On the first stop of the 2019 Northwest Bass tour, 96 boats showed up to take a crack at the podium. Straying from its traditional tournament schedule, Northwest Bass started the year off on the Potholes Reservoir, one of the most unique bodies of water in Washington State. With vast amounts of dunes, vegetation, submerged timber, and rock; the anglers were greeted by hundreds of miles of shoreline to fish. Fighting varying weather conditions, one team stood above the rest when the final bass came across the scales. Pulling together a 22.4 pound bag on the first day of the event and following it up with a 19.5 pound bag on day two, Justin Campbell and Travis Whitney took the top spot on the weekend! See below as they detail their first Northwest Bass win.
Do you have experience in the early season on Potholes and if so how did that affect your assumptions going into the event?
“While we have been coming to Potholes for years, most of our experience is in the late April and May timeframe. We had heard how great Potholes can be early in the season, but we had never seen it for ourselves, so we were very excited to get over there and break it down. Looking at the weights in the past, we knew that we were going to have to catch something in the 19 to 21 pound range each day to be competitive. This really helped guide our practice and help us not settle on areas until we knew that we were on the 4-pound class of fish.“ Many years of experience and research prepared the team for what they need to see in practice to feel comfortable for the event.
How was your practice for the event?
Justin and Travis went over to Potholes the weekend before the event, and had a lot of success. “We targeted some the flats and adjacent areas that we would normally target in May and it seemed like the bigger fish were just pulling up into those areas… but only a few at a time. After finding the right size, we looked for more numbers and in doing so, worked our way out to the points of the dunes, and found a much better populations of fish there. Our practice weekend consisted mostly of the Crab Creek side because the water was less affected by the turnover and we had much more confidence in the normal Potholes water clarity.” From their practice the weekend before, Justin and Travis felt confident that they were around the right quality of fish and knew that they would have to grind out their limit in these areas because the bigger fish seemed to be concentrated in a couple key stretches.
The team was also able to get out the Friday before the event and spent a lot of time over on the Winchester side. “We finally found the green water that everyone was talking about, and we had a hard time putting fish in the boat in those areas.” After running around in the Winchester and Job Corps areas, the two hadn’t found the same quality of fish as they had the weekend before on the Crab Creek side. So the team went back over and checked on their fish from the weekend before, and the fish were still in the area, but had moved a bit from the points of the dunes and had started pushing back into the pockets a bit. “Once we found where the fish were sitting this weekend, we felt pretty confident as to where we were going to start and spend the entirety of our day on Day One.”
How did you target and catch your fish?
“It should come as no surprise to those that know us that there are very few times where we are not chucking and winding, it’s just our confidence!“ On tournament day, Justin kept a black and blue chatterbait glued to his hand for the entirety of the event making precise casts to key pieces of structure including willows, lay downs, and other abnormalities along the bank. “The key was to get as close to the cover as you could with the cast and make contact with it to generate a reaction bite.” Travis spent both days switching between a swim jig, a swimbait, and a spinnerbait… based on the conditions. When it was blowing hard he would opt for the spinnerbait, if it was a light breeze he would go to the swim jig and if it was flat calm he would throw the belly weighted swimbait. “With moving baits, and our focus on precise casting, we felt like we would be able to grind out our limit by simply making more effective casts and more presentations than the competition.
As for the structure that the team was targeting, they focused on both staging and spawning flats in crab creek. “The fish seemed to have moved back further towards their spawning areas, but we were still able to pick some off on the staging areas adjacent to them. One of the important keys to our success, was to start on our very best area first thing in the morning.“ At Potholes, especially this time of year, the fish just seem to eat anything that goes by their face! So being the first bait down a fish-holding stretch improves your chances of hooking up dramatically. After the success in the morning, this philosophy of targeting fresh water played into our strategy over the whole course of the day. If we saw stretch they didn’t look like anyone had hit for a while, we would pick up the trolling motor and shoot over there to target the less pressured fish.” Being able to cover a lot of water like this was aided by both of the anglers throwing moving baits; they were able to cover water quickly, allowing them to make many presentations on different stretches to enhance their chances of getting bit.
