Nobody likes fishing in a crowd, especially during a tournament. It's the reason so many anglers make long runs. The farther you run, the fewer competitors you have to contend with. There are three problems with this strategy, however.
1. You waste hours of casting time.
2. The bill for your boat gas puts you in the poorhouse or the doghouse.
3. You often run away from the best bass fishing water. You'll often fare better if you stay close, concentrate on proven honey holes and tune into the bass better than the anglers fishing around you do.
Oklahoma's Terry Butcher, who finished fourth in the 2010 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, tunes in by dissecting the water to find every niche that holds bass. For example, if other anglers are catching bass by flippin' the shoreline, Butcher backs off the bank and works a 10-inch worm or a tube through cover that's not so obvious in deeper water.
Dissect the water
Dissecting the water rewarded Butcher with Top 10 finishes at Elite Series tournaments in 2008 and 2009 on Oneida Lake.
During both events, he fished a popular bay choked with grass near the launch ramp. Several competitors crowded into the same bay, but Butcher was the only pro to make the final cut in either tournament.
Although the bay isn't that big, Butcher devoted an entire practice day to it prior to both Oneida tournaments. He caught scattered bass by pitching a Yum Woolly Bug into the abundant grass and to bank cover. However, every other angler who practiced in the bay quickly got onto these fish.
Then they'd leave to check out other areas. Butcher stayed put and watched his competitors come and go throughout the day. "I knew I needed to find subtle spots that were holding bass," Butcher said. "I also had to come up with different ways to catch them."
Butcher's dogged determination paid dividends late in the evening while practicing in the bay. A school of bass suddenly went on a brief surface feeding spree, and Butcher was the only angler there to see it. First, he thought the bass had come up at random.
When he moved closer, he discovered that they had surfaced over a small rockpile in the grass. During the 2008 Oneida tournament, Butcher called up early morning bass up from the rockpile with a Rattlin' Spook. When the sun got up, casting a Texas rigged tube with a 1/4-ounce weight to the rockpile produced more quality bites.
Butcher also caught bass elsewhere in the bay, but the rockpile that no one else found is what put him in the Top 12. When Butcher pre-fished the same bay prior to the 2009 Oneida tournament, the rockpile was devoid of bass.
Again, he invested an entire practice day to the area. This time he found that the bass would occasionally school along the outer edge of the grass bed throughout the day.
Butcher walked a Rattlin' Spook over the edge of the grass, but this was mainly to kill time. Whenever the bass would school, he would zip over to them with his electric motor and make hay with the Spook until the brief binge was over.
The hardest part of fishing in a crowd is mental, according to Arkansas veteran pro Mark Davis, who has a Bassmaster Classic and a Bassmaster Angler of the Year title on his résumé.
You must convince yourself that the anglers around you haven't caught all the bass or put them off. Davis' mental toughness was put to the test during an Elite Series event earlier this year at Lake Guntersville.
The bass were schooled on ledges, and they were easy to catch on crankbaits when you got them fired up. The downside was that Davis was fishing a community area, and an armada of bass boats was playing musical chairs around the same ledges. Several times Davis watched as one of the other pros slammed bass right in front of him. When the bass stopped biting, the pro would move on to another spot. "It was hard to stay there," Davis said.
"I had to make myself fish the same ledge after somebody else just wore it out." How did Davis overcome this mental hurdle? By convincing himself that the bass were still there and that he could do a better job of fishing for them than the other guys. The key for Davis at Guntersville was moving his boat around a ledge and casting to it from different angles.
When bass are on the feed, the casting angle isn't critical, said Davis. But bass in a neutral mood often set up on the structure so that only the perfect casting angle makes them react. "You can deviate from that seam by 5 feet on either side and not get a strike," Davis said. "But when you hit it right, you can catch a bass on every cast." Mental toughness at Guntersville put nearly 90 pounds of bass in Davis' livewell, enough for an eighth place finish.
Frequently, a different lure, lure color, retrieve action or technique can goad strikes when you're fishing in a crowd.
This often dupes the bigger bass in the area that have gotten wise to what everybody else is throwing. There are no pat answers here. Keep an open mind and don't be afraid to try something off the wall. Unless you've got a pile of bass to run to, you're better off staying put and scrapping with other fishermen for bass that live close to the ramp.
"The bites might come slow, but you might surprise yourself by what you've got in your livewell at day's end," Davis said.
Finesse or not?
Many fishermen automatically resort to finesse baits in crowded conditions. They believe you must downsize and slow down to tease strikes from pressured bass.
Terry Butcher disagrees. Full bore bass baits usually come through for him, even when he fishes in a crowd. Mark Davis is comfortable with finesse tactics, and he often scores well with them when he fishes among a flotilla of bass boats. Some pros eschew finesse baits thinking these lures can't catch the quality bass needed to win Elite Series tournaments.
"That's certainly not the case," Davis said. "Many times 4- and 5-pound fish are caught in numbers on finesse baits." A 7-inch Strike King Super Finesse Worm rigged on a 3/16-ounce shaky head jig is Davis' favorite finesse combination for fishing structure 10 to 20 feet deep. He downsizes to a 1/8- or 1/16-ounce jighead in shallower water.
The jig is tied to 8-pound fluorocarbon line matched with spinning tackle. Basic bottom hopping and shaking presentations produce bites when Davis fishes a shaky head worm, but he also swims the bait just above the bottom. If he believes the bass are suspended, he'll count the bait down 10 to 15 feet deep and swim and shake it along.
"We used to do that a lot with a swimming tail grub," Davis said. "It's a lost art."