Bull Shoals Lake proved to be a pleasant surprise during the Bassmaster Elite Series TroKar Quest last week, mainly because the lake is on an upswing due to recent high-water years and a bass population that has exploded.
But there was another important aspect of it that put smiles on the faces of the Elite Series anglers: The 45,000-acre lake with 700 miles of shoreline proved to be a place where they could "run a pattern."
"This is one of the best pattern lakes that I've ever been on," said Alton Jones of Woodway, Texas, after Day One at Bull Shoals. "This is really going to be an interesting tournament."
Mike Iaconelli provided the best definition of running a pattern, saying, "When you pull in a pocket, it has got a distinct look. The bank is flat or it's 45 degrees or it's vertical. It's got gravel, it's got chunk rock or it's got sand. You can look at it, and when you get that bite, you can run around and duplicate it."
A lake that patterns like that gives everyone a fair shake. You don't have to draw the top boat number on Day One and rush to a particular spot in order to have a chance to win the tournament.
"On some lakes we go to, there are key areas at certain times of the year," said Rick Clunn of Ava, Mo. "Like at (Alabama's Lake) Guntersville, you've got to be on one of the top 10 schools (of bass) there. You can run a pattern at Guntersville, but you're not going to beat those guys that are sitting on one of those top 10 areas."
Almost every one of the 99 anglers competing at Bull Shoals found a shallow, crankbait pattern. It produced 100-fish days for some of them, but it was difficult to find a 4- or 5-pound bass in those areas; and those bass were the key to separating yourself from a field in which almost everyone was catching a limit.
"I think there are a ton of patterns out there," said Bradley Roy of Lancaster, Ky., on Day One. "Some guys are fishing shallow, some are fishing deep, and I'm kind of fishing in between.
"I think it's going to make a neat TV show when it comes out because I think fish are being caught a lot of different ways."
The one exception to the pattern rule was tournament winner Brandon Palaniuk from Rathdrum, Idaho. He capitalized on a spot. A lot of anglers knew about the flooded roadbed and bridge pilings in West Sugarloaf Creek where Palaniuk sacked 20-pound bags the first two days and added another 19 pounds on Day Three to put the tournament out of reach. But Palaniuk was the 99th boat to take off on Day One, so everybody had a shot at it before Palaniuk. He deserves all the credit for taking advantage of that spot.
Second-place finisher Britt Myers ran a pattern that was a bit different than most other anglers. He found fish in depths of 8 to 12 feet. It looked like he was crankbaiting the banks of East and West Sugarloaf creeks, but he was casting just offshore with a Rapala DT 10, and reeling it down as deep as he could get it on 10-pound-test fluorocarbon line.
"You could throw a little square-lipped crankbait down the banks, and you could catch those 2- and 2 1/4-pounders," said Myers, who is from Lake Wylie, S.C. "But out there you could catch those 2 3/4- and 3-pounders and occasionally a 5-pounder. It was a different class of fish.
"I'm happy because that was the winning pattern. Brandon was around the winning school, but that wasn't a pattern deal as much."
While Myers stayed mainly in those two upper-lake creeks all four days, he got a pleasant surprise with his pattern on Day Four. With the wind gusting up to 25 miles per hour Sunday, Myers decided to make an early run back toward the Bull Shoals Lake Boat Dock check-in spot. He didn't want to take a chance on being late with the uncertainty created by a white-capping lake.
He got there with 30 minutes to spare, so Myers fished until the last minute, when he caught a 3-pound-plus smallmouth that allowed him to cull a smaller bass from his livewell. It proved to be the $5,000 difference in second and third place as Myers edged Matt Herren by a mere 1 ounce to take home $25,000.
"It just showed me that the pattern was the deal," Myers said. "I think I could run it anywhere in the lake."
Scott Rook, who is from Little Rock, Ark., exploited the shallow crankbait pattern for most of the tournament. But he found a smallmouth bass pattern that put him in the top 12 for Sunday's finale, where he finished eighth. He was helped by a 4-pound, 2-ounce smallmouth Saturday.
"I found a little smallmouth deal," Rook said. "The smallmouth were in 8 to 12 feet of water on gravel points. I could fish for largemouth, and when I came to a gravel point, I could stop and fish a little bit deeper with a crankbait or a jig. I ended up catching four or five keeper smallmouths, including that 4-pounder."
So what makes one lake pattern better than another? It helps when a lake has a 40-foot flood pool and very little development around it. Bull Shoals has been at the top of its flood pool during two of the last five years. But it was at its normal or power pool level for this tournament, and the rocky shorelines were easily visible.
"That's one of the keys to what we were doing, is getting a look at the bank," Iaconelli said. "What you see 90 percent of the time is what is right below the surface.
"I use my electronics a lot in a lot of the tournaments we fish. But in this one, I used my eyes more than my electronics."
Iaconelli, who lives in Pittsgrove, N.J., compared Bull Shoals to a lake located more in his neck of the woods – Kerr Reservoir, on the Virginia-North Carolina border, which covers 50,000 acres.
"It gives you lots of options," Iaconelli said.
And that's as dear to a tournament angler as anything – options.
"At a lot of lakes, you can pattern fish and you want to move," Myers said. "But you can't because you'll run into someone else doing the same thing. Here you can move."
Clunn has had to fish around plenty of other anglers in compiling his long list of tournament accomplishments, which includes four Bassmaster Classic titles. But that doesn't mean he likes it.
"I don't do well when I've got to go rub elbows in these super spots," said Clunn, who finished 21st at Bull Shoals. "I don't like it. I don't like fishing that way even if I'm doing well.
"(Bull Shoals) is becoming one of my all-time favorite lakes."