I’m always anxious to learn from the world’s best bass pros, all the while trying to unlock their secrets. As many of you know, I participated in the press opportunities at the Bassmaster Classic recently, riding with competitors Chad Morgenthaler and Brian Snowden on days 1 and 2, respectively.
My plan was to come away with exciting photos of the action: each angler swinging Hartwell lunkers over the gunnels. I’d capture water spraying through the air, or courageous hand-to-hand battles with treble-wielding monsters. Instead, I mainly shot photos of two men casting. Each of my pros struggled to piece together the Hartwell puzzle and ended the competition at the bottom of the pack.
But my time was not wasted; on the contrary, by being part of the most epic of competitive bass fishing struggles, I was offered a rare insight into what separates top touring pros – in this case Classic qualifiers – from the rest of the bass fishing world. You see, being a pro fisherman is easy when the bass are biting. It’s a whole different story when they’re not.
The lack of a spectacular catch was just one indicator of life on the inside. My detailed notes from each day clued me in to many more. Let’s explore.
As you all likely read in the reports, the first day of the 2015 Classic was incredibly cold. The biggest factor on the minds of most of the fishermen had to be iced-up guides and reels, and whether or not fishing was even feasible. Sure, the lake would be open and the boats would run, but how do you dead-stick a jerkbait when the air temperature is 8?
Morgenthaler had made the right contact years ago when he received a sponsorship from Plano. The tackle-box giant now owns Frabill, the renowned ice-fishing brand, and they equipped Morgenthaler with a new high-tech ice suit. Good move.
As we launched and waited for our number to be called, I was immediately taken aback by Morgenthaler’s overall demeanor. Not only was he cool and collected, but a casual observer would never know we were beginning the biggest tournament in fishing. I reflect on the effectiveness of this approach. I recognize the advantages of not getting rattled, but I also see the benefit that comes from those who seem to amp themselves up. Iaconelli and Jacob Wheeler cross my mind.
The boat ride was shockingly cold. The initial sting of the arctic air brought tears to my eyes; tears that ran down the inside of my sunglasses and instantly froze into small droplets that I would later need to scrape rather than wipe.
Morgenthaler began the day with a methodical approach of fishing suspending jerkbaits around rocky points. He mentioned that he feels comfortable in this regard, as Hartwell was fishing much like his favorite Ozark lakes where he is building a new home. The wild card in the equation, he mentioned, were Hartwell’s nomadic blueback herring. Such a premonition would indeed ring true for the event.
Early on, a fish momentarily glanced Chad’s jerkbait. But it’s his only strike of the morning.
After watching him fish for several hours, I began to ask Morgenthaler a few mixed questions. His answers revealed that he came to Hartwell to pre-fish prior to the cut-off period. During the same period, he learned the intricacies of his new Humminbird depthfinders with the aid of a factory rep. I wondered if the high-tech advancements of the new products would outweigh his unfamiliarity.
Morgenthaler commented that, due to the weather extreme, anything he caught “before noon will be a bonus." Later, I would learn that many competitors, including Takahiro Omori, thumped the bass first thing in the morning. I wonder if perhaps Morgenthler's mid-depth approach was the wrong one to choose given the weather. But what kind of guy would be able to throw his plans out the window on the first day of the Classic?
True to his word, Morgenthaler caught his first bass, a chunky 2-pounder, from a secondary point at 12:01 p.m. After spending the morning casting jerkbaits, Wiggle Warts and jigs, he had picked up an original Rapala Shad Rap for the first time and was rewarded on his third cast. At the very next point, Chad felt another bass slap the bait, but not take it. Momentum was in the boat with us – you could feel it.
Unfortunately, it was a short ride.
Morgenthaler hit the short-striker’s area a second time, but I was surprised that he never revisited the point where his catch occurred. As I’ve now played roles as both a tournament competitor and observer, I immediately noticed one thing: recognizing potentially productive water, or “pattern fishing," is much easier as an observer when nothing is on the line. I think something enters the heads of most competitors that disallows them from remaining open-minded, but, after observing at the Classic, it’s evident that allowing the flow is much easier from the back of the boat.
In any case, no more fish made contact with Morgenthaler’s lures. He spent a little time picking out a backlash after trying to cast upwind, and mentioned how nice it would be if Shad Raps cast like more modern lures. A few minutes later he sat the rod down, benching the player that had produced 66 percent of the day’s action.
With just an hour or so left to fish, we made a more substantial boat ride through air that didn't feel to have warmed much at all. I made the mistake of trying to survive this trip without gloves, and afterwards found myself sacrificing other parts of my anatomy in order to warm my fingers.
Morgentalher fished an area of deep timber without luck, then watched John Crews come in and fish the same spot. Crews eventually caught a bass there, and I learned the following day that Snowden did as well.
Morgenthaler caught a small keeper just across the cove, and mentioned how there’s no real pattern to his findings. I felt for the guy; I sensed tension, but he continued to try to work his way through it in the most professional manner.
Any competitive bass fisherman has had days when he knows he isn't doing the right thing, but he continues to try to make them work. Rarely does a great day result. However, simply changing mid-stream during the most important event of the year is likely impossible for the vast majority of competitors.
As the guy in the back with the camera, it doesn’t seem like it would be so tough to try something new. But as a competitor in my own right, I know that’s untrue. I reflect on my own struggles at times; the feeling of a cloudy head as the seconds tick by. A few deep breaths to relieve the tension coupled with extreme exhaustion. I can only imagine how amplified such senses are at this level.
Perhaps this explains why those with little or no fishing experience often out-fish the best in the boat.
Throughout my day with Chad, I badly wanted him to make some sort of change, however minute or drastic, in order to produce a favorable result that he could run with. For a few minutes, I thought he was on his way with a lure swap and success. But things just never elevated to a point that would put Morgenthaler back in his groove.
So close, yet so far.
I learned infinitely more from Chad, and my experience as a whole, than I ever thought possible. Next week we’ll add Snowden’s contribution and piece together the puzzle even more.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)