Bassmaster Elite Series pros catch a lot of flack from the media for sandbagging. Many pros report getting few bites on practice days, then these same guys lug heavy limits to the stage after the tournament starts.
There’s no question that sandbagging is part of the game. Some guys always hold their cards close to the vest. On the other hand, there isn’t as much sandbagging going on as you might think.
That’s because many pros, myself included, blow through areas so fast in practice that we may get only one or two bites before moving on. You know bass are there but not how many. A big bass could be a loner, or it might tip you off to a bunch of bigguns.
With such limited practice time, we can’t afford to stay in one area and really try to get it dialed in. I want to find as many places that have bass as I can so I have as many options as possible. In most cases, I really don’t know what I’ve got until the tournament begins. Then I slow down and let things unfold.
The recent Elite Series tournament at Ross Barnett is a perfect example. On the first practice day I started close in a marina harbor. I made a quick pass, casting a spinnerbait to boat slips. I nailed a 5 1/2-pounder and two shorts and kept moving.
I spent the rest of the day checking other areas. I caught a few keepers here and there. That was it.
On the second practice day I caught a 3 1/2-pound bass from a grassy flat near the boat harbor. I had another bite in that same flat but couldn’t tell how big the bass was. I fished a lot of other places that day and again on the third day of practice and caught random fish here and there and nothing else over 3 pounds.
I had gotten only two good bites in three days, and I got them in two different places.
If Mark Zona or Tommy Sanders had asked me how my practice had gone, I would have honestly told them it was slow and that I had no idea what I would catch next day. I would have inadvertently set myself up to be a major sandbagger.
At takeoff on Day 1, I never put my boat on plane. I idled across the marina harbor and started slinging a spinnerbait to boat slips where I had caught the biggun in practice. I couldn’t get a sniff.
A low-pressure system was pushing through, and it was spitting rain. I had a gut feeling that I needed to be fishing a bone color Yo-Zuri 3DB Series Pencil, a topwater walking bait.
Gut feelings are born of past experiences. I had an epic day with this bait last year at an Elite tournament on Lake Texoma. The conditions were similar. I smashed a limit that weighed over 21 pounds on the fourth day and finished second at BASSfest last year.
I didn’t even have the 3DB Pencil tied on the first morning at Ross Barnett. I dug it out and matched it with a 7-foot, Abu Garcia Veritas medium action rod, a high speed Abu Garcia Revo MGX reel and 40-pound Yo-Zuri Superbraid.
My very first cast with my Pencil I had a hit, and I caught one on the next cast. I stayed on the sea walls. Over the next hour, I focused on sea walls with my favorite topwater bait and caught one 5.5-pounder, a 4.5-pounder and several around 3 pounds. It was just an awesome topwater morning.
I left the marina a little after noon with about 19 pounds in my livewell. I wanted to save those fish. There were also 10 other Elite boats in the marina, and I didn’t want those guys to see how I was catching my fish.
The sun was starting to peek out. I ran to the grass flat where I had caught the 3 1/2-pound bass in practice. The grass there was gator vine, but it was thin enough that I could walk a frog over it. I caught a 3 1/2-pounder right out of the gate and culled.
When you have a good limit of bass in your livewell, you can really slow down and work over an area. I knew that I had 20 pounds at this point and I was loving life. At one point I joked to my Marshal that I should quit messing around and catch a 6-pounder. We had a good laugh about that.
Ten minutes later a 6-pounder blasted my frog, and I put it in the boat. When the smoke cleared after the weigh-in, I was in first place with 22-pounds, 14-ounces.
I’m glad Zona or Sanders didn’t ask me about my practice because they would have pummeled me with the sandbagger moniker.
Fishing pressure and an influx of muddy water undermined my performance the following two days. I was third after the second day and dropped to 16th on the third day.
I’m pretty sure I would have been able to make the Top 12 cut if I had fished conservatively and stayed in the marina harbor all day on Day 3. I knew that most of the big fish in the harbor had been caught, and to win, I knew I had to check other areas. When I have the rare opportunity to win an Elite tournament, I stay aggressive and go for it. I have no regrets. It was an awesome week!