Midday current a factor in four Top 5 finishes

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Tim Tucker

Tim Tucker was a legendary bass journalist and longtime Senior Writer for Bassmaster Magazine. He authored seven books on bass fishing. Tim died in 2007, but his work and legacy live on.

Years from now, those who participated in the 32nd annual CITGO BASS Masters Classic will likely look back upon Jay Yelas' dominant victory as an aberration of sorts. Not the talented Texan's performance — but the circumstances that produced it.

That is because Yelas won the sport's biggest event in a manner never before seen in the extensive history of the Classic. Yelas took full advantage of an unusual Classic pattern on Alabama's Lay Lake, as well as a rare luxury in the summertime events — current.

"This Classic was unique," he admitted, "because I can't remember the last time a guy won a major bass tournament fishing a tailrace."

"I wasn't on enough fish to win this tournament, to be honest with you, because of the current and all of the factors that they had up there at the Logan Martin Dam," added fifth place finisher Larry Nixon, who has experienced 24 Classics. "And you just can't plan on things like that happening. As many Classics as we've had up and down the Coosa River, nobody has ever had any current to work with in the tournaments in July and August.

"And Jay just did a tremendous job with it."

As Classic XXXII unfolded, four of the Top 5 finishers developed patterns that revolved around the Alabama Power Company's uncharacteristic July generosity. But none fully exploited the current flow created by the power turbines as efficiently as Yelas, who posted one of the most commanding victories in Classic annals.

Not only did he become just the fourth wire-to-wire winner of the prestigious event; Yelas also made history by winning all three daily big bass awards (including two 6-pound-plus largemouth).

Jay Yelas: Confidence in his pattern

The 2002 Classic winning pattern might be remembered for its quirkiness.

But Yelas will look back on the most triumphant moment of his career as a tournament in which he performed flawlessly and displayed unwavering confidence in his game plan in the face of some unnerving circumstances.

"My confidence in that water really paid off," he said. "That's something that holds true with all tournament fishing. When you've got a good spot, you've got to stick with it and not get antsy, and just be patient.

"Fishing still requires patience — even here in 2002."

That is considerably easier said than done, especially when you are leading the Classic and are fishless midway through the final round. Beating back panicky thoughts, Yelas bided his time until the horn sounded and the water started to churn behind the dam. Then the party began.

The vast majority of his daily catches of 18 pounds, 9 ounces, 16-9, and 10-11 — including largemouth and spotted bass totaling 45-13 — occurred in the second half of the day. The turbines would turn on between 10 and 11 a.m., inundating his best bank, a 200-yard-long stretch of shoreline that formed the first current break about 500 yards below the dam.

Before the water started moving, Yelas had to be content with flinging a shad-colored Frenzy Popper topwater plug at occasional spotted bass schooling near the surface. Other times, he targeted submerged rock ledges located farther away from the dam. Those ledges, which dropped from 6 feet into 15 feet of water, surrendered three of the 14 bass he weighed in. All were caught on a firetiger 3/8-ounce Berkley Frenzy deep diving crankbait on 12-pound-test Berkley Trilene XT. (He fished the lures on a 7-foot Team Daiwa fiberglass cranking rod and Team Daiwa reel.) The bass were attracted to the crankbait worked at a fairly fast pace and in an erratic manner.

Yelas switched gears completely once the current came to life. Within an hour, his best shoreline area went from a depth of 6 inches to about 3 feet, and the bass moved in to feed. That's when his 5/8-ounce prototype Berkley Jay Yelas Power Jig (with a black, brown and pumpkinseed skirt and a green pumpkinseed Power Frog trailer) went to work. Tied to 25-pound Trilene XT, it was pitched and cast on a 6 1/2-foot Team Daiwa medium-heavy action worm/jig rod and matching reel.

Yelas worked the jig in a manner reminiscent of his college days in Oregon, fishing such rushing waters for salmon and steelhead.

"I don't know what the speed was on the current, but, gosh, it would have to be at least 5 or 7 miles an hour — it may be even way more than that," he explained. "It was so fast that my MotorGuide trolling motor, with 109 pounds of thrust, was able to just barely make headway.

"The key to that bank was that it was the first good ambush cover below the dam. It's like the fish are so competitive that they leapfrog each other up to the head of the current to get that bait that is washing down. It was a steep undercut bank with overhanging trees.

"The key to the pattern was that the fish were only in shade. They weren't on wood or anything like that. When the sun was out, most of the bank would be sunny. But every 20 feet or so, there was an overhanging sycamore tree or willow tree. I would pitch that jig up under the shade, but the current was so strong, it would just wash the jig downstream. So I would pitch it upstream and let it wash downstream, while reeling enough to keep up with the slack and letting it bounce on the bottom. Bites were extremely hard to feel, because I had such a big bow in my line."

