Fishing in a crowd

Every tournament fisherman has the perfect plan the night before a tournament: Get to the lake, blast off, go to my best spot and catch the biggest fish with no pressure on the water.

Fast forward to launch. Unfortunately your random draw was boat 85 and now the voices in your head start to talk. Do I still hit my best spot first? Will there be a boat there when I pull up? How should I rearrange my game plan?

Now just imagine arriving at your honey hole with much of the field looking your way as you come off plane and slow down.

That was the sight that half the field on the St. Johns River had to face. Over 50 boats hit up the area called “Cabbage Point” and for good reason: lots of big, spawning bass. That was certainly a spectacle to witness. Not to mention that many proficient sight fishermen graced that area on Days 1 and 2 of the event.

After the Elites put hundreds of bass on the scales Thursday afternoon, Randy Howell led the pack with 27 pounds and 3 ounces. Meanwhile, eight of the top 12 confirmed that their primary area was the Cabbage Point area.

Shaw Grigsby was presumed to be a favorite at the St. Johns River since he lives an hour away. But the number of boats affected his fishing, as well.

“There were at least 48 [boats] there both days,” said Grigsby with a smile on his face. “It was nerve wracking especially when you know you have a [fish] coming up and other guys are moving around and pulling in front of you.”

For the Florida native and shallow water expert, the pressure was too much to handle at times.

“It can mess you up easily, and it did for me,” said the 15-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier. “I would much prefer to be by myself and go through there nice and easy.”

Grigsby’s 82nd-place finish was a far cry from the first event where he notched an 8thplace finish, which was highlighted by a 30-pound, 5-ounce stringer on Day 1 of the event.

Other shallow water specialists like Tommy Biffle were in the thick of the crowd, but Biffle saw the same result.

“It’s just a bad deal with that many boats in a small area like that, but [anglers] caught them in there again today,” said Biffle.

The fact that anglers found success in that area explained the constant pressure the area received. If you left Cabbage Point, it had better have been for a good reason.

“I’m not real good in crowds,” said Biffle. “I fished around there and caught a few, but I ended up leaving midday to fill out my limit.”

For Day 1 leader Randy Howell, he managed his fish well and kept himself in contention even when the weights in his area dropped. He accompanied his 27-3 Day 1 catch with 20-2 and 11-9 to eventually make the Top 12.

Subtleties were key for Howell’s success in the crowded region of Lake George.

“I prepared for all the boat traffic after seeing how crowded practice was,” said the 2014 Classic champion. “I planned for high boat traffic, so I looked for less pressured fish that were off the beaten path, but still in that area.”

Blocking out the other anglers was crucial to success between the ears for Howell. Keeping your mind right and focused on the fish is all you can ask for and control.

“It used to rattle me,” Howell explained. “When sight fishing I kept my eyes on the bed because once you look away, you can’t see the fish as good anymore.”

The eventual champion, Chris Lane, blew the event out of the water with his 37-pound, 9-ounce stringer on Day 2. And after sitting in 15th place following Day 1 weigh-in, Lane wasn’t far behind. His 8-8 deficit quickly turned into an 8-pound, 15-ounce lead after two days of competition.

If you scanned the spawning flat known as Cabbage Point, you wouldn’t have found Chris Lane. He had water all to himself down in a backwater canal. After idling through no wake zones, Lane found his cover of choice — lily pads.

“Blind” sight fishing was his technique of choice. He would cast around the pads to where he thought the fish would be and just wait for the bites. When he would reach open water, Lane would cast his Luck “E” Strike Original Ringer worm through the pad fields and just reel it back, allowing the tail to vibrate and present a moving target with subtle vibration.

The secluded area Lane fished gave him everything that he needed to work his pattern. But with less exterior pressure comes increased interior pressure.

“I let it get to me; the nerves got me good,” said Lane. “I was so excited about catching 37 pounds, but then not getting a bite the next day was always in the back of my head.”

Winning by 14 pounds and 4 ounces is a spectacle that doesn’t come along very often. Catching over 90 pounds secured Lane’s spot in the 2015 Bassmaster Classic and has kept his hot streak intact. Lane won the final event of the 2013 Elite series season and he started this year with a 34thplace finish at Lake Seminole and a win on the St. Johns River.

Fishing in a crowd proved deadly for the majority of those anglers, while fishing alone proved valuable to Chris Lane.