2004 Tournament Trail: Winning Ways

The pros went back to the basics this year

Challenging.

That word best describes the 2003-2004 CITGO Bassmaster Tournament season as new qualifying formats, stiff competition, unpredictable weather and diverse waters put the competitors to the test.

The road to the Bassmaster Classic has never been tougher, especially for Tour pros — who faced anything but ideal fishing conditions at each stop on the schedule.

"Every lake offered a different type of water, and the conditions were always changing," explains Angler of the Year Gerald Swindle. "We didn't have many events where you could fish one lure or pattern all day and get it done."

The pros dealt with winterlike conditions through most of the six events.

"We rarely fished water warmer than 50 degrees," said Texan Kelly Jordon, who finished fourth in the Angler-of-the-Year race. "We had to work for every fish and keep our focus."

The season offered some interesting turns, beginning with the Bassmaster Open format that began in July and culminated at the first-ever CITGO Open Championship on Toledo Bend in early December. The top three finishers of the Northern, Central, Southern and Western divisions earned berths in the 2004 Classic and a spot on the Tour, while the Top 20 in each qualified for the Open Championship - where another Classic berth was tendered. All 80 Open Championship contestants went home with a check, and the top five won paid entry fees to the Tour events next year.

Tour contestants, meanwhile, battled for 24 spots in the Classic and 27 spots in the Elite 50 - the four event, no-entry fee circuit designed to spotlight top anglers and yield another 10 Classic spots.

"It was a year when it seemed like there was always something at stake and little margin for error," adds Swindle.

Tour events

Versatility and patience proved to be valuable commodities for those who succeeded in the six event Tour that began in late January.

"The weather is always a factor, but the first four events were colder than I can ever remember," says Greg Hackney, who finished second in the Angler-of-the-Year race. "There weren't any slugfests, and we basically were fishing for five bites a day. Anglers who could slow down seemed to fare the best."

He's right. A blend of slow presentations and reaction-triggering techniques dominated the top three spots at each event. Soft plastics, jigs and jerkbaits played the biggest roles, while square-lipped crankbaits and lipless crankbaits accounted for fish caught on fast movers.

"The biggest test of the season was to be able to adjust to changing conditions quickly," explains Swindle. "If you didn't adapt, you got creamed."

Despite the cold weather and water, shallow water patterns dominated. The fish were in winter or prespawn patterns through most of the Tour, although some bedding fish were caught. Dirty water hampered sight fishermen's ability to spot beds, forcing them to fish blindly through areas in which they believed fish were nesting.

North Carolina's Marty Stone found a few around grassbeds in the season opener at Florida's Harris Chain, but it took a methodical flipping technique to get them to bite. Stone tossed a 6 1/2-inch straight-tail Sweebo worm along the edges of Kissimmee grass to put him in position to win.

"Most people use ribbontail worms in Florida, but not when the water is this cold," he offers. "That's why I used the straight-tail worm."

When the rains came and muddied the lake on the last day, he burned a spinnerbait through open lanes in lily pads.

Second place finisher Scott Rook also pitched a straight-tail worm, while Brent Chapman employed jigs and creature baits to finish third.

In early February, Smith Lake presented the pros with a 16-inch size limit and a lake filled with spotted bass. To make things tougher, the normally clear lake was pelted with 5 inches of rain followed by snow, and air temperatures that dipped into the low 30s. The lake rose 15 feet in four days, and anyone who could catch at least three legal fish had a good day.

Charlie Weyer, a California pro with vast experience at catching larger spots in deep lakes, was one who did. He rigged a finesse worm on a jighead and crawled it up a steep creek channel to win his first BASS title.

Mark Tucker, meanwhile, was easing small jigs over deep ledges to finish second, and Lee Bailey Jr. was one of the few anglers to put together a shallow pattern with crankbaits, jerkbaits and a finesse worm.

A jerkbait was the key bait in George Cochran's win at Guntersville in late February. Fishing in rain, snow, and air temperatures that fluctuated from 34 to 68 degrees, Cochran found the bass wanted his jerkbait almost motionless as he worked a shallow grassline. Second place finisher Stacey King also fished a jerkbait, but the Missouri pro keyed on fish suspended on rocky points. He also found the slow, deadsticking retrieve to be the most effective.

Kevin VanDam worked faster, yo-yoing a golden crawfish-colored lipless crankbait over milfoil-covered ditches in 7 feet of water. When the sun came out in the afternoon, he twitched a jerkbait over milfoil on main lake points.

Rising water forced Arkansas' Mark Davis to employ a three-pronged approach to win on Table Rock in early March. Targeting creeks that received runoff from 3 inches of rain, he slow rolled spinnerbaits in the dirty water and worked shallow running crankbaits and jigs along clearer banks toward the creek mouths.

Roland Martin, meanwhile, keyed on shallow water along steep, shady banks with jigs and spinnerbaits to finish second, while Swindle fished pockets using jigs and spinnerbaits to finish third.

The pros got a break in the weather at Lake Eufaula in late March, but falling water and fishing pressure from other tournaments had the bass skittish. Those conditions were ideal for jig fishermen like Denny Brauer, who slowed his presentation by adding a buoyant Cyber-Flexxx trailer to his 3/8-ounce jig. Brauer caught both spawning and postspawn fish around vegetation and stickups in less than 2 feet of water.

Second place Bink Desaro fished heavy cover on a shoreline in an off-river cove with a 1-ounce sinker and small plastic crawfish, while Ben Matsubu hurled Texas rigged stickworms at cruising fish to finish third.

