Practice began on Monday morning, Memorial Day, for the 2023 Folds of Honor Bassmaster Elite at Sabine River. There’s no more fitting of a day for the start of official practice for this week’s Elite, with the event being headlined by a phenomenal nonprofit organization that aids families of fallen and disabled service members.
It’s an unbelievable privilege to live in a nation where you can make a living trying to prove you’re better than the next guy at chasing down and tricking a little green fish. And those of us who get paid to play other roles in the sport we all love are perhaps the most privileged of all.
There’s a sprinkling of service members in this group of anglers and staff, but most of us didn’t earn any of this. And I feel confident speaking on behalf of this collective in saying that we’d all like to to thank those who did earn it, through their personal sacrifice or their sacrifice of a loved one. Thank you.
Transitioning to the task at hand, 104 Elite Series pros return this week to one of the toughest playing fields that we have in our sport, for the fifth time. Though the fishing is challenging, this is one of the most exciting events of the year with long runs, huge crowds and thousands of tiny, critical decisions that will determine the outcome.
Mike Iaconelli has made some good decisions here in the past, finishing 18th in 2018 and 30th in 2015. He also finished 83rd here in 2013, showing how hot-and-cold this place can be.
Each time the Elites return to the Sabine, it seems as though the fishery is anew, with new challenges and new hidey holes and strategies getting exposed. Ike certainly experienced his fair share of challenges here as practice got underway, the first coming just 20 minutes into the day.
“I dropped my phone in the lake,” said Iaconelli. “Thought it was gone. I was idling past the ramp about 6 or 7 hours later, and someone found it. I can’t make this up. It’s crazy.”
Apparently, fellow Elite Series pro Steve Kennedy’s family heard that Ike had lost his phone near the ramp. They went to see if they could locate it. Another Elite pro, Drew Benton, scanned around with his Lowrance graph and believed he pinpointed it. Kennedy’s daughter, Sophia dove in and came up with two pairs of sunglasses, a beer bottle and Ike’s phone, the same phone we conducted this interview on just a few hours later. These are the days of our Elites.
But that was just chaotic happenstance number one of Ike’s day. His second surprise came out on the water.
“The areas I fished in today were really high and dirty. I don’t know if it was a week ago or two weeks ago, but they had a flood event here. I could just tell. There’s a watermark on all the trees that’s like 7 or 8 feet high. And there’s still a lot of debris in the water, like trash mats. So you could tell they’ve had a flood event here. That’s usually not good.”
According to Ike, the high water is not good on a fishery like this for multiple reason. For one, all the extra water muddies things up quite a bit. And the high water scatters the fish.
“When that water gets high, it literally floods into the woods, into the swamps. And that’s tough because you physically can’t get to the fish.
“Clean water is very, very hard to find right now. And when you do find it, you find boats. You find our guys, you find locals. So that’s going to be a challenge. As big as this fishery is, it’s not really that big when you take out Louisiana and you’re restricted to Texas.”
Though the Elites were allowed to fish Louisiana waters here in the past, that created quite a bit of chaos, as there seemed to be a different set of laws covering every ditch and some of the locals were less than welcoming to the wrapped boats.
In the interest of safety and simplicity, the anglers are only allowed to fish in Texas. But with the inter-coastal waterway open to anglers who would like to stretch their legs a bit, there’s still plenty of water to explore. They can make a 200-mile round trip run if they’d like, all the way down and back up into the Houston area, as several have done in the past.
“I think that’s definitely viable for someone that wants to take a chance, and I think you can win there. I really do. But where I’m at in AOY points (sixth), it just really doesn’t make sense for me, to take that gamble. Cause it’s real easy to hero, and it’s real easy to zero doing that long run.”
The last time the Elites were here in 2021, Brock Mosley made that move and came up just under 2 pounds shy of the win. And Ike admitted, if this were the 2022 season when he had more of a win at all cost mentality, he’d probably make that run.
But 2023 Ike has been much more reserved, just trying to go out and catch what he can and not force anything. The results of this renewed mindset have him sitting in a great position in the Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year race.
“In my mind I’m basically fishing as far west as Taylor’s Bayou and as far east as the Sabine itself. That’s kind of my range that I want to fish in.”
Poking around in that arena on day one of practice, Ike found sporadic success. He generated a good number of bites, but gave his overall day a grade of C+.
“I probably caught 20 to 25 today, or had 20 to 25 bites. And very few of them were keepers (over 12 inches). A lot of them I caught today were 10 to 11 1/2 inches. So, I’m really searching for an area with some better quality fish, but I really didn’t find it today.”
Quality is extremely hard to come by on the Sabine, and it starts around 2 pounds. Historically, if an angler can average just a little more than 2 pounds per keeper across three days of competition, he has a great shot at making the final day. Do that for four days and throw in a big one or two, and you’ve got a good shot at winning.
“I fished two of the main areas where guys tend to do good here and both of them seemed like they were affected by that flood event. But right now, the swamps are draining. I went past several swamps today, and you could see the water flowing out.
“So the water is coming down. And at some point they have to get back out on the stuff that’s fishable. But it still looks a few feet high to me. And I think that’s gonna hurt a little bit.”
Though the recent high water is bad in Ike’s eyes, the residual effects are good. As the water falls, it creates a little current, and the moving water can be critical this time of the year.
“You want some current. I’m not necessarily saying you want like a honking current, like a super flow. But you want some flow. In the spawn, you don’t want flow. You want protected areas. But, this time of the year, you actually want a little water movement.”
This bodes well for the shift in schedule of this event. Typically, the Elites have visited the Sabine during the spawn, with the only other exception being in 2018 when the event was held during the first week of June.
“I think that’s going to be important this week. I think the guys that catch them, you’re going to hear them talking about the area having some kind of flow to it.”
The warmer water should also have the fish biting according to Ike.
“My water temperature today was anywhere from 78 all the way up to 83, depending on the area. So that’s a straight up summertime pattern. This time of the year, they gotta eat a lot. When the water is so warm, their metabolism gets all juiced up and they just have to eat a lot. So that’s good.”
As for what the bass will be feeding on, the menu is vast. Ike mentioned seeing shad in places on day one of practice, but he’s also keenly aware of the bountiful bluegill and crawfish populations here. And then there are saltwater species of bait throughout much of the fishery as well.
“I saw mullet jumping today. There’s needlefish. There’s an endless supply off things they can eat. The hardest part is just finding them. You can go miles and miles and miles and not get a bite. But then when you get around them, they usually bite pretty good, especially if no one has found that area.”
Finding an area all to himself though is a bit of a lofty goal according to Ike. If he is able to do so, he’s thinking it’ll be a muddier area, as the less than desirable water color may deter some other anglers.
“For guys that are finding something by themselves, and they’re in dirtier water, I think power fishing is going to rule. But for guys that are fishing in a crowd, or if you get in that clean water, I think in those situations, finesse is going to be really important.
“So, spinning rod, shaky head, drop shot, wacky rig, that kind of thing, even though you wouldn’t really think about doing that in a river. I think, with the clean water and the heavy fishing pressure, that could help you.”
With day two of practice winding down and only one more day to figure out this expansive fishery, the anglers have quite the task ahead. Tune in on Thursday morning to Bassmaster LIVE to see who can figure out things the fastest as the 2023 Folds of Honor Bassmaster Elite at Sabine River gets underway.