Don't fool with Mother Nature

After two bad tournament performances, I was looking forward to fishing on Table Rock. The Rock fishes well for me and is one of my favorite lakes, as long as it is way before the spawn or way after. Visions of giant spotted bass and huge largemouth are etched in my brain. I know Table Rock also has a nice population of smallmouth bass as well. The thing about Table Rock is you will need a giant largemouth or two to win … if you decide to chase smallmouth.

I needed to do some internet fishing to determine what stage the bass were in. I hoped and prayed the spawn was over so I could get off the bank and go to my comfort zone. Much to my chagrin, the bass are still spawning. (God, I hate that!) It’s not that I can’t catch spawning bass, it’s just the fact that everyone else can, too. This puts everyone on fish and makes a big bag on Day One critical. I want to be offshore, but it looks as if I won’t get my wish. Knowing that, I head southwest to the Rock.

I arrived at Kimberling City on Sunday — nine days before the tournament. I realize this is a little early to start pre-fishing, but I wanted to exhaust all possible options, and did not want to be pressed for time. I pulled into the hotel parking lot at high noon. (I just like saying “high noon.”) The wind was blowing, and it was partly sunny. While un-packing and getting situated in my room, I could see the lake throwing some sizable waves.

I had an idea. It was time to play in my Legend boat for a few hours. Yes, rough water can be fun. I was in the mood for some playtime before I had to get serious. I ran the boat for about an hour and then decided to check the back of some short pockets and look for beds.

Just as I suspected, there were spawning bass and beds everywhere. Around dinner time, I ran back to the ramp, pulled the boat out and went to this new pub called Fish Tales to eat and ponder my game plan for the remainder of practice. While at the pub, grazing and gazing at the weather channel, I noticed some bad weather being predicted. Not to worry, I thought, the tournament is still a long way off. So, what I surmised was this: (1) I will be fishing the bank, and (2) I will get wet at least for a day or so.

I will not go through a blow by blow on my eight practice days, but I will give you enough information to get the picture. Monday would be my first full practice day. I started out looking for bedding bass and found tons. The only bad part was most of the bass were small males — not even 15 inchers — and they were spooky.

With most of the day gone, I checked some pre- and post-spawn areas. Cranking and Carolina rigging put 40 to 50 bass in the boat, but only a small number of keepers. Tuesday left me with tons of bass in the boat and a small limit of keepers — not what I need to win. The rain finally hit around 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday. Wednesday would be a complete change of strategy. I needed to find bigger bass.

Wednesday morning I went to the standing cedar trees and threw top waters! I smoked them — all three species and some giants. This is conceivable! I found three places where I could duplicate this pattern.

Thursday came with more thunder and lightning and, of course, more rain and lots of it. In fact, the lake level was noticeably higher than the day before. Friday was extremely inconsistent, and I could not replicate any of the working patterns from the previous days. After studying my results, I did not feel confident I could catch five good fish a day. This was troubling because the most consistent part of practice so far was the inconsistency.

The storms raged through the night, thunder and hail kept me up most of the night and the tornado sirens didn’t help either. Morning came with a struggle, but, as usual, I was up before the alarm went off. I was dog tired and honestly don’t know how I can wake prior to the dreaded buzzzzzzzzzzzzz!

I needed to make a complete change in my fishing approach. I had to find a way to consistently catch between 16 and 18 pounds a day in order to make a top five finish. The storms were so bad Saturday I waited them out over breakfast. No break in the weather, so I just went fishing anyway — not that I ever recommend fishing in lightning since it’s very stupid.

This day, however, would open the gates and send me manna from Heaven. I started fishing for smallmouth. Suddenly the bells went off, and I started to hone in on something incredible. Sixteen to 18 pounds per hour, and I don’t even know how many I could have caught if I wanted to — 40,50,60? It was crazy!

That night I couldn’t sleep at all. Not because of the thunder, hail or torrential downpour, but the excitement of a newfound pattern that was just what I needed. My friend Mark Tucker (he won in Texas) and I were discussing possible scenarios with the current water levels and constant flooding and, of course, the bass.

Easter morning found the lake level even higher. It was wild how fast the water was rising. I had another 17 pounds in six casts! This day was better than the day before. I can’t even tell you how dialed in I was. The rest my practice just kept getting better and better. I was in the zone. I had fine-tuned this pattern so precisely that if I changed any part of it I would not catch them.

The next morning was the worst weather so far, at least for thunder and lightning. I decided to stay in and get everything ready for the tournament. This way I wouldn’t have to scramble at the last minute. Tucker called me at 5:30 a.m. to tell me the lake came up another ten feet last night!

Holy smokes! Mark was catching them, too. I asked if he wanted to do breakfast, but he said the road over the dam was closed and he was driving through Branson to the other ramp. We decided it was too far from where I was, so we bagged it. I stayed in and rigged tackle and got every thing ready. At first I felt guilty not being on the lake, but I was dialed in, and I had two more practice days left anyway.

Mark and I spent time on the phone discussing the real possibility of the tournament being cancelled. This was troublesome for me. I was so tuned in, and I needed a good finish. This could be it! In the morning, I launched at a different ramp because Mark called and said the ramp we had been using was closed.

I could not believe how much the water came up overnight. I was curious what this might do to my pattern. The first ten minutes of the day yielded me 18 or 19 pounds! The weather and rising water was making my pattern stronger! I found more places and even better quality bass. I was crawling out of my skin. It was awesome!

I called Mark to find out if he heard anything about the tournament and if he was still catching them. He asked me how I was doing. We talked and he said, “You know, you could win this thing.”

I said, “Only if you don’t.” We laughed and went back to work. I was able to look at a place with my locator and GPS and know if I would catch them or not before making a cast. This was making practice fast and efficient.

About 11: 00 a.m. my phone rang. It was Mark with the news I was dreading. The tournament has been cancelled. The Corp of Engineers has shut down the lake. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I knew by this time that I was on a pattern based solely on Mother Nature and what she was doing to this lake.

I called Mark back to see if he wanted to stay the rest of the day and catch fish. He said he was going to leave for Lake of the Ozarks to pre fish for another tournament. I figured I would stay and fish for a few more hours and the leave in the morning.

It was at this time Jeff Kriet zoomed over to give me the news of our event. I told him I just heard and asked him if he wanted to catch some before we left. His reply got me thinking. He said, “No! I’m leaving before the next system moves in. I don’t want to be stuck trying to get home.”

I headed his advice, although it was very difficult for me to leave. When I got back to the ramp, the water safety patrol was already closing it from further use. The water was well into the parking lot and the lake was kissing the bottom of the Route 13 bridge. It was time to go home.

I actually got to fish off shore and in the process experienced a natural disaster. Mother Nature cancelled the tournament. The irony of this adventure was the fact that nothing went how the lakes fishing history predicted it should go or the way I figured it would turn out. I’m left with thoughts of “What if?”

By the way, I know I didn’t divulge the details of my pattern. I’m saving that for a rainy day!