Bernie Schultz may be the Bob Costas of bass fishing – an endlessly youthful ambassador of the sport, seemingly never aging under his trademark visor. He weighed in his first Bassmaster tournament fish in 1982 and made it a full-time career shortly thereafter.
But beneath the Peter Pan veneer, every day Schultz faces a conundrum common to veteran pros who’ve seen and done it all: How do you keep up the interest? How do you maintain a passion for a sport that juxtaposes the exhilaration of competition with the monotony of thousands of miles of driving, endless equipment tweaking and long periods of downtime?
Schultz, who has appeared in eight Bassmaster Classics, admitted that he “would have packed up a long time ago,” were it not for the breadth of his interests. In addition to his on-the-water efforts, he’s an accomplished illustrator, writer, antique lure collector and lure designer.
“That’s the thing that stimulates me,” he said. “Working on packaging or advertising, working on new products. Those interests are the reason I’m still around.
“I try to give the companies I work with max returns in every aspect, not just at the scales.”
He’s hoping that the excitement created by the range of his interests will lead to a win in this week’s Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open on Oneida Lake. The New York water has been very good to him in recent years, producing 8th, 10th and 11th place finishes in Elite Series competition.
But a top 12, while profitable, won’t get the job done this week. In his last chance to qualify for the 2012 Classic, Schultz will have to win the event outright if he wants to make it to Shreveport in February. In 256 career B.A.S.S. appearances, he’s never finished higher than third.
He didn’t go so far as to say that Oneida is a best chance for his first career B.A.S.S. victory, the results speak for themselves. He’s been incredibly consistent in New York, fishing primarily for smallmouths, a species that doesn’t live in his home state of Florida. While he fished the James River and Lake Erie, locations of the first two tournaments in the series, he’s referred to Oneida as “the sole reason” he signed up for the Opens.
“I’ve learned some things about Oneida over the multiple times we’ve been there,” he said. “The problem is consistency. You’re going to get bites. You’re going to get a lot of bites. It’s all about attrition. You may have to catch 50 fish to get five over 3 pounds.”
It’s predominantly a grass lake, like many of those in the Sunshine State, but it offers more options, too. Each B.A.S.S. Elite winner there has relied upon largemouths for at least part of his winning catch. Schultz feels that green fish may play a role in the win once again, but with an Open field that’s larger than the Elites, “it’s hard to get in line with six other boats on a grassbed.”
Unpredictable fall weather will also likely play a role in how the tournament shakes out. Indeed, inclement weather in the form of rain and wind might be a double-edged sword in that it will rev up the bite but shrink the playing field. That’s where Schultz believes he has an advantage over his less-seasoned competitors.
“You can get pushed off a spot or a pattern,” he said. “Historically, my best finishes have been when I’ve been loyal to an area, but I like my chances at Oneida because the lake suits my style, which is to develop multiple patterns.”
The launch site at Oneida is over 1,100 miles from Schultz’s Gainesville abode, so home cooking in the traditional sense won’t be an advantage for him, but he hopes that this is where some of his “outside interests” will push him to the top, taking the previous top 12s and vaulting him into the winner’s slot at a time when he needs the win most. In particular, he hopes that his lure design efforts will work to his advantage.
Schultz holds a smallmouth during the 2000 Elite event on Oneida Lake.
Schultz has a long and accomplished track record is this field, starting with Hildebrandt’s “The Blade” spinnerbait in the early 1990s, the first mass-marketed spinnerbait where each component was tailored to maximizing its effectiveness in clear water. It’s a lure that he and many other top pros still use today. This time, he feels like the key element may be the newly-introduced Rapala X_Rap Prop topwater.
“I guarantee you if I had this bait on the Oneida in the past, I would have caught more fish and bigger fish,” he said. The double-propped bait (one at each end) adorned with a feathered treble, may have nationwide appeal, but it’s a technique that historically has been most at home on the grassy bowls of Florida like Okeechobee and Toho.
Not coincidentally, his lifetime of access to those lakes has allowed Schultz to think at length about what would make the perfect prop bait for bass coast to coast. Now, after working with Rapala’s engineers, he thinks they’ve nailed it.
“When you loosen the cups (on a prop bait) they act like bearings,” he said. “That keeps the blades rotating and produces a desirable clicking or chatter sound. It’s subtle but you can hear it if you listen for it.”
Other companies put the hardware on before the bait’s clear coat is finished. That undermines the ability to create the best bass-attracting noise. With the new prop bait, not only have they taken the steps in the proper order, but they’ve added lifelike eyes and finishes that have previously been absent from this genre. In most cases, the lure doesn’t get good until it’s been fished for a while – this one is right straight out of the package.
“It fishes like an older, more worn-out topwater,” Schultz explained.
In this case, “older” is a compliment, a reference to maturity and wisdom. Schultz might have been speaking of himself, a semi-old dog who’s more than willing to pick up a few new tricks.