Classic lessons from Three Rivers

What can you learn from the most bass-stingy CITGO Bassmaster Classic in history, held on a fishery where keepers are few and far between?

As it turns out, plenty.

Sure, you're skeptical. After all, winner Kevin VanDam set the record for Classic futility with a measly three day catch totaling just 12 pounds, 15 ounces … the largest bass brought to the Classic scales weighed a puny 2 pounds, 14 ounces … the big bass on the second and final days didn't crack the two pound mark … only seven pros managed to break the 10-pound mark … a mere eight limits were caught and a grand total of 219 bass made the ride into Mellon Arena.

Not much to work with, you say?

On the contrary, there are plenty of lessons to be gleaned from all tough fishing situations, including the most challenging Classic in its 35-year history. Most of us are more accustomed to difficult fishing than to the occasional slugfest.

We know that summertime is a less than optimal time for bass fishing. And Pittsburgh's Three Rivers area is home to an improving smallmouth, largemouth and spotted bass fishery that has a long way to go to be considered good. Still, some anglers caught more than a dozen bass a day — they just had a hard time finding five that would stretch past the 12-inch mark.

In their perseverance and resourcefulness we can find little gems of wisdom worth depositing in our memory banks for the next time we start to throw in the towel.

Kevin VanDam: Relying on an old friend

To win his second Classic, VanDam looked up an old friend.

In this case, it was an old lure from his teenage days that had fooled countless smallmouth in tough times over the years. He had relied on a 20-year-old original Smithwick Rogue to win the final Bassmaster Elite 50 stop on Wisconsin's Lake Wissota where the smallmouth were anything but cooperative. It seemed like a natural to take the 4 1/2-inch discontinued jerkbait to Pittsburgh where even smaller and fewer smallies lived.

With its size and chrome color, it closely resembled the small shad that served as the bass' primary forage in the downtown pool of the Monongahela River. The old bait provided him with something his competitors never found — a lure that would produce even when there was no current.

"One of the real key things that I learned a month ago here was that when the current stopped and they didn't run any water through the system, the bass basically dispersed," VanDam explains. "When the current was running, they would stay real tight to those bridges. Most of the time they'd be right on the upcurrent points.

"I just happened to see how the bass got away from the cove and started to roam around and school. And they'd break out in the middle of the river a little bit. The first two days we had a lot of current, but on the last day the current completely shut off. I'll tell you, I was smiling on that last morning because, again, when I was here a month ago I saw both things."

The way that Rogue performed (producing 37 bass over three days) would be enough to make any angler smile.

"They don't make them any more," notes VanDam, who brought four to Classic XXXV. "It's a lot different than the ones they make now. It's really super buoyant. It's got a shallow lip on it. And the key to it is that you can jerk it really hard and it wouldn't tangle up. It wouldn't run real deep. And it is super erratic. It had buoyancy to it so when you snapped the rod tip the bait would jump forward and then jump back. That's why those old ones are really good.

VanDam believes that the difference between the vintage version and newer bait is the use of a different plastic and lead BBs — they currently use steel BBs.

KVD's gameplan involved targeting bridge pilings, points, seawalls and rocky flats that served as current breaks. He believes that most of his competitors were fishing under the bass (his Rogue darted less than 2 feet below the surface). VanDam also credits Biosonix, an electronic fish attracting system that imitates feeding bass and baitfish, for his success in tough conditions.

"I concentrated mostly on main-river structures that had current either directly hitting them or flowing over them," the three-time CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year says. "When the water hits a point or a bridge piling, it kind of creates a little slack spot right in front. And the fish will sit right there and wait for little balls of shad and stuff to come down through there.

"I was throwing on these upcurrent points and along the bridge piers. The other fish I caught were on little flat points, little rocky areas that kind of let out into the river and have a little current sweeping over them. Smallmouth love to get on flats like that. So when the current was running, a lot of fish would move up on those flats. When it wasn't running, they'd kind of suspend around those bridge pilings."

Aaron Martens: Tiny line, big disappointment

For daring anglers like Aaron Martens, it is an age-old dilemma: Ultralight line will attract more strikes, but may not be strong enough to put bass in the boat.

The former California Whiz Kid, now living in Alabama, is one of the country's most accomplished light-line fishermen. Given the scarcity and size of the smallmouth in the Three Rivers area, it was no surprise to find him flinging a wimpy spinning rod with 5- and 6-pound-test fluorocarbon line with his trusty drop shot rig.

When it came to getting bites and catching fish, Martens was busy — landing a total of 58 bass, to be exact. Unfortunately for him, only 12 were legal size.

