The 2018 Elite Series schedule

The 2018 Elite Series schedule

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The Bassmaster Elite Series has a rich history that always seems to lead it back to venues where special moments have taken place in the past.

It’s also blessed with a sense of discovery — and that leads the organization to sometimes visit lakes that are a little off the beaten path.

The 2018 Elite Series schedule, which was announced today, features elements of both.

The lineup includes stops at traditional venues like the Sabine River in Orange, Texas, and the St. Lawrence River in Waddington, N.Y., where crowds for past Elite Series events have always been huge. The schedule also features an eye-popping, first-time stop at scenic Lake Oahe on the Missouri River near Pierre, S.D.

B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin said he loves the flow of a schedule that will allow the Elite Series to visit old friends — and make a lot of new ones — during an eight-month stretch of next year’s calendar.

“We are very serious about taking bass fishing into new regions of the country and exposing as many people to our sport as we can,” Akin said. “But in doing that, we’ll never forget the people who have shown us so much support every time we’ve visited their communities.

“This schedule has some history, as well as some new adventures for our Elite anglers and fans, and I think that’s fantastic.”

As it did in 2017, the schedule will begin in early February in the southeastern United States — where the prevailing weather patterns could range from 20 degrees with sleet and snow to 60 degrees with a need for SPF 50.

The season opener is set for Lake Martin in Alexander City, Ala., on Feb. 8-11. Martin, which is known for its healthy population of spotted bass, was a regular stop for Bassmaster events during the late 1990s and early 2000s. But the last time B.A.S.S. visited the 44,000-acre lake on the Tallapoosa River for a high-level event was in November 2002.

“Hosting our first Bassmaster Elite Series event on Lake Martin is a privilege and a thrill for Alexander City,” said Ed Collari, president & CEO of the Alexander City Chamber of Commerce. “The opportunity to generate national exposure for our wonderful community as well as showcase what we consider the most pristine lake in the southeast is a tremendous honor. I can assure you that all of the competitors and guests to the Lake Martin area will be overjoyed by the natural beauty of the area as well as the southern hospitality throughout Alexander City.”

After Lake Martin, the Elites will take a break from the regular-season schedule, while the 2018 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods is held on Lake Hartwell at Anderson, S.C., with weigh-ins and other events in Greenville, S.C. The annual Super Bowl of professional bass fishing is set for March 16-18 on the same lake where Casey Ashley claimed the 2015 title.

When the Classic buzz is barely three weeks old, the Elite Series schedule will resume with a trip to the Sabine River, where fans have proved their love for pro fishing time and again.

An Elite Series tournament held on the Sabine River in 2013 obliterated previous attendance records by drawing 33,650 people for the four-day event in Orange. The event also reset the one-day Elite Series attendance record by drawing 14,950 fans for the Saturday semifinal weigh-in.

The overall record was broken later in 2013, when 34,100 people turned out for an August Elite Series event in Waddington, N.Y. But judging by the big turnout at a Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open held in Orange in mid-June, the city could be ready for another run at the record.

The third and fourth Elite Series tournaments of the year will also be held at familiar venues, with the trail stopping at Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees in Grove, Okla., April 26-29, and at Kentucky Lake in Paris, Tenn., May 4-7. Grand Lake hosted the Classic in 2013 and 2016, and Kentucky Lake has been the site of a dozen high-level B.A.S.S. events, including the 2015 BASSfest.

“We are excited to once again host the Bassmaster Elite Series out of Paris Landing State Park on beautiful Kentucky Lake, one of the top bass lakes in the nation,” said David Hamilton, CEO, Henry County Tourism Authority. “Kentucky Lake offers over 160,000 acres of water for anglers to search for that great catch.”

The Elites will fish one more tournament in May — the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest benefiting the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The special $1 million tournament combines the best features of the Texas Toyota Bass Classic and BASSfest and will be held May 17-20 at a location to be announced later.

What is known for certain is that after Texas, the Elite pros will travel to La Crosse, Wis., for a return visit to that area’s bass-filled section of the Mississippi River. The trail visited La Crosse in September 2016 when Tennessee angler Ott DeFoe won with 63-10.

