Homies rule at Douglas

I knew the Douglas Lake Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open would be won in deep water before the tournament started. What I didn’t know was just how big the home field advantage would be.

I talked briefly with Elite Series pro Gerald Swindle after the weigh-in on Day Two of the Douglas derby. This was after eventual winner Bobby Ferguson of Chuckey, Tenn., weighed in a 20-pound bag to backup his first day catch of 25 pounds.

“I’ve never fished a Bassmaster tournament where the homies had a bigger edge,” Swindle said.

The top three places at Douglas were all claimed by "homies." For most of us who weren’t from the Douglas Lake hood, it was like we were fishing on another planet.

I was hoping to draw a local hot stick as I drove south from Ohio on Monday to fish Douglas as a nonboater. I would be sharing a motel room with Lee King of Cherryville, N.C., who had entered as a boater.

I had been on the road for an hour when King called me around noon. He had just caught a 5-pound bass while fishing flooded willows. Since I make my living writing about fishing and hunting, he wanted to know if he should save the bass for photos.

I was still 5 hours from Douglas and needed to stop at Bass Pro Shops for a fishing license and a few baits. We decided to give the bass its freedom.

When I met with King that evening, he said he had coaxed a dozen bites that day by pitching a Brush Hog to flooded willows and buck bushes. He boated four and shook off the rest.

If the pattern held up, King could possibly milk 12 or 13 pounds from the willows. That wouldn’t be enough to win, but it might be enough to make the top 12 cut.

Throughout the next sweltering day, King and I pitched soft plastics to flooded willows. He alternated between a Brush Hog, a Sweet Beaver and a craw, while I stuck with a Yum Wooly Bug, a Beaver-type bait.

I mentioned to King that I had once spent an entire day observing Elite Series pro Tommy Biffle while he practiced for a Bassmaster tournament at Oklahoma’s Grand Lake.

As Biffle pitched jigs to scores of Grand Lake’s flooded willows, I noticed that every pitch went straight to the heart of the tree. More often than not, Biffle had to thread his jig through a maze of leafy branches to reach the trunk.

We did our best to emulate Biffle. The limbs of the thick, green willows we targeted often rejected our baits.

But, when we did manage to pitch a bait through the branches and next to the trunk, we called the cast “Biffle-ish.” If a bass grabbed the bait, we said we “Biffleoed” the bass.

That day we Biffleoed 30 bass. The biggest of the eight we landed weighed around 2 1/2 pounds. We didn’t intend to boat that many. But some of the bass hooked themselves, even though we had snipped the points off our hooks.

King’s pattern seemed rock solid.

The next day I prefished with Brett Mitchell, a friend of King’s from South Carolina who is a part-time guide at Santee-Cooper. Mitchell had put in four days trying to figure out the deep bite at Douglas.

“I can see them on my graph, but I can’t make them bite,” Mitchell told me.

I heard the same comment from many other fishermen that were experiencing Douglas for the first time.

First thing that morning, Mitchell stopped at a point where he had been seeing (but not catching) a lot of bass. He marked some fish 38 feet deep and caught two keepers on a drop shot rig.

We graphed another point and marked a school of bigger fish. I dropped a 3/4-ounce Cotton Cordell CC Spoon on them and popped a 3 1/2-pounder. That was the only bite we had there.

At another point, I dredged up a squeaker on a Strike King XD6 crankbait. The CC Spoon jacked two more keepers for me at a third point. Mitchell also caught a bass there on a spoon and another on a drop shot. None were big.

At the pre-tournament meeting, I drew Arnie Lane, brother of Bobby and Chris who fish the Elite Series. He was flipping flooded buck bushes and log jams in the backs of pockets with Beaver baits.

“I caught some 3- and 4-pounders in practice,” Lane said. “With a little luck, I think I can catch 15 pounds.”

We pounded the shallow stuff most of the next day, mixed in with some brief, futile attempts on deep points. My 3-bass limit weighed 5-1. Lane culled three times, yet his limit weighed only 5-15.

I checked with King at the weigh-in. His limit was shy of 8 pounds. It appeared that the larger bass had vacated the shallow cover.

I drew Elite Series pro Cliff Crochet the second day. His Cajun accent is so strong I thought we’d need an interpreter. It really wasn’t all that bad. I only asked him to repeat something maybe a hundred times that day.

Crochet excels at frog fishing less than 2 feet deep. His plan to avoid Douglas’ temperamental deep bass was to run so far upriver that there wasn’t any deep water the bass could retreat to.

We finally stopped running where a swift current flowed through a chute between an island and the shoreline. The water under the boat was 4 feet deep. There was a shallow riffle 70 yards upstream.

Crochet cast a Zara Spook upstream and walked it back as it drifted down with the current. A 3-pound largemouth blasted the stickbait. I netted that bass, plus two smaller keepers that Crochet caught that morning.

I boated one keeper on a buzzbait and another on a pearl Yum Houdini Shad. I was casting the Houdini Shad upstream and twitching it every 3 or 4 seconds as it drifted with the flow. It was like fishing a wet fly for stream trout.

Except for the 3-pounder, the bass were small. We needed bigger fish to move up in the standings. That meant fishing deep.

We spent several hours fishing four points. I alternated the CC Spoon with a football jig, a drop shot rig and a Strike King 6XD. Crochet chunked a swimbait for suspended bass, a tactic that produced two 3-pounders for him the day before.

No 3 pounders attacked Crochet’s swimbait or any of my lures. Nor did any 2 pounders, or 1 pounders or any of the heavyweights we were begging for.

With less than an hour to fish, Crochet went for the flooded willows. He caught a 3 pounder on a jig, but neither of us could catch the final fish we needed to finish our limit.

We probably would have caught limits had we fished shallow all day. However, it’s unlikely we would have caught enough weight to claim a check. No regrets.

You may have noticed that I have a new blog photo. That's because Phoenix Boats has generously provided a boat so I can fish the Northern Opens as a boater. To get my take on Phoenix Boats, visit my Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/note.php?created&&note_id=1834725945873