Approximately 70,000 persons attended the 2011 Bassmaster Classic in New Orleans.
I was one. Difference is, I was in the Classic.
I spent the official practice day with Alabama pro Russ Lane.
I rode along on Day One with frog expert Dean Rojas of Arizona.
I spent Day Two with Minnesota pro Derek Remitz as he started to crankbait his way into the "Super Six" finalists.
I felt lucky to go out for the final cut on Day Three with Florida pro Bobby Lane, who caught bass in Venice like there was no tomorrow (not for the Classic anyway).
It's true. I was in the Classic with these pros. That means I rode along as a non-fishing media observer.
So no, I never picked up a rod nor was I permitted to assist any pro in any way whatsoever.
Nevertheless, I do feel like I had a chance to be right there, to experience first-hand what that feels like being in the Classic hunt each day from practice through the final cut.
Step aboard with me and I will detail my incredible ride with Classic contenders.
Official practice day with Russ Lane
With Russ Lane, we spent the practice day mostly in and around the relatively brackish water area of Des Allemands.
Lane wasn't talking much as he methodically flipped down dozens of miles of dormant hyacinth beds all day long. Russ fared well with a new flipping bait, the Yo Daddy craw introduced at the Classic Expo by Big Bite Baits.
Russ used black blue as well as green pumpkin orange colors with a heavy tungsten bullet sinker and 60-pound test Sunline braid, which was incredibly thin. Russ was able to mow down many (and I mean many) miles by only flipping to the outermost few feet of the dense dead hyacinth beds.
This let him evaluate water very quickly, by making short, close flips to the outside fringes only. Russ explained this exploratory tactic was the most efficient and fastest way to give him a reliable indication of the quantity and quality of bass that were possibly present in an area during practice.
Without actually picking the place apart or going for the trickier casts into tighter cover that may have resulted in hang-ups, Lane was able to assess large expanses of water by making only quick, easy, close casts. During the actual tournament, Lane explained he would flip more slowly and penetrate all the fish-holding nooks and crannies deep inside the pad beds at that time.
It's hard work to win a tournament by flipping says Russ Lane. You're only fishing for individual fish, not schools of fish. Strikes can be miles apart.
Like all the great pros, Lane isn't one dimensional. He spent 80 percent of his practice day flipping Yo Daddy soft baits with heavy bullet sinkers.
However, there wasn't a spot he fished where Russ didn't fire off a few test casts with two different spinnerbait presentations, a black red lipless crank and other lures in order to explore every possible fish-holding situation in the more open water surrounding the pads flipped by Lane.
Every time another situation presented itself, Russ picked up the appropriate rod and lure to leave no questions unanswered as to where the bass may possibly be located out away from the dense pads.
Day One frogging with Dean Rojas
Each day I was on the Delta during the Classic, I was in a different area with a pro deploying a different technique. Dean Rojas had discovered some great frog fishing banks in canals in an area called Salvador.
Dean explained that the water is fresher there than in other sections of the Delta. That relatively clearer, fresher water was what Dean felt made Salvador a great location, and his practice time in the Salvador area had convinced Rojas that plenty of big fish were present there.
What was unique about the banks that Rojas fished were that these canals had slightly raised mud banks, and there were relatively few hyacinth beds extending out from shore along these banks. That enabled Dean to skipcast his SPRO Bronzeye Frog right up into open areas against the mud bank.
There were fallen cypress tress and overhanging brush along the bank. As Dean explained, the reason for the skip cast is to keep a low line trajectory. The line stays down low, close to the surface. The line doesn't float high in the air which would cause it to tangle onto limbs, brush, reeds and other emergent cover. By skipcasting the frog, the line stays low, flying below the grabby cover, and the frog simply skips in under overhanging trees and brush, landing tight up against the bank every time.
Dean Rojas started Day One with a black blue color of Spro Bronzeye Frog. By the end of day One, Dean had switched over to a bluegill color pattern which was the color Rojas did best on Days Two and Three.
Rojas spent 80 percent of his time fishing the first 10-15 feet closest to the bank with a frog, but Rojas did not leave any possibility that bass were staging in slightly deeper water off the banks, were hunkered in the pads or up on open flats.
Whenever a different opportunity presented itself as we moved down the canal, Dean always made a few casts out away from the bank with finesse plastics. Whenever we encountered pad beds, Dean flipped them quickly with a heavy bullet sinker and soft bait. Rojas also made a few casts in every location where it looked like a spinnerbait may have worked well.
Like all the pros I rode with during the Classic, Dean's execution was impeccably flawless. In four days of fishing, I don't think there were four backlashes between all four pros. Flips were all perfect and splashless, and Dean's frog never hung up in the cover.
Rojas worked his SPRO frog very slowly from side to side, using a rod action much as one would deploy to work a Heddon Super Spook or topwater walking lure. The difference being that Dean paused for a lingering instant in between each sideways lunge of his frog. Most hits came during the jerk and pause part of his retrieve, within the first few feet from the bank.
At least once or twice on every retrieve, Dean also threw in a sequence of faster, choppy side-to-side twitches in quick succession. This was almost always deployed toward the middle to end of the retrieve, after the slow jerk-and pause hadn't worked, apparently just to give bass a little different, frantic change-up action to trigger a chase.
