The Quest to Be Elite

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


Part 1


It's Wednesday, Oct. 15. The final day of Matt Herren's practice for the Bassmaster Southern Open event at Lake Guntersville is starting out with thick fog cover. Lake visibility is limited, but not Herren's. The Alabama pro can clearly see his way into the Bassmaster Elite Series.

 He knows exactly what he needs to do at Guntersville; he's crunched the numbers. His math tells him a Top 30 showing in this Open season finale will add enough points to those he earned at the first two Southern Opens to qualify for next year's Bassmaster Elite Series circuit, which was his ultimate goal when he made the decision to compete in the Opens format. His math also tells him that if he can score a tournament Top 5, he'll have enough points for one of the three berths in the 2009 Bassmaster Classic awarded through the Southern Opens. A Classic berth would be a first for the accomplished fisherman.The third big prize he's eyeing is a Guntersville win, which would be his first in a BASS pro level event.Four days later, he almost pulls off the bass fishing trifecta. He's so aggressive at Guntersville, he finishes as No. 1 in the season's points race. An Elite invitation and a Classic berth are his, hands-down. But after leading the field on the second day, the event win slips away by 1 pound, 3 ounces. He places third.

 Most pros would not feel a twinge of regret on a day that ended with two of the sport's most prized accomplishments.

"I got the job done — the Elites and the Classic — so I can't be disappointed, but I sure wanted the win, and I had the chance," he says moments after the tournament is over. "I had a couple of opportunities again today I didn't execute on, including one fish that went about 6 pounds."His third-place check from the Guntersville Open is $26,800 less than the winner's prize. Tournament fishing is Herren's business, and missing a fish that could have meant a bigger check and an event title was not good for business.His decision to try to qualify for the 2009 Bassmaster Elite Series was a business goal. That's not to say his heart isn't in what he does for a living, but the Elite bid came from the head, not the heart.Herren is 45 years old and has been competing at the pro level for almost 20 years. He turned full-time pro in 2003, mostly on the FLW Tour and Series circuits, but he's also competed in various BASS events.

He qualified in 2003 through the Bassmaster Opens to move up to what was the top tier of BASS competition at the time, the Bassmaster Tour, but opted out."I finished fourth in the points that year," Herren says. "The Tour wasn't what the Elites are today as far as money and all the things that go with it, so I chose to fish FLW.

"At that time I didn't have a lot of sponsors, so if I was going to make it, I was going to make it with my fishing rod. Now the Elite Series is more feasible for me and my business, and I like the smaller field."

 The Elite Series bid also stems from his desire to furnish higher value to his major sponsors, including Skeeter, an official boat sponsor of BASS."I'm on their pro staff, and from their standpoint, the exposure I get on the FLW side fishing out of a Skeeter boat is minimal as far as getting print and television coverage for their brand and products. BASS lets you promote your sponsors. I've reached the point where it's better for me, and for my sponsors, to be with BASS."As a first-time Bassmaster Elite Series pro, Herren will be called a rookie in 2009. It's an odd fit for an accomplished angler. To anyone who saw how he picked apart Lake Guntersville last week, the word "rookie" would not come to mind. Someone might, however, believe he's a local who sits at home and waits for big-money circuits to stop at the one lake he knows up and down, backward and forward — what's known as a "jackpotter."

 But Herren is not a jackpotter. Although he is a native of northern Alabama — he now lives in the Birmingham suburb of Clay — the vast Tennessee River impoundment of Guntersville is not "his" Alabama lake.

 I grew up fishing Coosa River lakes. We always had more water there than we could fish, all the way from Weiss Lake to Lake Jordan — all six lakes in the chain. So Guntersville isn't home.

 "I know my way around, but I'm no expert here. I've fished tournaments here in the past, and I've won good-sized tournaments on Guntersville, but I've never spent a lot of time here, which is stupid on my part."

