Riding with Keith Combs at the Classic: 4 Bass Fishing Tips and Lessons Learned

Riding with Keith Combs at the Classic: 4 Bass Fishing Tips and Lessons Learned

The pressure and stress on an angler fishing the Classic is something most of us will never understand; learning how Combs tackles the biggest stage can be applied to weekend-warrior derbies
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Keith Combs swings in one of his five keepers on Day One of the 2016 Bassmaster Classic on Grand Lake. (Blake Russell photo)
I had the opportunity to ride with Keith Combs on Day One of the 2016 Bassmaster Classic on Grand Lake in Oklahoma. We know it takes hard work, determination and focus to get there, but seeing how it’s fleshed out in person is different than just acknowledging the work it takes. Here are some observations I made while riding with Combs.Fish where you have confidenceI can’t tell you how many times Combs would make 15 casts and then sprint back to the wheel only to idle 50 yards to a different spot. What I gleaned from the observation was he didn’t have confidence in that stretch of water to produce a fish, so he skipped it.The stretches he idled past very well could’ve been holding a fish, but Combs wasn’t about to waste his time with a “maybe.” When big money is on the line, every cast counts and time is your enemy. Don’t waste your time and your casts on water that’s not a sure thing. Focus your energy on water you have confidence in to produce the fish you need.Know where your next cast will be before you make itThe efficiency at which Combs covered water was mind boggling. The Classic was not an hours game, or even a minutes game for him; it was a game of seconds. I’d like to imagine Combs had his next five casts figured out before he even made them. In fact, it was only milliseconds after his crankbait left the water before it was on its way to the next target.

The lesson here is this: The more casts you make means more opportunities for strikes. Seconds wasted add up to minutes, and those minutes wasted can be the difference between winning and losing.

You can’t catch a fish with your bait out of the water.

Never give up on a cast

Getting your lure hung up happens. Combs was snagged in some rock again for the umpteenth time. It could’ve been a temptation for him to lose focus as he snapped his line to free the crankbait. However, it was a good thing he didn’t give up on the cast; as soon as the crankbait was freed, he hooked up with the second biggest fish of the day. Had he not been prepared, it would’ve been the difference between a limit and only four fish weighed.

Combs finished ninth in the Classic, and had only 4 ounces more than Greg Hackney, who finished 10th. Those few seconds of focus was the difference between placing one spot higher.
Long before the launch of Day One, Keith Combs was focused on finalizing tackle prep and making the best of his day. (Blake Russell photo)

Think positive and be persistent

This is much easier said than done. Combs landed a 4-pounder in the first 30 minutes of fishing. After that, he went without another bite until the middle of the afternoon. It was brutal for me just watching, I can only imagine how brutal it must have been for Combs.

But, he didn’t let it affect his fishing. He knew he was going to get bit, and he was ready for when it happened. If I were in his shoes, I probably would’ve been writing the day off.

Many times this is the difference maker of being a competitive and successful pro angler. As long as there is still time left on that clock, you have to believe in your ability to make something happen. He had less than an hour left before he boated his last keeper. His persistence and staying positive paid off.

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My path to the Elite Series

My path to the Elite Series

I’m sure that although many of you have some idea of who I am, you may not know how I became a professional angler or what drives me to succeed. I’m thankful to the editors at Bassmaster.com for giving me this chance to tell you a little bit about my life story.

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I’ve lived my whole life in Texas, and I started fishing with my parents when I was in diapers. They didn’t know anything about professional bass fishing, and we pretty much tried to catch whatever would bite, but from an early age this sport was my passion. I was always trying to convince them to let me fish even more, and as early as 8 or 9 years old I’d cut deals with them to take me at least once a week.

A few years later one of our neighbors had a boat that he liked to take striper fishing, and once again I became a dealmaker, doing everything I could to convince him to take me fishing. Eventually he started to take me, and we had a blast catching stripers until one day we stumbled onto the largemouth bug. We were jigging 1-ounce spoons on bluff banks, and we ended up in the midst of a big school of largemouths. They were there the next night, too, and the night after that.

With our newfound confidence, we decided to enter a little Thursday night jackpot tournament. Looking back at it now, it’s kind of funny how green we were. I mean, we knew that the bass had to be at least 14 inches to keep, but we had no idea that their mouths had to be closed when you measured them. We were fortunate that we caught enough that were well over the legal minimum, and eventually we culled up to the winning weight.

