For about 12 years or so I was tournament bass fisherman. Some of the time I fished as an amateur or non-boater, meaning that I did not own or operate the boat from which I angled. For the uninitiated, these tests of man versus fish are typically draw events where the boater and non-boater are paired randomly and compete against each other as well as the rest of the field. Over a multi-day tourney, the pairings are adjusted each day so that one never fishes with the same person twice in the same event, presumably to discourage cheating and other despicable acts against the fish gods. For better or worse, all of this boat hopping has given me ample opportunity to observe the boating and fishing habits of many anglers, from actual high dollar pros to career club fisherman, to the casual weekend bass guy who competes now and then. Some things I have observed have amazed me.
The most bewildering is how many anglers display a total lack of boat driving knowledge. Most do just fine, but a percentage of boaters have no clue how to actually drive their $60,000 boats. They buy the latest and greatest boat armed with the biggest motor. They add jack plates, foot throttles, and props so shiny that you can check your coiffure before the big weigh-in. They spit shine the glitter paint to ‘Vegas standards and wag the whole rig down to the lake, ultimately looking like NASCAR meets The Little Green Fish… and then drive like 16 year old kids with wild-eyed enthusiasm and a complete lack of skills. I don’t know why this surprises me given the lack of skill many car drivers demonstrate; it just seems to me that if you are going to shell out the bucks for the grand piano, then you ought to figure out how to play it.
Piloting a boat, even a high performance model packin’ ponies, is not rocket science and admittedly most of the guys can get around the lake. But getting back to the dock safe, dry, and with all your internal organs stacked in the same order as when you left…well that seems to be nearly impossible for some. I’ve been with boaters that speared waves, blew-out (spun out if your talking cars) mid turn, and porpoised for ten miles down the lake. One guy insisted on hole-shotting with the live wells full, 300 pounds of plastic worms, 56 gallons of gas, and enough Little Debbies to fill a meat locker, with the motor trim in whatever position he last left it. Usually that meant all the way up because that’s the only way to get the boat the bounce real hard as you cut the throttle when you stop. Every time he stomped the Hotfoot to launch we attracted extreme jet skiers from around the lake looking for waves big enough to perfect their next Big Trick as his boat barged along, bow in the air and rolling a four foot swell for the 200 hundred yards it took to plane out. Each time he’d mutter something about needing more horsepower, obviously taking the “brute force and ignorance” approach to problem solving.
Another guy I fished with believed in more speed at all costs. His boat would go 75 miles per hour smooth as butter. But that’s not good enough. No sir. He had to go 75.3 miles per hour while chine walking so hard I thought I was going to yack. In the end it turned out for the better because he was so tired from sawing on the steering wheel that he couldn’t fish. Never mind that one degree less trim and the boat was happy. No way man, he was going to squeeze out those last three tenths no matter what.
A modern bass boat is a high performance vehicle by any standards. When I was a bit younger and dumber, I competed on a road race motorcycle for a while. There I quickly found out that it is not the motorcycle that makes the lap time. Nor is it the fancy parts that you bolt on. Fast laps are a combination of machine set-up and rider input. Bass boats are no different. The trickest boat in Dixie won’t live up to its potential with a numb skull at the wheel or behind the wrenches. Lucky me; I rode in a boat featuring both.
To the guy’s credit he had just bought the boat brand new. It was not his first boat, or even his first fast boat. The dealer installed a hydraulic jack plate and high-speed trim, both with blinker style levers to operate them without even taking your hands off the wheel. Fancy gauges on the dash kept you informed of their respective positions. The hull design was state of the art at the time, despite being designed by some guy named Earl. A big black 250 was strapped to the back. To be honest, I was excited to draw this boat, because we were fishing a big lake and the productive bite was 30 miles south of the launch. As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for.
We launch, I stow my gear, cinch my vest and in minutes we are hurtling down lake at ridiculous speeds. All is well. To this point the guy appears to be master of his craft. Then we reach a tight left hand turn in the river arm. He cranks the wheel and the boat starts to turn. A millisecond later the motor revs and then all hell breaks loose. The boat blows out, spins a 180, skips a few times like a flat rock, and throws everything that was not strapped down in the lake. He never trimmed correctly before initiating the turn and consequently we both nearly soiled our skivvies.
Maximum horsepower and minimum brainpower is a bad combination.
