Norman: Everything it shouldn't have been

The Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open at North Carolina's Lake Norman was everything it shouldn't have been.

And more.

There shouldn't have been much spawning going on during the late March event. There was.

The largemouths shouldn't have been on their beds before the spotted bass spawned. They were.

Since spotted bass far outnumber largemouth bass at Norman, the tournament shouldn't have been a largemouth slugfest. It was.

It shouldn't have taken more than 15 pounds a day to win. It did.

On two practice days just prior to the tournament, I fished with Lee King of Cherryville, N.C. King had entered the tournament as a boater. I was a nonboater.

Since King knew Lake Norman fairly well, we did more looking than fishing. We found several buck bass on beds in the backs of quiet pockets, but no big females.

We surmised that the big mamas wouldn't show up during the tournament because a severe cold front was in the forecast.

Bobby Lane of Lakeland, Fla., made us look like dummies. On the first tournament day, Lane weighed 18-pounds, 13-ounces, of largemouths to nab first place. He plucked every one of his bass from beds.

Bedding largemouths also accounted for the 17-8 that Tracy Adams of Wilkesboro, N.C., weighed for second place, and the 16-7 that Gerald Swindle of Warrior, Ala., weighed for third place.

At that point, it appeared that the tournament shouldn't have been won with anything but bedding bass. It wasn't.

Fletcher Shryock of Newcomerstown, Ohio, found a batch of prespawn largemouths 25 miles upriver. They yielded 49-9 to Shryock, which earned him a boat, a pile of cash, and a trip to the 2012 Bassmaster Classic.

I did learn something interesting from King during the practice days we fished together. At one point, he fished a stretch of submerged, visible stumps in 3 to 4 feet of water. He threw a skirted jig over the stumps. The jig appeared to have a 1/2-ounce or heavier head.

The jig splashed softly and sank no faster than a Senko-type worm. When King gently twitched and paused the jig over the stumps, its twin curled-tail dressing would flutter while the skirt folded back and bellowed out.

The bait is the Original Stalker Swim Jig. The head is molded of a durable plastic. It looks just like a regular Stalker Jig, but there's no lead in the head. The light jig shows bass a bulky profile with a slow sinking, finesse presentation.

King had four bites in less than 10 minutes on the Stalker Swim Jig and shook them off. He also picked off a nice spotted bass later in the day by skipping the Swim Jig under a boat dock.

On the first tournament day, I was paired with 23-year-old Floridian Joe Ventrello. He wore his ball cap hip-hop style with a flat bill. It appeared that a plug from an iPod had been permanently installed in his right ear.

I asked Ventrello what kind of music he listened to when fishing in a tournament. I expected rap.

"Mostly country," Ventrello said. "It relaxes me. It helps me slow down."

Ventrello's boat was a 1999 Ranger powered by its original 150-hp outboard. The boat was well-kept and rigged with all the necessities, including dual Power Poles, big-screen Humminbird electronics and a new MotorGuide trolling motor.

Ventrello never floored the outboard and maintained a top speed of little more than 50 mph.

"I've gotta make the outboard last until I can buy a new one," he said.

Speed wasn't an issue because Ventrello fished close to the official ramp.

I liked this young guy. There was no communication gap, since we had competitive bass fishing in common. He was competent, confident, and he worked hard in practice and kept an even keel during the tournament.

We twitched jerkbaits over shoals and brushpiles during the morning hours. Jerkbaits had produced Ventrello's bigger spotted bass in practice. He caught a half dozen or so spots. The first three measured over the 14-inch length limit and included a beautiful 3-pounder.

I caught half as many bass on a jerkbait and never boated a keeper.

Once the sun got up, Ventrello visited several backwater pockets where he had found bedding bass. He broke off a 3-pounder, landed a pair of 2-pounders and left a 5-pounder on the bed that wouldn't bite.

We finished the day twitching jerkbaits over a shoal near the official ramp. That's where I caught my only keeper of the day, a spotted bass that went 1-11.

Ventrello weighed 9-15. The next morning he started on the 5-pounder he had failed to make bite. He hooked the big largemouth, pulled it 2 feet and it came off. His day went downhill from there. He brought in only one bass.

On Day Two, I drew Thomas Vickers of Salisbury, N.C. Vickers is a hot stick at Norman. He qualified for the 1996 Bushmaster Classic through the Federation, which was held at Alabama's Lay Lake. Vickers finished a respectable 18th.

During practice, Vickers was on heavy spotted bass, including some 4-pound giants. The big spots weren't home on the first tournament day. Vickers caught over 30 spotted bass, culled three times, but he weighed only 7-4. His nonboater partner also culled fish and brought in a three-bass limit that weighed nearly 5 pounds.

I was looking forward to catching a slew of bass with Vickers, albeit small ones, after so little action on Day One. Given the active fish Vickers caught the first day, it shouldn't have been hard to catch our limits the second day. It was.

The air temperature had dropped into the mid 30s overnight. Morning broke bright and crystal clear. The spotted bass didn't appreciate the weather change.

I caught maybe six spots total and boated two that would keep. One of them came on a jerkbait; the other on a shaky head worm. Vickers probably boated a dozen spots, but only four keepers. One keeper came on crankbait, another on a Carolina rig and two more on a Zoom Fluke.

I could complain, but, honestly, I truly enjoyed myself. Lee King, Joe Ventrello and Thomas Vickers were wonderful companions. I'm looking forward to the next Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open at Lake Douglas in June.


Editor's note: Mark Hicks is one of the country's most widely read and respected bass writers. He has penned countless articles for Bassmaster Magazine, B.A.S.S. Times and other publications.

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