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Bridge Spot Key For Teen

Monday, February 6, 2006

John Billheimer Jr. caught all of his fish at the Havasu Western Stren on either a Bill Norman DD22 crankbait or a Yamamoto Senko.

John Billheimer Jr. is 16 years old, and the Havasu Western Stren was his debut as a boater in a tournament of that magnitude. The northern California resident had never been to Lake Havasu before, and his first 4 days of practice were brutal. He wondered whether he'd even weigh in a fish in competition.

Winning was a preposterous notion. But win he did, and by a healthy 4-13 margin. According to FLW Outdoors, he's the youngest angler ever to achieve victory in a Stren (formerly EverStart) Series event.

He topped a field that included many seasoned western pros. Some of them – including 5th-place finisher Jimmy Reese (older brother of Skeet), former Bassmaster Tour competitor Robert Lee (9th at Havasu) and all-time WON Bass leading money-winner Gary Dobyns (116th) – he'd idolized for the past several years as he began to lay the foundation for a pro angling career of his own.

The bite was incredibly tough in sun-drenched Arizona, with most of the fish in the pre-spawn mode. Only 12 limits were weighed in out of 430 chances. None of those dozen five-fish bags belonged to him, but his seven-bass, 19-12 total over the final 2 days easily topped the 14-15 brought in by runner-up Pat Clement.

Here's how he did it.


There wasn't much to talk about here. Billheimer tried all sorts of patterns and got a total of two bites in 4 days. He figured he was in big trouble.

His unfamiliarity with the lake prompted him to narrow his focus. "I picked one area and tried to dissect it," he said. "I picked the Bill Williams arm, which is mainly in the lower half of the lake, because it had a lot of tules and stuff that I'm used to. But nothing was working, so I had to look for something else."

On the afternoon of the final practice day, he pulled up under the London Bridge, threw out a splitshot worm rig and got a solid bite. That solitary strike convinced him that was where he should fish on day 1, simply because he had no confidence that he could catch a single fish anywhere else on the lake.

"I didn't throw another cast, I just kept looking," he said. "When I didn't find anything else, I figured (the bridge) is where I should start."


Day 1: 3, 9-05
Day 2: 2, 10-07 (5, 19-12)
Day 3: 4, 11-07
Day 4: 3, 8-05 (7, 19-12)

Billheimer got to his bridge spot and made some casts early on day 1, but had no takers. When he looked in his rod locker, he noticed one combo that had a Bill Norman DD22 crankbait tied on. That was one of the many lures he'd tried without success in the Bill Williams Arm.

On one of his first few casts, he snagged the lure in some grass about 10 feet beneath the surface and ripped it out. A 3-pounder took it, and when he put the fish in the livewell he was relieved in the knowledge that he wouldn't go keeperless for 2 days (32 others in the 200-angler field did just that – Ed.).

He caught a similar fish two casts later, then the action shut down for more than an hour. He got his third and final bite of the day, another 3-pounder, at about 11:00.

All of his fish were largemouths, but he saw two or three big smallmouths following that third day-1 fish to the boat. He said he realized that the fish were using a narrow channel beneath him as a highway to their spawning grounds, and that his location might be their waypoint for food, rest or both.

He endured a very slow morning on day 2, but the breeze kicked up a bit at about 11:00 and he caught a 6 1/2-pounder. About 5 minutes later, he caught a 4-pounder. That was all for the day, but those two fish moved him from 15th place to 4th.

By that point, he'd recognized that his bites came in spurts and he needed to find another nearby spot so he could shuttle back and forth. "Even if I didn't catch anything, I needed somewhere to go to burn up time and wait for the bridge fish to rest," he said. "I was catching one or two real quick, but then I wouldn't get bit for hours."

He settled on the Lake Havasu Marina about a quarter-mile away. He caught one on a Gary Yamamoto Senko there early on day 3, then got his other three at the bridge on the crankbait between 10:30 and 11. His 11-07 bag, the only double-digit haul of the day, moved him into the lead.

He bounced back and forth between his two spots on the final day and caught two at the docks and one at the bridge. The last and biggest, which was close to 4 pounds, bit just 5 minutes before it was time to head back for the weigh-in.

As it turned out, the action was so slow for his pursuers that he'd have won even without that final fish.

Winning Gear Notes

> Crankbait gear: 7'0" medium Powell 704CB rod, Shimano Curado casting reel (5:1 ratio), 15-pound Berkley Big Game line, Bill Norman DD22 (natural crawdad).

> Senko gear: 7'0" light-fast Powell 701LF rod, Shimano Stratic spinning reel, 6-pound P-line fluorocarbon line, 1/0 Gamakatsu FWG hook, 5-inch wacky-rigged Gary Yamamoto Senko (watermelon/red flake).


> Main factor in his success – "The crankbait for the first 3 days and the Senko the last day, and just figuring out what those fish were doing."

> The boat he won was his second. He also won one at a team tournament at Lake Oroville last November.

> Country music legend Hank Williams Jr. is among his sponsors. "He's actually my dad's best friend. They met through guns. My dad's a big collector and trader, especially of old guns, and Hank is too."

> He's a junior at Liberty High in Brentwood. If things progress as planned, he'll forego college and become a pro fisherman right after graduation. "The way I look at it, I'm in college right now," he said.

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