 The word "stupid" pops out of his mouth, perhaps pushed by last-hour pressure. Herren is not one to doubt his talents and skill, or who gets caught up in regrets.It is just an off-the-cuff word choice made on the eve of a tournament that could reinvent his career.



Part 2


It's 6:30 a.m., Wednesday, Oct. 15. Matt Herren already has his Skeeter in the water. Fog surrounds the boat ramp.

 "It's just another day at the office," he says as he hops from the dock down onto the boat deck. He settles into his seat, zips and buckles his life jacket and starts the 250-horsepower Yamaha.

 To the right of the dash, the big screen of his Humminbird 1197C GPS Fishing System blinks on. It is his office computer.He swings the bow toward the main river channel of Lake Guntersville. In less than a minute, it's apparent the fog is thicker than it appeared to be from the vantage point of shore. There will be no 75- to 80-mile-per-hour runs down the lake this morning."I sure wasn't expecting fog like this," he says, eyes glued to the waterway for other boats with drivers who aren't as savvy about how fog can mask the running lights and sounds of approaching boats.

 Herren is not going to let fog stop him. His mission today is to find an early morning bite, which has eluded him throughout his other five days of practice for the Bassmaster Southern Open, the BASS circuit he entered this year with the goal of qualifying for the 2009 Bassmaster Elite Series.He's thinking about what the bass will be doing this morning, not what's at stake.He sits in a tie for fourth place in the season-long Southern Open points race. The Top 10 get Elite invitations; the top three will win berths in the 2009 Bassmaster Classic, set for Feb. 20-22 on the Red River out of Shreveport-Bossier City, La."Making the Elites is my No. 1 goal, but I'm also interested in making the Classic. I'm just a couple of points out of third. Everybody would like to fish the Classic. The Classic is what it's all about. Growing up in Alabama, that was always the big deal. Alabama's the (original) home of BASS, and BASS is what everything else is gauged off of in this business."The shoreline seems to have disappeared. Herren relies on his electronics — the big-screen model as well as the in-dash unit — to navigate and arrive at his first waypoint, a main lake flat near the mouth of South Sauty Creek. Thick clumps of milfoil cover the surface.He gets down to business. He flips the hatch of the rod locker and draws out three rods, each rigged with a lure he might start with today: a 3/8-ounce black Tabu jig with a black-and-blue craw trailer; a War Eagle spinnerbait with a white skirt striped with a few strands of chartreuse; and a white Boogerman Buzzbait.He selects the jig and fires it out, swimming it back across the mats. The first bite comes at 6:47 a.m. He doesn't stick it. It was a small one, he says."I have had trouble all week locating a consistent early bite. It just makes your day go so much better if you've got a consistent early deal. I've been catching most of my fish between 10 and 2. These grass lakes usually have an early bite, and whoever's on it will do really well."

 He gets another short strike. "That wasn't a good fish," he comments. "You get a lot of bites like that in the morning when it's foggy like this. They can't silhouette the lure against the sky."He boats his first fish at 6:51 a.m. He is not impressed."That's a little fish, maybe 3 pounds. It's a keeper, but that's not the one I'm hunting. I'm hunting 5-pounders. It will take at least 20 pounds a day to win."The prophetic Herren nails the winning weight. Eventual winner Randall Tharp of Gardendale, Ala., posted a three-day total of 66 pounds, 12 ounces.A few minutes later, the water swirls around his bait.That was a good one. I may hit this spot early."He decides he has seen what he came to see, and he moves slowly through the fog across the river channel to the opposite side of the lake.At 7:07 a.m., he stops at a flat near North Sauty Creek. "This is an area I've fished in the past in the fall that normally holds fish, but I haven't checked it this week. I'm going to look around and see if they're still here."He again selects the jig.

 "It lets me cover a lot of water really fast and doesn't get tangled up in this grass a lot. A spinnerbait or buzzbait might wrap up here. These fish have seen a ton of spinners and buzzbaits, so that's another reason I'm using a jig."

