By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

National tournaments held at Lake Conroe in the past have typically had some sort of an offshore component to them. Whether it was cranking or dragging a jig across some deep structure, at some point the off-the-bank game came to be a factor. Not so last week as the majority of competitors at the Bass Pro Tour stop at Conroe ultimately zeroed in on water shallower than 8 feet and in some cases less than a foot.

That’s because the water was severely stained to downright muddy and the fish were pushing into their staging and spawning areas. Several challenges arose, including fishing pressure in certain areas and tracking groups of fish as they moved in while the water temperature slowly climbed into the 60s.

While tournament winner Edwin Evers benefited from having a backwater canal all to himself for much of the last three days, others had to work around each other to generate bites. Ultimately, Conroe will go down as a spawning derby, but not the textbook sight-fishing kind that most BassFans are used to seeing. Below is a recap of how the rest of the top 5 finishers approached the lake and the strategies they employed to make it to the final day.

2nd: Jeff Sprague

> Shotgun Round (Group A): 10, 17-07
> Elimination Round: 9, 17-05 (19, 34-12)
> Knockout Round: 16, 26-06
> Championship Round: 20, 40-08
> Total = 55, 101-10

Prior to last week, Jeff Sprague had never made a cast at Conroe, which amplified the importance of the two-day practice session.

“I ran the entire lake with the exception of idling into areas in the backs of creeks,” he said. “I was looking at the water clarity and water temperatures.”

He had a few bites on moving baits the first day and saw some quality fish in a few areas. He returned to the places where he’d gotten multiple bites the following day and got a feeling that some males had moved in.

“They were aggressive, like they were guarding their territory,” he said. “Once I figured that out in three key areas over the last three or four hours, I expanded on that during the event.”

During the Shotgun and Elimination rounds, he visited all three places in hopes of narrowing it down to one area where the most fish were funneling into the fastest. By the Knockout Round, he’d determined his best option was to focus on one area and hammer it for all it was worth.

“That was based on clues the fish were giving me,” he said. “During the first two days, I ran to two other areas that were similar only to get there and have minimal bites and felt like I was running from fish to try for bites over there.”

Ultimately, he fished an area farther back in a creek than some of the other finalists, sensing that the fish were coming to him and that the other anglers couldn’t catch them all. He said the water levels – he was in 1 to 3 feet of water – and temperature were key factors in those fish funneling into the area where he was.

“Had it dropped much those fish wouldn’t have settled and be locked up on beds,” he said. “The water temp was the biggest deal. It was cool when we got there then started to warm. It got warm and held even though we had some cooler spells. When it stayed at 62 for a few days, that’s when they started to move. They got accustomed to it and comfortable.

“I enjoy this time of year, but I don’t like to slow down and grind in an area. The conditions called for it, though. I know what happens this time of year and how fast these fish can move. I knew where they were going, and they were coming to me.”

> Texas-rig gear: 7’2” medium-heavy Lew’s Speed Stick casting rod, Lew’s Pro Ti casting reel, 17-pound P-Line Ultimate fluorocarbon line, 3/16-oz. Flat Out Tungsten worm weight, 5/0 unnamed offset worm hook, 6” Gene Larew Lures Tattletail Worm (black/blue).

> He tried to vary his retrieve with the worm, dragging it along the bottom hoping to move it past a fish guarding or making a bed. “I’d pop it or bring it to something and pop it off that and then let it fall,” he said. “I dragged it for the most part. All you’re doing in that dirty water is dragging your bait multiple times in an area. It’s so tedious to pitch to beds you can can see let alone ones you can’t see. Bass can’t see it either, but finally you’ll put right where it needs to be.”

Major League Fishing/Josh Gassmann
Photo: Major League Fishing/Josh Gassmann

Boyd Duckett used two different presentations mainly to catch fish that were bedding at Lake Conroe.

3rd: Boyd Duckett

> Shotgun Round (Group A): 17, 27-00
> Elimination Round: 8, 11-08 (25, 38-08)
> Knockout Round: 21, 38-05
> Championship Round: 20, 35-15
> Total = 66, 112-12

Going into the tournament, Boyd Duckett’s hunch was that the bass at Lake Conroe would be in more of a pre-spawn staging mode. As it turned out, they were in bedding/spawning mode and he was able to adjust and exploit small areas within an area to catch the most fish (66) of any competitor through the week.

Duckett spent one day of practice up north in the area known as The Jungle and the other exploring the backs of creeks, ultimately settling on the latter for the tournament.

“The best bite I found was basically a spawning pattern or a last-minute pre-spawn,” he said. “Spawning areas are all I keyed on. A lot of guys around me and I’m thinking the whole top 10 was doing something similar.”

