With his long hair, clipped Yankee accent and brusque manner, Chris Groh isn’t your typical “bubba” bass pro. “I’m the quintessential blue-collar Chain Rat,” he explains, referring to his membership in the fraternity of hardcore homeboys who fish the Fox Chain of Lakes on the Illinois/Wisconsin border. “That’s where I grew up and learned to fish. Pike, perch, walleye — I didn’t care; if it bit and pulled, I was happy.” But it was the chain’s hard-fighting smallmouth bass that impacted young Groh the hardest. Harboring a fantasy of one day winning the Bassmaster Classic, he wangled an after-school job at a local tackle shop and began fishing weekend and Wednesday night tournaments as a nonboater. By the time he could afford a rig of his own, Groh had become skilled enough at catching the chain’s hard-pressured bass to start a guide service. Later, he stayed busy as a tile contractor. “Work and fish, fish and work — that’s all I’ve ever known,” Groh admits. “You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t come across as laidback or easy-going. The only way I know how to do anything is to put my head down and grind away.” Which, as it turns out, is exactly how Groh approached his day on Lake G during the often-frustrating winter/spring transition period.
6:49 a.m. Groh and I arrive at Lake G’s boat ramp at daybreak. It’s 45 degrees with a forecasted high in the low 60s. “It’s been unseasonably cold in this region all winter, and every river I crossed over while driving here was flooded,” Groh says. “I’m hoping the sun will pop out and get the fish moving up. I’m at home fishing shallow water, so I’ll primarily be using small crankbaits, spinnerbaits and jigs, and I won’t be spending much time out deeper.”
7 HOURS LEFT 7:07 a.m. We launch the Phoenix. Groh checks the water: it’s 52 degrees and stained. “I’m surprised it’s not muddier with all the rain.” He begins patiently arranging his tackle (Abu Garcia rods and reels). “Be sure to mention that I spray my reels with KVD line treatment! I’m sure Kevin [Van Dam] could use that extra nickel.” 7:29 a.m. Groh pins the Merc and rockets uplake, “where hopefully the water is warmer.” 7:34 a.m. Groh makes his first stop at the mouth of an inflowing tributary and casts a 1/2-ounce chartreuse and white War Eagle spinnerbait tipped with a white twin-tail trailer to the bank. “I replaced the big Colorado [rounded] blade on this bait with an Indiana [oval] blade, which I like better in stained water.” 7:41 a.m. Groh retrieves a 1/2-ounce red craw Berkley War Pig lipless crankbait through a shallow pocket (mini-cove). “Once the sun gets higher, bass should move into these pockets to warm up.” 7:50 a.m. Groh pitches a 1/2-ounce black and blue Dirty Jigs Matt Herren jig with a matching Berkley Meaty Chunk trailer to a laydown tree. 7:54 a.m. He dredges a red craw Berkley Digger 6.5 crankbait across the end of a mud flat. 8 a.m. Groh yo-yos the War Pig off the bottom. “These late-winter fish are lethargic; they may not bother chasing down a lipless crankbait retrieved horizontally, but they’ll suck it in as it’s dropping.”
6 HOURS LEFT 8:07 a.m. Groh follows an 8-foot channel deeper into the creek arm while casting the lipless crankbait. Suddenly, a deer being chased by a coyote races down a nearby hill and makes a spectacular leap into the lake! “Wow, that was cool!”
Photo: Don Wirth
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8:13 a.m. Groh moves to the opposite shoreline and cranks a chartreuse and blue Berkley Square Bull 3.5 squarebill around shallow, flooded timber. 8:23 a.m. Groh catches his first bass of the day, a nonkeeper largemouth, on the squarebill. I notice that he’s using a mixture of right- and left-handed baitcasting reels. “I taught myself to be ambidextrous when I was a kid. I’m naturally right-handed, but I’d take a left-handed reel and wind it while watching TV or whatever until I eventually felt comfortable with it. That’s something that has turned out to come in handy in tournaments.” 8:27 a.m. Groh tags a short fish off a mud point on the lipless crank. 8:34 a.m. Groh rounds the point and casts the Digger 6.5 parallel to a concrete seawall. “There’s a bunch of rocks down there. Should be some bass.” 8:45 a.m. Groh casts the squarebill to the seawall. “Come on, fish! Wake up!” 8:49 a.m. He pitches the jig to the wall. 8:55 a.m. Groh runs straight across the lake to a mud flat. He switches Berkley lipless crankbait sizes to 1/4 ounce and retrieves the lighter lure slowly. 9:03 a.m. Groh bags his first keeper of the day, 1 pound even, off the mud flat. “This poor fish feels like an icicle! That War Pig was probably the first shallow meal he’s had all winter.”
