When the Bass Pro Tour makes its annual summer migration north, a handful of names can typically be counted on to frequent the top of the standings. That held true in 2023. Matt Becker, Jacob Wheeler, Alton Jones Jr., Kevin VanDam and Mark Daniels Jr. each made at least two Championship Rounds and all three Knockout Rounds across the final three events of the year.
The performance of that group came as no surprise. All entered the year with a track record of success on northern smallmouth waters. But one angler who didn’t carry quite the same reputation as a smallmouth guru fished as well or better than any of them – Arkansas native Mark Rose.
Prior to this season, the Team Mercury pro had finished among the Top 10 at a northern smallmouth fishery just once in his 25 years on tour, back in 1999. He ended that drought with a fifth-place finish at Cayuga Lake in Stage Five, then followed it up with a seventh-place showing at Lake St. Clair. Rose closed the season by finishing 19th at Saginaw Bay. Aside from the first day of qualifying at Cayuga, he weighed in all smallmouth during those three events.
In fact, a case could be made that only Becker and Wheeler — the top two finishers in the Bally Bet Angler of the Year race — displayed more mastery of brown fish than Rose. He was one of five Bass Pro Tour anglers to finish among the Top 20 in each of the final three events, along with Becker, Wheeler, Jones and Jesse Wiggins. Jones and Wiggins, however, both pivoted to targeting largemouth during Stage Seven.
So, how did Rose transform himself into a smallmouth whisperer? He acknowledged a few things broke his way at each event, which allowed him to hone in on key locations. And once he got into a groove, he fished with confidence.
“Sometimes, just like in any sport, things are just clicking,” he said. “Whether it’s a good swing in baseball or whether it’s just a rhythm, a mental confidence, whatever. Being in the zone.”
The other ingredient to Rose’s smallmouth success – his crappie fishing habit.
Rose spends much of his free time during the winter months fishing for crappie near his eastern Arkansas home. Doing so, he believes, has helped him sharpen his forward-facing sonar skills. And as anyone who’s watched a northern tournament in recent years knows, electronics mastery has become a must for consistently catching summer smallmouth.
“Crappie fishing is one way that I have really honed my skills with (forward-facing sonar), because November, December, January, I am crappie fishing a big part of the time,” Rose said. “It’s just something that I love to do, and I learned how to read fish and bigger fish and all that type of stuff.”
While he didn’t grow up in bass fishing’s electronics era, the 52-year-old Rose has long embraced the latest technology. He attributes all but one of his eight career wins at least in part to using electronics to find fish offshore. He’s had some form of live sonar on his boat since Garmin’s first Panoptix transducer became available in 2016. Today, he utilizes technology from all three major electronics companies — Garmin, Humminbird and Lowrance — on the front of his Mercury-powered BassCat.
But just having the latest and greatest in electronics isn’t enough to start sacking up smallmouth. Rose said crappie fishing helped him dial in the nuances of forward-facing sonar and interpret fish behavior based on the blobs on his screen.
“It’s being able to scale, see your lure, scale your distances, read the fish size,” Rose said. “Some days, man, you throw a jerkbait out there over a fish and that fish will just swallow it. The next fish you come to, it’ll make your hair gray while you’re sitting there fishing for it, because you can’t get him to eat for nothing. And so every scenario, every day, everything is different all the time.”
It’s not as if this season marked the first time Rose has felt comfortable up north. He won the points title for the Midwest division of the EverStart Series in 2005, which featured two events on the Detroit River and one on Lake Michigan. He also finished 13th at Mille Lacs Lake in 2022.
But during this northern swing, he unlocked one of the keys to success on vast fisheries such as the Great Lakes: locating a small area that held enough big fish to last him an entire event.
“When I can just focus on one thing, it really helps me,” Rose said. “When there’s nine rivers and I’m worried about Ott DeFoe and how far he’s getting up here on this lake, him and (Keith) Poche, or should I run down — it’s all that kind of stuff that messes you up on some bodies of water.”
How Rose found his sweet spot differed at each of the three events. At Cayuga, he spent the first day of qualifying fishing for largemouth around shallow docks before starting Day 2 sight-fishing for the lone bedding smallmouth he found during practice. It turned out to be a 5-pound, 12-ounce brute, and after he caught it, Rose noticed a few other similar-size, well-camouflaged fish on beds in the area. He spent the remainder of the event sight fishing.
At St. Clair, he took a risk by dedicating his practice to Canadian waters, where bass season wouldn’t open until the opening day of competition. He couldn’t make a cast there as a result. But five years prior, Rose had spent three or four days pre-practicing on St. Clair at a similar time of year prior to an FLW Tour event. While he finished 67th in that event (but still managed to win Angler of the Year), the structure he’d marked held fish this time around, and he was able to use his electronics prowess to identify key spots without wetting a line.
“I spent lots of time over there in Canada in the same area where I was, and I was really comfortable having some little, whether it be a couple little troughs or small little humps or what have you, where those smallmouth get after they spawn,” Rose said. “We couldn’t practice over there, but I was so confident I had the places, and then when I went over there, I dedicated all of my time, basically, over there, and I just put my trolling motor down and just would go for hours.
“You’re taking a risk when you’re not fishing for them and seeing if they’re all walleye or what size they are or anything, but I took that risk at St. Clair and reaped the reward for it.”
The consecutive Top 10s put Rose in a unique position. He entered the season finale virtually assured of a spot in REDCREST 2024 and needing a roughly 3-pound bass to qualify for Heavy Hitters. With little to lose, he committed to fishing for the win at Saginaw Bay, which meant sticking to smallmouth — even though he struggled to find any. Finally, in the last hour of the second practice day, he found a school of bass on a flat point that he rode to his Top-20 finish.
“I looked long and hard for smallmouth, and I only caught one in two days, and I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Rose said. “But then that last really 45 minutes, I found one long, tapering point.”
Rose didn’t want to take all the credit for his smallmouth success in 2023. Looking back across all three events, he said things “just worked out.”
Then again, it’s the latest in a long line of instances during his quarter-century career in which Rose has used his electronics aptitude to zero in on productive areas and make things work out.
“You just never know when Mark Rose is liable to do good in a tournament,” he said with a chuckle. “When you least expect it, I get on a little something. My deal is, if I can find a scenario where I’ve seen it before, even if it’s from a different body of water, if I can find a little niche, then usually I can make something happen with it.”