The best catch is the competition from the fish
SIKESTON - While the fish may not know they're part of the game until too late, bass make "a worthy opponent" according to the Bootheel Bassbusters.
"They are readily available and adaptable to their environment," said Stan Pace of Sikeston, a Bootheel Bassbusters member for about 20 years. "Bass are predators. He competes with everything out there in his environment."
While Pace also fishes for catfish, crappie, bluegill and other fish, "there are phenomenal things about chasing bass over chasing any other fish out there," he said. "You're competing with that bass."
"Bass are fun to fish for and fun to catch," said Travis Garrett of Sikeston, who won second place in the last tournament and has been with the club "off and on since '73," about a year or two after it was formed.
"They get bigger and they fight harder," Garrett said. "Just because you hook one doesn't mean you land him." Even professional bass fishermen go out and come back without reaching the limit or even with "a zero," he added.
The competition is all about the thrill of the catch. "I don't care to eat them at all," Garrett said. "I catch bass but I don't kill them. Not intentionally, anyway."
Garrett estimated tournament participants release about 90 percent of the bass they catch. "Generally speaking we put them back in good shape," Garrett said, even using a "catch and release" tranquilizing additive in their boats' live wells to make their stay as painless as possible.
The Bootheel Bassbusters are simply "a bunch of guys who get together and competitively fish against each other," according to Pace. "It's an open club - anybody can join, with a boat or without a boat."
"We can always use new members," said Garrett, adding that it can be a very affordable sport. "Anyone who likes to bass fish should come with us."
There are typically 20-24 active members each season with a total membership of around 35 members. Right now they have one member in St. Louis and another in Cape Girardeau, but most active members are from Sikeston, southeast Missouri and western Kentucky.
The Bassbusters compete against one other in about a dozen tournaments each year. A committee meets at the beginning of the year and sets dates and places for each event, releasing the schedule in February, according to Pace.
"Fishing gets good and bad on certain lakes - they kind of cycle," Pace said. Based on results from previous years, the Bassbusters schedule the events so they have the best chance possible for a good day of fishing.
"We fish on Barkley and Kentucky Lake and Wappapello," Pace said. "We've been to Gunnersville, Ala., Old Hickory right outside of Nashville...we have a pretty wide range that we fish."
The tournament season begins in March with 40-50 degree days, "and we fish right on through October," Pace said. "The October tournament is usually a two-day tournament."
Competitors pay a $20 entry fee for each tournament. A small portion of the entry fees go to cover club expenses such as trophies and the monthly newsletter, with about 90 percent going as cash prizes to first, second and third place winners. Winners are determined by the total weight of the catch at the end of the tournament.
During the tournaments, competitors fish the legal limit which varies from state to state and from lake to lake, being determined by conservation agents to preserve diverse populations, according to Pace.
"You have to go by the state rules and regulations," he said, "you can only have in your boat what the state limit is." In Missouri, the limit is generally six fish over 12 inches long. Once the limit is reached, if a larger fish is caught than one those already in the boat, "then you can turn one loose and put it on in there," he said.
At Kentucky and Barkley Lakes, the bass must be over 15 inches to keep. "Those 15 inchers are a bit tougher to come by - they're smarter," said Garrett.
"We also kick in an additional five bucks per person for the 'Big Bass' pot," Pace said, given for the single largest bass caught that day.
At the end of the season, the total weight of all the catches from all the Bassbuster tournaments are tallied to determine the Angler of the Year.
"We have an annual banquet at the end of each year and we do our award presentation," said Pace. During this presentation, the Angler of the Year is presented with a "traveling plaque," according to Pace. "He gets his name engraved on it and gets to keep that trophy for a year."
As of now, Pace is in the lead in the competition for the traveling plaque. "It could change; I could have a couple bad tournaments and someone could catch me," he said.
Before missing the sixth tournament, held June 22 on Barkley Lake, Pace was ahead by about 20 pounds, and may yet still break the record for the highest total weight for a year if things keep going well for him. "I had four consecutive winning tournaments," Pace said.
There is more to it that just dangling a baited hook in the water. "It's going out and being able to locate fish each time you go out there that are consistently in the same place," Pace said. "That's the key."
Most of Pace's catches have been deep water fish, he said, caught at a depth of 16-22 feet deep. "Your better fish are always a bit deeper except when they're spawning," he said.
Additionally, bass can be found where their food sources are. "If they don't have those two things, they're not going to be there," Pace said. "It's kind of like being in your easy chair with your bag of chips nearby."
Pace has a collection of over 50 lake maps from all over the country, ranging from contour maps to photographs of lakes before they were filled with water. "You need to study his environment," Pace said.
Pace estimated 75 percent of the game is just a matter of finding the fish. "When I find them, anybody can catch them," he said.
It's then just a matter of figuring out what they are eating and choosing the appropriate lure. For many tournaments, Pace only uses three lures: spinner bait, a worm, or a jig. From now through September, Pace also uses "a big crank bait" which runs about 18 feet deep. "It emulates their forage," he said.
"Finding them is a lot tougher than catching them," Garrett agreed. "Almost anyone can catch them if they can find them."
On the other hand, he added, there are days when you can sit in the same boat with someone who is catching them and come up empty handed.
For more information, call John Bollinger, Bootheel Bassbusters president, at 471-6190 after 5 p.m.