He ran more than 100 miles before making his first cast, but Kevin VanDam, the eventual champion, probed every inch of his selected honeyholes. The strategy worked. In his 11th try, the 33-year-old pro from Kalamazoo, Mich., won the most prestigious event in professional fishing by sticking tight to cover.
In the sweltering swamps during a baking Louisiana summer, bass remained inactive, preferring to hunker down in cool, thick cover. VanDam, and several other top finishers, forced bass to strike by nearly knocking them on the head with weedless plastics.
Few methods can explore thick cover as effectively as flipping or pitching jigs or weedless Texas-rigged soft plastics at short range with pinpoint accuracy. VanDam flipped a black, blue and purple 1/2-ounce Strike King Premier Elite jig with an electric blue Zoom Super Chunk trailer to nab three consecutive five-fish limits totaling 32 pounds, 5 ounces.
After launching at Bayou Segnette State Park, southwest of New Orleans, the champion headed west to the Bayou Black marshes between Morgan City and Houma. While he passed through thousands of acres, after he arrived, he investigated every piece of likely bass-holding cover he could find with his jig.
"I moved really fast between spots because I didn't want to waste time on dead water, but I fished an area slowly and methodically," VanDam said. "I fished everything that provided overhead cover -- wellheads, clumps of hydrilla, floating grass, water hyacinths, blow-downs -- anything that bass could get underneath and find shade." In these sweet spots, VanDam nosed his boat almost against structure. With a long rod, he dropped his jig next to anything that might attract a bass. Sometimes, fish hit a jig and missed.
"A couple of times, I missed fish with the jig and threw a Strike King Wild Thang with a 1/4-ounce weight," VanDam said. "It's a tube creature bait with flapping wings and a tail. It's a good bulky bait with a rattle in it, which helps fish find the bait in dirty water."
By flipping like VanDam, an angler almost uses a rod like an old cane pole. Grabbing and releasing line by hand instead of reeling and casting allows an angler to accurately place a jig, plastic Texas-rigged tube, crawfish, worm or lizard into the lair of a bass. Almost any cover might attract bass. Twigs, blades of aquatic grass or matted water hyacinths make excellent targets.
With barely a ripple, a lure slips through the cover. If a jig hits bottom without a strike, an angler pops the bait up and down a couple of times before swinging to the next target inches away. A good angler can work a bait next to almost every possible piece of bass cover to thoroughly probe a honeyhole before moving to the next patch of structure.
With the pitching method, anglers make short casts by dropping their rod tips and flinging lures with brisk wrist action. Just before the lure lands, pick up the rod tip to make the lure land as softly as possible. Skilled anglers can pitch lures farther than they can flip, making this a favorite method to hit hard-to-reach cover. In addition, a low-trajectory pitch puts lures under bushes, overhanging trees or docks. Baits often hit the water and skip, farther penetrating difficult cover.
"A tube tends to hit the water and skip," said Alton Jones, a pro from Waco, Texas, who made his sixth Classic appearance in the Louisiana delta. "I can reach places with a tube that I can't put a worm or similar bait. It gives access to fish that other people aren't going to throw at. I like a Riverside Vibra King tube with a solid head. That solid head holds it on the hook and makes it good for flipping and pitching."
In his second Classic, Scott Rook of Little Rock, Ark., nearly beat VanDam with the same pitching and flipping method in the same general area. Rook landed a 15-fish limit weighing 31 pounds, 4 ounces. "I was fishing a black neon Mizmo tube with a 5/16-ounce slip-sinker and a rattle in the tube," Rook said. "I flipped the grass and hydrilla really slow and let it sink slowly."
A tungsten sinker adds more penetrating weight than lead in a compact package. On those blisteringly hot days, getting the bait to bass holding tight to cover may mean more strikes. Bass often strike falling tubes. A falling tube glides from side to side and spirals downward, resembling a dying shad or a scurrying crawfish.
"If I pitch into a piece of cover and a bass doesn't hit it very quickly, I'm going to pull it out and put it somewhere else," Jones said. "The major mistake people make is not letting a tube fall on a slack line. When the line stops falling, either it hit bottom or I have a strike."
In thick cover, bass don't often make bone-jarring strikes. Typically, an angler simply sees a line moving contrary to prevailing currents. Soft and lifelike, tubes, lizards, worms and creature baits fool bass into thinking they actually swallowed a real meal. Many baits come injected with salt or fish attractant to make them taste more realistic.
"Sometimes, with really big fish, I never feel the bite," Jones said. "It just feels a little soft, mushy or heavy." Almost any soft plastic bait, when presented properly, might tempt bass. Sometimes, color, size and shape don't matter as much as placement. Bass might strike anything that lands inches away, but not budge to attack baits more than a foot away. Generally, in clear water, use smaller baits in natural colors such as watermelon or green pumpkin. In murky water, use larger, darker baits in black neon, June bug or red shad. When bass chase crawfish, use oranges, browns and greens.
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