Top baits on Chesapeake Bay

The Top 5 finishers at Chesapeake divulge their secret strategies to Steve Wright.

Veteran Elite Series anglers ranked the Huk Performance Fishing Tournament at Chesapeake Bay among the top three toughest in recent B.A.S.S. history, behind only the 2005 Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh and last August’s Elite Series tournament on the Delaware River at Philadelphia. But somebody always catches ‘em on the Elite Series.

Aaron Martens was the headliner at Chesapeake Bay with a four-day total of 70 pounds, 2 ounces. Although Martens was atop the leaderboard at the end of every day, even he had to come from behind in the final hours Sunday to capture his second Elite Series win this season. Here’s a look at the Top 5 finishers at Chesapeake Bay, their lures and the strategies they employed in turning a grinding four days of bass fishing into a most memorable event.

5th Place, Davy Hite, 52-4

It was a big event for Hite, who put himself back in contention for a Bassmaster Classic berth, surging from 61st place in the Toyota Angler of the Year standings entering the tournament and leaving in 39th place. In a tournament dominated by “junk fishing” and shifting patterns from day-to-day, Hite stayed simple.

“I caught everything I weighed-in on a 5-inch (Yamamoto) Senko,” he said. “The Senko is the best plastic bait that’s ever been made.”

Hite relied on two color patterns – June bug, when the tide was rising and the water dirtied, and green-pumpkin, as the tide receded and the water cleared. Sometimes he fished the Senko weightless; other times he threw it on a shaky head.

“The fall (of the lure) is what’s so enticing to the fish,” Hite said. “I let it sink to the bottom, work it just a little bit, then reel in and make another pitch.”

Hite was fishing in the Gunpowder River on the west side of Chesapeake Bay. He worked docks and other shallow cover, but the biggest key for him was casting to a couple of points that tapered into depths of 9 to 13 feet.

4th Place, Gerald Swindle, 54-10

Staying close to the North East, Md., takeoff site and staying on the trolling motor all day long was the key for Swindle. He caught most of his fish in a narrow creek channel.

“I knew I could get five bites a day in that area, if you grinded it out,” Swindle said. “They might weigh 7 pounds or they might weigh 17 pounds.”

Like Hite, Swindle needed a good tournament to shore up a Classic berth. He came to Chesapeake Bay on the AOY Classic bubble – in 41st place – and left in 24th place. Only six of the Top 12 anglers caught a five-bass limit each day, and Swindle was one of them.

Both of Swindle’s key baits had a Zoom connection. He cast a shallow-running crankbait called a “Mutt,” hand-carved by Zoom founder Ed Chambers and flipped a Texas-rigged Zoom Z-Craw – at anything and everything.

“I just tried not to think about it too much,” Swindle said. “That tide made my head hurt. If there was a bubblegum wrapper in the water, I threw at it. The first day I caught ‘em on wood. (Friday) they were on rock. Saturday it was a mix of rock, wood and sand.”

As to why he picked that particular crankbait for this tournament, Swindle explained, “I was so clueless coming into this deal, I just picked a crankbait that had a lot of teeth marks on it.”

3rd Place, Chad Pipkens, 57-15

His third season on the Elite Series looked to be a wash a month ago, but the Michigan native has come on strong lately. He finished 32nd at the St. Lawrence River, placed seventh in the Bass Pro Shops Northern Open at Lake Oneida and gave himself on early 32nd birthday present (born August 23) at Chesapeake Bay.

Pipkens, like Hite, kept things simple, describing has pattern at Chesapeake Bay as, “Shaky head, shaky head, shaky head.” Pipkens said he threw five different small soft plastic “worm-type” baits on a 1/8th-ounce shaky head jig, including a small Dimiki worm, a centipede-style bait, another finesse worm and a larger Trick Worm-style bait, either in June bug or green-pumpkin colors, mostly June bug.

“It’s a confidence thing, mostly,” Pipkens said.

Pipkens attributed his success more to putting those baits in the right places than anything else. He used 12-pound test Sunline SX1 braid with a 10-pound test Sunline fluorocarbon leader on his spinning reels. Pipkens also caught a couple of key fish on a medium-running and a square-bill crankbait in shad color patterns.

It was decision-making that aided Pipkens on Day 4, when he weighed the second-biggest bag of the tournament – 18-7. He started in the Susquehanna River, instead of going to his main areas in the Bay first, and caught a key fish. Then he came back to the Susquehanna at the end of the day and caught two 4-pounders in the last 45 minutes.

2nd Place, Bill Lowen, 62-3

Although Lowen entered the final day trailing Aaron Martens by an ounce shy of 5 pounds, it looked for a long while like the affable Ohio native might win his first Elite Series event. He went from 5 pounds down to an estimated 8 pounds up on Martens late Sunday morning, before “The Natural” found his groove.

Lowen would end up almost 8 pounds behind Martens, but he had nothing to feel bad about, particularly after posting the third-biggest bag of the tournament – 18-5.

Lowen had as many as 15 rods on his boat deck, but his successful lure patterns boiled down to two, mainly: 1) a black Texas-rigged Brush Hog-style creature bait that he pitched on 15-pound test Hi-Seas fluorocarbon and a quarter-ounce Reins tungsten weight; and 2) a quarter-ounce Tim Poe’s “Ohio River” white spinnerbait with a 3-inch Tightlines UV white grub trailer. The spinnerbait featured double Colorado blades – hammered, one silver, one gold – about sizes No.4 and No. 3 ½, Lowen guessed.