Dean Rojas is undeniably the best frog fisherman in the world. Rojas says the Spro Bronzeye Frog is the best bass bait ever made, and to watch Dean perform will make you a believer.
Climbing the leaderboard on Day Two with Derek Remitz
Derek Remitz was my designated driver on Day Two, which was when he made a huge move up the leaderboard.
To start the story off the day before (on Day One), there was a 70-minute fog delay before launching on Day One, and when boats were finally allowed to take off, the fog hadn't entirely lifted on Remitz' chosen destination, Lake Cataouatche.
Arriving at his spot in the fog, Remitz could hear the whooshing sounds of several other anglers casting nearby, but could not see them. As the veil of fog lifted a little, Derek could see it was Kevin VanDam about 50 years to one side of him, and KVD's traveling roommate Scott Rook was 50 yards in the other direction.
The shadow of Aaron Marten's boat emerged like a ghost ship a little distance farther away. As their casts whistled in the fog, Remitz knew he had come to the right spot!
I boarded Derek's boat on Day Two, and after a 2-1/2 hour fog delay, when boats were finally allowed to go, Remitz beelined back to his sweet spot in Lake Cataouatche.
Fishing in Cat was another totally different situation and tactics compared to what I had experienced in Des Allemands and Salvador, Cat was unique.
Basically a huge side bay sheltered by massive woodwork groins built straight across the bay's mouth from one side to the other, effectively forming a formidable barrier reef that essentially sealed off the backwater bay, Lake Cataouatche from the open delta.
There were portals for boats to pass through the woodwork every several hundred yards, and once inside, it was all a shallow, grass and stump-filled spawning flat that stretched at least a 1/4 mile wide and 1/2 a mile back.
On Day One, Remitz and the other anglers fishing near Derek (such as KVD, Scott Rook and Aaron Martens) were all mainly using spinnerbaits. Derek started Day Two with a spinnerbait, but was also making a few casts every 10 minutes with a crankbait or with a weightless Yamamoto Senko.
It wasn't long before Derek connected with a 2-1/2 pounder and then a 5-plus on the crank. It was hard for Derek to put the crankbait down after that, and it became his primary producer for Days Two and Three.
Being in close proximity to KVD and with Derek catching those first nice ones of the day within clear view, we soon noticed that KVD had made the switch from a spinnerbait to a crankbait as well.
Remitz used the same single Lucky Craft RC 1.5 for Days Two and Three with 16- to 20-pound test fluorocarbon line, a soft-tipped St. Croix cranking stick and Shimano baitcaster. The flats were not very deep and Derek constantly hung his crankbait in grass or on stumps on most casts. It was hard work but ended up being rewarding!
Making the final cut on Day Three with Bobby Lane
Brent Chapman was sitting in first place at the end of Day Two, having caught a huge sack of bass in only one hour's fishing time in Venice. That was all the time Brent had to fish after making the long and treacherous Venice run close to 200 miles round trip.
Brent's lead had rallied the spirits of the fearless finalists who risked it all to make the trip to Venice on Day Three. About half the 25 finalists were headed there, and I was going with Bobby Lane (photo at right).
With only a short fog delay holding up the launch for the final morning, it would leave Bobby with a little over three hours to fish there on the final day. It's not a trip you'd want to make alone, and Bobby Lane, Paul Elias and Jeff Kriet were three pros who kind of convoyed down there.
They were not sure if we were going to hit fog out in the Gulf or at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and the pros had each other's backs. We did drive through a few fog banks with towering commercial tankers looming out of nowhere.
Silent steel sentinels that were tall navigation buoys marking the shipping lanes appeared and disappeared back into the haze. We ran gauntlets of crab pot markers sticks that rose 10 feet out of the water.
If you've seen downhill slalom ski runs on TV, imagine that, except in a bass boat at 70 mph whooshing and dodging in between forests of dozens and hundreds of tall crabpot marker sticks.
Fishing was non-stop for Bobby Lane in Venice. He flipped a fish about every third or fourth cast. The fact that this Venice fishery is remote and underfished was why it was so productive, explained Bobby.
Lane livewelled several good fish for the long ride home, and released dozens. There were so many fish in each spot that Lane made several passes through each area.
Typically the first time through, Bobby used a heavy tungsten bullet sinker and the new Berkley Craw Fatty flipping bait that Bobby designed and which was introduced at the Classic Expo.
On the second and subsequent passes through the same area, Lane would switch to a lighter bullet sinker or switch the Craw Fatty color from black red to black blue. Results were incredible and nonstop.
On the way home, it was just Bobby Lane and me. We had no convoy of pros to watch our backs this time. We rocketed many miles far out to sea into the Gulf of Mexico beyond sight of land, passing oil rigs and porpoises on the way out, only to slingshot Lane's ship back into the mouth of the Delta from a formidable distance out in the Gulf.
Bobby's Skeeter handled the rolling, rhythmic sea swells surprisingly and gracefully well .Once we reached the GPS point where we were to turn back toward land, Bobby Lane turned to me and smiled, "Now you've seen the whole Delta, Russ!"
Bobby was right. Except for Bayou Black, I had been in the 2011 Classic from practice through the final cut as a media observer covering all the Louisiana Delta's prime areas, witnessing different tactics and techniques deployed by the best bass anglers in the world. I had been in the biggest tournament in the world, the Bassmaster Classic.