The shade of a single sycamore tree produced two 6-pound bass and a 5-pounder. Ironically, Yelas had caught nothing but stripers off his best bank during the official scouting period a month prior to the Classic.

"I think a big key is the fact that such powerful trolling motors have only been available the last two or three years," he theorizes. "Because of that, I don't think this particular piece of water has had much fishing pressure from bass fishermen up until the last two or three years."

Aaron Martens: Targeting spotted bass

Before he arrived in Birmingham for Classic Week, Aaron Martens, the California whiz kid, had decided he would ignore Lay Lake's ample largemouth bass population and focus on its more abundant spotted bass.

He made that strategic decision based on several practice days that had produced 18- to 20-pound days a month earlier.

In the end, that choice sealed his destiny and left him stranded in second place (with 39-9).

"To get a 5- or 6-pound spot is hard. It's not likely to happen unless you're really lucky. And I don't like to depend on luck," Martens admitted.

Martens' fate seemed intertwined with Yelas' throughout the stifling hot, late July Classic.

The two fished within sight of each other part of every day and "hop-scotched" each other at other times as they alternated on certain spots. Martens even attempted to outrace Yelas to an early morning schooling-action spot — home to a bunch of big spotted bass — to temporarily avoid the impact by the flotilla of spectator boats that followed the eventual Classic champion. He would attempt to get a few casts in with a topwater plug and catch a couple of good spots before Yelas and company drove by on their way to an area closer to the dam. That boat traffic seemed to end the schooling activity, much to his chagrin.

And like Yelas, Martens' success would pick up its pace considerably by late in the morning, when the artificial current reached his best areas.

"I had two really key areas," he said. "The fish would move onto it (and begin schooling) after that current was going about an hour. Spotted bass like a laydown tree or a boulder. They would actually sit in ambush behind those objects (which lay in 5 to 6 feet of water). I would sit around and wait for those fish to move in. I'd keep throwing a hair jig out and work it, but I almost never got a bite until they were actually busting the surface.

"I did catch two of my better fish today, just working the jig beneath them, on the bottom, when they weren't chasing shad. But I caught most of my fish after I saw them 'busting' and made a quick, accurate cast to them."

Martens' early morning choice was a threadfin shad Excalibur Spit'n Image tied to 12-pound-test (Japanese-made) Machinegun Cast Sunline and fished on a 6-8 Megabass Diablo jig rod and Team Daiwa TD-X reel. His other lures included a variety of 3/8- and 1/2-ounce hair jigs (white with the tips dyed chartreuse) on 20-pound-test Sunline, a 7-foot Megabass Tomahawk graphite-fiberglass composite rod and Team Daiwa reel; and a 4-inch Zoom Finesse worm rigged with a 1/32-ounce split shot and 2/0 Gamakatsu Wide Gap Worm hook on 10-pound-test Sunline (with a 6-foot-10 Megabass medium-light action spinning rod and Daiwa Capricorn reel).

"The hair jig allowed me to catch fish that weren't busting," Martens explained. "I'd let it sink in the current and actually hit the bottom once in a while, then I'd hop it almost like you would for stripers. That's what most people think hair jigs are for — stripers and white bass. But they actually work really well for spotted bass. If you think about it, a spot is a lot like a striper."

David Walker: Hunting big largemouth

En route to his second consecutive third place Classic finish, David Walker found himself well behind Yelas entering the final round. The dilemma forced him to switch to his best swing-for-the-fences strategy.

After catching a mixed bag of spots and largemouth, the Tennessee pro decided he had to target quality largemouth to have any chance of making what would have been a remarkable come-from-behind charge. "I fished specifically for largemouth today, thinking that was the way to win," he said. "That was the way to catch a really big fish. I know there are some big spots to be caught, but I have a lot more confidence in trying to catch a big largemouth than I do a spot."

So Walker armed himself with a 1/2-ounce black/amber Lake Fork Trophy Tackle Tungsten Jig with a green-pumpkin plastic chunk trailer tied to 25- and 30-pound-test Stren MagnaFlex line. (He fished the lure on a G. Loomis GLX 7-foot flipping stick and Shimano Chronarch reel.) He spent the day flipping and pitching to shaded shoreline cover around his best area. The strategy produced almost 10 pounds and secured third place.

"There is an island back down the river that has a long point on the front of it, and down both sides of that point there is a lot of old timber," Walker described. "When the water wasn't running, you could see it sticking up out of the water. Then when they turned on the water, all you could see were the boils in the current.

