Lake Ray Roberts has a big bass reputation. Even when the Classic qualifiers were purposely not setting the hook on many fish in the four days of practice over the last week, there were some 8-, 9- and 10-pounders caught. But Frank Talley has one that counts this morning - an 8-pounder landed at 7:38.
Some secrets are too good to keep and Berkley felt its new PowerBait MaxScent Chigger Craw fits that premise. A popular flipping bait and jig trailer, the Chigger Craw has existed for many years in the original PowerBait family, which features flavor infusion that encourages fish to hold onto the bait.
Berkley recently added the Chigger Craw to its MaxScent line, thereby complementing that fish-friendly flavor with a strong dose of irresistible aroma. With a few new color options, the enhanced Chigger Craw also features more active arms.
The line expansion will officially be announced in July at ICAST, but Berkley sent a few packs to pro staffers fishing the Classic. Among them, John Cox immediately recognized this bolstered bait as something that could impact his Classic strategy.
“I got these baits the night before (Wednesday’s) practice day, on my first flip, when I pulled it out of the bush, I was amazed by the action,” Cox said. “The original PowerBait Chigger Craw had great action and everybody loved it, but this one is incredible.
“When you throw it out and you feel it coming back through the water, it’s mind-blowing. I had two packs and I went through both packs in practice. I had to get two more packs. That’s what I’m going to start with.”
Matt Robertson of Kuttawa, Ky., is one of the most, uh, colorful personalities on the Bassmaster Elite Series. His signature “On ‘Em” cap seemed prophetic this morning when Robertson landed both a 2-8 and a 2-12 on what appears to be a jerkbait. Apparently, this happened before Robertson had a chance to put on his tournament jersey. He’s also got a 5-pounder in his livewell and four bass weighing 13-0 at 7:45.
Chris Zaldain often talks about “the cast;” that particular presentation to trigger structure-oriented fish into biting. Now, thanks to Humminbird’s new MEGA Live Imaging, he can not only make that laser-focused presentation, he can observe fish behavior and make the necessary adjustments.
Introduced shortly before the Classic, this new technology offers the clarity and detail of Humminbird’s MEGA Imaging in live action, thereby allowing anglers to see fish and structure in real time.
“In the past we had a good picture of structure with Humminbird 360 and we knew the cast to make within about a 6-foot radius,” Zaldain said. “Now, with MEGA Live Imaging and how direct that beam is, you can almost tell if a fish is swimming right or left, just by panning around.
“In conjunction with Hummingbird MEGA 360, you know the exact cast so its accuracy just went up several clicks. Now, we’re not waiting for a 360-degree rotation, we can pick out objects suspended in the water column and you know the depth and everything.”
Noting that he considers suspended fish the most difficult to target, Zaldain said he can see this new technology directly benefitting his Classic performance. Zaldain’s planning to spend most of his time flipping shallow flooded cover, but should his day take him to the offshore zone, MEGA Live Imaging will assist him in picking out specific targets amid standing timber.
“I’ll see followers that you normally only see on those clear California reservoirs where I grew up fishing,” Zaldain said. “Now, you can fish that big swimbait out of sight and you can see that fish following it live.
“I have a few options there; I can kill it, I can twitch it or I can speed it up and you see the fish’s response. Or, I can put the swimbait down and throw something else in there like a jerkbait or a tube. This new technology helps you make those decisions quicker. This piece completes the whole One Boat Network.
Chris Jones from Bokoshe, Okla., qualified for the Bassmaster Classic by winning the Central Open on the Arkansas River at Muskogee, Okla., last year. He became the third angler with a 5-bass limit this morning. It included this 4-pounder.
After a short run across the lake, we found current Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year leader Seth Feider. Feider was within 200 yards from Brandon Lester and Drew Benton, who got off to a hot start this morning.
One thing that all three anglers had in common was their lure choice — a white swim jig. History would tell us that this could mean that there is an early morning shad spawn going on here on Ray Roberts.
Anglers who capitalize on an early shad spawn could get right in a hurry.
College BASS champion Trevor McKinney didn’t have to wait long for his first Bassmaster Classic keeper. The Benton, Ill., angler landed a 2-plus-pounder at 6:33. His catch was part of an early-morning flurry at Lake Ray Roberts, which has seen, first, Drew Benton, then Steve Kennedy put 5-bass limits in the boat within 30 minutes of takeoff. Benton had 5 weighing 11-5 at 6:43; Kennedy had 5 weighing 15-14 and the early lead at 6:44.
