Some days, the fish seem to want one lure, fished the same way, in the same area, all day long. Other days, it may be 10 bites on 10 different lures from 10 different holes.
Most bass anglers would accept that generalization, but how do you know when to aim with precision or go with a scattergun approach? For newly-crowned Bassmaster Angler of the Year (AOY) Gerald Swindle, the decision is based almost solely on instinct.
Depending on what his instincts dictate, Swindle may stick to one pattern for an entire tournament, never altering a single component. Or he might kitchen-sink the fish, trying anything and everything to get a limit.
With so many factors to think about – all the things that can affect the bite on any particular day – ironically he relies less on his brain and more on his gut. "I try to not let my mind figure into (a pattern decision)," he said. "Of course, you're still thinking rationally and analyzing things" – such as the lake, time of year, dominant forage, frontal conditions, etc. – "otherwise you wouldn't be out there. But for me it mostly boils down to instinct and feel."
One and Done
Swindle won AOY this year by fishing by the seat of his pants, often hopping around a lake like he had coffee flowing in his veins. But that's not the only way he fishes. For example, he finished 2nd in the 2002 FLW Tour Championship on Louisiana's Cross Lake by fishing the same docks over and over again all day in the sweltering heat, just eking out bites.
And this year, at the Harris Chain Bassmaster, he started the first morning on a deep grass bed, flipping a 3/16-ounce, junebug-colored Zoom Trick Worm. He ended up staying on that type of cover and never put the Trick Worm down for the rest of the tournament.
"I just felt like it was the one bait that could get the job done," he said. "Marty (Stone) and I sort of put the pattern together in practice, the conditions stayed pretty stable and I never altered a thing." Swindle finished 59th doing it, but Stone, his fellow Citgo team member, won the tournament doing the same thing.
Sometimes lure choice is a no-brainer, but he might throw umpteen-different varieties before dialing in the right one.
"Take Guntersville for instance," he said. "There I threw a lipless crankbait all day every day. When you're fishing hydrilla in 2 to 3 feet of water, there just aren't a lot of other baits you can fish effectively. Everyone knows that and everyone's fishing a lipless crank. That's when you have to focus on color.
"I fished the same Lucky Craft LVR-7 the whole tournament, but I must've thrown upwards of 15 different colors or more. It looked like a tackle box blew up in the bottom of my boat.
"I never stop trying to find the right color, even if one is producing a little. I'll keep an eye on how they swallowed it, where the fish is hooked. If it's hooked on the back hook, that tells me they're not real wild about (a color). If he's eaten the thing, then I know I'm on to something." (He finished 36th in that event.)
Change Can Be Good
Things couldn't have been more different at the Table Rock Bassmaster. Swindle ran all over the lake and every rod on deck saw some action. He caught fish on wide- and flat-bodied crankbaits (Wiggle Wart and Lucky Craft CB 250), flipping a jig, and burning and slow-rolling a spinnerbait, all en route to a 3rd-place finish.
With conditions that ran from hot to cold, windy to calm and wet to dry, "it was like fishing totally new water every day," he said. "There was no set pattern whatsoever. I was just running around trying to find an area that turned on for an hour or two.
"Each pocket (of stained water at the back end of a creek) called for something different. It was like taking a survey at each spot – choosing the bait that I thought stacked up best, but not assuming it was going to work at the next spot."
Stay or Go?
Lure choice is just half of the pattern puzzle. Knowing when to run and gun or methodically dissect an area is the other half. And for Swindle, that goes back to intuition.
"I never look at my watch and say, 'Hey, I'm going to fish 15 minutes here and 15 minutes there,'" he said. "I'll stay or go based on how the situation feels right then and there.
"Sometimes we'll be working a good-looking area, maybe even picking up a few fish, but I'll just up and leave. My partner will say, 'Hey, what's wrong?' It just didn't feel right to me. Whenever I first doubt what I'm doing in a particular situation, I'm out of there. But conversely, I might stick with an area for a long time without getting a bite, so long as my gut tells me it's the right place to be."