Fishing smart in East Texas

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Mark Hicks

Like the rest of the Bassmaster Elite Series field, I’ve been stuck at home during a time of year when we’re usually on the road fishing the bulk of our tournament schedule. It is a trying time for many people, and I sympathize with those who are suffering. The struggles of others make my complaints seem pretty minor, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be out there competing.

It’s mid-April, and I’ve only fished five tournament days this year – two at the St. Johns and three at the Classic. There are some guys in our field who have only fished two tournament days. That’s unheard of. Even though many of us have been fishing locally, we’re all probably a little rusty when it comes to tournament strategy and mental preparation.

There are a few positives to all of this. My gear is immaculate. I was highly organized before we went to Florida because I expected it to be a fast-paced season with back-to-backs on very different venues. Now, with all of the free time we’ve had, I’ve refined, reorganized and upgraded anything that was at all questionable. I’ve also finished up some much-needed projects around the house. Some of them I expected to remain unfinished until 2021 or 2022, but now they’re done.

We built our house close to Sam Rayburn because it’s such a good tournament lake. Before COVID-19 effectively shut down tournament fishing, it had pumped out some huge limits this year, but it’s not always a 20-, 30- or 40-pound lake. In the postspawn and in the fall it often takes less than that to win local tournaments.

One of the problems for me right now is I have nothing to which I can compare my results to find out if I’m fishing well. There aren’t any local tournaments going on, so I have no baseline to aim for. I could go out and catch 15 pounds, think I’m doing poorly, and actually be really on target – or I could go out and catch 25, but if the local hammers were competing they’d all be catching 30. 

Despite that frustration, there are still ways to stay sharp. In the past I’ve made concerted efforts to dial in specific techniques and skills during my fun fishing. For example, if you have a tournament coming up at Lake Fork in June – as I hope we do – you know that a big crankbait is going to be a player, so you can spend fun fishing time working on your cranking skills. If you’re going to fish up north for smallmouth in the summertime, you can work on your electronics.

B.A.S.S. has told us that they’re committed to finishing the full schedule. As competitors who make their living fishing tournaments, we all really appreciate that. However, we don’t know when the events will take place, so it’s hard to really work on specific skills that we expect to benefit us, so I’ve been mixing it up.

In addition to mixing up various deep and shallow techniques, I’ve been fishing for other species besides bass. In particular, my wife and I have done a lot of crappie fishing, which we really enjoy, and it means one less trip to the grocery store. The way we’ve been doing it on Rayburn has lots of similarities to bass fishing and has allowed me to dial in my Humminbird Mega 360 even better.

Right now some of the crappies are prespawn, but a lot of them are postspawn. They’re positioned in the ditches and channels on Rayburn, which tend to wind back and forth in a complicated pattern. They tend to be tightly bunched up. Unlike bass, which will often come a long way to hit a lure, with the crappie, you usually have to put it right in front of them to get a bite. If you’re just a little bit off, you might as well not be there.

With my Mega 360, if I get in the channel and look toward the grass, sometimes the crappie blend in and I miss them, but if I set the boat on the edge of the grass and look into the channel I can see everything. Catching them is like taking candy from a baby, and we often catch 25 or 30 in a matter of minutes. It’s fun, and it keeps my skills sharp. 

I remain hopeful that this pandemic will start slowing down and that we’ll get back out on tour sooner rather than later, but in the meantime I’m going to continue to #FishSmart. I hope that you all do the same.