If Walmart FLW Tour pro John Cox manages to win the 2015 Angler of the Year title, he’ll be the first angler of modern times to do so without the use of what is widely considered one of the most important fish-locating tools in today’s bass boat: a transducer.
Cox, who trails only Wesley Strader and Bryan Thrift in the current AOY standings, made a strategic decision before the Tour season started to focus exclusively on shallow water, regardless of the seasonal pattern or tournament venue.
“As soon as I saw the 2015 Tour schedule, I knew that if the weather cooperated, I could stay shallow all season and be competitive,” notes the Florida pro.
Now, with just two Tour events to go at Lake Chickamauga and the Potomac River, Cox is looking forward to the heart of the summertime Tour swing and the start of ledge-fishing season, and he’s about to find out just how far his skinny-water gamble will take him.
The Exclusive Shallows
“Shallow” is a relative term in the bass fishing lexicon. For Cox, 3 feet or less is his target depth most of the time. His decision to focus on the shallows was made after analyzing his strengths as an angler, and his past successes in Tour competition.
Growing up fishing the shallow flats of the Sunshine State, he’s admittedly most comfortable when his boat is dredging the bottom.
“I decided just to go out and fish the way I’ve felt most comfortable my whole life, and for me, that’s shallow,” he says. “I also looked at my history on Tour and realized that my best finishes were in tournaments where I stuck with a shallow approach. Those tournaments where I crashed and burned were the events where I was trying to fish a pattern or technique that just wasn’t me.”
Specifically, Cox recounted a memory from a few years back when he had located a school of 4-pound largemouths lurking on a deep ledge. On the opening day of the event he spent considerable time trying to trigger them into biting, but with no success. Shortly after idling away, he watched deep-water specialist Mark Rose pull up behind him and catch 20 pounds off the spot.
“I realized in that moment that I was trying to force something that was outside of my comfort zone,” Cox explains. “I don’t have the patience to grind it out on an offshore area, making hundreds of casts to the same ledge, hoping to outfish the other guys who found the same school. After a while, you lose confidence that you’re going to get bit. But when I’m tight to the bank, mentally I feel that any given cast can produce a strike.”
To bolster his commitment to shallow water, Cox decided not to use side-scan technology – or any sonar, for that matter – in competition this year, though he does employ a GPS unit for navigational purposes.
“Leaving the electronics at home took the temptation of fishing deep out of play, and has allowed me to relax and concentrate on my game plan,” he says. “When you know you don’t have the option to explore offshore, you have no choice but to figure out the shallow bite.”
Grinding Shallow and Fast
Although skinny waters have produced impressive results for Cox, it hasn’t been easy. He’s had to cover expansive stretches of shoreline with the trolling motor running at full tilt. His strategy is to make as many casts to visible cover as he can, working his bait through the high-percentage strike zone areas, and then burning it back to the boat to reload for another cast.
“I haven’t been able to find an area that’s been loaded with fish yet this season,” Cox admits. “Instead, it’s a percentages game. If I can cover enough water, I’ll find five fish.”
Cox has targeted shallow cover such as grass, lily pads and laydowns, and structural features like shallow rocky points and sandbars.
He credits a variety of baits for his shallow-water success this season, including crankbaits, finesse worms and ChatterBaits, but his secret weapon has been a prototype jig that serves a dual role as a flipping and swimming jig.
“The jig is a little different than what anyone else is throwing out there, and knowing that gives me some extra confidence,” he says.
Cox fishes the jig with a reel with a 7:1 gear ratio, coupled with a custom rod built from either an MB903MHX or MB873MHX blank provided by his sponsor, Mud Hole Custom Tackle.
“A big part of my success can be attributed to building the perfect rods to support my techniques, and Mud Hole gives me the ability to do that. Customization is important because it allows me to get maximum performance out of the lures I’m throwing,” says Cox.
Aluminum – Slower but Stealthier
Another critical component in Cox’s shallow approach is the aluminum Crestliner VT 19 boat that he runs.
“Aluminum doesn’t displace as much water as a glass boat, and it floats shallower,” he says. “It’s also more maneuverable than a glass boat in heavy vegetation like lily pads. When you’re fishing in inches of water, you have to be as stealthy as possible, and aluminum allows me to do that.
“Most guys would view running an aluminum boat that tops out at 55 mph as a competitive disadvantage. For me, it simplifies the playing field because I’m limited to how far of a run I can make.”
So how does Cox feel about his chances of claiming the AOY title?
There are a lot of factors for him to evaluate, especially considering that the next event is on Strader’s home lake, Lake Chickamauga, and the Tennessean proved that he can avoid the home-lake curse on “Chick” by finishing second in the Tour event there in 2013.
If Cox can stay on Strader’s heels going into the finale on the Potomac River, however, he should find himself right in his element and fishing the kind of shallow, grass- and wood-strewn flats that have taken him so far already this season.
“Wesley has a big lead [24 points ahead of Cox], but I have a feeling this one will come down to the final event on the Potomac,” Cox predicts. “These tidal fisheries have been known to throw the field for a loop. I’m confident the shallow bite will be there.”