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Green-Castin’

Eufaula bass are headed up shallow this month.

Don Baldwin | November 1, 2008

The big topwater bait sputtered its way across the surface as Rick Tilson dragged it over the top of the grass and through the lily pads on its path back to the boat. Just as it came over a large pad in about 4 feet of water, there was a splash as a bass made a swipe at the bait and missed. Rick kept up the retrieve and another attempt from the bass followed shortly, then another. Finally the fish grabbed the bait, and Rick made contact. Soon a chunky 2 1/2-lb. largemouth was lifted aboard and into the livewell.

I was fishing Eufaula with Rick Tilson of Smyrna, a tournament bass angler who fishes several professional trails as well as lots of local pot tournaments around Georgia and Alabama. Rick has been tournament fishing for about five years. He is a regular on the American Bass Anglers (ABA) Trail, American Fishing Tour, BASS Weekend Series and ABA’s Grand Slam Series.

We had left the landing at Lakepoint Marina shortly after dawn and were working a grassbed in the mouth of Cowikee Creek within sight of Lakepoint Resort.

It was late September the morning we fished, so Rick didn’t know if his preferred fall pattern would be in full swing yet, but he thought we could catch a few good fish in the shallow grass.

“This pattern relies on the presence of baitfish in the shallow grass,” said Rick. “In the fall, shad move out of the main lake and into the shallow grass, and the bass are right behind them.”

Rick said that bass gorge them- selves on the plentiful shad in preparation for the coming winter. And when the bait moves in, the action can be quick.

We didn’t go more than a quarter of a mile from the ramp before we stopped at the first grassbed. One clear signal that there was bait in the area was the presence of wading birds. There were literally dozens of herons and egrets in the shallow grass and perched in the short cypress trees that were spread out though the grassbed. Rick dropped the trolling motor over the side and handed me a rod with a V&M Buzz Frog attached. This is a new bait that consists of an in-line buzzbait followed by a rubber frog that is Texas rigged on a large hook. The bend of the hook rides under the belly of the frog, and the point of the hook is pushed through the top of the frog and “skin hooked” just under the upper surface, allowing the hook to be weedless but easy to penetrate once a fish strikes. For those familiar with rat fishing on Guntersville, the Buzz Frog is essentially the same bait with a buzzbait prop in front of it.

As we moved closer to the grass, we could see the shallows were alive with bait. There were shad flipping on the surface in almost every direction, and bass were busting balls of bait on the surface regularly.

We made long casts into the grass and were rewarded almost immediately with blow-ups, but most of the fish missed the big baits. We caught one or two small fish, but most of the time the bass were striking short. Rick recommended I switch to a spinnerbait.

“Sometimes when the bass don’t take the frog, the spinner- bait will make the difference,” said Rick.

He handed me a casting rod equipped with an Excalibur 1/2-oz. bait with a pearl skirt and double willowleaf chrome blades.

On the first cast a 3-lb. bass inhaled the bait as it ticked along just over the top of the grass. Both Rick and I caught several small fish of 2 pounds or less on the blades, but we couldn’t raise any larger bass.

“I don’t think the big fish have moved in yet,” said Rick. “We are still early in the fall, and the water temperature is a little higher than ideal.”

When we started fishing in the morning, the surface-temp gauge read 78 degrees, and by the afternoon it was pushing the middle 80s.

Moving out a little from the grass, Rick grabbed a jig rod and handed me a Texas-rigged worm outfit.

“I think there may be some bigger fish holding on the ledges out from the grass,” said Rick. “If they are there, the jig or worm should be our best bet for getting them to bite.”

Rick maneuvered the boat between two of the red channel markers and watched his graph carefully, looking at the bottom contours. When he saw the small pile of brush he was looking for, he dropped a marker buoy overboard and backed off over the deeper water. “This is a good isolated piece of structure right on the edge of the drop,” said Rick. “It should be a great spot for a bass to stage while moving in toward the grass.”

The water depth under the boat in the channel was deeper than 12 feet, and the depth at the brush was about 6 feet. We both made several casts in the area around the brush and drug the baits slowly over the bottom. On about his fifth cast, Rick set the hook and made contact with what appeared to be a good fish.

When the fish surfaced, it was bigger than either of us expected. The big bass fought hard but soon was aboard and ready for pictures. We estimated the bass to be more than 5 pounds and maybe pushing 6. It was a great fish in anybody’s book.

For this fall pattern to work effectively, the water temperatures need to cool down.