With the water being as stained as it was, many anglers relied on moving baits that threw off vibration and flash. Duckett did the same thing, but also mixed in a swimming worm that he could slow down in spots where he got short strikes.

“It was about dissecting small areas and catching numbers there,” he said. “I feel like most of the fish I caught were either bedding or in their bedding areas. I know some of them were bedding because I’d throw in near a lily pad stem and one would hit it and drop it. I’d back in there and the same thing would happen. Had the females moved in and we had some decent weather, we could’ve killed it back there.”

Duckett was 7th in Group A after the Shotgun Round and wound up 11th after the Elimination Round, easily advancing to the Knockout Round, when he piled up 21 fish for 38-05 to finish 1st. His confidence was swelling entering the final day, but a cold snap overnight seemed to slow down the bite in his area just enough, giving eventual winner Edwin Evers a virtual head start on everyone else.

“What killed us – we thought the event would be won where we were for sure – was that nobody caught any in the first period,” he said. “They just didn’t bite. The front shut our fish down the first period and that was a game changer. All of us got back in contention, but we couldn’t come all the way back.”

> ChatterBait gear: 7’ heavy-action Duckett Fishing Micro Magic casting rod, Duckett Fishing 360 casting reel (7.1:1 ratio), 17-pound Vicious fluorocarbon line, 1/4-oz. Z-Man Original ChatterBait (chartreuse/white), Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Zako trailer (sight flash).

> He opted for the lighter vibrating jig to keep it higher in the water column on the retrieve.

> Worm gear: 7’ medium-heavy Duckett Fishing Black Ice casting rod, same reel, same line (14-pound), 3/16-oz. unnamed tungsten worm weight, 3/0 Gamakatsu O'Shaughnessy Bend offset worm hook, 6” Zoom Ultravibe Speed Worm (junebug).

Major League Fishing/Phoenix Moore
Photo: Major League Fishing/Phoenix Moore

Brent Ehrler junk-fished his way to a top-5 finish at Conroe.

4th: Brent Erhler

> Shotgun Round (Group A): 15, 33-12
> Elimination Round: 5, 8-01 (20, 41-13)
> Knockout Round: 16, 28-12
> Championship Round: 19, 34-13
> Total = 55, 105-06

After a tough two days of practice, Brent Ehrler’s day-1 results sure made it seem as though he had Lake Conroe figured out again. His 33-12 stood up as the top single-day weight of the tournament until the final day when five anglers, including himself, surpassed that total.

“On day 1, I could’ve closed my eyes and thrown my bait into a tree and it would’ve landed in a 2-pounder’s mouth every time,” he said. “After that it was a grind.”

He junk-fished virtually the whole week, alternating between reaction baits (vibrating jig, jerkbaits and a spinnerbait) along with a Senko and dropshot fished on casting gear.

“I caught fish from 8 feet up to 10 inches,” he added.

His hot start on day 1 allowed him time to explore other areas during the event. He revisited areas he’d fished previously but hadn’t caught fish and fished water he knew but had never caught them.

Ultimately, he focused on areas where fish were staging before moving in to spawn.

“The water stained and cold and we had two days where the mornings were in the 30s,” he said. “The water was so stained that it eliminated the offshore bite. Had the water been clearer, people would’ve done well just off the bank, but the water was so dirty, the only fish we could catch were the ones up there.

“Some things were pretty consistent. You couldn’t run around to fish it, but there were places where they would be positioned and sitting on spots that they were using to stage.”

> Vibrating jig gear: 7’4” medium-heavy Daiwa Tatula Elite Cranking/Bladed jig casting rod, Daiwa Tatula 100 casting reel, 20-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. Z-Man/Evergreen Jack Hammer Chatterbait (white and green-pumpkin), Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Zako trailer (white and green-pumpkin).

> He threw the ChatterBait along seawalls and docks as well as stick ups and lily pads.

> Jerkbait gear: 6’9” medium-light Daiwa Tatula Elite Seth Feider topwater/jerkbait casting rod, same reel, same line as vibrating jig (12-pound), Lucky Craft Lightning Pointer (chartreuse shad), Lucky Craft Pointer 78 DD (chartreuse shad).

> Ehrler relied on the jerkbait in one area during the Knockout Round. “It wasn’t my prime deal, but it saved my butt going into the final,” he said. “I saw a couple fish come up and thought they were crappie. At the time, I’d been catching them on a dropshopt and a Texas rig, and I hadn’t had a bite in a while. They wouldn’t bite a 1.5 and I still had a jerkbait in the boat. I never even threw it in practice or on day 1. I tried it at the end of day 2 and caught three on it then.”

