2016 – A New Season Begins – Mike Mueller

By Mike Mueller

2015 was a great year, that didn’t quite end the way I had hoped.  I had just relocated to the east coast and into an area of the country I have never fished before.  I chose to fish the Northern FLW Rayovacs (now the Costa Series), which meant that I was going to have my first experience with tidal water on the James River in VA, a northern glacial lake – Lake Champlain up in northern NY/VT, and finally chasing big smallmouth out of Lake Erie’s Sandusky, OH area.

As always, consistency is my strong point, and even though I had never made a cast in my life in any of these areas, I was able to finish in the top 25-50% of the field in each of these events.  This led to my 17th place standing in the AOY race and a trip to the Rayovac Championship on the Ohio River in Paducah, KY.  I was only able to catch one 2# smallmouth in 2 days and finished in the bottom third of the field in a tough event.  I also threw in a B.A.S.S. Northern Open at the end of my year back up at Sandusky, OH where I was able to finish 3rd in a 190-boat field.

So on to 2016…what to do…

When looking at my calendar, I like to try to fish new and different waters, so I can give myself new challenges, take myself out of my comfort zone, and use this challenge to make myself a better angler.  Just as with 2015, I chose a circuit that would put me on 3 lakes that I’ve never laid eyes on before.  I am fishing the SE FLW Costa Series that will put me on Lake Okeechobee in FL, Santee Cooper in SC, and Wheeler in AL.

Early January normally has me dreaming of the ice thawing and meticulously going through my tackle. But this year was quite different, as I found myself preparing for my first ever trip to Lake Okeechobee, the “Big O’, one of the top bass lakes in the country and yet another lake I get to cross off my fishing Bucket List!

My pre-spawn plan was a pretty simple one…3 punching rigs, a swimbait, a Bionic Fishing Thunderhead bladed jig and a Whopper Plopper that I got from my friends at TackleExperts.com…and I threw in my 7’6 MH Razr Rods spinning rod just in case.  All of my Razr Rods were teamed up with my Team Lews Lite, and my Lews BB1 baitcasters.

Due to my personal schedule I was only able to get one day of practice in, and it was very beneficial.  I was able to observe water temps, water level and color to help me fine-tune my pattern.  I also caught a few to help get me in the right frame of mind!

After I got my pairings and was back in the hotel room prepping my gear, I was almost done when I had a late evening epiphany.  Just 4 days before, there was a 230-boat FLW BFL Gator division event and now this 250-boat event that I was in.  That’s almost 1,000 anglers a day that had been pounding this lake for 2 weeks.  As I was staring at my 3 punching rigs, I decided to rig up my spinning rod – “just in case”.

As day 1 started, we were in the 2nd-to-last flight and my boater was not on much and had a bad practice.  Much like everyone else, the big cold front that passed through 2 days earlier, dropping water temps into the high 50’s, really shut down the finicky Florida Strain largemouth, couple that with high fishing pressure, it was definitely going to make it a tough event.

We got to our first spot and it was a couple acre opening in the midst of endless reeds that looked like a great spawning area.  The rim was thick with reeds mixed with heavily matted weeds, but the open water was strewn with a handful of hardwood stickups.

My first lure to see action for the 2016 season was the topwater Whopper Plopper.  The water was 58 degrees but I was hoping for an early reaction bite, and it didn’t take very long.  My second cast of the season netted me a chunky 2# largemouth.  With one in the livewell already, I was pumped knowing that I had the rest of the day to get my 5×3!

I cast my topwater for about 5 more minutes, and set it down for a minute to pitch at some of the hardwood that I had noticed earlier.  I could have dropped 1 1/2 ounce Eco Pro Tungsten weights on their heads in hope of a reaction bite, but I went in the opposite direction and downsized to my spinning rod, 20# test Seaguar Kanzen Braid (6# Diameter), and a 5″ Snack Daddy Green Pumpkin/Purple Snack Stix.  I rigged this on a small 2/0 hook with a 1/8 ounce Eco Pro Tungsten pegged weight.

