More than any in recent history, the 34th annual CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer on Lake Wylie was one that came down to making the right series of timely adjustments.
Adjusting to water movement. Adjusting to changing light conditions. Adjusting to an influx of muddy water. Adjusting to the unseen impact of spectator boat traffic. And more.
Some, like winner Takahiro Omori, displayed uncanny timing in the crucial closing minutes. Others, like defending Classic champion Michael Iaconelli, made the correct adjustments in the opening round to sit in second place, but failed miserably over the following two days. And still others never made enough adjustments to get in the game.
And that is the story of Classic XXXIV.
By now, most fishing fans know that the 33-year-old Japanese pro became the first non-American Classic winner by way of some last minute heroics that produced three critical keeper bass in the final hour of fishing. He put himself in that position with the first round's heaviest catch (16 pounds, 2 ounces), followed by a 9 1/2-pound stringer. Entering the finals in second place, Omori saw his Classic chances rapidly ticking away with just two bass in his livewell going into the final hour of competition.
Sharing a stretch of the middle portion of the Catawba River with second round leader Dean Rojas, Omori targeted about 20 shallow spots near the river channel that featured laydown trees along the bank. Most are small side pockets with less than 5 feet of water.
It was on these trees that the three time Classic contender had scored throughout the first two days by relying on soft plastic creature baits and a jig (see Classic Details sidebar). But with less than an hour remaining in his Classic, Omori instinctively realized that he had to make a change. And fast.
"I noticed that the water seemed to be dropping a little and there was some current, maybe from all the boat traffic," he says. "I thought maybe the fish had moved to the deeper side of the laydowns. So I backed off and started fishing the deeper side with the crankbait."
Immediately switching to a buoyant, Bagley Balsa B-II shallow diver, Omori proceeded to catch his three largest bass of the day in the final 45 minutes. With just enough time to run back to the Buster Boyd check-in area, he left with a five bass limit weighing 13 1/2 pounds (giving him a three day total of 39-2).
In analyzing his Classic-winning game plan, the new world champion credited his area with being the key to his victory. The most productive pockets were located close enough to the river channel that bass seemed to replenish the area throughout the day. And Omori had rotated through the area so many times that by the final round, he had fine-tuned his pattern to where he focused only on the laydowns on slightly steeper banks (that were long enough to reach out into about 5 feet of water).
Omori also emphasizes that the muddy conditions drew resident bass into shallow water and kept them close to the cover - in perfect position for his preferred flipping/pitching baits.
"I was flipping and pitching to the laydowns in about 2 feet of water," he notes. "I would shake it two or three times, pick up the bait and then pitch it to the next laydown."
On those same trees, the Balsa B-II proved to be a terrific choice. Although Omori is sponsored by Lucky Craft, the company encourages him to use the best bait for the situation, regardless of the manufacturer.
A review of Aaron Martens' second consecutive Classic runner-up performance does not red-flag many adjustments. In fact, it was his steadfast devotion to an incredibly simple game plan that enabled him to catch more bass than anyone in the entire Classic field and weigh in three limits totaling 36-6.
The Californian, who now spends part of his year in Alabama, decided to gamble his efforts on the Buster Boyd Bridge within sight of the launch ramp. His strategy was the most obvious of all among those fishing 12,000-acre Lake Wylie.
"They should call me the bridge master," Martens says, smiling. "Wherever there are bridges, I fish them. They're hard to fish. They take some technique, but there's ways of fishing them. There's a real art to it."
One reason Martens was unconcerned that his competitors - and the fishing world - knew about his pattern was that he enjoyed a luxury rarely available in the Classic: a lure that his competitors could not duplicate.
With bridge fishing in mind, Martens brought with him a lure he called the Horsiehead (similar to a Roadrunner). He hand-poured and painted the leadhead, adding a Zoom Super Fluke for the body and a short spinnerbait arm with a No. 2 1/2 willowleaf blade. "It helped having a bait in the Classic that nobody else could get," he says. "I bought five of them at a tackle store on Lake Lanier several years ago when I first came back East. I caught some fish on it, but I didn't recognize its potential for a couple of years.
"It is the perfect bait for catching bass suspended around those bridge pilings. I worked it suspended and just off the bottom. I caught a few on the fall, but not many. I guess that's because the blade doesn't spin. It kind of sits there. Most of the bites came on the retrieve, either real slow or medium-fast."
