Details on How I Finished 2nd – Part 1: The Preparation
A Tournament Strategy Article

Top 3 Places and Big Bass Winner - I'm 2nd from the left. W.C. Paetz won (L) with 13.29 pounds.
Top 3 Places and Big Bass Winner – I’m 2nd from the left. W.C. Paetz won (L) with 13.29 pounds.

Part 1 – The Preparation

Houghton Lake Sat-Sun May 28-29, Thurs-Sat Jun 2-3, 2005

My good friends and regular fishing partners Derek Baetz and Larry Dekker talked me into giving the Top Bass circuit a try this year. Top Bass has an interesting format in that you fish by yourself – so everyone is a guaranteed boater. Makes it a personal challenge too along with the normal tournament challenges.

I don’t fish Houghton Lake a lot anymore, maybe once a year –usually opening weekend for a day to catch some easy canal largemouths. I like to sight-fish quite a bit, so I took the risk (besides Larry has a cabin near there so it was a cheap tournament that fit my tight 2005 tournament budget).

Parts of Houghton Lake are still suffering from the massive weed kill the association performed a couple years ago – unfortunately, many of the parts I normally like to fish. That was my first major adjustment.

There were still some bass in canals, but an opening weekend tournament was putting pressure on them, and surprisingly, many non-tournament anglers were specifically targeting the beds better than I’m used to seeing, and catching quite a few. Some were keeping them. They can legally do that and although I didn’t see any one angler catching and keeping a bunch, there were enough keeping 1 or 2 that it put the remaining bass beds sparsely populated with shy bass.

Most I saw were small and I didn’t feel like putting my eggs in that basket. Besides, I thought all along that main lake smallies would win… and I don’t know about you guys, but winning is always a great target to cast for. That’s a nice confidence boost, and a shot of fresh cash into the fishing fund never hurts either.

I started looking. I don’t do much catching in practice this time of year. When possible, I don’t cast at all. If I do, I try to remove hooks. Besides, it’s kind of like counting coup to be able to pull a jerkbait out of a nice smallies mouth. I always say, “could have had you and maybe I’ll see you later Mr. Bass.”

I did find some decent bass on hard to see beds on the edge of sand drops in North Bay, but not many. I also found one small milfoil bed and caught 2 respectable largemouths on a spinnerbait. That was my last two though and they were far from the ramp and not that big. I had a couple nice smallies take a whack at spinnerbaits and minnows too around my boat off the edge of a sand drop in North Bay, but the water was fairly turbid and I wasn’t seeing enough to keep all the anglers up there happy.

I really like the North Shore area too. I found several sand drops where bass were cruising, but despite having 8 smallies whack a spinnerbait along just one of them, I wasn’t seeing the size normally there. The biggest one was just over 2 pounds. Many were sub-keeper.

I was hearing all the rumors about big bass being caught from weeds at the Middle Grounds, but that is a BIG area with lots of boats, and sometimes all rumors do is get you off your game plan and on to an inefficient path not right for you.

Despite running by there several times and seeing some bass boats, I resisted the temptation to stop. I thought if someone did figure out how to put 5 of those ‘big bass’ in the livewell, then I would bow to their superior game plan and execution. I just didn’t have the time to check for both spawners/prespawn/postspawn fish on the flats AND check the open lake weed beds well. I made my choice and stuck with it based on my practice time, past experiences and preferred fishing methods for that time of year.

I did find a handful of beds with better smallies along part of the North Shore, but I was concerned that they were a little too easy to find and closer to the 2 tournaments that would launch out of the West side of the lake than our South side launch site.

I’m only familiar with small parts of East Bay, but I decided there would be my best chance to get to some fish first since the other tournaments would have to run by us to get there. Again, I wrote off the canals, only spending about a half hour in one to feel comfortable with that decision. (I did go into one on the way in late one day just to stick a couple fish for fun since it’s not easy looking at fish all day and not catching them – I actually found a canal full of spawning dogfish and got things out of my system mainly on them. I kind of felt sorry for some of the bass that had been caught multiple times…)

My Godson Aaron was up too on Thursday and Friday for his birthday and it was fun watching him try to land those rolling, slashing doggies. The little fish hound actually did stick a few bass too, but you can’t blame a kid for trying hard. He bragged on Thursday that he caught a total of 14 bass, pike and walleye, all on tubes to whup his Pop Derek that day.

Well, back to East Bay. I stopped my boat in the morning Friday (day before the actual tournament) still not very comfortable with what I’d found so far. And of course, a 2 pound smallie came up 20 feet from my boat off the break busting minnows (and laughing at me too probably). That got me spending a half hour thinking I might be on to a deeper pattern. No such luck. Just an odd distraction.

Up on the flats I went. For a while, I saw lots of good looking bottom, but no fish. Then, about midmorning I had a smallie all of 12 inches whack my spinnerbait outside of my boat on a slightly deeper flat. This was not a promising looking area. (I actually heard later that 3rd place came of this spot – just goes to show how impressions can be mistaken.) I cruised over and actually saw about 6 large beds in a short distance. I had one more 2+ smallie on (did not hook him), but didn’t see fish on the beds, or shooting off the beds.

I couldn’t see bottom much outside this area. After trying several lures with no more bites, I wrote it off to a picked over/done area and moved on. A little while later, I had a solid smallie whack and throw my big ‘flat-checking’ spinnerbait (all chartreuse and heavy thrown on a 7 foot All Star fiberglass crankbait rod with 20 pound Shakespeare Supreme Super Tough line).

I ‘trolled’ over and couldn’t see a bed, but it was a little sand-gravel ridge that looked good. Luckily, I followed that ridge farther out from shore before cutting out into the next flat… because I immediately came across a large log with 2 beds on it… and one respectable and ornery smallie guarding one of them.

This was looking more interesting. It was literally the middle of Friday when I started moving back and forth across this flat. Every 60 to 100 feet, I’d find one more bed with a solid bass on it. Sometimes the beds were just on a sand patch, which actually pleased me because anglers gravitate to objects as much as fish, whereas, beds on ‘nothing’ might be overlooked.

I ended marking only about a dozen beds, but I only needed 5 and they were scattered and not easy to find. Before I left, I actually watched 2 other competitors glide over the same area. Neither one looked very excited although one did circle a couple times before moving on. I don’t enjoy finding fish and then watching someone else go through the same area. I’d rather be oblivious of that knowledge, but it does keep expectations realistic and I could not believe either angler had spent any time to mark many beds, if any, after watching them.

I decided right there that I’d found my starting area – even if 4 or 5 other boats came in with me, I thought I could get several bass quick enough to be on my way to a limit early. Plus with the forecast for Saturday, I knew the bass would be very hard to impossible to see early, so I had marked them very well. Maybe other anglers wouldn’t mark the individual beds close enough?

I felt a lot better now. The bass weren’t big enough by any means to start thinking what I was going to do with my winnings, but I felt I was now going to be competitive, which was calming. I decided that the next morning, I would run up onto the best part of the flat, get as close to the beds as I could, and then throw my little jerkbait (suspending to get down and stay down in their faces) to either catch the bass (they didn’t seem to be real pressured) or at least get them to show so I could catch them on a tube. If I got a limit, I would head out later when visibility was better to check the more scattered main lake beds that were deeper, and for luck in hitting a school or two of cruisers maybe.

Unfortunately, Derek had to go home Friday because of a death in the family. After some discussion of the situation and timing, Larry and I decided to stay for the tournament. Larry had one particular canal with a few good fish on beds deep that he wanted to hit early, then he might come out on the flat with me to see what was left.

Read Part 2: The Tournament

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