"I'd watch where the shad were coming, because the current would carry those balls of shad by. As soon as they would get around that point, those shad would let me know if there were fish underneath them. They would start scattering, and the fish would bust them."

Earlier in the tournament, Walker caught keeper bass on other lures, including a 6-inch Texas smoke Lake Fork Trophy Tackle Twitch Worm Texas rigged with a 1/8-ounce Lake Fork Tungsten weight, red 2/0 Daiichi Bleeding Bait Hook and 14-pound-test Popeye fluorocarbon line; a shad-colored Lucky Craft Gunfish topwater bait; and a watermelon 4 1/2-inch Lake Fork tube with a 5/8-ounce Lake Fork Tungsten weight, 4/0 XPoint Extra Wide Gap hook. (All were fished on a 7-foot G. Loomis medium heavy rod and Shimano Chronarch reel.)

Walker, who caught fish off shallow shoals and docks with the worm and topwater, referred to his overall Classic performance as "junk" fishing.

"The hardest thing about this week was that I really didn't have a specific pattern. Any time I had a gut instinct, I went with it," he said.

O.T. Fears: A lure for spotted bass

Like Martens, veteran Oklahoma pro O.T. Fears spent the entire Classic aiming for big spotted bass. And, like the Californian, the strategy ultimately doomed him to a spot well behind Yelas (fourth place, with 31-6).

But unlike the runner-up, Fears relied on a single lure.

It was a Super Fluke Jr., a 2 1/2-inch version of Zoom's best selling soft jerkbait. The bait was rigged with a 3/0 Gamakatsu G-Lock hook and 17-pound-test Trilene Sensation line (fished on a 6 1/2-foot Quarrow DreamCatcher rod and Abu Garcia Torno reel). Although the Arkansas shiner color fooled a few Lay Lake inhabitants early, the main producer was a pearl-white Fluke that Fears doctored by coloring the tail and adding a shad dot to each side with a black marker. He also inserted a small nail weight to give it more ballast in the current.

Current was not a necessity in Fears' pattern, but it certainly helped.

"I could catch them regardless of whether the current was flowing," he said. "When it was flowing, I could key on certain areas. When it wasn't flowing, I had to be in the right area, but I couldn't predict the exact spot where they would be. So I would have to roam around a little bit close to an area where they would hold on a certain type of structure — mainly rock or wood in 4 to 5 feet of water — once the current started flowing. If I found both, I would do well.

"Shad had to be present. They were feeding on shad that were about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long, which that little Fluke matched perfectly."

Fears' approach involved casting the lure upcurrent and allowing it to float past the cover at a depth of about 2 feet. He triggered strikes by periodically twitching it and then allowing it to sink — a motion meant to resemble a dying shad.

Larry Nixon: The epitome of resourcefulness

Don't ask former Classic champion and two time B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year Larry Nixon too many questions about fishing a plastic frog. You won't get many detailed answers.

"I'm not a frog fisherman," Nixon acknowledged. "I don't know much about those things."

That admission illustrates the sheer resourcefulness of the highly accomplished Arkansas pro. All Nixon did was use a lure that hasn't had much of a role in his arsenal over the years to catch the bulk of his 31-3 total and finish fifth.

A black Snag Proof Super Frog tied to 20-pound-test Berkley Iron Silk proved to be the weedless tool he needed to reach largemouth lurking under almost impenetrable mats of water willow topped with a layer of green pond scum. In vegetation that allowed it, Nixon also flipped an 8-inch red shad ribbontail Berkley Power Worm combined with a 1/4-ounce weight pegged to 17-pound Trilene XT. (Both baits were fished on a 7-foot Fenwick Techna AV medium-heavy action rod and Abu Garcia T3000 reel.)

Unlike the other top finishers, Nixon did not rely on current. Instead, he concentrated on shallow, midlake shorelines. His frog spots were sections of vegetation with a density that demanded an ultraweedless presentation; the worm was fished in grasslines adjacent to deeper water (about 7 feet).

But the frog bite was vital to his success.

"Probably the biggest key was having a little bit of that slimy stuff mixed in," Nixon revealed. "You had to have a good, shady area, too. I did have a couple of fish blow up just as I was skipping the bait out of it. Some of them hit it right in the goop, and others hit it on the outside edge.

"I fished the frog fairly fast. I was skipping it along and stopping it occasionally. Some of them hit it when I was just kind of skipping it along, like it was a reaction strike. Some would miss it, but after I threw back to the same spot 10 times and just barely eased it along, they would suck it down."

To read more about the pro bass scene, visit Tim Tucker's Bass Sessions 2002 Web site at www.tim tuckeroutdoors.com.