By Todd Ceisner
The fishing was anything but fast and furious during the Lake Havasu Western Rayovac Series last week. None of the top three finishers reported having 30-fish days, but when they did get a bite, it was more often than not a 3- or 4-pound caliber fish.
“Every fish in there is a 3-pounder or bigger,” said runner-up Josh Bertrand. “When you’d catch a 2-pounder, you were like, ‘That’s weird.’”
The quality and health of the fishery, aided by the installation of artificial fish habitat years ago, were trumpeted by many of the competitors, some of whom will be back in May when the Bassmaster Elite Series makes its first stop at Havasu.
The bass were in full-on pre-spawn mode and some competitors even noted seeing some already locked on beds.
For Bertrand and Scott Hellesen, the two closest finishers behind runaway winner Joe Uribe, Jr., it was two different strategies that led to their results.
Here’s a recap of how each of them figured out Havasu.
2nd: Josh Bertrand
> Day 1: 5, 20-04
> Day 2: 5, 15-04
> Day 3: 5, 16-13
> Total = 15, 52-05
Bertrand is an Arizona native, but being that he lives 4 1/2 hours away from Havasu hardly makes him an expert on the lake. However, having spent considerable time on the lake during practice and the tournament knowing that he’ll be back for the Elite Series event in a couple months gave him some insight into how things may play out when he returns.
“I don’t fish it often enough to keep dialed in on what’s going on,” he said. “These lakes change every year. I will say that spending a whole week out there in a tournament situation made me a lot more motivated. It’s one thing to go idle around and look at stuff, but it’s not the same as being there in a tournament situation.”
His runner-up finish will certainly help him confidence wise and financially heading into the upcoming season.
“It’s just a sweet little boost to get the season started,” he said.
His practice wasn’t anything special, he said. He’d get four to six bites per day on a variety of baits and “nothing really jumped out at me,” he added. “A lot of fish were in a really funky mode. There’s so much habitat in the lake and I think a lot of them were still buried in that and were hard to catch.”
Bertrand eventually got dialed in on a morning largemouth pattern, keying on fish that were gorging on shad with a lipless crankbait. Later on, he’d target smallmouth moving into spawning areas with a finesse swimbait. All of his spots were within a 10-mile milk run from the ramp.
“Going into the event, I counted on fishing a lot of specific spots throughout the day, but as the tournament evolved, this pattern developed,” he said. “Every morning I could catch one or two good largemouth fishing the shad bite and then I’d found areas where female smallies were moving in. They were all nice and fat 3- and 4-pound fish. In the areas where I’d typically catch females in the past, I was catching males.
“I was fishing a little further out so I think being a little deeper than some guys helped me. I was in anywhere from 5 to 20 feet. It was the last deep water before the spawning areas. The smallies are weird in that they might spawn on a point or a flat and not always in a bay. I just fished around areas where they tend to spawn and being further out meant better quality fish.”
Day 1 was a grind for Bertrand, who landed the only five bites he got and was fortunate enough to be in the lead with 20-04. He had four smallies and a kicker largemouth in his bag.
“I caught a 6-pounder on my first cast, which was a great note to start on, but it took me all day to catch five,” he said. “I was so nervous after that day. It looks like you had a banner day when you catch 20 pounds, but I knew I could easily go out and weigh one or two on day 2 in the breaks didn’t go my way.”
He had a later boat draw on day 2 and he went right to his smallmouth spots and fished the same points and flats from day 1. Again, it took him most of the day to get five keepers in the boat, but his confidence was starting to build.
“I never had a huge bite, just run-of-the-mill smallmouth,” he said. “The pressure was pretty intense those first two day and I figured getting through that day and adding a couple new spots, with the pressure lightening up and more fish moving in, the last day could be good.”
He easily made the cut in 2nd place after catching 15-04 and started day 3 with a pair of 4-pound largemouth on the rattlebait. He moved to his smallmouth area and finished out his limit that weighed 16-13.
“I wasn’t going to go fish for 30 pounds and come in like a bozo with nothing,” he said. “I figured if Joe caught 20 again there was no way to catch him so I just went back what had been working for me.”
> Swimbait gear: 7’ medium-action Abu Garcia Veracity spinning rod, Abu Garcia Revo SX 30 spinning reel, 8-pound Berkley Nanofil main line (green), 6-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line leader, homemade 1/4-oz. round head jig (2/0 hook), 4” Berkley Havoc Beat Shad (smoke black purple).
> Making long casts to the smallmouth was key. “I felt like if the fish saw the Beat Shad, they were going to eat it. There were other areas I wasn’t catching them and I just think the fish weren’t there.”