Photo: Don Wirth
2 / 7
5 HOURS LEFT 9:07 a.m. Groh backs off the flat and casts the lipless crank to the end of the structure, which is adorned with an elaborate hunting blind. “I’d call that the Taj Mahal of duck blinds!” 9:13 a.m. Groh moves uplake while casting the War Pig around a sloping bank. 9:17 a.m. Groh casts the lipless crankbait to a clay point, and a big fish loads on! It surges for deeper water, and he works it carefully around his trolling motor, then races to the back of the boat to fight it closer. Just as he reaches out to grab the lunker, it jumps, throwing the hook! The lure flies out of the water and hooks into his jacket. “Dude, that was a solid 5-pounder!” 9:20 a.m. It takes Groh several minutes to remove the crankbait’s hook from his coat. “I lost a photo fish AND ripped my jacket. That double sucks.” 9:27 a.m. Groh resumes cranking the War Pig. “It’s real common for a big bass to bump a lipless crankbait in cold water and not hook up solidly, but it still pisses me off.” 9:35 a.m. Groh moves 100 yards downlake to probe a series of flats and points with the War Pig. 9:47 a.m. Groh slow rolls the spinnerbait around a shallow pocket. 9:55 a.m. He tries the craw-colored 6.5 in the center of the pocket. “I’m probably rushing the calendar by fishing these pockets, but the biggest fish are usually the first ones to move into them, so I can’t not try them.”
4 HOURS LEFT 10:09 a.m. A light breeze is blowing out of the southwest as Groh casts the lipless crank to a main-lake flat. 10:14 a.m. Groh races to the opposite shore and casts the War Pig around a secondary point. 10:15 a.m. A big fish slams the War Pig but comes unbuttoned. “Crap, that fish smoked it! I had a hook in it because I felt its head shake.” 10:17 a.m. He dredges the squarebill off a sunken tree. “So far they don’t want anything to do with wood cover.” 10:20 a.m. Groh hits a shallow point with the 1/4-ounce lipless crank. 10:22 a.m. He goes back to throwing the 1/2-ounce War Pig. “I can cast the heavier plug farther across this main-lake structure and cover more water.” 10:34 a.m. A bass hits the lipless crank but doesn’t hook up. “Sucker knocked 2 feet of slack in my line!” What’s Groh’s take on the day so far? “It’s been pretty slow so far, but my gut tells me these fish are as sick of winter as we are, and they’re really wanting to move up shallow. I’ll probably spend my remaining time grinding away with crankbaits and spinnerbaits like I have been. There are some big fish in this lake, if I can just get ’em to stay hooked!” 10:43 a.m. Groh makes a blistering run uplake to an inflowing creek. He rotates between every lure he’s used so far around the tributary’s shallow channel; none of them produces a bass. 10:51 a.m. Groh moves into a shallow cove adjacent to the channel and hauls water on the spinnerbait and lipless crank. “I expected the water to be muddy and warmer up here, but it’s not. This lake just needs to warm up about 5 degrees.”
Photo: Don Wirth
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10:57 a.m. Groh zips back downlake to try the jig on a point. 10:59 a.m. He catches a squealer off the point on the lipless crankbait.
3 HOURS LEFT 11:13 a.m. Groh rounds the point and enters a cove with shoreline rocks and shallow wood. “This spot looks awesome! Hopefully, some big girls have moved back in here.” He cranks a gnarly looking bank with the squarebill. 11:20 a.m. Groh tries the squarebill and lipless crank on a riprap bank.
