By Todd Ceisner
A couple weeks earlier or a couple weeks later and it would’ve been lights out. That was the refrain heard from anglers who did well and those who struggled at the Lake Oahe Bassmaster Elite Series.
Many came to the Mount Rushmore State anticipating Oahe to be on par with other prodigious smallmouth fisheries in the upper Midwest. They left still puzzled by what makes the fish tick on an expansive lake that is largely featureless. At most Elite Series venues, a glance at the shoreline often reveals clues as to what underwater structure could be present off the bank or what the makeup of the bottom composition is. Oahe was a different animal in that regard as its banks ran for miles upon miles without revealing any such clues.
That made it difficult to develop typical patterns and forced many to rely on spots where they found groups of fish during practice and the tournament. The spots that produced were mostly textbook stopping points along their post-spawn migration to deeper water.
While winner Mark Daniels focused on the 12- to 15-foot range, other top-5 finishers probed deeper for fish that presumably had spawned earlier. Scattered rock, boulders and brush, in some cases, were the key elements to areas that held fish.
With such a large body of water in play, those who did well said the mid-lake section of Oahe seemed to be the most productive. The lower end, close to the takeoff point, was crowded and didn’t harbor enough spots or fish to entice them to stick around. That meant 70- to 80-mile one-way journeys up the Missouri River in sometimes hairy conditions to tap into fish that weren’t pressured by dozens of other competitors.
Tactically, Oahe will go down as a typical summertime smallmouth tournament with finesse techniques like a dropshot dominating. Many noted that reaction baits were effective early in practice, but post-spawn habits of the fish had guys quickly reaching for their spinning rods and light line.
Below is a recap of the 2nd- through 5th-place finishers broke down Oahe:
2nd: Casey Ashley
> Day 1: 5, 17-00
> Day 2: 5, 20-06
> Day 3: 5, 12-06
> Day 4: 5, 16-09
> Total = 20, 66-05
It didn’t take Casey Ashley long to figure out running a pattern at Oahe was not advisable. With so much water to cover and very little to go on as far as what to look for, he focused on trying to find areas that were holding fish. Whether they were stopping points along their post-spawn migration to deeper water or an area that baitfish filtered through, he “plunked around in areas where there were some fish.”
“We only had so many days of practice and nobody had any information so you had to fish the obvious stuff,” he said. “It was more of a spot deal versus a pattern. I knew it would be just because of how the lake was. They don’t live everywhere and there were only a few places with the right stuff.”
The problem was, as the tournament wore on, certain areas got fished more intensely than others.
“If you had enough stuff that people weren’t fishing, you’d be a lot better off,” he said. “I don’t think that was the case for anybody.”
The other factor was the wind, which was quick to muddy up certain stretches.
“You had to find a place that didn’t muddy up and had to have rock,” he said. “That seemed to be the only thing to get around.”
He targeted points with scattered rock on the end. He started the tournament by snapping a tube since that’s how he caught fish in practice, but a series of lost fish prompted him to switch to a Carolina rig and a dropshot to mix it up.
“I had not caught any offshore in practice,” he said. “I caught them on a dropshot day 1 and lost a big one on a tube and I figured there had to be something better than that tube.”
With the ball and chain rigged up for day 2, he logged 20-06, which was the heaviest bag across the first three days. His best area was up toward Forest City and it had a dropoff from 15 to 24 feet and as long as he fished a Zoom Speed Craw on the Carolina rig slow along the bottom, he got bites.
“The Speed Craw is small and compact and smallmouth love it,” he said. “When they eat it they get it. Fishing that deep, I couldn’t fish it really fast. I could feel the rock with that big weight.”
Aside from one day-1 keeper that fell for a tube, the rest of his weigh-in fish were split between the Carolina rig and dropshotting a Zoom Meathead or Z Drop.
> Carolina rig gear: 7’4” heavy-action Quantum Vapor casting rod, Quantum Smoke S3 casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 17-pound HI-SEAS fluorocarbon line, 3/4-oz. tungsten barrel weight, 3/0 Owner offset worm hook, Zoom Speed Craw (green-pumpkin, green-pumpkin purple).
> Dropshot gear: 6’10” medium-action Quantum Tour PT Special Issue spinning rod, Quantum Smoke S3 size 30 spinning reel, 10-pound HI-SEAS braided line, 8-pound HI-SEAS fluorocarbon line (leader), 1/0 Owner Cover Shot hook, Zoom Meathead (green-pumpkin), Zoom Z Drop (green-pumpkin), 3/8 oz. clip-on and tie-on dropshot weights.