 At 7:15 a.m., he decides to move and runs up the main lake, stopping just south of the B.B. Comer Bridge.

 Again, the Tabu jig is what he picks to work the water, which is about 1 1/2 feet deep near a quick dropoff. He says he spotted the contour on the electronics unit, and wants to see what it holds. As before, he uses a fast retrieve to trigger a reaction bite.At 7:21 a.m., he boats a "little guy.""I know that's not going to put food on the table."

 He says putting food on the table used to mean working in his father's auto body shop. It was how he supported his family: wife, Candy, who now manages a daycare center, and two boys, Joshua and Jacob, now 23 and 18, both college students.He says his sons like to fish, a legacy he passed to them the same way his father and great-grandfather taught him to fish.

 "The most important thing my father taught me wasn't baits or techniques — those have changed so much since I was a kid. But to this day, he is the best at finding fish. That's what separates those who do well all the time from the guys who don't."He gets his love for fishing from his great-grandfather. He says they spent many hours together on the southernmost Coosa River impoundment, Jordan, when Herren was a kid.

 "Then, like a lot of people, when I got to high school, I played football and golfed, chased girls, and got away from fishing. By the time I got married — I got married young, at 22 — I had started to get back into fishing with Dad. We started entering local tournaments and started winning. About the time I was 24, 25, I decided I wanted to fish for a living."But by then, he had two children to support, so a full-time fishing career had to wait until 2003"It all worked out. I got to watch them both grow up, and now I still get to do what I love to do."By 7:30 a.m., he's at stop No. 4. He throws to scattered milfoil in water about 2 feet deep.Again he swims the jig. The reel is a Shimano Curado, the rod is a 7-foot, 6-inch Kistler Helium model."Once you find them, there's so many ways to catch them, you've just got to figure out where they are. There are acres and acres and acres of this grass here. That's what makes grass fishing hard. Some people love it, and some people hate it."He doesn't hate it, but he wishes the grass was giving up more bass.

 He moves a short distance and stops fairly close to the shoreline. The fog is still thick. He ties on a lighter-weight jig, a 1/4-ounce Tabu, instead of the 3/8-ounce, but in the same color, black.

 "I'm not real happy with the way that (heavier) one was running. I'm having to wind that one a little faster than I want to. Let's see how this one works."Herren explains that the name Tabu stands for "Tackle Approved By Us."

Us," he says, is he and five other pros — Dave Lefebre, Kelly Jordon, Fred Roumbanis, Anthony Gagliardi and Michael Murphy — who founded a tackle company about two years ago to make the types of baits they wanted to use in competition."It's a company run by committee. It's working out, and it's fun to be a part of it. Plus, we're fishermen, we don't have 401k plans, we're all looking down the road toward retirement."

 All the while Herren talks, he's casting. He hits a boat dock, but comes up empty. He decides to move again, this time to Roseberry, a big creek off the western side of Lake Guntersville.



Part 3


In Lake Guntersville's Roseberry Creek, the fog is as dense, if not more so, than out on the main lake. Matt Herren expertly threads his way through the buoys that mark the creek channel. It's just past 8 a.m., not quite two hours into his final practice day for the Oct. 16-18 Bassmaster Southern Open.

 He glides to a stop and grabs the rod with the spinnerbait. He casts to mats in about 6 feet of water. After a few more casts, he's setting the hook, but suddenly the line is draping the boat, and there's no bass in sight.

 Whoa, there was a good one," he says. Because it's practice, he didn't really want to stick the fish anyway. But he does wish his lure was being hit more often this morning, so he has a warehouse of spots to turn to if his primary ones lock down.

