Dawn broke early on Lake Comedero, revealing the type of day that always gives Denny Brauer an extra dose of confidence: clear, cool with light fog rising from the water, and yet another chance to chase big bass. The Missouri pro had never fished the famed Mexican impoundment, but less than eight hours later — like practically everyone who visits Comedero — he knew this wouldn't be his last trip.
His guide, Pablo Hdez, had stopped the boat on an otherwise obscure timber-filled point partway back in a creek, and in less time than it takes to tell, Brauer had landed a 6-pounder, another over 5, and was working on a fish about twice that big when his line suddenly went limp. The fish was there one second, then simply gone the next as his line broke unexpectedly.
Pablo, who knows a giant when he sees one, put the net down dejectedly.
Brauer, of course, is no stranger to big bass — he's caught two over 10 pounds in CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail competition and boated another over 12 pounds while filming his television show, "The Bass Class."
In fact, his entire 20 year competitive career is filled with big bass, a fact reflected in his 14 wins and $1.6 million in prize money.
Brauer's tournament philosophy has always been to concentrate on larger bass rather than smaller "limit fish," a strategy that dramatically separates him from virtually everyone else on the Bassmaster Tour. The common practice is to catch the five bass permitted daily, regardless of size, then start looking for larger fish. Brauer, by contrast, targets larger bass from the moment the first practice day begins.
"My feeling is and always has been that looking for small bass may not leave any time to search for big fish," says Brauer matter-of-factly, "but when you're trying to catch big bass, you'll automatically find smaller fish along the way.
"I realize that by concentrating on big bass, I'm sacrificing bites, and I know this type of fishing has cost me some tournament wins. You have a smaller window of opportunity to catch big bass because they are more wary, but at the same time, big bass patterns, once you establish them, are pretty reliable."
Brauer is the first to emphasize that when he talks about big bass in tournaments, he's not talking about looking specifically for 10-pounders. Rather, he is only searching for heavier-than-average fish, which, on many tournament lakes, will be in the 4- to 7-pound range. An easier way to describe his strategy is to say he's not fishing for 1- and 2-pounders, even when the bite is tough.
This big bass strategy involves three distinct elements: lure selection, location and the pattern itself. When broken down this way, it's not difficult to see why Brauer has been as successful as he has over the years.
"A ½-ounce jig has probably been my favorite all-around big bass lure," admits Brauer, "but it certainly isn't the only lure I use. I also use jigs as light as 3/8 ounce and as heavy as 1 ounce. I like ½- and ¾-ounce spinnerbaits with big Indiana and Colorado blades, and instead of a topwater chugger, I use a large buzzbait that makes more noise.
"Of course, my 4 ½-inch Flip-N-Tube (his 1998 Classic winning lure) is also a favorite," he adds, "but I fish it with 25- and 30-pound-test line and a ½-ounce sinker.
"The bottom line is that these are big lures designed to catch big bass. I have always believed that bigger bass prefer larger lures, and I've proved it to myself many times. You will catch an occasional big bass on a small lure, but not often enough to make using them a regular practice, and you'll catch some small bass on big lures, too.
"Basically, however, if you're going after elephants, use an elephant gun."
At Comedero, Brauer also proved his big lure theory worked. While others around him were catching 15 to 20 smaller bass per morning with small plastic worms and topwaters, Brauer, in hopes of catching just one of Comedero's giants, was getting just seven to 10 bites. He was rigging Strike King's 5 ½-inch Wild Thang tube creature bait with a new 3X worm, creating an even larger lure (8 ½ inches) and making it float above the bottom. The first five bass he caught with it weighed just over 22 pounds.
Using large lures is only a small part of Brauer's big bass strategy during tournament competition. Much of his effort is directed to finding areas that have the potential to produce a tournament win.
"Finding the right location hinges on two factors," says Brauer, "either discovering tiny but key places other fishermen have long overlooked, or simply getting away from other anglers by traveling farther from the launch site. Big bass are rarely on obvious cover, so whenever you do get a good fish, you really have to analyze where and how you caught it."
Brauer has won BASS events using both of these approaches. His first Tournament Trail win, the 1984 Texas Bassmaster Invitational on Sam Rayburn, came by fishing isolated willow trees 100 yards away from the willows everyone else was fishing. In three days of running from one lone tree to another, he caught a total of 55 pounds, 11 ounces.
"I feel the most confident when I do find isolated cover," he admits.
"Isolated cover, such as those individual willows on Rayburn, tends to hold only a single bass, and normally, the fish that claims the cover will be a larger one that pushes the smaller bass away.
"It's often in slightly deeper water, too, which is something larger bass seem to prefer. Big bass are not always in really deep water, but they're usually a little deeper than smaller fish. Frequently, they're very close to a drop to deeper water, too, so I'm always studying the bottom contour with my electronics. Even when I'm flipping shallow cover, I study the bottom depth."
In 1987, Brauer won the Bassmaster Super Invitational on Kentucky Lake by running more than 80 miles one way to several brush-covered points on Lake Barkley; it was farther than any of his competition wanted to go, but he brought in more than 61 pounds.
"Often, I find larger bass in places where I don't even want to stop," smiles Brauer, "but I've learned to force myself not only to fish places that don't look very inviting, but to actually search for them.