Lowen found an area in Swan Creek during practice that held some big bass at low tide. He caught a 5-, a 4- and a 3-pounder there, in a milfoil patch that had a ditch running behind it. Lowen didn’t realize the spot would produce on any tide – high or low – until Day 2. No one else had found the spot. Lowen camped on it and expanded it the final three days.

“I caught numbers on the spinnerbait,” Lowen said. “I’ve been throwing that spinnerbait since I was 8 years old. My bigger fish came on the creature-style bait. I had to go with a light weight because I needed to float it over the milfoil instead of letting it go down in there. I caught a lot of fish dead-sticking it, just kind of letting it lay there in the grass.”

Lowen is having an exceptional season. He’s now 12th in the AOY standings. His only bomb was at Kentucky Lake, where he finished 88th. He just missed a check at the Sabine River (58th) and has finished in the Top 50 five times now. This marked the third second-place finish in Lowen’s career. He was runner-up at Clear Lake in 2010 and second at Old Hickory in 2009.

When you lose by almost 8 pounds after catching the third-best bag of the tournament, it’s hard to have any regrets, and Lowen had none.

“I fished a great event,” he said. “I fished clean. If you’re going to get beat, that’s the way to get beat.”

1st Place, Aaron Martens, 70-2

What a show the two-time AOY champion put on in the final hours Sunday, as he attempts to win another Angler of the Year title. Martens picked Bowleys Marina, near Baltimore, to concentrate his efforts on Chesapeake Bay. The only problem was the tide had to be right in that area for the bass to bite. And the right tide was one trending toward low.

The tide didn’t get right in Bowleys Marina Sunday until Martens’ 5-pound lead at the day’s start had withered into an 8-pound deficit to Bill Lowen by 11 a.m. Martens had a single one-pound dink in his livewell until he added a 2-pounder at 11:30. He still trailed Lowen in a big way, but Martens noticed the fish were getting active. He had several short strikes before all hell, or heaven, broke loose just past noon. By 1:30, Martens had sacked the big bag of the tournament at 21-5, which included the big bass of the event, 7-2.

Martens mentioned that he’d told his wife, Leslie, the previous night that she shouldn’t worry “if I don’t have anything at noon.” Why should Leslie worry about Aaron, who has finished in second place 13 times during his illustrious career? She might not have been thinking it, but plenty of observers on Bassmaster Live were considering the possibilities of a 14th runner-up finish. Chesapeake Bay had already dealt both Edwin Evers and Jacob Powroznik a zero in this event.

By 1:30 p.m., Martens was having so much fun that he didn’t want to leave, even knowing he had the tournament title well in hand and faced a rough boat ride of at least 45 minutes to check-in.

“I wanted to fish,” Martens explained later on stage. “I’m a fisherman.” No argument from anyone on that statement.

Martens proved his tournament savvy on a tough fishery by changing tactics every day and leaving an area untouched until Sunday. Fish conservation was a big key at Chesapeake Bay, where so many anglers pounded the same water near the weigh-in site at North East. On Day 1, it was mainly a drop-shot technique that produced a 17-8 bag. He pitched a 4.5-inch Robo Fat Tail worm (Aaron’s Magic color) hooked 6- to 8 inches above a 3/16ths-ounce weight on 10-pound test Sunline Super FC Sniper.

On Day 2, Martens was back in the Middle River/Bowleys Marina/Frog Mortar Creek area, working the marina pilings and some shallow vegetation nearby. This proved to be more of a spinnerbait day, and he used both 1/4th- and 3/8ths-ounce sizes, mostly fitted with white/chartreuse skirts and a Strike King Blade Minnow blue gizzard-color trailer. Martens weighed 15-0 and led by only ounces over Pipkens and Carl Jocumsen.

Day 3 proved to be “jig day,” as most of Martens’ 16-5 sack came on 1/2- and 3/8ths-ounce jigs trailed with a green-pumpkin Beaver-style soft plastic. But Martens was experimenting with different lures every day, as well, throwing a frog some, and spinnerbaits plus drop-shotting. He was also throwing a bladed jig every day, and catching nothing on it, but attracting short strikes.

It was on the final day when the bladed jig, a Z-Man Chatterbait, to be specific, trailed with the Blade Minnow, became his get-rich-quick scheme. Martens had just about pulled even with Lowen with his third keeper of the day, a 2 1/2-pounder, at 12:15. Thirty minutes later, Martens sealed the win with the 7-2, which came unhooked just after Martens lunged to grab it. With as much bad luck as he’s had over the years, Martens admitted he had some good luck in landing the difference-maker. Luck evens out, eventually, they say.

Martens added a couple more 4-plus pounders in the next 45 minutes to make it a runaway – highly dramatic for a live Internet audience – but a route nonetheless. His final margin was 7-15 over Lowen. Martens was 4 points behind Dean Rojas in the AOY race after Kentucky Lake, and one point behind Justin Lucas. After the St. Lawrence River, Martens had an 11-point lead over second-place Rojas. After Chesapeake Bay, the margins grew to 69 points over Lucas and 73 points over Rojas.

Martens’ attention to detail is both a blessing and a curse for him. He was operating all week on about 4 hours sleep per night because he stayed up so late working on tackle. It was that attention to detail that had him throwing a Z-Man Chatterbait on Sunday, instead of the bladed jig made by one of his sponsors. Martens changes the thin wire line-connections on all bladed jigs for a larger diameter one. He says the thin clips can cut into the 20-pound test line he was using with bladed jigs..

“I want something with a beefier clip,” Martens said. “But they’re hard to change on a bladed bait. And I didn’t want to spend another 30 minutes on it last night.”

The Chatterbait was the only one he had Sunday with a bigger clip on it. It’s just one more little thing that added up to a big chapter in the ever-amazing tournament storybook of Aaron Martens.