> Main factor in his success – “Just finding a few key areas. That was the deal.”
> Performance edge – “My Triton and Mercury. Making those long runs on that rough water, having that combination was a big key.”
Clifford Pirch focused on a deeper section of the water column than most.
3rd: Clifford Pirch
> Day 1: 5, 7-10
> Day 2: 5, 18-04
> Day 3: 5, 19-09
> Day 4: 5, 20-11
> Total = 20, 66-02
It’ll take a while for Clifford Pirch to move past the blunders on day 1 that he believes cost him the win at Oahe. Still, the top-3 showing moved him into the top 10 in points and demonstrated yet again how proficient he is at targeting suspended fish.
“I fished the same water all 4 days and as I caught them, I understood more what was going on,” he said. “It got really good. It was definitely the winning school. I just didn’t understand it well enough early on.”
It wasn’t any particular sequence on day 1 that proved costly, but he forgot to put his pedestal seat on the deck before leaving the dock and that made it challenging to even stay on his feet in the rough water.
“Even sitting down, it was hard to hold on,” he said. “It was a combination of things. I made some mistakes and had some things happen. I lost a bunch of fish in a row. It was just a mess, a real train wreck.”
With the waves building and wanting to make sure he didn’t risk being late to check in, he left the area only to realize later that the wind had slacked off and he may have been able to stay.
“Losing that many didn’t matter with as many as were there,” he added. “From practice, it seemed hard, but I could’ve lost six more and caught a decent bag if I’d just stuck to it.”
On day 2, he returned to the same area and realized what was there. His 18-04 stringer rallied him from 87th to 18th.
“On day 2, as I moved deeper it got better and better,” he said. “I’d caught a couple big ones in practice really deep and I thought that was the deal, but it was so few and far between and it was so hard to find them. I was in a bad region to start with.
“You could be in the wrong part of the lake with the right bait and right depth and just not catch them.”
Pirch focused on depths ranging from 25 to 45 feet. He was catching fish heading out of a bay toward the main river.
“I was fishing a lot deeper (than most),” he said. “Three were quite a few guys that did well in the bay, but those fish were coming out and I was where they were heading.”
A dropshot was his main technique with a variety of presentations and baits depending on depth. He was even able to catch a few toward the surface as they chased bait up through the water column.
“Everything was going on,” he said. “It was the best scenario you could ask for. Everything I weighed in was all using my electronics. I was dropping to fish that were suspended or dropping on fish on the bottom. They were biting. It was fun.
“The spot was within a half-mile stretch and they move around quite a bit. I’d get little flurries. It seemed like there were different groups of fish. There’d be a bunch of 2s to 3s then 3 1/2s to 4 1/2s. They’d be in little wolfpacks.”
> Dropshot gear: 7’6” medium-action Phenix Rods Ultra MBX and Feather Series spinning rods, Ardent C-Force spinning reels, 20-pound Seaguar Smackdown braided line, 8-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line (leader), #2 Hayabusa Power Wacky Hook, Roboworm Ned Worm (natural green colors).
> He also wacky-rigged a Senko on a #2 Roboworm Rebarb hook above a 1/4- or 3/8-oz. dropshot weight.
> He also had success with a straight-tail Roboworm and a shad-imitating bait on a dropshot.
> He’d lost a couple fish on a 7’2” rod on day 1, which prompted the switch to the longer versions.
> Main factor in his success – “I had to pray for guidance after that first day and get my head together. It was a mega-meltdown for me and I had to have peace of mind to get back to it. When you go from 7 pounds and 87th and end up 3rd, some stuff has to turn around. I did a lot of praying for guidance and a sound mind because I didn’t have it the first day.”
> Performance edge – “I felt like my rods were key and also the Lowrance unit. We’re seeing everything that’s down there these days. It’s phenomenal what you can see. I also used the HydroWave and it seemed to work when they got in a funk.”
Boyd Duckett relied mostly on a dropshot to catch his fish at Oahe.
4th: Boyd Duckett
> Day 1: 5, 16-09
> Day 2: 5, 17-02
> Day 3: 5, 16-06
> Day 4: 5, 14-11
> Total = 20, 64-11
Boyd Duckett flew home Monday night wondering if what he discovered during the final day at Lake Oahe was something he should’ve devoted more time to earlier in the tournament. After hammering away on three different spots throughout the tournament, he located a few loner fish on points. He hooked a 5-pounder, but lost it after a lengthy battle.
He also lost another key fish he found in a similar scenario, leaving him to wonder.