Walk me through your day on the water, how did the win unfold?
“On Day One, our strategy worked out very well, and we had a limit by about 7:15 of about 9 to 10 pounds, targeting our best stretch with a black and blue chatterbait and swimjig. With a lot of confidence after the morning flurry, the bite definitely slowed down, but we were able to pick off one or two every hour or so and the quality just seem to get better and better. The consistent bites kept us in it mentally all day.” This confidence and consistentcy helped the team stick with it all day and were able to make their final cull of the day with a 4 1/2 pounder with 10 minutes left in fishing to kick them over the 22 pound mark!
On Day Two, all of the teams were greeted by a delay from the high winds whipping across the reservoir. “The fishing was definitely a little tougher with less low-light time, but we still managed to get a decent number of bites early on. Our limit took a little longer to build and we didn’t pull it together until about 8:30 in the morning, but this time our limit started at 15 pounds.” From what the team saw the day before and with how the morning went, they realized pretty quickly that the fish had changed. The fish were not staging on the points as heavily as they had been. This ended up being a tournament-winning realization for Justin and Travis as the rest of their tournament hinged on making a final key adjustment.
Potholes is known for being incredibly fickle, with some patterns working one day and then disappearing completely the next day. What Justin and Travis realized is that despite the atypical contours and structure of the lake, the fish still hold true to a couple fundamental biological patterns:
So the goal in the early spring is to figure out how those fish are getting from the deep water to the spawning pockets. In Crab Creek, there is a main river channel that snakes throughout the entire side and serves as the deep-water highway for these fish. It was knowledge of this trend paired with a history of knowing where the bigger largemouth pull up and spawn that unlocked the final piece of the puzzle for Justin and Travis.
“We knew that the bigger fish weren’t out on or along the points anymore... we just stopped getting the quality bites from before.” So instead of spinning out or changing lures, they realized that the key wasn’t what they were fishing, but rather where. “We decided that we had to keep fishing what we were confident in, but we had to change the layer that we were fishing. We decided to move from the outer pockets of the dunes, all the way back into the actual spawning pockets.” And boy was this the right decision… “In three consecutive pockets that we had finished earlier we pulled one pocket further back into the spawning bays and stuck a fish over 4 1/2 pounds! And those three extra fish carved out our 19.5 pound bag that led us to the win!”
What are some high-level lessons learned?
One of the big learning lessons that the winners expressed was the importance of reflecting on previous times out on the water and applying the past to the present. “Over our years of fishing, we have come to realize that certain areas just hold bigger fish a good majority of the time. There must be a perfect combination of features under the water that draws these bigger fish, time and time again. Whether it’s the structure, cover, or forage, the bigger fish just tend to be in these areas every single year.” Justin and Travis embodied this idea extremely well as they won the event fishing an area where they had produced big fish in practice and in the past. But instead of making it a part of a milk run, they dedicated an extensive period of time to just a few areas that they knew held the right class of fish.”
What would you recommend to a person who either struggles in the early season or is new to fishing Potholes, to help them put fish in the boat?
“What it really boils down to, is you just have to fish your confidence, especially on Potholes. The fish here are so willing to eat that if you’re throwing something that you have confidence in and that you know how to make small adjustments with to fit the conditions, you will get bit. There are so many fish in this lake and so many stretches that are untouched in a given day, that you can throw just about anything consistently and find a bass that wants to hammer it. If you just stick with it and maybe alter colors between green pumpkin and black and blue, you will put fish in the boat. This is exactly what we did in the tournament, we just kept casting the lures that we had an immense amount of confidence in.“
Is there anyone that you would like to thank, coming off of this event?
“We would both like to Nixon’s Marine and Northwest Bass. We are fortunate enough to have two great organizations that came together to produce an exciting and well-run event. But most importantly, we’d like to thank our families… the wife and kids for all their support in letting us continue to fish and compete. While we can’t be with them when we fish, we sure as heck wouldn’t even be here to fish without their love and support.”
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