught more fish on odd-numbered Tuesday’s than I’ll catch in my entire life – I’m happy to accept his answer over my own.

Those three days were great, but the one that I look back upon most fondly was the day I practiced with him for the 2003 Louisiana Top 150 on Toledo Bend. While he’s better known for his utter mastery of Sam Rayburn, he was no slouch on the lake next door. We fished a variety of cover and a broad range of lures, and he truly was on his game that week, prepared for any weather condition that might confront us. Indeed, one day was cancelled due to inclement weather and rain during the week, and it required that the pros make major adjustments to dirty, rising water. On the final day, the remaining six anglers were moved to a hole course and he ran away with the win, beating his nearest competition (Takahiro Omori) by nearly 13 pounds.

It was the only time I’ve fished or ridden with the winner of an event in that tournament. I’ve come close a few other times, but no cigar. As with the KVD example at the beginning of this column, I’d like to think that my presence in the boat somehow contributed to the final result, that I was seen as something other than just a passenger — but I know that’s not the case. I’ll just have to be satisfied with having been a front-row observer to history. 

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