From there, the schedule takes one of its more intriguing turns in years with a trip to Lake Oahe, which straddles the border between South Dakota and North Dakota, and which recently ranked ninth in the Central Region of Bassmaster Magazine’s 100 Best Bass Lakes list.

It will mark not only the first time B.A.S.S. has visited the mammoth 370,000-acre lake, but also the first time the organization has held a high-level tournament in the state of South Dakota.

“Pierre is very excited to be part of the Bassmaster Elite Series,” said Pierre Mayor Steve Harding. “I hope the anglers are just as excited about fishing Lake Oahe, as we are excited about hosting this event. It’s going to be a great experience for all involved!”

The fourth-largest reservoir in the United States may be the closest thing to an unknown commodity that the Elites have seen since the trail’s inception in 2006. That could make for a particularly interesting tournament, considering the new “no-information” rule that prohibits anglers from soliciting or intentionally receiving information about locating bass on tournament venues from the moment the schedule is announced.

Under current Elite Series rules, anglers are allowed to obtain information about a fishery until the official off-limit period goes into effect four weeks prior to an event.

“It means a lot of things will change, including no more sharing of waypoints of hot spots found by other fishermen,” said B.A.S.S. Tournament Director Trip Weldon. “The no-information rule has the support of the Elite anglers — and it will make it more important than ever for everyone to be able to go out and find their own fish.”

Another departure from traditional Elite Series schedules is the increase in the number of events ending on a Monday. Almost invariably (GoPro Bassmaster Elite at Dardanelle presented by Econo Lodge being an exception) competition days are Thursday through Sunday. Elite tournaments next year at the Sabine River, Kentucky Lake and Lake Oahe will take place Friday through Monday. The Sabine was scheduled differently to avoid practice fishing on Easter Sunday, and the other two start later because they are part of back-to-back events.

From South Dakota, with the race for the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title heating up, the schedule will move to Havre de Grace, Md., for an event on the upper Chesapeake Bay. It was in 2015 on Chesapeake Bay when Aaron Martens all but sealed his third AOY title, scoring a dramatic victory with 70-2.

“The Bassmaster Elite series is no stranger to the top of the Chesapeake Bay as they were here in 2015. The competitors enjoy our unique location at the top of the bay, we have great fishing opportunities, making for a fantastic tournament,” said Greg Pizzuto, executive director of Visit Hartford! “Utilizing Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen for the weigh-ins allows a stadium atmosphere and all of its amenities make for a fun-filled family event we are sure will be enjoyed by all.”

The final regular-season event will be held on the St. Lawrence River in Waddington, N.Y. — where more fans turned out for a B.A.S.S. tournament in 2013 than ever before or since. The river, which is known for producing gigantic smallmouth bass, ranked third in the Northeastern Region of Bassmaster Magazine’s 100 Best Bass Lakes list.

Two postseason Elite Series events — the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship and the Classic Bracket — will be held in late September. Locations will be revealed at a later time.

 

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Homecoming week at Rayburn

Homecoming week at Rayburn

I grew up in Central Texas, and while we had some decent lakes nearby, none compared to the mythical Sam Rayburn in far East Texas. I fished there for the first time when I was 14 years old and that just lit a fire under me. After that I followed all of the Rayburn tournament results, along with the careers of the top anglers on the lake, and that’s what inspired me to move to the area six years ago. Now I’m headed out on the lake for the first time in Bassmaster Elite Series competition.

Just as it was when I was a teenager, today Rayburn remains the most popular tournament lake in Texas, and the largest lake wholly within the state. Notice that I didn’t say it’s the best lake in the state at all times, but I believe that it is right now. I won’t be surprised if it takes more than 90 pounds to win.

Why is it so good right now? I believe that it’s because of the water levels in recent years. After several seasons of low water, we’ve had two consecutive years when the water was far up into the brush during the spawn and then into the summer. When the water is 6 or 8 feet up into the bushes, you simply can’t access a large portion of the lake. As a result, while we were held at bay on the outside of the brush line, the fish experienced a couple of great spawns and then were able to grow and eat without any pressure. It wasn’t just the bass – the baitfish also flourished, as did the populations of other fish like crappie.