Predictably, break-offs and lost bass turned out to be a factor. In the first two rounds, Martens caught enough bass (22 and 25) to overcome that problem; his efforts in the finals produced just 11 fish and three keepers.

"Today, I had way less bites — probably less than 20 bites," the reigning Angler of the Year emphasizes. "But I had bigger bites. Two of the keepers I lost were pound-and-a-halfers. I just got burned again. Some broke me off. I'm thinking that 5-pound line was too delicate. I think I probably could have gotten by with 7-pound, but I knew I could get more bites on 5-pound, and it casts farther, which was important."

Martens' third runner-up Classic performance revolved around points and bridges (a single bridge surrendered his second-place weight in 2004 on Lake Wylie) in the Pittsburgh pool that had current flowing by it.

"The first two days, I had a lot more bites because the current flowed all day," he says. "It concentrated the fish. I knew right where they were at. They were either on the points or right inside the eddy pockets on the edge of the current. It was easy to jump around and fish a bunch of spots like that."

It was his ability to fish methodically that enabled Martens to score so often with his drop shot. Not only did he use a 1/16-ounce weight, he thumbed the spool to slow it down even more. Most of his strikes came on the fall from smallmouth chasing shad adjacent to the current breaks. That strategy produced a total weight of 12-9 — 6 ounces short of VanDam's winning catch.

Gerald Swindle: A two-pronged approach

For Gerald Swindle, the turning point in his Classic performance occurred late in the first round when he realized his primary mistake.

"The first day of the tournament I felt like I ran a little too much," the 2004 Angler of the Year said. "I was a little too antsy. I wasn't patient enough.

"I started in the Mon. My whole gameplan was to fish a little bit slicker water than everybody else. I tried to second-guess these guys. I started in the no-wake zone to try to fish calm water with a topwater. I felt like the topwater fish were best the first couple of hours. You just had to be around rock. I would kind of follow these guys up and let them lock and I'd have pretty clean water.

"The first day I panicked and locked up a little too quickly. When I came back down — that's when it all started making sense. I only had one keeper with about 50 minutes left and I had six keeper bites in the next 10 minutes, and boated two of them. They were all on the same rock that was small enough you could put your arms around it. That's when I noticed what was going on."

The next day, Swindle went out and caught a total of 38 bass — part of 60 over the course of three rounds. That's the good news; the bad news is that just 11 measured over the three days and combined for a measly 11-13.

In addition to his novel topwater approach, the Alabama pro also found that he could score in fast water by using a Lucky Craft Bevy Crank DR ultralight crankbait (which he compared to Norman's Crappie Crankbait) and a small creature bait around bridge pilings and other current-blocking objects.

"I saw a lot of guys stay on the outside, fishing the downriver side of the bridge pilings," he says. "But I noticed anywhere the current was the strongest, if I could get it amplified to the point where it was really ripping, I could throw a crankbait suspended out front — which is pretty stupid because normally you would think you need to be downriver. I cranked the top end of every bridge piling and the head of any kind of barge top, and then went back to my lucky rock."

On the final day, his lucky rock had some help. "A barge actually pushed up right when I started casting toward the rock. When it did, it made the current on this rock extremely strong. I caught two keepers there back to back and missed two nice ones. I fished for a couple more hours and came back there, but nothing. I ran downriver and saw a barge coming back. At that time, I had four fish, so I ran back to the rock. I stood there with my rod on my hip until the barge got even with me. I made a cast and lost a big one. Then I jumped off another keeper. It was downhill from there"

Swindle's magic rock surrendered 14 keeper bites in three days.

George Cochran: Cranking grass bass

Find aquatic vegetation in the Three Rivers area and you were bound to have company. Such was the case for fourth-place finisher George Cochran (11-10), who shared a mile-long stretch of shallow coontail moss and milfoil on the Monongahela with five other pros.

Despite throwing a pair of crankbaits, the two-time Classic champion was the model of efficiency. While most of his competitors reported losing numerous bass, Cochran lost only a single fish, but laments that it cost him another Classic crown.

"Basically, I lost the Classic the first day of the tournament," he states. "The first day I was switching between several different lures. I caught one about a pound on the shallow crankbait in that grass. I kept switching lures, but I switched back to the crankbait with about an hour to go and I caught another one over 2 pounds. That was a big fish in this tournament.

"Then I decided I wasn't going to mess with anything else, and I really started throwing that crankbait. About five minutes later, I hooked another one about 2 1/2 pounds, pulled it about a foot and it came off. The second and third day I put away everything but that shallow crankbait."

Wise decision.

Cochran utilized two shallow divers to exploit the grass, which came off of the bank and ended in about 3 feet of water: a Lucky Craft Moonsault CB001 for the shallowest portions and a Strike King Series 1 for the deeper, outer areas. He utilized 15-pound-test line to keep the baits from diving too deep.

