Top bass pros are experts at casting, selecting lures and determining patterns. Another skill the world's best anglers have is the ability to tell when an area is a keeper — as well as when it yields only keepers.
Elite Series pro Aaron Martens, who has won nearly $1.3 million in BASS competition, describes himself as a patient angler. His laid-back "move or not to move" decision-making process stems from his Southern California roots, where anglers quickly learn to be patient. There, success requires sitting in one spot and waiting for fish to either move in or turn on.
"I do like to run-and-gun when the situation calls for it," he said. "When fishing tournaments in the East, I usually don't stay longer than an hour or two if I'm not catching much. It depends on the lake. Some lakes have a lot of small fish and keepers are hard to come by, so I'll stay if I'm catching little fish. On a lake known for bigger bass, if I'm just catching dinks, I'll leave in a heartbeat."
How can he tell if the next spot might have bigger fish? He must know the water he's fishing. Martens pays special attention to the baitfish he finds in each place. "If an area has mature-sized baitfish, it usually indicates that larger bass are present." Believing that big bass are lazy and prefer larger meals for their efforts, Martens says finding 7- or 8-inch gizzard shad in a spot, instead of 2- to 4-inchers, is a sure sign larger bass are lurking nearby.
In a tournament situation, whether you stay or go also depends on how likely it is that another competitor — especially someone close to you in the standings — will take over the spot you just left. Those extra pounds or ounces of fish from your area could make the difference between making the cut for the final day or not.
"On the first and second day of a tournament, I don't like to leave even a half-decent spot if I think somebody will jump into my area," admitted Martens. "But if I think chances of this happening are remote, I will pick up and run for greener pastures without much hesitation."
Everything changes on the last competition day. Then, you need to focus mainly on your own fishing, not your competitors.
"I'll stay in a spot as long as I think I can better my limit; plain and simple," he explained. "Sometimes your instinct tells you whether to stay or go. During those times when the decision is exceptionally tough to make, I have learned to rely mostly on those instincts."
For Martens, some years those instincts are reliable all season long. "In 2005, every day I fished a tournament, I made the right decisions about moving and staying. That's why I had such a stellar season and won Angler of the Year.
"I think every tournament for every good fisherman comes down to the decision about whether to stay or move from a spot. This factor decides who wins and who loses, who gets a check and who doesn't. For me, making the right decisions is not a science; it's about being in the zone. Sometimes you are, and sometimes you aren't; it's that simple," he said.
Mark Davis of Arkansas has been in that zone at least three seasons, winning Angler of the Year in 1995, 1998 and 2001. Although he skipped the Elite Series for the first couple of years, he has collected more than $1 million in BASS events, and he's won five tournaments.
Like Martens, Davis has built a reputation as one of the most patient anglers in the Elite Series. The veteran pro does not set a time schedule to fish each spot. He believes it's important to figure out the prime activity time for each particular area.
"It's not so much that you need to sit on one small spot for the whole day to figure it out," he revealed, "but I do like to return to an area periodically throughout the day to learn the 'triggering factor' there. Sometimes it's weather-related, such as wind or cloud cover, but quite often it's just the time of day that turns fish on or off. We may not know why this happens … but my decision-making process is influenced by what I think the prime feeding times are for each area."
Like Martens, Davis makes his decisions differently on each day of the tournament.
"It's all about managing your fish properly each day to set yourself up to win the tournament," he declared. On the first day, fish are not being pressured too much, so Davis expects to catch a fair number of bass from each of his three or four best areas.
"However, you can also easily burn out a spot during the first day or two if you fish them too hard. You need to make the right decision whether to stay or go during the day. Those who learn how to manage their fish in each spot during the first couple of days of the tournament are the ones who will be in a position to cash a check at the end," said Davis.
If he makes the cut to fish the third and fourth rounds, "it really gets interesting," Davis added. "Making the right adjustments and decisions, based on what you're learning from each area, is key."
Many tournament anglers loathe the notion of fishing new, unfamiliar water during a high- stakes event, but not Davis.
"Think about it," he said. "When you're pre-fishing for a tournament and finding spots, do you really have the luxury of becoming intimately familiar with each area? Do you risk letting your competitors see you concentrating on an area long enough to find the subtle spots that might also hold fish? Of course not," Davis added.
By the time the first cuts are made in the tournament field, Davis hopes to know which spots are worthy of further dissection and exploration in the later rounds.
"Deciding to look for something small that holds big bass within your top areas — something you didn't have a chance to find in practice or on the first couple of days of competition — can be one of the hardest choices to make. But having the courage to do just that is what wins tournaments," he said.
He points to the 2008 Lone Star Shootout Elite on Falcon Lake as a prime example.
"Fishing was incredible in so many areas I pre-fished, and I knew I'd have some tough decisions to make." Just when he thought he had it all figured out, on the last day of practice he found an area that seemed to have all the key ingredients to produce numbers of big fish each day. Instead of going to the creek he thought was best (the Tiger Arm, where Aaron Martens and Byron Velvick duked it out each day), Davis fished the new area he found, a place he was sure he'd have all to himself.
"And I did. I learned as I went along, catching more than 30 pounds a day, except for the last, and I fell only 3 1/2 pounds short of winning. I still think I made the right decision to stay there. I easily could have won the tournament there," he said.
Martens and Davis agree that tournaments are usually won and lost based on knowing when to desert an area and when to stick with it.
"What separates winners from losers at the Elite level isn't so much about fishing skill; these guys all have the proficiency needed to win," Davis pointed out. "It's not about a new magical lure or technique, either. It's as simple as making the right decisions at the right time, like knowing when to stay and when to go."
How to Tell
When Mark Davis decides whether an area is full of big fish or only keepers, he pays attention to these three elements:
Close proximity to deep water — "Generally, big fish like to have deep water nearby," he said.
Cover — "Big fish relate to structure, whether it's a stump, rockpile or whatever. You have to look for them, and they may be within range of your keeper area, but that's usually where the bigger bass are."
Forage base — "You can't always recognize the prevalent forage base, but when you do, you can feel confident bigger fish are there."