Anyone who’s fished a tournament knows there’s more to competing than simply showing up on game day and relying on sheer luck to put fish in the boat. Especially if you want to win. Serious runs up the leaderboard require a dedicated blend of research, practice and preparation.
“Given the level of competition at everything from local club tournaments to larger regional events, you really have to do your homework,” says veteran bass tournament angler Scott Bonnema. Following are his thoughts on gearing up for success.
When fishing new waters, research is a great ally in the quest for victory. “It’s all about identifying where catchable fish will be during the tournament,” says Bonnema. Fortunately, a variety of sources offer intel.
Naturally, the internet is an amazing tool. Everything from angler forums and fishing reports to Google Earth and state fisheries departments can provide insight into specific fisheries. Tournament results from events held on the lake you’ll be fishing—especially during the same time of year—can also be golden.
“Websites like ClassicBass.com, which post results and tournament news, can give you an idea of top locations and presentations, along with what kind of weight it may take to do well in an event on that body of water,” says Bonnema.
Bonnema is a big believer in on-the-water reconnaissance, and credits extensive scouting for his recent top-five finish and big-bass honors at the recent Sturgeon Bay Open, which saw 150 teams battle on Wisconsin’s legendary Sturgeon Bay.
“I arrived two weeks ahead of the tournament, and also fished a Cabela’s North American Bass Circuit event the weekend before, which gave me a great idea of where and how to fish during the Open,” he explains.
He cautions, though, that early recon must be tempered if you expect the fish to move between then and the tournament. “When fishing partner Mark Fisher and I started breaking down Sturgeon Bay, the water was cold and most of the bass were still in deep water,” he says. “We knew that warming water would bring them in by game day, so we focused on areas we thought would hold fish during competition.”
Given the likelihood that waves of sag-bellied smallmouths would swarm the shallows once water temperatures warmed, that meant looking for fast-warming bays with ample depths in the 2- to 6-foot range. “We focused on large bays that allowed the fish to be in seven or eight spots instead of one or two, which gave us better odds of being able to fish at least one of the areas properly,” he noted.
Which brings up a key point in Bonnema’s pre-game planning. Knowing that 150 tournament boats and countless recreational anglers would descend upon the bay’s prime lies, he focused on spots that could handle the pressure, while providing an opportunity to thoroughly fish productive areas. “Boat positioning is critical,” he explains. “So we ruled out small spots that could only be effectively fished by one or two boats.”
To find potential hot zones, Bonnema cruised the shallows, both visually scanning with polarized glasses and using the side-imaging feature on his Humminbird 1199ci HD SI sonar-chartplotter combo to pinpoint and map prime structure. “We looked for anything that would attract bass or funnel their movements, such as subtle depth changes of six to 12 inches, or the edge where a line of rocks transitioned to sand,” he says. “Such spots may vary by species and from lake to lake, but there will always be key features that concentrate whatever fish you’re after. Finding them before the tournament is critical.”
Mapping is a matter of marking points of interest with icons that enable instant recall, even months or years after the initial scouting run. “Take time to choose symbols and names that mean something, and will help you remember what the waypoint is for,” he says. “For example, I use a Red Cross medical symbol to mark hotspots where I can ‘get healthy’ in a hurry if I’m struggling in a tournament. I also use small symbols for boat position, and larger icons for structure.”
When charting a choice piece of cover or structure, Bonnema advises highlighting both the area you expect to hold fish, as well as where you should position your boat to work the spot. “In clear, shallow water, long casts can be key, so keep your boat as far from the fish as possible,” he adds. “Humminbird’s side-imaging makes it easy to mark waypoints on structure 60 to 100 feet from the boat, without ever driving over the fish.”
While some anglers pare down tournament tackle to a handful of rods, reels and baits needed for a few pet presentations, Bonnema brings a complete arsenal on the road. “I’m not saying you need to spend a fortune on tackle,” he says. “But, you’re already spending hundreds of dollars on gas, food and lodging. You don’t want to lose because you don’t have the right size or color spinnerbait.”
At Sturgeon Bay, for example, Bonnema and Fisher dialed in a very specific combination of rod, reel, line and lure to fool the system’s biggest bass—including the monstrous 8.29-pound bronzeback Bonnema landed during competition, and another 8-pound behemoth taken during practice.
“After much experimentation and tweaking, we found that light-green, 3½- and 4 ½-inch, paddle-tail Trigger X Slop Hopper produced better fish than standard grub bodies,” he says. The softbait was threaded on a 3/16-ounce VMC Darter Head Jig. “Having the line tie stick straight up on the jig head was key, because we were moving it very slowly, barely ticking the tops of the rocks,” he says.
A 7-foot, medium-light Team Lew’s spinning outfit engendered long casts and solid hooksets, while transmitting details on bottom ticks and subtle takes alike. Bonnema spooled with 10-pound Sufix 832 superbraid mainline and added a 5-foot, 7-pound Sufix Invisiline leader for added stealth. “Swapping out any one of these components completely changed the presentation and resulted in fewer big fish,” he adds.
As a final tip to budding tournament competitors, Bonnema recommends building a game plan with multiple fallback strategies. “After figuring out the best locations and right equipment, put together a few ‘Plan B’ options to allow for wind and weather changes, fishing pressure and other factors that cut shut down your main program,” he says. “That way, you won’t be scrambling when the bite changes on game day.”