Crawfish pincers: Two, one or none?
Shaye Baker noticed during Day Two of last week's Bassmaster Classic Wild Card Tournament that his jig and Strike King Rage Craw trailer combo was getting bites, but no hookups. For one period of the day, he was frequently changing the soft plastic crawfish imitations on his jig after the trailer came back with a pincer claw missing. He still caught 19-6 to go with his 29-8 the first day.
Jeff Kriet and Greg Hackney had their boats banked side-by-side before take-off on Day Three at Lake Okeechobee. I'd asked Kriet to show me the Big Bite Baits Real Craw that he'd given rave reviews all week. "The best flipping bait I've ever used," Kriet said of the Russ Lane-designed soft plastic crawfish imitation.
But the bait Kriet showed me had a pincer missing from when he last used it the previous day, so he put a new one on the hook.
Then Kriet, who enjoys sharing a good story, told one about an experiment he was part of involving live crawfish dropped in a tank with bass in it.
"We pulled the pincers off about 20 of them, and those got eaten first," Kriet said.
Hackney laughed and said, "But what do we do when a bait comes back with a pincer missing? We put a new one on every time."
Kriet then offered another crawfish clue: "If you find one that's molting, that's what they really want."
I've had some experience with that while fishing for big trout in Arkansas' White River below Bull Shoals Dam. There was a guide there named Elwin Weaver (now deceased), who was well-known for helping his clients catch the biggest trout of a lifetime. Soft-shell (molting) crawfish were Weaver's secret weapon. He would stick his hands down into the moss beds near Cotter Trout Dock and find soft-shell crawfish.
Weaver showed me how he did it one day, leaning off the front of his fiberglass johnboat with both arms buried to his biceps in the moss beds, searching for soft-shells.
"If I'm after big fish, I use a soft-shell crawfish," said Weaver, who had a 25-pound brown trout, two 16-9 rainbows and a 9-pound cutthroat to his credit.
"I've seen trout go right up to a soft-shell and instantly take it," he said. "A hard-shell crawfish can be right next to it, and they'll never even pick it up. I've always thought it was because they have a different color, but a soft-shell may give off a different smell, too."
The soft-shells in the White River have a light gray color to them, but with the wide variations in the colors of crawfish from region to region, soft-shells might have a different color in, say, Florida.
But all that crawfish talk did get me thinking: Would a bass angler have more success fishing with a one- or none-pincered crawfish imitation than one with both claws intact? And would a soft-shell color make a difference, or is it something bass can smell rather than see that attracts them?
It's something to think about anyway, especially in a tournament like the one at Okeechobee last week, when almost all the bass were caught on a flipping bait that imitated a crawfish.
That reminds me of a Native American expression Rick Clunn once told me: "To understand the owl, study the mouse."
Applied to bass fishing it would be: Study the shad or, in this case, study the crawfish, or in the case of the Mississippi River at La Crosse, Wis., two years ago, it would be study the mayfly. Those mayfly hatches are infrequent enough that you could skip over that one for now. But maybe we haven't studied the crawfish enough.
A Hack Attack on the mind
Greg Hackney is plenty friendly, but he's known for getting lockjaw when it comes to providing any information as to how he's catching fish during a tournament. However, I was left with my jaw dropped after Hackney's latest explanation, or lack thereof, for catching bass on Lake Okeechobee last week.
On Day Two, Hackney said he'd caught 60 bass the day before and probably 100 on Friday.
"For awhile, I was catching a fish as fast as I could get a bait in the water," Hackney said.
His problem was that he wasn't catching enough of the 4- to 6-pounders that made all the difference in this tournament. Hackney had 36-6 after two days at Okeechobee, which put him in seventh place and qualified him for the top 12 cut.
Of course, even knowing Hackney's reputation, I had to ask how he was catching them.
"I'm not going to tell you that," Hackney said. "But I guarantee you I'm doing something 360 degrees different than how most of these guys are catching them."