"With the boats we have today that are capable of making such long runs, and the experience many of today's Bassmaster Tour anglers have, it has become more and more difficult to get away from the competition. That's why I believe finding something everyone else has overlooked, even if it's close, will become more and more important in the years ahead.
"During the 1991 Top 100 on Lake Lanier, I finished second by fishing isolated stumps. It took about five minutes of slow idling just to get to them, but once there, I had them to myself. Everyone knew about those stumps, but no one wanted to sacrifice the time it took to reach them."
Brauer admits he prefers shallow water, which makes his quest for finding overlooked cover even more difficult. Slightly dingy conditions and current are also important, but those two elements really depend on the type of lake being fished.
"I like slightly off-colored water if the lake is generally really clear, because it nearly always means bass will be more shallow," he points out. "At Lake Mead, for example, where do most anglers go? Either to Vegas Wash or to the Virgin Basin; in both places, the water is usually stained rather than gin-clear."
Big bass patterns
At Comedero during his December trip, Brauer quickly realized most of the lake's big bass were still in deeper water. The four bass over 10 pounds that were caught in shallow water came very, very early in the morning, and around heavy shoreline vegetation.
"Normally, both cover and structure will have a key spot that holds the biggest bass, and you usually have to fish and read a lot of cover before you can figure out what it is," he points out. "The problem is, when you're fishing thick shoreline cover anywhere during the early morning, you're very likely to catch a number of smaller bass.
"In tournaments, this is where most anglers stop trying to fine-tune a pattern. They're satisfied with the smaller bass, but to me, this is when you need to work the hardest.
"For instance, if you're catching small fish, it might be a good time to change to one of your larger lures and present it slower. Instead of retrieving that spinnerbait through the grass, throw some soft plastic into the grass and keep it there, because larger bass usually prefer slower lure movement. If you're catching small bass in the grass, move to the very heaviest cover you can find and concentrate there.
"The first 10-pounder I caught at a BASS tournament came from the St. Johns River in Florida," he remembers. "Everyone was catching bass along the edge of the shoreline grass or around the boat docks, but no one was bringing in any of the big bass the St. Johns is famous for. Then, at one particular boathouse, I skipped a jig just as far back underneath it as I could, a place I was certain other anglers had not fished, and sure enough, the big bass was there.
"Each situation dictates its own opportunities," says Brauer, "so you have to continually study and analyze what's happening as you fish. It's not always easy, either, especially when you are catching fish. But, you can usually bet there will be some key factor that puts big bass where they are, and you can learn what that factor is if you fish hard enough and pay attention to what the bass are telling you."
There is a fourth element in Brauer's big bass philosophy that is every bit as important as everything else he does, and that element is preparation. He feels most "lost fish" stories recited on the weigh-in stand are the result of anglers not being ready for the opportunity when a big bass does strike.
Yes, he did break this rule at Comedero when he neglected to retie his line and it broke with that big fish, but Brauer more than made up for it the next afternoon. Changing from a standard ½-ounce lipless crankbait, he tied on a larger 1-ounce lipless model and began working it over a submerged ledge 8 feet deep; he boated three bass totaling more than 14 pounds in three consecutive casts, and the next day he returned to the same spot and caught another bass over 7 pounds.
More importantly, he has proved both to himself and to his competition on the Tournament Trail that his big bass philosophy and strategies work on lakes all over the United States. Even though those strategies may be in direct contrast to what the majority of pros do, no one can argue with Brauer's success over the past two decades.
LOCATION AND SIZE — Lake Comedero is located approximately 140 miles north of Mazatlan, Mexico, in the mountainous state of Sinaloa. Generally deep and rocky with abundant flooded cover, the lake averages around 30,000 acres with its water fluctuations.
WHEN TO GO — January through March produces the largest bass — over 14 pounds — most consistently, but giants are also caught during the October to December season, as well. Ron Speed, the only American operating package trips to the lake, stocked 280,000 Florida bass fingerlings in Comedero between 1987-90, and those fish are fully mature now.
WHAT TO EXPECT — Lake Comedero is considered one of the finest trophy bass lakes in the world. With certain lures and techniques, it is possible to catch large numbers of small fish, but most anglers come here to catch bass 10 pounds and over, and some have landed more than one such trophy in a single day. While the lake produced an authenticated 18-pounder last year, there are unverified reports that one of the guides caught a fish over 20 pounds. Ron Speed is considered one of the nation's premier fishing outfitters, and he has been in business for more than 25 years, specializing in Mexico.
BEST LURES, TACKLE — Large plastic worms, creature baits, topwaters and spinnerbaits all take fish, as do big lipless crankbaits. Plastic swim baits have also caught quality bass on recent trips. Leave your jigs at home; for some reason, fish here don't hit them very well. Lines testing 20-pound are standard, and some prefer 25- and 30-pound test, with medium-heavy and heavy action casting rods.
ACCOMMODATIONS — All meals are Western style, prepared by trained cooks. Accommodations are in comfortable cottages formerly used by government workers during the lake's construction.
FEES — Both three and four day packages are available, and range from $1,095 to $1,345, depending on length and season. Fees include guides, boats and motors. Mazatlan is easily accessible through Dallas, Houston and Phoenix.
INFORMATION — Trips to Comedero fill quickly, so reservations should be made several weeks in advance. Contact Ron Speed's Adventures, 1013 Country Lane, Malakoff, TX 75148; 903-489-1656; www.RonSpeed.com.