I’m excited for this event not only because I feel that the fishery is in exceptional health, but also because I feel that Rayburn is just about the perfect tournament lake. It’s a big playing field, but unlike some other big lakes it won’t fish small. There will be fish caught dirt shallow out to 35 feet deep, and everywhere in between. They’ll be in all of the river arms as well as in the main lake and down by the dam. Quality bass will be caught on spoons and topwaters and frogs and crankbaits…just about any lure you have in your tackle box.

The beauty of Rayburn is that it changes every year. I remember when I first started visiting the lake there was so much vegetation in some places that it looked like a golf course, but the location of the best grass would change from year to year as a result of the fluctuating water levels. If the Elite Series were to schedule tournaments here in mid-May for the next five years, it might never look the same as it does now.

I know that some of my predictions have been off so far this year on what it would take to win at places like Conroe and Toledo Bend, but I really have a good feeling about this one. I was happy to see it when they announced the schedule and I still expect that it will produce our biggest weights of the season.

In a team tournament earlier this year there were three bags over 30 pounds and 60 over 20 pounds. We might not see those kinds of weights all the way down the line this week, but it’s a possibility. Knowing that’s possible, it’s hard to script a better tournament than that.

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Sidelined on Sunday

Sidelined on Sunday

As professional anglers, we measure our performance according to certain milestones – Classic berths, how many times we’re in the money, how many times we win, and how many times we make the top twelve cut.

I’m particularly aware of that last one right now since I finished 14th at the St. Johns River, just 12 ounces out of 12th place. It might not sound like a very big deal, since it’s “only” a difference of a couple of points, but believe me, I want to fish on Sunday every time out. First of all, I’m a competitor and it pains me when others are competing and I’m not. Second, Sunday is when the TV cameras are rolling and I owe it to my sponsors to get them as much exposure as possible. Third, those two points may come back to haunt me at the end of the year if I miss out on some postseason awards by that margin. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you can’t win unless you’re fishing on Sunday, and I go to every tournament aiming to win.

I’ve had a number of finishes just outside the 12 cut in Elite Series competition, and while they all sting, this one was a little bit different than most. It’s the first time I’ve come close to making it when I wasn’t on a very good bite. I only had one good day of practice, and after two days of competition I barely squeaked into Saturday’s Top 51 cut in 46th place. That had me 12 ounces above the 52nd place angler and a little less than 7 pounds out of the top 12.

I went out the third day hoping just to gain as many points as I could, not really thinking about making it to Sunday, but I had a 17 pound limit in the boat in the first hour. At that point I started crunching numbers in my head to see if I could make a serious move. Once I realized that the top 12 might be within reach my goals for the day changed completely.

I ended up with 19-14, and at the time that I weighed in that had me in 10th place. I knew that Brent Chapman was weighing in behind me and had a good bag, and I heard the rumors about Rick Clunn’s monster day, but I held out hope that I could squeak into the final spot in the top 12. I sat there watching the scoreboard for what seemed like an eternity. We all do it. Anyone who tells you that they don’t is probably lying.

Eventually two more anglers jumped me and I was left to go home with a decent start to the year, but no Sunday appearance. After being in 46th place the previous day, I was thankful for the opportunity to make the big jump. On the other hand, I only missed it by 12 ounces and that really hurt. I’d found a 3 pounder on a bed on the second day and in two separate visits I managed to hook her each time and then lost her. I ran out of time before she’d give me a third chance. It’s a long drive from Palatka back to Texas and I replayed that fish over and over and over again.

In 2015 I started the season with a 49th place finish at the Sabine, so this is an improvement upon that. Every year I go into the season hoping to be in position to challenge for the Angler of the Year award. There’s a lot of fishing left to go before that becomes an issue, but after missing some good chances at making a run for it in 2013 and 2014, I know that I can’t stumble at any point if I want to achieve that goal. I had a good Classic and a good tournament to start the regular season, so if I can just survive Winyah Bay it’s all familiar territory after that. I hope you see me on the water on at least a few Sundays.

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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