Maybe Hackney told me this, or I just thought he said it, but I was under the impression he was going to tell me after Day Three how he'd been catching them all week. But I couldn't imagine how Hackney, a noted flipping specialist, had been catching bass any other way in a tournament dominated by flipping.
Then I started thinking (usually a mistake) that Hackney had said "360 degrees different." Well, 180 degrees different would be totally opposite of what everyone else was doing, and 360 degrees brings you all the way around the circle to what everybody else was doing. Maybe Hackney was just playing mind games with me, something many of these Elite Series pros enjoy doing with the media, second only to catching bass. (It usually involves a bait that's similar to one made by one of their sponsors. In other words, it's not a good business decision to speak the truth in some instances.)
But Hackney took it to another level after Day Three.
"Okay, man, now you can tell me how you've been catching them all week," I said.
"No, since I didn't win, I don't have to tell you now," Hackney said with a smile.
I just looked at him with my jaw dropped, like the mouth-breather I am. Finally I said, "I just find that fascinating. The fact that you didn't win means you don't have to tell me how you caught 'em."
"I'm not stupid," Hackney said. "I'll be fishing another tournament down here someday."
Hackney added, "I will say that today I caught 'em like most of these other guys have been catching them all week."
Hackney finished ninth with 51-3.
I finished with a new addition to the "unwritten rules" of bass tournament fishing: If you don't win, you don't have to say how you caught 'em. We'll call it "The Hackney Rule."
Losing like a champion
If I told you I wasn't rooting for Shaye Baker to win the Bassmaster Classic Wild Card event, I'd be lying. Being a journalist who worked many years in the newspaper business, I know the importance of not rooting for one team, one political candidate or one angler. It's called being a professional.
This time last year, I didn't know Baker from Adam. But after working and often traveling with Baker since the 2013 Classic, we've grown to be friends. How close? Well, we've shared a hot tub.
That last statement begs for an explanation. Between the Sabine River and Falcon Lake Elite Series events last spring, Dave Mercer, James Overstreet, Baker and I were pulling two boats to Falcon and had an opportunity to stop at Lake Austin for two days of fishing before we had to be in Zapata.
We found a vacation rental home in Austin that had a driveway big enough for the boats and a four-person hot tub. Especially for Overstreet and me and our old, cranky backbones, the hot tube was especially inviting. So one evening after a good day of bass fishing at Lake Austin, we made a massive man stew – all four of us in the tub – rub-a-dub-dub. Out of respect for the readership at Bassmaster.com, I'll post no photos of that event, but some were taken.
Baker has become the GoPro camera expert on the Elite Series, although there were no GoPros in the hot tub, thankfully. If you want to see just how good he is and how good the fishing was at Lake Austin, check out this link.
But all of this is just a way of explaining why I was rooting for Baker to win at Okeechobee last week. He caught the biggest bass of his life (a 9-1) and the biggest bag of his life (29-8) on Day One and had a 5-13 lead going into the final day. His mother, father and girlfriend made last-minute plans to be there for the Saturday weigh-in. He was one eight-hour day from completing a lifetime goal – fishing in the Bassmaster Classic.
As you know, Baker didn't complete that goal. But he handled an agonizing third-place finish with more class and maturity than many men twice his age – 27 years. It was an eye-opener for me, and I think I know him pretty well after all the time we've spent together over the past year.
It had to hurt. But on the weigh-in stage, a smiling-through-the-pain Baker put it in the proper perspective, "With all that's going on in the world today, if catching fish is the biggest thing you've got to worry about, then you're doing okay."
Amen, brother, amen.
Did you hear the one?
Finally, to my good friends Trip and Hank Weldon, who often test the bounds of friendship with their Alabama Crimson Tide chest-thumping, there's this one:
Did you hear what Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said to Alabama coach Nick Saban during the final minutes of that Auburn victory over the Tide?
"Hey coach, have you got a second? There's something I want to run by you."