You know, you can get down sometimes if you're having a bad practice. But you can't get frustrated. For the most part, you don't have time to think about it. During practice time, I start at 6:20 in the morning, and I go to 6 o'clock at night. By the time you get the boat out of the water, go get fuel, grab a bite to eat and take a shower, there are very few nights I'll even turn on the TV. I'll just go straight to bed. The world could end, as my wife says, and I wouldn't even know it.

 I've always figured that what I don't have in talent, I can make up for with effort. You work hard at anything, you're bound to succeed. I try to work harder than everybody else."

At 8:30 a.m., he tries the Boogerman Buzzbait for the first time. He gets bit, but doesn't connect. The buzzbait collects wads of grass. Cast after cast, he has to stop and pick it off it each time.

 When it's time to pull up the trolling motor and move to another area within Roseberry Creek, the shaft is wrapped in weeds, evidence of what the prop has to work through to pull his boat.

 At the next stop, he ties on a Reaction Innovations Sweet Beaver rigged with a 1-ounce tungsten sinker. He flips it, yo-yoing it under the grass. He says he will rely on the Sweet Beaver during the tournament, but his supply in his key color is limited, so he isn't going to waste them in practice.He takes a largemouth on the Beaver, but he says it won't measure; the minimum length here is 15 inches. A few more bass bite. It's 9 a.m.

 He fishes his way around Roseberry, trolling through the fog, but frets now and then about being seen there. Herren is wary that other boats could be looking to emulate his plan of attack and waypoint his practice spots. He decides to run back to the main lake to hit the daisy-chain stretches of hydrilla mats on the flats off Guntersville's main river channel.

 Herren says half the field likely will turn out here each day of the competition to get the bass that never leave the flats. "Why should they? There's always food here for them."He tosses a frog and it produces several bites, then the Beaver in a green-pumpkin color."The fish sit right in there, up inside the grass in 2 feet of water, looking out for food coming up out of the channel. To catch them isn't rocket science, it's just a matter of bumping the bass on their heads. They will either hit the bait or get away from it. It's that simple."Midmorning, he's still working the flats. The fog is finally gone.

 These fish have made a big move from where they were about two weeks ago. I came up for one day because Guntersville grass changes every year, and I wanted to get an idea of what was going on with the grass. Grass lakes are hard to fish if you don't have knowledge of the lake. And I don't have a lot of knowledge of this lake."

 He sets the hook, and his braided line wraps around the rod.Now that was a big one," he says as he unwraps the line.

 "Let's see if that was a school of bass, or a single bass." To do that, he ties on a lure he hasn't yet tried, a plastic craw in green pumpkin with blue fleck. It takes a keeper.At 11 a.m., he picks up the trusty jig again. For about 15 minutes, he gets a series of hits, including one that goes about 3 pounds."That's a better one. I need to get off this spot. I know what I need to know. I'm going to flip a little bit."

 Getting on toward noontime, he starts to talk about heading back to the ramp so he can get to the tournament registration in time. He takes a few more minutes to check out a waypoint — a pile of rocks — and Guntersville's long underwater island, Pine Island.Reluctant to leave the water, Herren stops three more times. It's as if one more cast will be the charm, as it often is in bass fishing. In one cove, the bass are busting shad. He gets bit, but nothing of size comes to the boat. He shakes his head"Bass never cease to amaze me," he says.

 In the end, the time Herren put into his practice paid off. His most productive find was one sweet spot in Roseberry Creek. He says he would not have noticed the unique combination of an underwater ridge, stumps and freshwater-mussel shellbeds if he had not had the Humminbird unit with the side-imaging feature.

 "I could see, in side-imaging view set at 100 feet out, stumps underneath the grass. The stumps held schools of fish. Guntersville fish relate to two things: mussels and stumps under the grass. The spot had it all."

 And it was loaded with big bass. Those fish, combined with two big bass taken each of the three competition days from a hydrilla patch on a main lake flat, weighed 26-9 on Day 1, 21-10 on Day 2, and 17-6 on Day 3 — more than enough to help him into the Elite and Classic qualifications.



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