The pros anticipated a heavy weigh-in at Santee Cooper, S.C., in the last Tour event, but low water and a major cold front left them struggling.

Jordon, one of the Tour's best sight fishermen, located a major spawning flat and caught the second heaviest winning weight (93-13) of the season. He pitched a small, soft plastic craw onto beds in lily pad fields to win. Second place finisher Mark Kile also caught bedding fish on a white tube and stickworm.

Third place finisher Terry Scroggins used a mixed bag of tricks. The Florida pro worked a splitshot rig with a straight-tail worm around docks and cypress trees in the first two rounds, switched to a weightless stickworm the third day and sight-fished a Texas rigged plastic crawfish in the finals.

Opens

John Murray captured the first-ever CITGO Open Championship on Toledo Bend in early December with a diverse one-two punch. He drop shotted worms on a submerged bridge during the morning and ripped lipless crankbaits around main lake ditches in the afternoon.

Texan Gary Klein also used multiple patterns to finish second, fishing crankbaits and jerkbaits early in the event and drop shotting small worms in the finals. Greg Hackney pitched jigs along grasslines to finish third.

Here's what happened at the qualifying events leading up to the championship.

Northern — Maryland roofing contractor Ernie Freeman used stickworms, jigs and a crankbait around shallow wood and rocks to win the July Potomac River opener, but it was the Tiki Stick on an underwater point that produced his bigger fish.

Deep water smallmouth was the primary target when the division moved to Lake Erie in mid-September. That's where Canadian Mike Desforges fished a green/gold tube bait on a 3/8-ounce jighead over rocky reefs to win his first BASS event. Stable weather enabled the pros to produce the fourth-heaviest all-time weight for a three day event.

That wasn't the case at New York's Lake Oneida in early October when inclement weather forced cancellation of the last day. That was OK with Michigan pro Art Ferguson who led after two days, catching smallmouth in a mixture of rock, sand and weeds in shallow water. He used a twin-tail grub, tube and crankbait.

Southern — Denny Brauer demonstrated why he's one of the nation's premier flippers by winning the Division opener on Wheeler Lake in late September. Brauer pitched jigs and tubes around wood and boat docks to beat Tim Horton by less than a pound.

That technique prevailed at Okeechobee in mid-October, where J.T. Kenney won by pitching a Texas rigged Gambler "Cricket" with a 1-ounce weight into thick hydrilla beds growing in 5 feet of water.

The pattern continued to dominate in the finale on Lake Eufaula, Ala., where Missourian Shayne Voyles won with a white jig/plastic chunk around logs on steep banks, or swam it in shallow water.

Central — Kevin Short pummeled cypress trees from every angle during the late August opener on the Tennessee-Tombigbee River. He made multiple casts with three different crankbaits, provoking bass suspended around the shallow water trees.

Mississippi's Cliff Pace had never seen Lake Sam Rayburn, Texas before, but that didn't prevent him from winning the mid-October event by fishing a Moss Master Tournament Frog in the back of a creek.

And at the mid-November division finale, veteran Harold Allen idled for a mile over shallow stumps in Ouachita River backwaters to reach a sunken pond. The Texan rigged a variety of soft plastic baits and worked them slowly around heavy cover to get his first BASS win.

West — An underwater camera gave Chris Lambert an up-close view of how many fish lived on the spot he found near a Snake River channel marker at the Columbia River opener during mid-September. He stayed with it for three days, and produced his winning weight by drop shotting small Senkos and tubes in 15 feet of water.

At Clear Lake in late October, Mark Tyler abandoned his initial game plan of fishing docks with spinnerbaits and wound up winning by flipping thick tules, and crankbaiting and spinnerbaiting offshore patches of grass.

A windy Lake Havasu, Ariz., greeted division anglers for the finale held in mid-November. Jack Gadlage found a secluded backwater marsh, where he fished a homemade spinnerbait and a 3-inch worm around tules in shallow water. The last day was canceled when the winds reached dangerous 50 mph gusts.

Tournament trends

Winterlike weather and heavily pressured bass had anglers utilizing a number of techniques through most of the Opens and Tour events.

"Overall, I'd say it was a big year for jig and crankbait fishermen," said Hackney. "Last year, stickworms dominated, but most of the fish were in the spawning mode. This time, bed fishing didn't dominate, so guys had to slow down, or fish for the reactionary bite."

In fact, fishing slow and methodical may have been the most productive pattern all season. No new baits grabbed the spotlight as pros returned to basics.

However, it is noteworthy that top finishers used straight-tail worms more frequently than more popular, ribbon or curly tail varieties. Slow falling stickworms remained popular, but less dominant.

"For me, the square-lipped crankbait was something I could go to when I needed a fish or two," says Swindle. "It may not have dominated or won, but a lot of guys were using it to catch a couple of key fish at each tournament."

Perhaps the most significant trend developing on the pro tours is the growing popularity of specialty lines beyond basic monofilament. More than half of the top three finishers in the six Tour events used fluorocarbon lines, and a handful employed braided superlines.

The braid was used primarily for pitching and flipping around grass, while the versatility of fluorocarbon appeared in a number of techniques, including flipping and crankbaiting.

"The big thing about this year was that power fishing — fast moving crankbaits and spinnerbaits — didn't rule," adds Jordon. "Kevin VanDam (18th in the Tour standings) had his worst year ever, and that should tell you something."

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