By Todd Ceisner
After finishing the 2017 Elite Series season with four straight top-50 finishes, including a top-12 cut at the St. Lawrence River, Bernie Schultz was anxious for the 2018 season to get going.
Despite his late-season rally, he missed qualifying for the Angler of the Year championship by 19 points, but he entered the new year with a renewed vigor and no less of a competitive fire than he had when he began fishing Bassmaster events in the mid-1980s.
“I feel like I’m still competitive,” said Schultz, 64. “It’s tough to put four good days together. It’s aggravating because I’ll have three okay days or two good ones and a bad one. I have let victories slip away. It still burns and I want it as bad as anyone.”
This year’s opener didn’t go how he’d hoped – he finished 83rd at Lake Martin – and he’s had plenty of time to rehash everything in his mind. Schultz wasn’t a fan of the long layoff between the first and second Elite Series tournaments and now, with the postponement of the Sabine River tournament, the wait will be lengthened by three more weeks.
By the time the first cast is made at Grand Lake on April 26, it’ll have been 74 days since Takahiro Omori claimed victory at Martin. Granted, the Bassmaster Classic took place the third week of March, but Schultz feels as though B.A.S.S. could’ve done a better job of front-loading the Elite Series schedule.
“It was horrible,” he said. “It was a really poor scheduling choice by B.A.S.S. and it left a lot of guys frantically trying to prepare for the first event because it was so early. It put undue pressure on boat and outboard manufacturers and anglers who were getting their boats and trucks wrapped. Then to sit for two months was ridiculous. If you’re going to start in the spring, fish the spring. Don’t sit on your duff for two months.”
Prior to the Elite Series visiting Orange, Texas, in 2013, few bass anglers outside of east Texas and western Louisiana had heard about the Sabine River. Now, it’s become a destination of choice for B.A.S.S. largely due to the crowds the event has drawn. The fishing is challenging and some, including Schultz, compare it not-so-favorably to the Ohio River.
After a stumble at Martin, he knows he needs to bounce back at Grand, where he posted a couple of mid-pack finishes in 2006-07 and had a 32nd-place showing in the 2016 Classic.
“It’s a very important tournament, for sure,” he said. “I don’t want to be in a hole any deeper than I am now.”
When the schedule eventually winds back around to the Sabine – B.A.S.S. officials and local organizers are working to pinpoint new event dates – anglers will not be able to fish Louisiana waters, and that has Schultz unsure of what to expect. Anglers could fish both Louisiana and Texas waters in 2013 and 2015.
He was 58th in 2013 and finished 48th there two years later, fishing entirely different patterns each time.
“The first time it was an all-vegetation thing for me in Taylor Bayou,” he said, “The second time, I was in the Calcasieu (River) fishing wood and undercut banks. I zeroed the last day, even though I caught fish – they just weren’t (14-inch) keepers.”
He drove over the river last week en route to a media junket at Sam Rayburn Reservoir and saw first-hand the impact of the recent rains. He wasn’t surprised B.A.S.S. opted to postpone the tournament.
“The water was running through trees everywhere it was lowland. It was flooded to the hills,” he said.
Had the Sabine River event gone on as planned this week, Schultz was expecting some areas to be crowded. It would’ve been a stark contrast to how Lake Martin swallowed up the 110-boat field in the opener.
Reflecting upon his game plan at Martin, Schultz had no regrets about how he fished or the pattern he was on. He exceeded his expectations in terms of catching enough to get a check, but it wound up not being enough.
“I was in the right part of the lake and saw Takahiro (Omori) bounding place to place every day,” he said. “He found the mother lode sweet spots. I figured out what was going on, but didn’t get rewarded.
“I’d go back and crank like I did. I finally caught one over 4 pounds on the fifth day I was there. That was my biggest one of the week and the only one over 3. I didn’t feel bad about my performance. I caught a lot of fish and caught more than the projected cut weight, but it wasn’t enough.”