Rookie in a Bass Tourney
By Greg Niemann
“Three things,” I told my guide P.J. upon introduction that predawn morning. “One, I’m mostly deaf, totally in one ear, and can I hardly hear out of the other. Two, I’ve got a bum back, so take it easy on me. And three, I’m competitive as hell and want to win this thing.”
The young man took a long serious look at me, smiled, and then admitted, “Well, I’m not really a guide; I’ve only fished this lake for a year, but I’m also competitive as hell and want to win this thing.” We both grinned and acknowledged our mutual drive with fist bumps. Our instant bond was seemingly unlikely, me a 71-year-old retired corporate type, and he with bushy blond dreadlocks, baggy clothes, and multiple tattoos.
We shared the desire to win, and the OWAC Bass Tourney at Clear Lake in Northern California was just the challenge. The Outdoor Writers Association of California has some pretty high-powered bass fishermen in its membership, and several were also entered.
I looked over the crowd as the starter read the rules. They were mostly outdoor writer colleagues, almost all with a long-time bass fishing bent. There were about 15 in all, a few of whom brought their own bass boats. Their multiple tournament and sponsors’ patches lining their jackets and caps were meant to intimidate the bass fishing neophyte, and they did.
For me, I’ve been strictly a Baja salt-water angler, and don’t know a black bass, from a large mouth bass, from a large-bottom ass. My fresh water experience is limited; I’m not a bad trout stream fisherman, but the “bad ass bass” competitors dwell in a world all their own. Most can stand all day (and they do), maneuvering their boats among pilings, long-buried trees, overhanging branches and backyard docks. They can cast their jigs unerringly, placing their lure 40, 60, 80, even 100 feet and more away to a desired hit zone no larger than a washcloth – a very small washcloth.
Then their talented hands go to work, retrieving with just the right amount of movement and finesse to entice those nasty-ass basses to attack.
We synchronized watches and paraded our boats displaying empty live wells before the gun went off and we scattered in all directions behind powerful engines capable of speeds exceeding 65 mph, which I learned is not an idle boast.
There are different types of fishermen, or fisherpersons, as some of my very talented female colleagues might remind me, and the bass fisherman seems to me the most unique. For millennia, fish have been caught for food. Fish are also caught for sport – millions released after providing an angler a satisfying battle. The bass enthusiast is different yet – he is solely concerned that his total catch will weigh more than the other guy’s. Period. Nothing else matters. It is so competitive it is totally unlike the iconic image of a relaxed and patient fisherman.
While most professional tournaments are decided by the total weight of the five biggest fish brought in, ours was a three fish tourney. We were in one of the west’s most productive bass lakes where record size bass are caught regularly. Clear Lake is often called the “Bass Capital of the West” and is the site of numerous national bass tournaments.
Each combatant roared off to a “secret,” or “most likely” spot for largemouth bass in a slow spawning season. While not really a professional guide, P.J. aspired to be one and had been fishing the lake a lot, several times a week for over a year. He’d also fished for bass all over California and I quickly realized he knew what he was doing.
He taught me things I’d never thought about, like how spawning bass create “beds,” and both male and female guard the nest. At that time, they are not motivated by hunger to strike a lure, but after one is placed at their nose enough times, they will finally get irritated and hit it.
After practice, time and time again I was dropping that lure in the shallow water right in front of the dark images of fish. The male finally hit and we had one nice fish in the well, about a three pounder.
The larger and more cautious female was not amused, so we departed for more bull’s-eye casting in intricate close-to-shore spots. I caught another about the same size virtually right at someone’s backyard; the woman on the chaise lounge looked up from her book to see our hand slapping and carrying on. She flipped her glasses back on her nose and continued reading, as unamused as that big female bass that had thwarted us earlier.
Determined, we headed back to that “bed” and finally got that “mother” mad enough to strike. And it was bigger. We were elated with three nice fish, but continued to work our way back to the dock and check-in, as bass fishermen are always wanting to “improve” their yield.
As the boats gathered round, we learned that more than half did not even catch three fish, with several anglers totally “skunked.” I began to get a good feeling.
My big fish weighed in at 5.05 pounds, which kept me grinning until it was topped by a competitor’s 5.29 pounder. Dismayed at losing the “big fish” honors, we were then informed that our three totaled 10.84 pounds – topping the nearest rival’s 10.52. I won the whole tournament!
Oh, it was a smug and grand evening getting my plaque. P.J. and I had done it – and those wearing sponsor’s jackets and patches had to eat a little crow – because they don’t eat those bass they catch.
Greg Niemann, a long-time San Clemente Journal contributor, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. His newest book, Las Vegas Legends, is being released in August 2011. Visit www.gregniemann.com.)