“I was thinking, ‘That fish was all by himself,’ so I scoured points and found others I couldn’t get to bite,” he said. “I’m not sure that wasn’t the key deal. Those might be just two fish on two points but I would’ve loved a few more hours to do that.”
During practice, he started fishing shallow and got a ton of bites, but knowing the full moon was Wednesday night, he figured the fish that had moved up to spawn prior to that would be heading back to their offshore haunts before long.
“I knew they were leaving so during the second half of the first day of practice, I looked offshore,” he said. “You had to look and look until you found one. I wound up with three schools.”
From there, he mixed up a dropshot with a splitshot rig and used a Damiki Rig-esque setup to target suspended fish on days 1 and 2.
“All of the schools were related to the ends of long points and two of them had brush around them,” he said.
On day 3, one of the groups had moved up out of deeper water and were on the point in roughly 28 feet. By the final day, the cumulative effect of the fishing pressure started to show itself as it got tougher to get bites.
“The fish were there, but they were hard to catch,” he added. “The biggest thing was not boating those magical bites (on day 4). I was proud to have found them and hook them, but it was disheartening to have them get away.”
> Dropshot gear: 7’ medium-action Duckett Fishing Black Ice spinning rod, unnamed spinning reel, 6- and 8-pound Vicious Fishing Pro Elite fluorocarbon line, #2 Gamakatsu dropshot/split shot hook, Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Shad Shape Worm (black/clear pepper), 3/8-oz. unnamed dropshot weight.
> He also had a Shad Shape Worm rigged on a 3/16-oz. Gamakatsu darter head and fished it similar to a Damiki Rig for suspended fish.
> In addition, he fished a Senko on a splitshot rig and dragged that through the water column to entice suspended fish as well.
> Main factor in his success – “Recognizing that offshore fish would come to us all week and having the fortitude to look for it. There were only 12 to 15 guys who did it because it was non-existent early. You had to have lot of confidence to keep looking. Once found 'em, you had to keep at it.”
> Performance edge – “I have one of the new Mercury 4-strokes and it is such a great performer. It holds the boat really well in waves and on turns. It holds the nose up and you don’t lose near as much speed as you used to.”
Getting away from the crowds to fish for unpressured fish was a key for Dean Rojas.
5th: Dean Rojas
> Day 1: 5, 13-00
> Day 2: 5, 14-10
> Day 3: 5, 17-06
> Day 4: 5, 18-04
> Total = 20, 63-04
Dean Rojas wishes he’d had a fifth day of competition on Oahe as he thinks he was around the fish to challenge Daniels and possibly Pirch for the top spot.
He employed his Western instincts and tried to run away from the crowds of anglers in an effort to find unpressured fish.
“On the big water, it’s a matter of who will run the furthest to get away from the pressure and pressured fish,” he said. “Going to a new body of water, we had no preconceived notions. We were fishing on the fly and nobody knew what it would take.
“Most guys said if they caught 14 pounds they would’ve been excited. For me, I figured 17 to 18 would give me a chance because there was no baseline. That’s the beauty of the lake and going somewhere we’ve never been to before. A lot of people were looking forward to this event and anticipating really big weights, but for the anglers who did well, they took what the lake was willing to give them instead of what it was supposed to.”
He opened the tournament in an area he felt had potential to produce 15 or 17 pounds. Instead, it kicked out 13-00 and he knew he had to make a change for day 2.
“I gambled and ran a long ways and they were there,” he said. “I figured out where I needed to be and what to throw.”
His most effective technique was a 4-inch stick bait on a dropshot in 15 to 22 feet.
“It was typical post-spawn,” he said. “A lot of fish I caught were spitting up minnows. I also caught a couple topwater and jerkbait fish when they’d start schooling. Just the fact that you were around them helped. There were walleye boats everywhere so you just had to get it close to (the bass) and they were going to bite it.”
> Dropshot gear: 6’9” medium-heavy Duckett Fishing Terex Dean Rojas series spinning rod, Daiwa Exist 2500 spinning reel, 8-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 3/0 Gamakatsu EWG worm hook, 4” Big Bite Baits Cane Stick (watermelon red), 1/4- and 5/16-oz. Epic Tungsten dropshot weights.
> He also mixed in a nose-hooked, hand-poured wormed rigged on a Gamakatsu TGW dropshot hook.
> He caught a couple key fish earlier in the tournament on a jerkbait after fish came up schooling on a shoal.
> Main factor in his success – “Abandoning the area I was in on day 1 and fishing for the right ones to carry me through a 4-day event.”
> Performance edge – “My Lowrance units helped me see everything down there. My Suzuki got me there and back, running 450 miles all week along with my Blazer boat, which got me there safely.”
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