Utilizing his vast bridge fishing experience, Martens displayed an uncanny ability to follow both the bass and baitfish as they moved in and out of the pilings. In addition, he quickly established that certain sets of pilings were more productive than others.
One set is located closest to the river channel, while the other stands adjacent to a shallower area. His catches occurred in 15 to 30 feet of water.
Unlike the other top finishers, the 32-year-old three time BASS winner caught several limits of bass throughout each day - even when the current was slack.
"The current starting to run (each afternoon) probably cost me the Classic, because I heard rumors that everybody was struggling until noon each day," he adds. "And I was whacking them. When the current turned on, they could catch them anywhere on the lake, real well."
Kevin VanDam has seen and done everything in bass fishing. But the Michigan pro is not likely to forget a single, bass-smothered rock in the South Fork arm of the Catawba that surrendered enough bass to enable him to finish third with 35-11.
"I had two points that were real good," the three time CITGO BASS Angler of the Year details. "And there's a rock on one of them, about the size of a Hula Hoop, that was loaded with fish.
"I had to have a perfect lineup and make a perfect cast. If I hit that rock, I'd get a bite every single time. I caught 20 in a row the first two days off that same rock. A lot of little fish were in there, but there were some big ones mixed in, too.
"They didn't want to bite. I was really burning the crankbait fast, and they reacted to it. There were so many fish on this spot that I could feel them with the crankbait. When they were there, I was running into them and knocking them out of the way. Sometimes I'd have two at a time."
VanDam did most of his damage with a Strike King Series 6 crankbait that dives to a depth of 15 feet - perfect for teasing the bass that were suspended over structure located in 25 to 30 feet of water. But on the final day, it was a 10-inch Texas rigged worm that bailed him out when the bass seemingly became accustomed to the diver.
It was a decision at the end of the first round that pointed the former Classic champion in the right direction - farther upriver where the brown water flowed.
"What I really learned the first day was that in the clearer water, all the spectator boat traffic made that bite go away," he says. "It put the fish down. I learned pretty quickly if I didn't get a bite in my first 10 or 15 casts, it was over. I could watch the bass and the bait on my sonar disappear as the spectators came.
"So, that rock bite deteriorated. I pretty much abandoned that going into the second day and I fished the dirtier water, where the spectator boats aren't going to affect the fish as much."
Give Dean Rojas credit for having perhaps the most diverse collection of productive lures used in Classic XXXIV.
During the first two rounds, the transplanted Texan's success came by fishing a plastic frog and flipping a tube in shallow areas where bluegill were taking advantage of a mayfly hatch. But on the final day, when sharing the same area with Omori seemed to be taking its toll, Rojas smartly switched to a shallow running Luhr Jensen Speed Trap crankbait to exploit bass that were chasing shad.
"I was fishing up in the river and trying to stay on main river channel bends," he explains. "I'd focus on areas where the channel came close to the shoreline with overhanging trees or laydowns or a current break.
"The best area actually was a railroad trestle with riprap around it. The best spots were where there were bushes on the riprap. I think the bushes helped because they provided shade. Whenever they pulled water, it created current around the riprap. I've always fished this type of area in the summertime because there's always deep water next to it and the fish can feed whenever they want to. They just have to move up there and get busy."
Despite falling to fourth place (with 35-5) after leading entering the finals, Rojas found solace in his execution.
"I'm disappointed, but I fished a perfect tournament because I didn't lose any fish all week," he concludes. "I don't know what I could have done differently to win. I made good decisions and executed perfectly."
Joining fellow Lake Fork residents Takahiro Omori and Dean Rojas in the top-five, Kelly Jordon believed that his distinctive fishing area held the kind of bass necessary to win this Classic. He might have made a run at Omori if that belief had not wavered a little in the opening round.
"The fish I caught today (13-6 on the last day) is what I thought I could catch every day," Jordon says. "I fished the same spot every day, but I probably should have hit it harder the first day. I pulled off of those fish pretty quick (after catching 9-15) because I thought they were all small.
"I was obviously wrong."
Jordon, who finished fifth with a three day weight of 34-7, targeted the back of a major creek that sports several features that combine to make the area a bass magnet: a huge flat with a depth of 2 to 3 feet adjacent to a 1/4-mile-wide, 10-foot-deep channel; a channel swing that pinches the flat near the shoreline; a series of large rocks; and a strategically positioned dock.