I made a long cast past the cover and slowly crawled the bait up next to the single stickup.  I felt that the weather and fishing pressure dictated a more subtle approach, so I chose to “dead-stick” the bait.  I just let it sit there and soak without moving it.  After a few agonizing seconds, I saw the line jump ever so slightly.  I set the hook into a 14″ largemouth.  I’m 5 minutes in and I already have two in the well – good start to a tough event!

For the next 15-20 minutes, as my boater continued to punch the mats, I continued to Dead Stick with my spinning reel and picked off one male buck bass after another from the isolated stickups.  At one point, I was letting the Snack Stix sit for so long that I had turned around to talk to my boater, and when I turned around, my line was about 20′ to the left of the stick up and moving fast!  I reeled down and set the hook into my big fish of the day, about a 3 3/4# pre-spawn largemouth.  That fish got me my limit, followed by one more that allowed me to cull.

Finally after netting my 6th keeper in the first 20 minutes of the event, my boater decided to pull away from the bank and fish the same areas I was.  Although he tried to fish the same water, he was throwing a bigger bait and spooking the fish, in my opinion, as from that point on, we did not catch another fish from the stickups over the next 2 hours.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent flipping isolated reed patches along the outermost rim of the lake, before we got to the open water.  This seemed like a logical pre-spawn staging location.  I was able to cull one more time by an ounce or two, and my boater finally caught a couple to weigh in.

I thought I had about 10 1/2 pounds and off to a decent start, but when I got in and talked to a few of my friends, I found out how tough it really was!  As I stood in the bag line, I could hear the weights and 3/4 through the day-1 weigh in, only 12# was leading the Co-Angler side!

By the time I got my bag and stood in line to weigh my fish, a couple of 14# bags had been weighed, but when FLW’s Ron Lappin finally called me up on the stage, my 5-fish limit weighed in at 11 lbs. 12 oz. which put me in 7th place out of 250 anglers after day one.

I met my day 2 partner and he had a 12# limit.  He told me that he culled through about 3 limits to get his best 5, so I was excited to know that he was around fish…until I asked the next question…”How many did your Co have?”  When I found out that his Co blanked, I had a feeling that I knew what was going on – a flipping bite to isolated cover.

I figured that I only needed 4-5 pounds to make the Day 3 cut, so my plan to finesse them again on day 2 was still on.  Unfortunately Mother Nature did not provide us weather that was conducive to throwing a spinning rod with an 1/8 ounce weight.

The weather was very dangerous – 30-50 MPH straight line winds and sideways rain all day.  In hindsight they should have cancelled the day as tornadoes came through the south end of the lake and a waterspout actually hit one of the competitors boats.

In order to try to get out of the wind, we locked into one of the many canals on the north end of the lake.  It was actually the same place my boater had fished on day one.  We had an early draw, but were quickly inundated with many other boats that had the same idea.

I got out my spinning rig, but quickly realized that the wind was not going to allow me to finesse fish, so I pulled out my punching rig and tried to follow up behind my boater, but to no avail.  He was pitching to isolated reeds that were coming up through the mats, and that is where all of the fish were holding on.  As he picked that apart and went through 2+ limits on day 2, I was relegated to punching the body of the mats in hopes of coming across a random fish.

Although I fished hard all day, the bass were not holding in the cover that was left for me to fish.  As disappointed as I was in not weighing in a fish on day 2,  I was happy with my decision making for the event and knowing that I went all day on day 2, non-stop, and put forth 100% effort all the way up until my last pitch.

My Day 1 weight still allowed me to finish 55th, and in the top 20% of the huge field – and I still got a good paycheck!

My next stop is Santee Cooper in SC in the middle of March.  This is shaping up to be a pre-spawn SLUGFEST!  I cannot wait to write the wrap up for this one!

Bio:

Circuits fished: Central Pro Am, LBL BFL, Michigan BFL, Everstart Series

Years co: 25

Favorite technique: Flipping a jig

Hobbies aside from fishing: Watching my kids play sports

Sponsors: 5X3 FishingLew’s ReelsBass Craft CrankbaitsJewel Bait CoRazr RodsRudy Project EyewearSnack Daddy LuresElite Rod SleevesBionic Custom BaitsBlue Water LED, The Pond Pro, G2 Gemini, Eco Pro Tungsten, Tackle Tags by High Waters Creations