After extensive review of this year's BPT winners, I set off this week to uncover the secrets of the Elite Series champions. Just like the previous two weeks, my intention was to share with you the pattern within the wins, something I was sure to pin down easily. Or so I thought.
The obvious became obscure. Try as I may, the only commonality that I could come up with was the winners’ affinity for soft-plastic lures. I guess that’s something.
But then I looked further. After reviewing the feedback of the champions and the real details that separated them from the rest of the field, it became apparent that each capitalized on one particular variable; a common detail in their winning approach.
The winners made few, if any, exploratory casts. Whenever the line left the reel, the winners were guaranteed to be casting at fish. Let’s dive in for further explanation.
> February: Lakes Okeechobee and Seminole
Two tournaments in Florida, both won in open water using finesse applications, despite occurring during the spawning season. Sounds crazy, I know. No reports of mat-flipped monsters or Chatterbait beat-downs. Forward-facing sonar, used to capitalize on bass – visible bass – that others missed. Winners Tyler Rivet and Joey Cifuentes only threw to fish they saw, for the most part, confident their lures were in the strike zone more than others. Precision fishing, regardless of season or locale.
> April: Lake Murray and the Santee Cooper Chain
Murray was dominated by sight-fishing. Again, visible fish; no downtime. Drew Benton took top honors by keying on areas others missed due to cooler water temperatures. A shad spawn helped him bump up his stringer on the final day but, for the most part, the damage had been done.
Santee Cooper was won flipping, as it should be. But the details around Luke Palmer’s winning strategy included the use of forward-facing sonar to investigate productive cypress trees. In essence, Palmer reported sight-fishing with sonar, keying on late spawners that set up around the trees, and utilizing his technology to find the sweet spot on each tree prior to casting, again never relying on his lures to do the investigating. Look for this to be a dominant technique in upcoming spring events or on waters with deep spawning bass.
Two spawning tournaments – both won sight-fishing, sort of.
> May: Lay Lake
Here we had a local steal the show. Will Davis Jr. has won a bundle on Lay Lake, just like his father, and knows those waters like the back of his hand. Tailrace fishing is his specialty, and Davis reported precise casts to specific rocks were vital to his win. Only he and his dad know this area so intimately. And while Davis didn’t credit sonar for his win (though he may have used it), he did capitalize on only fishing exact places he knew held bass, through a lifetime of experience on Lay. No investigating elsewhere.
> June: Sabine River
Brock Mosley had endured five second-place finishes prior to his first Elite Series win. One notable runner-up was at the 2021 Sabine River event, where Mosley made gigantic runs each day and almost pulled it off. In contrast to that strategy, Mosley stayed close this time around, keying on an area he knew held fish. The Sabine is the type of place where small weights win. Launch sites, release areas and adjacent harbors often produce a few bass for a number of the competitors. Mosley adopted a grinder strategy by staying put in those areas and working them for all they were worth. Excruciatingly slow fishing was occasionally interrupted by a keeper, giving Mosley enough confidence to stay put. He knew the fish were there – most of the field did – it was just a matter of catching them. Productive water for the win.
> July and August: Lakes St. Clair and Champlain and the St. Lawrence River
Smallmouth. Dropshots. Forward-facing sonar.
“Every bass that entered the boat was first viewed on Garmin LiveAcope,” Bassfan reported on Joey Cifuentes’ St. Clair win, his second of the season. Kyoya Fujita won Champlain in similar fashion, keying exclusively on open-water smallmouth. A week later, Patrick Walters joined the winner’s circle at the St. Lawrence, cracking the 100-pound mark for the event – again with a dropshot.
The modern method of fishing for the open-water brownies is endless scanning and little casting, as each of our Northern winners proved. Bass were in the crosshairs before the bails were opened.
Okay, so I didn’t uncover a secret technique we can all take with us to the lake, expecting to catch more bass. But more than anything, what the 2023 Elite Series taught us was that, in order to win, the circuit’s best were spending no idle time flailing around. Each cast was determined to be in front of a bass before it was made. Downtime and second-guessing were the enemy and confidence cleaned house.
We continue to see major changes in bass fishing competitions, thanks to unparalleled advancements in fish-finding technology. Today, secret lures have been replaced by unique strategies.
(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.)