I was 13 at the time, and from that moment on, I was completely eaten up with bass fishing, although I still had no idea that you could do it for a living. My neighbor and I started a bass club, and I won the angler of the year title at 13. Then we joined a bigger bass club and with some hard work and a few breaks I won the AOY there, too. That became my strategy – to attain success at one level and then use that as a springboard to move up the ladder. Despite the trophies I’d started to accumulate, I still didn’t have much of a clue about what I was doing. I just figured that if I could continue to win AOY titles, I could keep moving up.

We started to fish Anglers Choice team tournaments, and after three or four years, we were once again the AOYs. Then I moved on to FLW’s Texas Tournament Trail (TTT) and again won the AOY. I didn’t have much of a life outside of tournament fishing and at times it wasn’t easy, but I knew what I wanted to do.

I’m probably making this progression sound much easier than it was, and I sincerely hope that I don’t come off as cocky or arrogant. I worked hard to get to that point, and while I had a full-time job at a machine shop, I was making about a third of my income from tournament fishing. I always seemed to leap to the next level before I was completely ready, but I still didn’t have the confidence or the financial backing to jump to the tour level.

Despite my concerns, I desperately wanted to see if I could compete against the best of the best, so at 31 I gave my employer my two week notice and moved to Del Rio, Texas. Lake Amistad was the hottest lake in the country at the time, and I figured it would be the perfect laboratory to get my skills and my bank account where it needed to be.

The move wasn’t without some sacrifices. I rented out my house, put my fold-out couch in the back of my truck and headed south for a pretty bare-bones lifestyle. The only person I knew in town was Tim Reneau, who was starting Power Tackle Rods at the time. He allowed me temporarily to stay in a small condo he owned, and through his contacts with the guides in the area he got me a few guide clients. I’ll never forget his generosity. Without it, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today.

Eventually I built up enough money from guiding to rent a little place of my own, the best accommodations in Del Rio that $400 a month could pay for. I had a couch but no TV, and it remained that way for four years. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford a TV – I just didn’t want to have any distractions from tournament fishing. If I wasn’t on the water, I was either working on tackle or studying for the next tournament. It was all that I wanted to do.

When I made the leap to the FLW Tour, I was fortunate to finish in the Top 10 a couple of times the first year. The next year I ended up 13th in the points race and made my first Toyota Texas Bass Classic. That was the biggest event I’d ever been to, with lots of my Bassmaster Elite Series heroes, and it lit a fire under me to qualify for the Elite Series. I signed up for the Bassmaster Opens, won the AOY title in the Centrals, and thereby qualified not only for the Elite Series but for my first Bassmaster Classic.

At that point, everything seemed to be lining up perfectly. Several of my longtime guide clients took a leap of faith and sponsored me. They weren’t in the fishing industry, didn’t have any skin in the game, but they wanted to be a part of my journey. They’re still with me to this day, and I’ll never forget their confidence in my abilities. I may be the face of the operation, but their support allows me to do my job.

When I got to the Elites, there were lots of lakes on the schedule that I didn’t know anything about. The only way that I could be competitive was to pre-fish every one of them and to spend a ton of time on the water. That’s still my rule – if it’s on the schedule, I’m going there to pre-practice. I don’t care if I have to drive to Sacramento to do it. I figured that’s what everyone would do, but it seems like only 30 to 40 percent of the field takes that same approach.

My bottom line is that I don’t want to get beaten because someone worked harder than me. While occasionally a young phenom comes along who has some immediate success without doing a lot of homework, in most cases that will eventually catch up to you. In this sport, you get out of it what you put into it.

I’ve always done it the hard way. That’s the only way I know how to do it.

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Keith Combs Offering Marine Electronics Classes in 2016

Keith Combs Offering Marine Electronics Classes in 2016

Bassmaster Elite Series and multiple Toyota Texas Bass Classic champion Keith Combs is offering 10 classes cover how to use marine electronics to catch more and bigger bass this year.

Elite Series pro Keith Combs has developed a new series of classes to help fisherman become better at interpreting and utilizing their electronics. Each class is based around a Power Point presentation utilizing actual screen and mapping shots taken from Combs’ boat.

All classes will be taught in a conference room environment, and will cover 4 hours of material plus a 1-hour catered Q & A lunch.

They are currently offering 10 classes covering 4 different topics:

  • Locating spring bass
  • Locating summer bass
  • Locating fall bass
  • Locating winter bass 

They will look at breaking down 3 completely different types of fisheries by season with the use of down imaging, side imaging, conventional sonar, mapping, 360 imaging, and Auto Chart Live.

The first classes are scheduled for Feb. 6-7, 2016 at the Courtyard Marriott in Lufkin, Texas. To learn more, visit www.theelectronicedge.com.

The Keith Combs difference

The Keith Combs difference

Story by Pete Robbins

After 10 minutes on the water with Keith Combs, I knew how many Elite Series pros feel when they visit the Lone Star State.

