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Sink on swimbait

3/13/2009

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DEL RIO, Texas — As much as it pained Fred Roumbanis to do so, having one fish in the livewell at noon forced his hand: He had to put down the swimbait.

Granted, that single fish was a 6-pounder that eventually meant the difference between Roumbanis surviving the 50-man cut on Day Two of the Bassmaster Elite Series' first event, the OPTIMA Batteries Battle on the Border.

But two bites by noon? He'd had 20 the day before. Even a swimbait junkie like Roumbanis had to change it up and finish his limit.

"This cold front finally put 'em down," he said of the fish. "It's a total gambling bait out here, but when you do catch 'em, they're the right fish. It's hard to come to Amistad and now throw a swimbait, when they bite it so good here."

Several pros evidently thought the same thing coming to southwest Texas. This is the lake that has generated huge weights in tournaments past, many of them famously on swimbaits. Last year, for instance, Kotaro Kiriyama finished 12th throwing swimbaits a Jackall employee personally overnighted to him from Japan — at a cost of almost $8,000.

The swimbait bite is tailored for the hot surface temperatures the desert sun typically inflicts on fishery. But with temperatures consistently in the 40s during the first two days of the Battle on the Border, many anglers have found the swimbait bite spotty at best.

Still, many decided to hang their hopes on the big, plastic, fish-shaped baits. Call it stubbornness, nostalgia — or the fact that even in imperfect conditions, the things still work once in a while.

Boyd Duckett, who caught a 9-pounder and a 7-pounder on a patient swimbait bite on Day Two, said he likes the overcast conditions.

"It's a long time between bites," Duckett said, adding, "If you get bit out there, it's what you want."

Such is the temptation of the swimbait. It looks like a little fish, and as everyone knows, the big fish eat the little ones. It just doesn't always trigger the necessary reactions in colder water, and the temperature of Amistad this week has dropped by 10 degrees in a matter of four days, some anglers say.

"More than anything, we need some sunshine," said Edwin Evers, who fell from 15th to 30th after throwing a swimbait throughout Day Two and sacking only 11 pounds, 4 ounces. After catching two fish in the first three or four casts, he thought he was going to cruise. Then, like Roumbanis, he found the big-fish bite closed. "I caught fish," Evers said, "but they're all little-bitty ones."

Steve Kennedy, who set a then-BASS record for total weight on California's Clear Lake in 2007 with swimbaits, experienced a similar fate. He didn't have any luck on a swimbait bigger than about 3 inches in length, and caught only dinky fish on the way to a 13-10 limit.

"To throw a bait that small hurts my head," he said.

So what happened to the swimbait bite? Opinions, as they are wont to do, differed. Anglers did agree that the bite suffered once the wind tapered off.

"You just can't catch 'em when the wind's not blowing," said swimbait aficionado and reigning Battle on the Border champ Todd Faircloth. "You've got to have a ripple on the water to break up the silhouette."

Faircloth rocked the swimbait bite on Day Two. By contrast, when asked about his bite, Byron Velvick admitted, "I died by it."

The swimbait bite "is fickle," he said. "The fish can get on 'em and get off 'em."

Velvick's about as expert as anyone on using a swimbait on Amistad. The native Californian used to custom-make his own swimbaits for bass tournaments back when they were strictly the domain of saltwater fishing. He also maintains a home in Del Rio.

Amistad, in his opinion, is an ideal swimbait lake. Not only is it clear, the fish react well to swimbaits because of their general fish-eat-fish attitude.

"These fish eat fish the same size," Velvick said. "They don't have a great shad population, and these fish love eating each other, as crazy as that sounds."

Amistad bass eat other bass, yes — but also catfish, tilapia, bluegill, brim. "Trash fish," Velvick said they're often called. Perfect diet for introducing a swimbait.

Plus, the water clarity in Amistad is similar to your average bottle of gin. Bass can see the bait a long way off. But cold temperatures throughout the water column doesn't bode well for the fish to stay active, according to Velvick. "Lack of sun and lack of warmth is keeping those fish down," he said.

Velvick ought to know. His own swimbait bite led him to barely survive the cut. He's sitting in 46th place so far on his home lake.

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