It was a good strategy, but the process of locking through two dams to the farthest pool of the Mon limited Cochran to about 3 1/2 hours of fishing each day.

Michael Iaconelli: Current hunting

Former Classic champion and Mellon Arena favorite Michael Iaconelli took a similar approach to the leaders by concentrating his efforts on current-laden bridge pilings, as well as barges and industrial outflow. It produced a fifth-place weight of 11-5.

"I fished basically two baits and one pattern all week," the New Jersey pro reported. "The pattern for me revolved around fishing areas with current. Fishing where the current hits an object and then breaks off the object. So, I concentrated on the eddies and seams created by that current."

Iaconelli worked these spots with an unidentified Japanese-made ultralight crankbait (it looked very much like a Lucky Craft Bevy Crank DR) and a small prototype Berkley Gulp creature bait.

"It was a finesse tournament," he added. "One of the things I noticed was the more the sun got up later in the day the more the fish would suspend. So, the crankbait was more effective later in the day. Early in the morning, the bottom-bouncing bait was more effective."

In the end, Iaconelli felt like he had made a fatal strategic decision in the final round: "I basically went back up to the third pool today because that was the pool I hadn't hit that much. I felt like you needed to keep hitting new water every day. In hindsight, that was probably the wrong decision. The Pittsburgh pool seemed like it produced the best over the course of three days. In hindsight, maybe I should have stayed put. Maybe I would have caught some more keepers."

Classic details

1. Kevin VanDam

Lures: Vintage Chrome 4 1/2-inch Smithwick Rogue with two No. 6 Mustad Ultra Point hooks and one No. 6 Triple Grip treble; 1/4-ounce Strike King buzzbait with a clear-silver skirt.

Tackle: Jerkbait: 6 1/2-foot Quantum PT medium action spinning rod. Quantum Energy 40 large-capacity spool reel and 8-pound-test Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon line. Buzzbait: 6 1/2-foot Quantum Tour Edition medium action baitcast rod, Quantum PT reel and 14-pound-test XPS monofilament. Biosonix electronic fish attraction system.

Technique: Worked jerkbait around bridge pilings, points and flats when current was running; moved to middle of river to target suspended bass when current was not present.

2. Aaron Martens

Lure: Three-inch hologram-shad Roboworm Live Shad and Berkley Gulp Minnows in black shad and smelt colors.

Tackle: Six-foot-10 Megabass light action spinning rod, Daiwa spinning reel, 5- and 6-pound-test Sunline ­fluorocarbon, 1/16-ounce weight, 10- to 12-inch drop-shot leader, No. 1 and 2 Gamakatsu hooks.

Technique: Targeted current-laden bridges and points.

3. Gerald Swindle

Lures: Small, translucent shad and white colored Lucky Craft Bevy Crank DR; chartreuse-shad Lucky Craft G-splash topwater; silver 3 1/2-inch Smallie Beaver creature bait.

Tackle: Crankbait: 6 1/2-foot Quantum Tour Edition light action spinning rod, Quantum PT 30 reel and 8-pound-test P-Line fluorocarbon. Creature: 7-foot, 4-inch Quantum Gerald Swindle Finesse Flipping light-action rod, Quantum Tour Edition PT baitcast reel and 12-pound-test P-line monofilament. Topwater: 6-6 Quantum Gerald Swindle Topwater light-action rod, Quantum Tour Edition PT baitcast reel and 12-pound-test line.

Technique: Cranked and pitched to upper side of bridge pilings and rocks in current; worked topwater in slack-water spots.

4. George Cochran

Lures: Two-inch (black back, gold sides, white belly) Lucky Craft Moonsault CB001 and shad colored Strike King Series 1 crankbaits.

Tackle: Seven-foot Daiwa Tough & Light composite cranking rod, Daiwa Millionaire reel and 12-pound-test P-Line monofilament.

Technique: Cranking the openings and edges in shallow shoreline coontail moss and milfoil.

5. Michael Iaconelli

Lures: Unidentified shad-colored Japanese-made ultralight crankbait (it looked very much like a Lucky Craft Bevy Crank DR); prototype Berkley Gulp creature bait (green-pumpkin, watermelon with a bluish tint and black metalflake).

Tackle: Six-foot, six-inch Team Daiwa Advantage medium action spinning rod and Team Daiwa Advantage TD2500 reel. Creature: 1/8-ounce Tru-Tungsten jighead and 10-pound-test Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon. Crankbait: 8-pound-test Vanish.

Technique: Concentrated on eddies and seams in current as it bounced off of bridge pilings and other objects.

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