There are no more secrets.
That phrase has become cliché in tournament bass fishing. And to a large degree, it’s true. With the advent of modern electronics, which feature mapping and imaging, every square foot of a lake bottom can be scoured, mapped and captured on an SD card.
But what grows on that mapped lake bottom can change and these days true bass fishing secrets tend to hide in the seams of environmental changes to waterways. For instance, consider how exotics like gobies and zebra mussels have changed fisheries in the Midwest.
Anglers who ply the same waters day after day, year after year are the first to notice these changes in ecosystems and how the changes begin to influence bass behavior. Once these anglers detect a change in how bass relate to the ecosystem, they discover approaches and tactics that give them huge advantages in tournaments.
One such angler who has seen just such a change along the TVA system in recent years is Walmart FLW Tour rookie Buddy Gross of Ringgold, Ga. Gross fishes Lake Guntersville quite a bit and over the last few years he has seen a change in Guntersville’s vegetation that can best be described with one word: Eelgrass.
Gross has witnessed a slow but steady influx of eelgrass in Guntersville, specifically deeper eelgrass that grows in large clumps in 8 to 10 feet of water. These large clumps of what Gross calls “crispy green” eelgrass have been a key to his fishing success on Guntersville in the last several years. As a result, Gross has learned a tremendous amount about where eelgrass grows, how it looks on a depthfinder, and most importantly, how fish relate to it on a seasonal basis. In essence, Gross has tapped into the latest “secret” along the TVA chain. And this week, at the Walmart FLW Tour event presented by Quaker State and hosted by Florence/Lauderdale Tourism on Pickwick Lake, he applied his unique knowledge of this new form of crispy green gold to win his first FLW Tour event.
When Gross arrived at Pickwick for practice at the beginning of the week, he wasn’t sure if the new propagation of eelgrass had reached Pickwick or not. Regardless, he decided to invest some time on his electronics graphing for its “different look” with Lowrance StructureScan. On the second day of practice, he struck pay dirt.
“From my experience on Guntersville, I kind of knew where to look for it and what it looks like on my electronics,” Gross recalls. “On day two I was graphing down a ridge along the river and I saw my first clump of it – as soon as I saw it, I knew what it was. I’ve seen enough of it at Guntersville to know.”
Gross’ heart skipped a beat as he continued down the ridge and his graph began to reveal more and more clumps of eelgrass positioned perfectly between a large spawning flat and the main river in about 8 to 10 feet of water.
“I found about a ½-mile stretch that included about a dozen large patches of it – some of them were as big as a tugboat,” Gross says. “I marked each one on my GPS and circled back around to fish them.”
One of the first lures Gross picked up to sample the eelgrass with was a hair jig: it’s a lure that his roommate Michael Neal tipped him off to, so he had one laying on the deck.
“I actually wanted make sure it was eelgrass,” Gross recounts. “So I pitched a hair jig out there to try to snag some of it.”
But his lure never made it to the bottom. Instead, a five-pound smallmouth it inhaled it – and that wasn’t all.
“Every time I reeled my hair jig in, it had a bunch of shad following and bumping it,” Gross recalls. “It was the perfect scenario – a shad spawn in eelgrass.”
Gross details the presence of eelgrass as being thick, hearty and “crispy green.” He says it grows up to about 3 or 4 feet off the bottom and is far more dense and brittle than hydrilla and milfoil. Because of its properties it makes an excellent current break and is easier to fish lures through.
“You can’t really fish an open hook hair jig in hydrilla,” Gross explains. “It’s too soft and stringy. But fishing a hair jig in that eelgrass was not a problem at all. Even when I got hung up in it, one quick snap of the rod completely cleans the bait off.”
The combination of the eelgrass providing a current break and being a love lair for the shad was a double bonus for Gross and his shad imitating hair jig. For three tournament days in a row he used a 1-ounce Hog Farmer Hog Tie to catch three or four big fish right off the bat in the mornings. After that he would resort to a Tennessee River Tackle Company Tremor head teamed with a Zoom Magnum Fluke as well as a 5-inch Fringe Tackle Company Hollow Belly Swimbait, slow rolling them through the wavy clumps of eelgrass to close out his limits.
For three days he weighed in 25-8, 21-3 and 22-12, respectively, amassing a large 14-pound 11-ounce lead going into the last day. And as it turned out, he would need most of that cushion at the final day weigh-in.
The biggest problem with Gross’ eelgrass pattern was he didn’t have quite enough of it to last four days. While he did find one other area with a limited amount of eelgrass, it was not nearly as productive as the original spot he initially found.
“Each day I knew I was running out of fish in that eelgrass,” Gross says. “Each day the number of shad following my jig became less and less and I knew it was tailing off.”
When Gross arrived to his crispy greens on the final morning, his primary area had played out and offered him nothing for his livewell. After trying several other areas, Gross ended up going to some adjacent shallow hydrilla and throwing an Oldham’s ¾-ounce spinnerbait to catch just two keepers and weighing 4 pounds, 14 ounces on the day.
In the end, Gross needed both of those valuable fish to fend off a charge from his friend Michael Neal and win the $100,000 payday.
“Today was the biggest roller coaster of my life,” Gross says. “I knew I needed to catch at least 10 pounds to feel safe. Michael (Neal) is a true competitor – he is one of the best fishermen I know. So I was pretty nervous coming in with just two bass.”
“If it wasn’t for all the people who support me this would have never happened,” he adds “I can’t thank them enough.”
Top 10 pros
1. Buddy Gross – Ringgold, Ga. – 74-5 (17) – $100,200
2. Michael Neal – Dayton, Tenn. – 71-4 (20) –$30,000
3. Scott Suggs – Alexander, Ark. – 65-1(19) – $25,000
4. Jamie Horton – Centerville, Ala. – 64-14 (19) – $20,100
5. Mike Surman – Boca Raton, Fla. – 63-11 (19) – $19,000
6. Barry Wilson – Birmingham, Ala. – 57-13 (20) – $18,000
7. Wesley Strader – Spring City, Tenn. – 56-2 (20) – $17,000
8. Travis Fox – Rogers, Ark. – 56-0 (17) – $16,000
9. Stephen Patek – Dallas, Texas – 50-3 (18) – $15,000
10. Peter Thliveros – St. Augustine, Fla. – 49-7 (18) – $14,000