Photo: Don Wirth
4 / 7
11:24 a.m. Groh pitches the jig around a boathouse without success, then picks up his trolling motor. “We’re out of here!” 11:30 a.m. Groh races out of the cove and runs downlake to a shoreline retaining wall. He replaces the chartreuse Square Bull with the same model lure in orange/black back, then parallel-cranks the structure. 11:41 a.m. The wall doesn’t pan out, so Groh moves to a nearby channel bank, which he probes with the squarebill and lipless crank. 11:48 a.m. Groh runs farther downlake to a big cove with multiple docks. He casts the jig to a submerged brushpile. “I’m not seeing any baitfish or bass around that brush, which is weird.” 11:56 a.m. Groh moves deeper into the cove while chunking the orange squarebill. He catches a tiny bass off an isolated stickup. 12:02 p.m. Groh expertly skips the jig beneath a dock. “They just aren’t on these docks, but then, they don’t appear to be anywhere else, either!”
2 HOURS LEFT 12:07 p.m. Groh retrieves the spinnerbait around a moored pontoon boat.
Photo: Don Wirth
5 / 7
12:23 p.m. Groh has fished his way out of the cove and is now cranking a patch of riprap with the orange squarebill. The lure remains unmolested by any fish. “Hey Mr. Bassmaster writer, bass are supposed to be on rock in March, right?” 12:31 p.m. Groh runs uplake to crank the War Pig across a shallow point. 12:43 p.m. Groh has run back to the mud flat where he caught his sole keeper earlier and is combing the structure with the War Pig. No more takers here. 12:56 p.m. Groh races across the lake to a seawall he fished earlier and hammers it with the lipless crankbait and squarebill. Still nothing.
1 HOUR LEFT 1:07 p.m. Groh roars back to the clay point where he lost the 5-pounder and snags a foot-long gizzard shad on the War Pig. “Big fish, wrong species!” 1:13 p.m. Groh blasts uplake as far as he can go and begins cranking the orange squarebill around shallow laydowns. “There’s a ton of wood cover up here. Hopefully, some bass, too.” 1:19 p.m. Groh tries the spinnerbait around a sloping bank with wood and rock cover.
1:25 p.m. He rakes a shallow sandbar with the War Pig. 1:31 p.m. Groh slow rolls the spinnerbait down a laydown tree and catches a 10-inch largemouth. “Mean little bastard! That was the hardest strike I’ve had all day!”
Photo: Don Wirth
6 / 7
1:36 p.m. Groh moves to another submerged tree and whacks his second keeper of the day, 2 pounds, 2 ounces. “Look! I’ve found a pattern!” 1:40 p.m. Groh swims the spinnerbait across another sunken tree. A good fish boils on the lure but doesn’t strike it. He immediately chunks the squarebill to the tree but can’t coax a comeback strike. 1:46 p.m. Groh spends his remaining minutes on Lake G spinnerbaiting more shoreline wood without a strike. 2:07 p.m. Back to the ramp. Groh has had a disappointing day on Lake G, tallying two keeper bass; their total weight is 3 pounds, 2 ounces.
THE DAY IN PERSPECTIVE
“I put my money on a shallow bite today, but the bass didn’t cooperate,” Groh told Bassmaster. “I was hoping this mild weather and sunshine would get more fish moving up to the banks, but they’re obviously not quite ready. Having that 5-pounder jump off at the boat was a downer, but hey, you just gotta shake it off and keep casting. If I were to fish here tomorrow, with the forecast calling for 20 mph wind gusts, I’d target windblown points with lipless and diving crankbaits, and I’d spend more time hitting those trees way uplake with the spinnerbait.”
WHERE AND WHEN CHRIS GROH CAUGHT HIS KEEPER BASS
1 pound; mud flat; chartreuse and blue Berkley Square Bull squarebill crankbait; 9:03 a.m.
2 pounds, 2 ounces; submerged tree; modified 1/2-ounce chartreuse and white War Eagle spinnerbait with generic white twin-tail trailer; 1:36 p.m. TOTAL: 3 POUNDS, 2 OUNCES