Thus far, my rant seems to say that most boaters are idiots, which is certainly not the case. It’s just that many don’t seem to have a handle on the relationship of trim, motor height, throttle control and hull design. The right combination and a bass boat is a thing of beauty. Get it wrong and you’ll need Gortex and a kidney belt to cross a mud puddle. Thankfully, most bass boats don’t have trim tabs; another variable is not what the typical boater needs.
Fortunately for non-boaters everywhere, most of the habits I’ve observed in boaters are not nearly so dangerous. For instance, there are the inevitable people that can’t work their own electronics, which can lead to a long day on some lakes. Even worse was the guy who relied so heavily on them that we were literally lost when he hit a wave and broke the mounting bracket and wiring harness off his GPS. I was fishing as an amateur, meaning I had no say so in where we fished, and even after two weeks of practice, he had no idea where to fish without his precious waypoints.
A habit that many people seem to have is what I call the “I caught them here before so we are now going to beat this spot to a froth and return to the weigh-in empty handed” complex. While I’ll be the first to admit that a good spot can and will produce fish at many times of the year, you have to be able to recognize that seasonal movements, weather patterns, fishing pressure, and a pile of other factors influence your success on any given day. The reliance on past catches is more prevalent at the club level. It’s a happy coincidence that, at the club level, the non-boater gets to pick the fishing spots for half the day. This rule has saved the lives of several boaters I have fished with.
The same idea holds true for specific lures. A guy catches 15 bass on a Big Pimpin’ Slim, or whatever lure it is, and now he’s married to it. Conditions be damned, he’s gonna throw it. This is kind of funny really because it doesn’t hamper the non-boater’s fishing and statistically speaking, it will pay off for him again. Hopefully he won’t hold his breath waiting.
Fishing speed, that is the speed at which the boat travels while the anglers actually fish, can be a source of much frustration. I fished with one guy who didn’t even bother to look where his boat was going much less try to control the speed or direction. We spent much of the day drifted out so far from the fish-hiding cover that I couldn’t have cast to it with a pike spoon. We hit trees while he retied with the trolling motor on high. We ran aground while he gazed at the pretty birds. At one point we were stationary for a good 3 minutes, with the trolling motor on, before he realized the big motor was stuck on a laydown tree. Conversely, I had a top pro in Florida that didn’t seem to know that his trolling motor had speeds other than W.F.O. We sped through the maze of sawgrass with great agility, never hitting anything, always heading somewhere else. He reminded me of my Labrador, who is constantly roving without apparent thought for where he might be going.
I had a boater from Arizona with a penchant for ruining spots. He liked to run his boat down lake at full speed. Fifty feet from the exact spot we wanted to fish he would chop the throttle and kill the motor. Boat brakes being what they are, which is nonexistent, we invariably slid directly into the cover that we just ran 5 miles to fish. To add insult to injury, he’d jump onto the front deck and drop the trolling motor on full power in an effort to avoid said cover, thereby blasting 100 pounds of prop wash in the face of the fish within. Boy, we nuked ‘em that day.
Sometimes you get fishermen with habits that are just plain weird. One guy rubbed Smelly Jelly all over his hands before he started to fish. He said it helped. I thought it made him reek. Another swore that Vienna sausages were the key. He reeked too, but that snot-looking gelatin did make a nice chum slick. I had to give up bananas altogether because several boaters drilled me like airport security about the contents of my lunch sack, swearing that a banana in the boat was the kiss of death. Until I took up tournament fishing, I always ate bananas on the lake. Now I wonder how I caught all those fish.
Truth be told, tournament fishing has provided me with a wealth of knowledge that may have taken a lifetime to figure out on my own. A lot of that knowledge stems from learning what not to do. On the flip side I am amazed when something I just know won’t work actually does, which happens all too often for my taste.
I drew a pro in Okeechobee with some, ah…unorthodox ideas for catching cold front bass. Florida bass, not unlike many of the state’s residents, are famous for their disdain of cold weather, and this cold front was about as bad as they get. By mid morning he had yet to boat a fish and was making adjustments. Apparently he hadn’t heard of slowing down your presentation, down sizing your baits, or any of the other tactics The Book says you should do in that situation. Rather, he tied on some Paul Bunyan looking musky spinner right out of the North Woods and proceeded to show me why he was the pro and I was the amateur. Good lesson.
I guess being a non-boater (man that sounds derogatory, doesn’t it?) is really a blessing. After all, you get lots of exciting boat rides in all kinds of boats. You get to test your patience on a regular basis. You get to observe people doing what they love to do, even if you disagree with how they do it. And the best part? If you don’t catch fish you can always blame it on the boater.