“Ideally the surface temp should be in the high 60s to 70 in the morning and not get higher than 75 during the day,” said Rick.

First thing in the morning throw surface baits like the Buzz Frog, poppers, or maybe a spinnerbait in the grass. With the exception of the frog, all of the other baits are shad imitations. Cast far into the grass, and work the edges as well to determine where the fish are holding. If it is windy, fish the wind-blown side of the creek; the wind tends to bunch up the shad and increase your chances of finding feeding fish.

Rick fishes the Buzz Frog on 50- lb. braided line. This allows him to take control of the fish and get them out of the grass in a hurry. Work the Buzz Frog just like you would work a normal buzzbait. Make long casts into the grass or pads, crank it back to the surface and retrieve across the pads and grass.

One of the biggest mistakes most people make with the Buzz Frog is not varying the retrieve speed to determine how the fish actually want the bait. When the bass strikes, don’t set the hook right away. You have to drop the rod tip a little and wait to feel the pressure of the fish before setting the hook. Short strikes are fairly common; be patient.

With the popper, again try several different retrieves to determine what the fish want. Rick fishes an Excalibur Zell Pop on 15- to 20-lb. monofilament line. Mono floats better and helps with the action of the bait.

If you are getting a lot of short strikes or misses on the Buzz Frog or Popper, a spinnerbait dragged over the grass can sometimes make a big difference. Rick likes the Excalibur 1/2-oz. double willowleaf model in chrome, but if the water is dingy, he might change to copper or brass blades and even to a Colorado blade in extremely cloudy water. His favorite skirt color, under normal conditions, is a pearl with blue and chartreuse accents.

On a typical fall day, once the sun gets high, which is usually around 10 a.m., Rick switches to deeper-running baits that he can work in and around the grass. Small crankbaits like the Strike King Diamond Shad or a Rat-L-Trap work well around the edges if they are retrieved quickly enough to keep them just over the top of the deeper grass.

Texas-rigged worms and jigs are also good options as the day moves on, because they can be punched down through the grass and moved slowly without much in the way of hang-ups. Again, Rick varies the retrieve with both the jig and the worm to determine what the fish want. Sometimes he’ll use a slow-pumping motion, while other times he’ll hop the bait up sharply, and let it drift down on the fall.

“Be creative with your retrieve,” said Rick. “Something just a little different can turn on fish that are other- wise reluctant to bite.”

As far as locations are concerned, Rick says that Cowikee Creek is generally very productive in the fall. We fished the mouth the day we were out and caught most of our bass in a relatively small area. But Rick says he has excellent luck all up and down the creek. It is more about the conditions than the location.

Other areas he suggested include Witches Ditch, Grass Creek and Bustahatchee Creek.

Rick divides the lake into two sections, “Above the causeway and below the causeway.”

“I spend virtually all of my time on the lake above the causeway, particularly in the fall,” said Rick. “There is plenty of grass in that section, and I believe the water cools off earlier due to the effects of the river current flow.”

While there is some emerging grass on the lower end of the lake and he has caught fall bass in the area, he feels the fishing on the upper end is more consistent with a bigger variety of locations to fish.

Remember that this is a baitfish pattern. If you pull up into a cove or creek and don’t see any shad on the surface, Rick recommends you leave and look for another area. If there are no shad up shallow in any of the coves you enter, move out to the secondary points. Some weather condition, such as a drop in temperature or change in barometric pressure, may have caused the shad to move out temporarily. Rick describes a secondary point as anything that changes the line of the shore, such as a group of pads or a bunch of grass that reaches out beyond the rest of the grassbed. Rick advises that long straight stretches of grass don’t often hold a lot of fish.

“I’ll go down a long straight stretch of grass quickly and key on points, cuts or other areas that are just a little different from the surrounding areas,” said Rick.

Rick explains that the shallow- grass pattern should last well into the late fall and early winter. The bass will stay up and feed on the shad until the baitfish move back out into the deeper water where they will remain for the winter. This shad migration usually occurs at water temperatures in the mid to low 50s, although it is hard to pin- point an exact temperature. But for the next couple of months, the action should be excellent.

In addition to his tournament fishing, Rick spends a lot of his personal time teaching kids to fish. He and his wife Shannan also work with an organization that focuses on providing angling opportunities for members of the military. Check out the website at <www.thefreedomtofish.com>.

To find out more about Rick, check out his website at www.ricktilson.com.

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