Like each of the 105 other competitors fishing in the inaugural CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series, Ish Monroe had heard the stories about how Lake Amistad was half full of water and overflowing with bass.
What he did better than anyone else was prove the stories were true.
Monroe flirted with the record book throughout the four-day "Battle on the Border" contest, finally finishing with 20 bass that weighed 104 pounds, 8 ounces. That's just 4 pounds, 4 ounces shy of tying the heaviest weight ever set by Dean Rojas on Florida's Lake Toho in 2001. The California angler brought in two Purolator big bass, 9-5 and 9-0, as well, but twice lost a fish the last day that he said "could have swallowed" the 9-0 he already had in the livewell.
Although he won by nearly three pounds over runner-up Fred Roumbanis (101-13), Monroe did not have a cakewalk by any means. Mike Reynolds finished third with 99-4; Greg Hackney grabbed fourth with 98-5, and Steve Kennedy claimed fifth with 97-3. All of the Top 10 anglers finished with more than 90 pounds; it took 37 pounds after two days to make the cut. At least five fish over 10 pounds were caught during the tournament, and at least twice that many over nine were brought in.
Monroe, 31, relied on two distinct but related strategies to earn his first BASS victory; twitching a big topwater plug over submerged brush and vegetation to target bass moving in to spawn, and then tempting bass already on beds with a large tube bait. Both techniques worked for him in several locations, producing catches of 25-11, 21-4, 34-1 and 23-8.
Specifically, his lures were 5-inch green pumpkin/watermelon Boom Boom tubes and a Vixen surface lure (gray shad pattern); both are made by Reaction Innovations.
"Essentially, my first plan was to concentrate on fishing small ditches leading from deep water into the shallow flats in the backs of pockets," Monroe explained. "These are the routes bass would take to reach spawning beds.
"I felt this might be more reliable than a pure sight fishing pattern because of the wind and also because of the pressure from other anglers. By targeting incoming fish, I'd also have a chance of catching slightly larger bass before they actually spawned. We all knew this would be a big weight tournament, so I wanted to look for the heaviest bass possible."
Rigging the Vixen on 50-pound Power Pro braid, Monroe would make long casts across the flats, then twitch the lure quickly and noisily up to a submerged treetop or bush and pause. Strikes nearly always came the instant he twitched the lure again. His most productive areas were where the cover was either in or adjacent to one of the migration ditches, which ranged from 1 to 15 feet deep.
"This pattern worked practically anywhere I tried it on the lake," Monroe noted. "And I tried it in a lot of places. One day I ran all the way from the San Pedro flats on the eastern end of the lake down to Tule Canyon in Mexico and then back into California Creek on the Texas side. I caught bass in all three areas."
Although he did not believe the tournament could be won purely by sight fishing, Monroe used that pattern, as well, particularly since water temperatures warmed 5 or 6 degrees each afternoon and bass were moving to spawning beds.
"You could definitely see the change taking place," he said. "I ran new water each day, just driving into an area and looking not only for the ditches but also for beds. In the clear water, you could see the bottom at least 20 feet down, and some fish were actually bedding that deep."
There wasn't any real secret to catching the bedding bass, Monroe said, except to get the lure into the proper position. Most of the fish were extremely aggressive, and he rarely spent more than five minutes trying to catch any individual bass. Often the fish would swim off the bed at the approach of a boat, then turn and look at the intruder. Even then, when a lure was pitched in front of them, they often hit without hesitation.
On the third day when he brought in 34-1, the tournament's heaviest catch, Monroe caught a 3-pounder on his first cast of the day; a 5-pounder on his third cast; two 6-pounders and a 7 on beds in a completely different area; and then a 9-5 on the Vixen — all before 11 a.m.
On the final day, when Rojas' overall tournament weight record was honestly within reach, Monroe started the day with 81 pounds. He found a giant bass on a bed about noon. The fish hit the tube within minutes, but when the California pro set the hook and began bringing the bass in, the fish rolled and the hook flew free.
The big bass returned to the bed and within a minute hit the tube a second time, but once more the hook rotated free. Later, Monroe caught a 9-pounder, and with that fish as a comparison, felt the monster he lost was much larger. He returned to try for her four more times before he ran out of time.
That bass may have been the one that would have broken the record, but no one will ever know for certain. What is certain, of course, is that Monroe did just fine without her. And, at least for the time being, proved that Lake Amistad is indeed half full of water and brimming with bass.
Ishama Monroe, Elite Series champion, Battle on the Border: Lake Amistad
LURES: 5-inch (green pumpkin/watermelon) Reaction Innovations Boom Boom tube; shad pattern Reaction Innovations Vixen topwater.
TACKLE: Tube: 30-pound Maxima fluorocarbon fished on a 7-6 Daiwa Cielo rod; topwater: 50-pound Power Pro Braid fished on a 7-foot Daiwa fiberglass rod. Both were matched with Daiwa Fuego reels.
TECHNIQUE: The tube was pitched to visible bedding bass in shallow water along the shoreline. The Vixen topwater was twitched over vegetation and flooded brush in and adjacent to ditches 1 to 15 feet deep.
Purolator Big Bass
Pete Ponds, 10-5 (tie)
"I caught the 10-5 on my third cast the first day of the tournament after I saw it on a bed in 2 1/2 feet of water. I was using a watermelon-colored V&M Punch Craw with 14-pound-test Mossy Oak line and a 7-6 American Rodsmiths medium-action rod. It did not take long for the fish to hit. After I hooked her, she really battled hard. The water was extremely clear so I was using a very small diameter line."
Gary Klein, 10-5 (tie)
"I caught the big bass working a homemade brown jig along ledges in 35 feet of water about 1 p.m. the second day. I was using 17-pound Berkley Vanish line, a 7-4 Quantum heavyaction rod and a Quantum's 7.1 'Burner' reel. I'd been fishing a swimbait a lot, but the jig was more effective in the deeper water where I was targeting prespawn fish."