Combs hadn’t cranked up the big motor yet, had only unstrapped the rods on one side of the deck, when he bowed up on a bug-eyed monster of a bass that he pegged at well over 10 pounds. We didn’t have a scale, so the Facebook haters may disagree, but when it comes to guesstimating the weights of double digit bass, I’m going to wager my last dollar on whatever Combs says, because the guy has caught a pile of them.

I’d ventured to Texas partially because I wanted to get a sore thumb from lipping big bass (preferably mine, not his), but also because I wanted to get a better sense of what makes Keith tick. I’d previously dubbed him “The Once and Future King of Texas” on the basis of his extraordinary finishes on Texas waters. Based on his track record, I don’t think that assessment was premature, but in some ways it assumed too much – I thought I knew what he could do, but hadn’t seen it firsthand. Fishing writers and fans do that all too often. We declare someone the “best flipper” or the “greatest deep cranker” or the “master of tidal water” without having seen more than a few television snippets of what makes that so.

I wanted to get to the bottom of why Keith Combs does so well in general, and in particular in Texas.

Of course, asking that question of Combs himself would’ve probably been a fruitless proposition. I’m sure he can make a more-than-educated guess as to why he’s enjoyed great success, but there’s an element that likely remains a mystery even to him. Why does he go down a ledge and catch 5-pounders while one of his competitors – using the same rod, reel, line and lure – catches only half as many 2-pounders? It’s the same question that Denny Brauer might’ve struggled to answer about his jig flipping, or KVD might’ve said during his ridiculous run of AOYs and Bassmaster Classic trophies about his all around game. “I just do what I do and they eat it.”

In that respect, it reminds me of what NBA Hall of Famer Moses Malone said to Sports Illustrated’s Frank DeFord when asked why he was such an effective rebounder:

“Basically, I just goes to the rack,” Malone answered.

Basically, Keith Combs just puts ‘em in the livewell.

To a skeptic like me, someone who knows that he could probably never be an Elite Series angler, but doesn’t quite know why, that doesn’t sit well. I wanted to know more. So after fishing with Combs, watching Combs and picking his brain for two full days and parts of two others, here are the four things I observed that I think make him exceptional:

HE’S GOOD AT THE THINGS YOU CAN SEE

Everyone on the Elite Series can cast well. They can pitch, then can flip, they can skip a jig into a 2 inch by 2 inch gap and send it skittering it into the next county. While they may have the best of the best when it comes to tackle, for the most part it’s nothing you and I can’t buy. As much as they try to convince you otherwise onstage, it’s not the motor, the boat, the line or the green pumpkin shimmy grub with 27 black flakes that they’re using that makes them good – it’s them.

Every angler out there can do everything well. Tommy Biffle, flipper extraordinaire, can beat you with a spinnerbait. Aaron Martens, the king of dropshotting, loves to flip mats, and he’s deadly at it.

Combs is no different. While he is probably best known for his offshore cranking skills, I was treated to a lesson in sight fishing that erased much of what I thought I knew and enhanced what was left. He could see things I couldn’t. He found beds I never would have found. Once I could discern the smallest sliver of white at the edge of the bed he’d spotted from twice the distance, I’d struggle to keep a bait there. Meanwhile, he could tell me exactly what the “ghost fish” was doing, and knew that I’d hooked up before I could feel the bite.

HE’S GOOD AT THE THINGS YOU CAN’T SEE

As I engaged in my decidedly amateurish attempts to catch the bed fish that he’d located, Combs proceeded to blind cast a soft plastic in the vicinity. Often he’d catch two or three fish while I tried to tempt the spawner. It was embarrassing – I’d been gift wrapped an easy one and meanwhile he’d dredge up a few that were every bit as big, with no effort whatsoever. He made it look easy, but when I tried the same thing I’d catch maybe half as many, despite it being a “do nothing” technique.

He likes to crank and he likes to sight fish, but Keith Combs is all about not force feeding the bass what he wants them to eat. As much as he likes to look, he also likes to listen. There’s a perception that pros who win on tour like the gamble. The too-often used phrase is “swing for the fences.” Combs said that the decision to chase checks or go for wins is a false dichotomy. He said that earlier in his career, on the few occasions when he tried to fish for checks, he ended up outside the cut, while when he fishes for wins and things go awry, he can almost always salvage a money finish.

Kithe Combs Fishing

Look at his B.A.S.S. track record – 38 money finishes in 47 events – and it’s clear that consistency can exist hand-in-hand with slugging. Last year he missed two Elite checks (including BASSfest). In 2013, he missed one. If you’re always in the money, eventually things should break your way, and you don’t get there by doing one thing and one thing only.