> He’d let the swimbait hit bottom before reeling it back slowly. “I fished a lot of different angles, but the key was fishing it slow.”
> His largemouth pattern centered largely on active shad, which attracted the attention of stripers and eventually the largemouth. “The first 30 minutes of daylight were key,” he said. “If you got around the striper and shad, you had a chance at a couple big ones.”
> He threw a shad-pattern lipless crank.
> Main factor in his success – "Not having a great prefish meant I wasn’t locked in on anything. Fishing with an open mind was key.”
> Performance edge – "The Nanofil line. Any time I’m in a spinning rod tournament, I feel like it’s an edge for me to have that on. It casts further and that was super key.”
Scott Hellesen was on an umbrella rig pattern for most of the tournament.
3rd: Scott Hellesen
> Day 1: 5, 16-08
> Day 2: 5, 17-06
> Day 3: 4, 14-05
> Total = 14, 48-03
The first two times Hellesen now fished a Rayovac Series at Havasu, things didn’t go well. Between mechanical issues or inconsistent fishing, they were mostly forgettable tournaments.
This year’s event, however, worked out much better.
Hellesen got on an shallow-water umbrella rig pattern in practice and rode it through the event, mixing in a couple drop-shot fish along the way.
“I went out a couple weekends before to check it out and struggled pretty bad,” he said. “I only caught a few, but I was trying some things that I thought could win it and struggled.”
He came back the weekend before the tournament and got on the rig pattern pretty quickly.
“I crushed them and decided that those would be the last fish I would stick until the tournament,” he added. “I’d found some birds diving up north by the mouth of the river and I just the rig around and caught them.
“I didn’t find the fish I caught in the tournament until the last two hours of practice. It was changing so rapidly. I was actually looking for bedding fish. I pulled into two coves and fish were cruising around that habitat.”
His confidence was pretty high once the competition started, but it quickly waned when he got to that spot where he’d caught them so well in practice.
“I caught zilch,” he said. “I had four or five spots up toward the river where I’d caught them on the A-rig. I ran a bunch of them and just blanked. There were so many boats up there, so I decided to go into some coves.”
He boated a pair of 4-pound largemouths out of the first cove and proceeded to bounce back and forth between that and nearby cove.
“These coves were maybe 50 yards across,” he said. “I’d go back and forth four or five times.”
He said it was key to cast the umbrella rig as close to the structure as possible and in some instances, he could see the fish dart out from the cover and inhale the bait. He managed five bites and came in with 16-08 to get started.
He ran straight to the coves again on day 2 and again caught a pair of 4-pounders to start the day.
“I had to stay way back from them,” he said. “I’d come off pad about 100 yards before each cove and just troll the rest of the way in. I was using an 8-foot rod and 17-pound line so I could make as long a cast as possible.”
He managed six bites and culled once and saw his weight go up to 17-06.
The fish in the coves he’d hammered the first two days had started to get conditioned to his baits and he found it a struggle to get bit in either location on the final day.
“I decided to start on my secondary spots and within 10 minutes, I had a 4 1/2 and a 3 1/2,” he said. “I couldn’t get those fish going in the coves.”
At noon, he still had those two fish so he decided to target smallmouth on the main lake with a drop shot. When fish wouldn’t commit to the umbrella rig, he triggered bites with the finesse tactic. He caught two smallies that way and came in with four fish to claim 3rd place.
> Umbrella rig gear: 8’ heavy-action Powell Max 3D casting rod, Shimano Curado 200 I casting reel (7.3:1 gear ratio), 17-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, homemade 5-arm umbrella rig (4 small willow blades, 3 lives hooks, 2 teasers), homemade 1/8-oz. jigheads (2/0 hook), 4” Keitech Swing Impact swimbaits (electric shad).
> With the Colorado River forming the border between Arizona and California, Hellesen had umbrella rigs tied on that suited each state’s hook regulations – Arizona is a two-hook state while California allows three. “My two best spots were in California,” he noted.
> Drop shot gear: 7’ medium-light Dobyns spinning rod, Shimano Stradic spinning reel, 4-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, size 2 Gamakatsu drop shot hook, 5” Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Pro Senko (baby bass), unnamed 1/8-oz drop shot weight.
> Main factor in his success – "Probably just committing to those two areas and being confident and knowing you’re going to get five bites. It’s really hard to commit to something with so few bites, but I really grinded hard on them.”
> Performance edge – "I’m running the new MinnKota Fortrex 112 (trolling motor) and being quiet in those coves when it was slick calm was key. When I changed rods, I made sure to lay it down slowly because once they spot you or hear you, you’re done.”