I thought that was a pretty neat area, and I was looking for a cranking place when they came up schooling, which kind of gave away their location," Jordon explains.
A bulky Carolina rigged creature bait proved to be the right tool for attracting bass in the muddy water.
#1 TAKAHIRO OMORI
LURES: Green-pumpkin Zoom Brush Hog and Yamamoto Kreature bait; brown 1/2-ounce Lunker Lure Ultimate Rattlin' jig with a Denny Brauer 3X Chunk trailer; shallow running Bagley Balsa BII crankbait (chartreuse sides, black back and orange belly) modified with red No. 2 Gamakatsu trebles.
TACKLE: Creature baits - 5/16-ounce weight, 3/0 Gamakatsu EWG offset hook, 50-pound-test Sunline braided line, 7-foot Team Daiwa flipping stick; jig - 50-pound-test Sunline braid, 7-foot Team Daiwa flipping stick; crankbait -16-pound-test Sunline fluorocarbon, 7-foot Team Daiwa fiberglass-graphite composite rod. All lures fished with a Team Daiwa 6.3:1 ratio baitcast reel.
TECHNIQUE: Targeted a stretch of the middle portion of the Catawba River, fishing about 20 shallow spots on the main river that feature laydown trees along the bank.
#2 AARON MARTENS
LURE: Hand-poured 1/4-ounce Horsiehead (similar to a large Roadrunner) hand-painted (smoke/pearl with white hologram and silver flake) with a smoke- or shad-colored Zoom Super Fluke for the body; 90 degree bronze Gamakatsu treble embedded in leadhead. At the end of a short spinnerbait-type arm was a No. 2 1/2 willowleaf blade.
TACKLE: 10-pound-test Sunline fluorocarbon, 6-10 medium-light Megabass baitcast rod and 7-foot-2 Megabass Aaron Martens Special medium action rod, Team Daiwa TDZ reel.
TECHNIQUE: Fished select sets of pilings on a bridge for suspended bass.
#3 KEVIN VANDAM
LURES: Chartreuse/blue back and gizzard shad-colored Strike King Series 6 crankbaits; 10-inch plum-colored (ribbontail) Zoom Worm rigged Texas style.
TACKLE: Crankbait - 10-pound-test Bass Pro Shops XPS monofilament. 7-foot Quantum Tour Edition fiberglass rod, Quantum E6500 PT reel; worm - 3/8-ounce Gambler Florida Rig weight, Mustad 4/0 Denny Brauer Ultra Point flipping hook, 20-pound-test Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon, 7-4 Quantum Tour Edition PT medium-heavy rod, Quantum E500 reel.
TECHNIQUE: Wormed and cranked rocks on offshore humps in 25 to 30 feet of water.
#4 DEAN ROJAS
LURES: 3 1/2-inch black Sumo frog with orange eyes; black-and-blue Tiki Tube; 1/8-ounce chartreuse/blue back Luhr Jensen Speed Trap.
TACKLE: Frog - 65-pound-test Izorline braided line, 7-foot Quantum Tour Edition PT medium-heavy rod; tube - 3/16-ounce weight, 3/0 Gamakatsu Superline hook, 20-pound-test Izorline monofilament, 7-foot Quantum Tour Edition PT medium-heavy rod; crankbait - 12-pound-test Izorline, 6 1/2-foot Quantum Tour Edition PT rod. All lures were fished on a Quantum E650 PT reel.
TECHNIQUE: Concentrated on same midriver areas as Omori, focusing on shoreline laydown trees, overhanging bushes and riprap.
#5 KELLY JORDON
LURES: Carolina rigged chartreuse-pepper Lake Fork Trophy Tackle Baby Fork Creature and Ring Fry.
TACKLE: 20-pound-test Berkley Sensation main line, 1/4- and 1/2-ounce Lake Fork Trophy Tackle MegaWeights (teamed together to create a clicking sound), 2-foot leader of 15-pound-test Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon, 2/0 Gamakatsu EWG hook, 7-foot Fenwick Techna AV medium-heavy rod, Ambassadeur Torno reel.
TECHNIQUE: Fished back of a major creek where 10-foot channel swings close to the bank, adjacent to a large 2- to 3-foot deep flat.