HE REALLY LOVES TO FISH

This one might sound a little foolish. Don’t all of the Elites love to fish? Doesn’t everyone reading this column love to fish? Not as much as he does. Anyone can love the catching part of the exercise. It takes a true fanatic to love the hard labor part. He told me that when he was guiding on Falcon and Amistad, he’d often drop his clients off in the afternoon, then go right back out and spend hours just burning gas and graphing. It was a time when he was regularly catching 30 plus pound bags of fish and he was still looking for more places, building up a library of hundreds of waypoints that might not have been good on that particular day, but were perfect for some future situation that he expected to occur.

While I was in Texas, another friend mentioned a possible trip to Italy. “Do they have bass there?” was Keith’s first question. “If not, I don’t want to go.” He doesn’t understand his Elite counterparts who take time off in between events to “stay hungry.” We fished each of the four days I was there, and he would’ve been out there had I still been in Virginia. After I left, he was heading somewhere else to scout. There’s no downtime, no loss of intensity, and no getting out of rhythm with the way that fish behave.

HE LOVES TO WIN MORE THAN HE LOVES TO FISH

Fresh off a money finish at the Sabine, one that more than half of his peers would’ve killed for, he was still mad that he hadn’t been able to go for the win. Heading into Day 2, he was in 42nd place, only 2 pounds, 10 ounces out of the Top 12, but also only a pound ahead of 53rd. He could go one way the next day and shoot for big fish, or the other and fish for more plentiful but smaller fish, but not both. He’d made up his mind to aim big, a slight risk. Ultimately, the longer fog delay and resulting shorter day prevented him from doing so, and it still smarted that he didn’t have the chance to aim bigger. At the same time, he salvaged a check, finishing 49th.

As we fished down the bank on a perfect spring Thursday, the lake uncluttered of boats, we passed by small fish, looking for big ones. “That one’s too small,” he’d say. “Let’s find ‘Big.’” It’s an attitude I’ve seen in VanDam and Brauer when I’ve shared a boat with them, the type of mentality that recognizes that what they have is good, but what they could have is so much better. That runs completely counter to the security-first space that most of us inhabit. Perhaps it can be taught or learned, but more and more I think it’s ingrained.

After thinking about this and writing all of this, I understand what pushed Keith Combs from the precipice of very, very good to great, but I still don’t understand how he got to that initial landing point. That’s the frustrating thing for weekend duffers like me. He’s like a running back who acts like he has eyes in the back of his head, avoiding tacklers he can’t possibly see, or a basketball player who seems to continue to rise as those who seek to defend his dunk start to fall. There is some extra gear there, something that pushes Keith Combs and the other 20 or 30 anglers in that uppermost echelon of the sport where insane talent meets incredible drive. We can try to figure it out all we want, and measure the things that are measurable, but ultimately I believe it is unknowable.

Keith Combs Signature Series Rods

Keith Combs Signature Series Rods

BASS Elites Pro Keith Combs

BASS Elites Pro Keith Combs partner’s with Power Tackle to come up with The “Keith Comb’s Signature Series Rods.” There are 10 rod models designed specifically for  Keith’s style of fishing. The Rods will be available at local retailers in Q2 of 2015.

 

All rods are crafted in the USA with component such as RainShadow blanks, which are the finest in design and manufacturing of Toray graphite and Eglass composite blanks. The Alps TexTouch blank exposed reel seat with “dual locking nuts” are undoubtedly the best reel seat on the market for sensitivity, comfort and durability. The 11 mini guide ALPS system has been designed for making long accurate casts while increasing sensitivity. “Power Tackle will proudly build these rods for Keith and offer them to the dedicated fisherman for an unbeatable value.” Says Judy Reneau, Power Tackle.

“We are blessed to have added Keith Combs and Power Tackle to the Team RainShadow Pro-staff. Keith’s knowledge, determination and persistency will make him succeed. Keith Combs competing on the BASS Elites with his signature series fishing rods will give him the competitive advantage to win.” States Bill Batson, CEO Batson Enterprises. “I want anglers of any level to fish with the exact rods that I use personally. This will allow any one the opportunity to catch the biggest fish.“ Keith Combs voices.

Power Tackle has gained a reputation for solid, quality rods.  They have been manufacturing premium bass fishing rods for over 8 years and have become well respected by the serious fisherman.  Fished by pros like Keith Combs, Tim Reneau , Phil Marks, and Ray Hanselman, as well as other ranked fishermen, Power Tackle Rods are contending with the “big boys” of the rod industry.

For more information: www.powertackle.com