Slugfest awaits at Clear Lake - Major League Fishing

Slugfest awaits at Clear Lake

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Big weights are on tap at Clear Lake this week. Photo by John Zeolla
March 6, 2024 • Jody White • Toyota Series

LAKEPORT, Calif. – The Western Division Presented by Tackle Warehouse always features some of the best fishing of the year when it comes to Toyota Series Presented by Phoenix Boats tournaments, but this one could be over the top. Opening the season on Clear Lake in March has the pros and Strike King co-anglers headed for one of the best populations of fish in the world, at one of the best times to catch them to see the lake’s full potential.

Strap in. A hundred pounds for a winning weight isn’t a sure thing, but it isn’t impossible, and that’s something special for a three-day tournament.

Winter is the right time for Clear

This week, the Western Division anglers are taking on Clear Lake under somewhat odd conditions. Coming off freezing temperatures and snow, the lake is also at flood stage (yes, the West has water again), which means there’s almost infinite cover available for bass.

“This place fishes good whether it’s low or high, to be honest,” said Clear Lake guide Paul Bailey. “We’re in flood stage right now, and there’s so much water to fish, the fish have so many areas to go. When the water is low, it’s almost a little easier to pinpoint them, because they can’t get back into the jungle and stuff.

“Right now, we’ve got so much jungle, so much brush, so much willow trees, tulles, whatever you like to fish, you can go do right now. There’s fish living in all of it, it’s flooded, it’s hard to find them, but when you find them, you catch them.”

With Clear Lake in flood stage, every piece of cover is going to be in play, but finding schools feeding on bait might be the ticket to a Top-10 finish. Photo by John Zeolla

Still, according to Bailey, the name of the game isn’t really seining cover; it’s finding groups of prespawn and winter fish that are still fattening up.

“We’re not even thinking about spawning yet here,” said Bailey. “We haven’t had a day over 65 in the last month, maybe one or two days. These fish are fat, the water temperature is 49 to 51 depending on where you go, and they are full prespawn, winter mode.”

How the tournament goes down

According to Bailey and 2023 US Open champion Kyle Grover, winning is going to take a lot of bass.

“Clear Lake is a pretty simple fishery, and they usually always bite the same stuff,” Grover said. “The key is finding them – we call it the biomass. The fish there like to group up, and when you find those big schools, you can usually get on that one spot and smash them. Most of the time it’s a one-boat, one-cast deal.

“The fish here like the bigger baits, so I think we’ll see a lot of swimbaits, umbrella rigs, Lucky Craft LV 500s – I think the tournament will likely be won on one of those three baits,” Grover said. “But there will be guys catching them on the south end of the lake, too, throwing crankbaits and big jigs.”

Just about every Clear Lake staple will be in play this week, but it’s safe to assume big baits are going to do most of the damage. Photo by John Zeolla

Bailey has a slew of umbrella rigs ready to rip for the tournament but also expects some variety.

“They’re schooling on bait,” he said. “One day they’ll do it, they’ll do it for four or five days sometimes, and then they’re gone. I saw a lot of guys this weekend doing a whole bunch of stuff. You’re going to have your umbrella rigs, your swimbaits, 5- to 10-inch baits, rubber baits and glide baits. Guys are throwing ChatterBaits, flipping wood, throwing drop-shots and Neko rigs at sticks. Almost anything is going to play in this tournament – what you’re good at, you can find that bite if you know what you’re doing.”

Interestingly, Bailey doesn’t expect the event to be dominated by forward-facing sonar, which is contrary to what you might think, considering the size of the fish in play and the time of year. Obviously very knowledgeable when it comes to Clear, he thinks how the fish tend to behave there makes LiveScope and ActiveTarget less effective than elsewhere.

“At Clear Lake, these fish very rarely hunt off the bottom,” he explained. “These fish are glued to the bottom 99 percent of the year. So, it just doesn’t play here; you can’t just go around the lake and see six of them under a ball of bait. It’s hard to see a bass here on LiveScope until it’s right behind your bait. They come up off the bottom out of nowhere, you can ‘Scope a whole bank and not see one, throw an A-rig out there, and there’s 10 of them coming off the bottom to come get it that you never saw. These fish are very heavy bottom feeders here, and it’s because of the crawfish and hitch.”

Crawling big tennis shoe-sized swimmers and lifting and dropping an LV have been wintertime deals forever on Clear, so Bailey isn’t wrong. Still, with forward-facing experts like Grover and Lane Olson in the field, and seemingly new ways to use the technology popping up every day, this could be an interesting test case.

What does it take?

Even with a relatively small field size, it’s going to take big weights to have a chance at winning on a fishery absolutely churning out massive bags. Photo by John Zeolla

The last time it took more than 70 pounds to win a Toyota Series event on Clear Lake was when Todd Woods won with 77 pounds in an April event in 2016. The last time it took more than 80 was in October of 2013, when Jody Jordan won with 81 pounds. Smart money is on it taking more this time.

“I am super excited for this event – after seeing how well the local team tournaments have been doing the last month, I expect that we are going to see some giant weights,” said Grover. “I think it’s going to take 85 to 100 pounds over the three days to win this one.”

Bailey is right with him.

“There was a pro-am this last weekend, but it’s nothing to go off because the air temperatures were freezing,” he said. “It took 46 pounds to win for two days. That’s not that good for Clear Lake; you can do that any day of the year here pretty much. I expect it to go up as we warm up, that third day on Friday, we’re going to get up to almost 70 degrees. I think that should get those fish biting like they were before the storm.”

So what sort of numbers are in play?

“These fish are at their biggest, fattest, and they eat the best when it is cold. The weights we usually see, they’re just not during good times of the year,” said Bailey. So, I expect 23 pounds to be around the Top 10 [on Day 1], and 46 pounds will be around 10th place on the second day. And, you’re going to have to have 25 to 30 each day to have a chance at the top five. It could be 100 pounds in three days, if all goes well, absolutely.”