Hank Cherry has been the picture of confidence all week. “I’m in the best state of mind and physical condition I could possibly be in,” Cherry told me earlier this week. As the defending Classic champion, he was boat No. 2 in the takeoff order at 6:15 this morning, after Angler of the Year Clark Wendlandt. At 6:20, Cherry caught a 4 1/2-pounder. His confidence has to be sky-high now.
Bill Lowen has seniority in this 54-man field as this marks his 11th Bassmaster Classic qualification. Next on the list are Steve Kennedy and Brandon Palaniuk with 10, followed by Matt Herren with nine.
“It kind of makes me feel old,” said Lowen, who is 47. “On that other side of that, wow, it’s pretty cool. It’s kind of crazy to think that you’ve got the most appearances here. But on the other side of that, honestly, this is probably the Classic that I’ve just been kind of laid back and relaxed. I’m not really worried about it at all. All I want to do now is go fishing.”
Lowen was a popular pick to win this in an informal poll among his fellow competitors. That’s a testament to his experience, his favorite style of fishing and the high-water conditions at Lake Ray Roberts.
“Shallow water, lots of targets, you’re going to have to get up there and grind it out,” Lowen said. “It ain’t easy. That’s the big deal. You’re going to have to stay focused because it’s such a grind. You may go four or five hours without a bite, then all the sudden you get three or four bites real quick. If you don’t have your head screwed on straight, they’re going to kick your tail. That’s the other part of this – just staying focused. For me, that’s just another day. For some of these guys, if they can’t get bit in four or five hours, the squirrels start going around in their heads.”
FORT WORTH, Texas — When Chris Zaldain says this Bassmaster Classic is going to be “a one-day tournament, three days in a row,” he’s not referring to some personal mantra, like “stay in the moment” or “one day at a time.” He’s referring to the nature of Lake Ray Roberts, which he also describes as “a flip-flop lake.”
No other angler in the 54-man field will have spent more time on this lake than Zaldain when the 51st Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk begins Thursday. The 29,000-acre lake is located 45 minutes from Zaldain’s home in Fort Worth. He’s practiced extensively – twice – for this Classic, first before the off-limits period when the tournament was originally scheduled in March, and then before it went off-limits at the re-scheduled date.
And Zaldain has experienced the ultimate example of how this lake can go from hot to cold overnight. After the Elite Series tournament at Pickwick Lake on March 18-21, the weekend when the Classic was originally scheduled, Zaldain showed what’s possible at Lake Ray Roberts. His best five were as follows: 9.65 lbs., 7.23 lbs., 6.48 lbs., 5.64 lbs. and 4.50 lbs. That’s a total of 33 ½ pounds.
“It’s very hard to duplicate what you did yesterday,” Zaldain said. “The day after I caught 33 ½ pounds, I went out the next day, in the exact same conditions, and caught one fish.
“This is such a flip-flop lake. You do not catch them in the same areas, the same patterns, the same lures three days in a row. Every day is a new day, no matter what time of year, even in the springtime. I think it’s because the population of bass is just not like Lake Fork or Rayburn or Toledo Bend. It’s a big-fish place, but there aren’t very many of them.”
For that reason, no matter what happens on the first day of this Classic, no one should get overconfident or too discouraged.
“A guy could be in 25th or 30th after Day 1, and be in contention on Sunday,” Zaldain said. “I think 16 to 18 pounds is going to be a good day, and I think a lot of guys will have 12- to 13-pound bags.”
Zaldain doesn’t expect to see one of those 30-pound bags caught during the Classic. He won a new truck after catching the big bass at the 2016 Texas Toyota Bass Classic. It weighed 7.14 pounds, and he caught it flipping bushes. That will undoubtedly be the dominant method for this field over the next three days, as the lake is four feet high and there are acres and acres of flooded vegetation.
“If a mega, mega bag is going to be caught,” Zaldain said, “it’s going to be on an offshore spot where the fish just decided, hey, it’s 92 degrees today, I’m going to get offshore and start thinking about summertime.”
Plenty of anglers have spent time looking for those offshore fish in practice this week. If anyone has found them, they’re not talking about it, of course. But several anglers have mentioned how they planned to fish offshore when they arrived at Lake Ray Roberts, and they’re planning to flip bushes now.
Zaldain plans to do his share of that, with a twist or two thrown in. Whether any of his extensive time on this lake pays off will come down to his familiarity with it.
“The advantage I have is I know the personality of this place, and I know how to get around it from all those days I spent here in the offseason,” he said. “I think the whole Classic “Bassmaster LIVE” show is going to be flipping bushes. I really want to put on a show with a big bait, crashing it through the bushes.”
If that doesn’t happen Friday, he will try it again on Saturday. No one has experienced the flip-flop nature of Lake Ray Roberts like Chris Zaldain.