> He updated the Lightning Pointer hooks to Gamakatsu #5 trebles and put Gamakatsu G Finesse medium-heavy trebles on the Pointer 78 DD.

> Dropshot gear: 7’ medium medium-heavy Daiwa Tatula Elite Brent Ehrler finesse casting rod, same reel, same line as jerkbait (16-pound), 2/0 Gamakatsu offset round-bend worm hook, 6” Roboworm (margarita mutilator), 1/4 unnamed tungsten dropshot weight.

> Senko gear: Same rod and reel as dropshot, 18-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 1/8- or 1/4-oz. unnamed tungsten worm weight, 3/0 Gamakatsu offset EWG worm hook, Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Senko (green-pumpkin).

> He primarily used the Senko around pads, docks and wood.

> Spinnerbait gear: 7’3” medium-heavy Daiwa Tatula Elite multi-purpose casting rod, same reel, 20-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, homemade 3/8-oz. BOSS spinnerbait (chartreuse/white) with Colorado and Indiana blades (gold).

> The spinnerbait was his go-to in super shallow water, fishing it slow to pull fish off the bank.

Major League Fishing
Photo: Major League Fishing

David Walker said the fish progressed into their spawning phase during the tournament.

5th: David Walker

> Shotgun Round (Group B): 11, 22-02
> Elimination Round: 7, 10-10 (18, 32-12)
> Knockout Round: 11, 27-10
> Championship Round: 15, 34-07
> Total = 44, 94-13

It’s been a while since David Walker had seen a lake evolve through the course of a week as quickly as Lake Conroe did last week. He started practice targeting docks, then moved out and cranked a smaller-profile plug in front of the docks to generate his first consistent bites.

“I figured that’s how I’d fish the event, just cranking and covering water,” he said.

For the Group B Shotgun Round, he started with an assortment of crankbaits and jigs tied on. By the final round, he’d transitioned to vibrating jigs and straight-tail soft plastic worms.

“It was a significant contrast,” he said. “It went from a winter pattern to a spawn patter in a week’s time and it’s not like it was suddenly balmy. They switched quickly. Maybe that caught some guys off guard because it didn’t suddenly feel like there were spawning fish around.”

Despite the water staying stained to muddy all week, the water temperature slowly climbed into the 60s and stayed there and he believes that’s what the fish were waiting for.

“With Conroe being such a shallow lake, those temps climb quick and go down quickly,” he said. “From the time we got there until Sunday, the water went from 52 degrees up to 62.”

His first indication that fish were transitioning came during the Elimination Round.

“I’d been catching them on hard targets around stumps with a jig,” he said. “The next day I flipped over next to some pads because I was on my way to the next area. I had a bite and missed it three times. I threw in there again and missed it again. I thought it might be a turtle.

“I reached down for a straight tail worm and it took off with it as soon as it hit bottom. I was very surprised. I was thinking if it was a bass, it’d be little, but it was a 2-04. That made me think that fish was on a bed. It seemed puzzling to me, but it gave me something to go on the next day.”

He went back to the same area during the Knockout Round and caught fish doing the same thing. By the final day, his mindset had shifted to targeting anywhere he felt a fish would be spawning or making a bed.

“I didn’t think it was new fish moving in, but the same fish only they moved over to different targets,” he said.

After a 53rd-place finish at the season opener, Walker was pleased with how well he was able to adjust with the conditions at Conroe to secure a spot in the upcoming MLF Heritage Cup.

“If I critique myself on how the week went, I did well,” Walker added. “I adapted well and really maximized places I fished and learned a lot about it and stayed focused on it.”

> Vibrating jig gear: 7’1” medium-heavy G. Loomis GLX jig/worm casting rod, Shimano Curado K casting reel, 20-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. Z-Man/Evergreen Jack Hammer (chartreuse/white), Z-Man DieZel MinnowZ swimbait trailer (smokey shad).

> Jig gear: 7’5” medium-heavy G. Loomis GLX jig/worm casting rod, same reel, 16-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon, 3/8-oz. Z-Man CrosseyeZ Power Finesse jig (moccasin craw), Z-Man TRD CrawZ trailer (California craw).

> On his first two days of competition, Walker opted for a smaller profile jig/trailer combo “because I knew I was fishing for pressured fish and the cover is not heavy there,” he said. “I pitched it around anything I could see.”

> He mixed in a LIVETARGET David Walker Tennessee Craw crankbait as a “feeler bait” to learn the general location of stumps and other cover off the bank. It’s a 2-inch bait that dives 4 to 8 feet. “When I’d get up to it, I’d pitch the jig in there and fish it slow over the top of that stuff,” he added.

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