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California Delta Winter Bass Fishing with Robert Lee
Category : WINTER BASS FISHING
Filming a TV show with Legendary Delta Pro Robert Lee
By Craig Gottwals
On a breezy Friday morning in early June I traveled down Interstate 5 to the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta to film an episode of Galaxie Marine’s True Bass television show with “The General”, Robert K. Lee (as I playfully called him). I know, I know … life can be pretty rough – spending a Friday on the delta with Robert Lee to shoot a TV show and write an article, but somebody had to do it, and that somebody might as well be me. Before this day, Robert and I crossed paths a few brief times.
Robert’s tournament resume includes four straight B.A.S.S victories on the California Delta in four consecutive years. It would be impossible for me to overemphasize the significance of this accomplishment. The California Delta bolsters over 1,000 miles of canals, river channels and sloughs that meander between Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto, and the San Francisco Bay. Winning one elite-level tournament on this body of water would headline any angler’s resume. Robert’s did it four times in four tries. To put that in today’s ESPN/MTV street vernacular: “Holmes owns this house!” Holmes owns other houses too. Lest you think Robert is a one-stop-wonder, his most recent accomplishment is as the 2008 FLW Stren Western Angler of the Year for his performances on Clear Lake, the Delta, Lake Havasu, and Lake Shasta. None of the other 331 anglers that competed in that circuit were better than Robert in 2008. In 2007 he was 3rd out of 278 in the same circuit.
As my car gently blew from side to side on Highway 5 at O-Dark-Thirty, I thought to myself, I hope Robert has a good sense of humor because, with a name like that, I’m certainly going to have to go there. If only his middle name were Elliot or Edwards, I could have some screwball fun for the TV cameras. (I was hoping his name was Robert E Lee like the famous Civil War General of the Confederacy.) Or maybe, I could keep all my name-references contained to our most contemporary reference to General Lee, the famous car from the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. I could just see it now, me shaking Robert’s had as I meet him and, on camera, telling him that I truly admired his work on The Dukes of Hazzard, loved his car, and asking him what I needed do to get him to introduce me to Daisy Duke.
Alas, as I pulled into the parking lot a B & W Marina, I gave up my grand daydreams of slapstick as I remembered my good friend; Phil Clark (editor of True Bass) would never let me have that much silly fun on TV. Phil runs a tight ship and likes to keep the content of True Bass as educational as possible. This probably accounts for the success and popularity of the show and underscores the reality that it is a good thing I don’t make those decisions!
Unlike many television shows about bass fishing, True Bass operates on a smaller budget and works hard to emphasize the reality of bass fishing. While almost all of the anglers on True Bass intimately know the body of water they fish, almost none of them do any pre-fishing for that particular day of filming. This was the case with Robert. He had not been on the delta with any specific agenda before this day but he was about to begin a more intensive and organized regiment of delta fishing as this was his first day in pre-fishing for an upcoming pro-am event.
Also unlike other bass fishing television shows, True Bass contains absolutely zero staged fish catches (one of the TV Industry’s dirty little secrets about fishing shows) and will only film for one 7-hour day to generate one 22 and ½ minute show. Other shows may film as many as four days to bring you one half-hour show jam-packed with highlight-reel fish catches. True Bass, on the other hand, is completely okay with airing a show of little to no fish catches and struggling pros to convey the TRUE reality of the fishing. Hence, the name of True Bass.
California foothills bass guide and tournament angler John Chairpotti (209-206-0420) and I are all too familiar with this reality as he and I filmed an episode of True Bass on New Melones Reservoir in the middle of February when the bite all over Northern California had been just like the weather – frigid. In just over seven hours of filming and hard fishing on that day, John mustered two small drop-shot fish in the last hour. It was one of the toughest days I’d had on the water in recent memory.
Robert’s and my day proved to be different. I will spoil some of the suspense right now by telling you that the largest fish Robert caught was only about 3 and ½ pounds but in our seven hours on the water we caught 23 fish in total which was not as much action or size as Robert wanted, but certainly not a bad day for the first of his pre-fish.
General Lee’s Plan of Attack
From B & W Marina, Robert and I traversed down towards the center of the delta making our first stop in Connection Slough. Large open areas of big water would be ruled out for the day as we faced periods 20 to 25 mph wind gusts. We spent most of our time in the middle section of the delta as we ranged south to the Whisky Slough and Tiki Lagoon areas and made more northerly stops all of the way back to B & W.
The weather begged my first question regarding how the wind would impact our fishing. Immediately Robert shot back with four responses in his casual, matter of fact way. He explained that first and foremost, the wind would bother us and our cameras much more than the fish and that in general, he likes the wind as it can enhance fishing.
“The wind is just a reality out here,” he explained. “There are periods of strong winds on almost all days on the delta. And on some days it just blows all day. It is something all fishermen must get used to out here.” Robert went on to explain:
(1) Wind can enhance current and tide, or work against it. You are best off finding the areas where the wind is blowing with the current and tide and working your boat into that wind. It is easier to control your boat with the point of it is moving into the wind. Additionally, that extra current and water push in one direction only exaggerates the likelihood the fish will set up behind current breaks like tulle clumps, rocks or pieces of wood. Moving water helps you to predict fish location.
(2) The wind makes it a little tougher to fish larger open areas of water like Frank’s Tract or Mildred, so wind eliminates some areas.
(3) Strong winds interfere with the topwater frog bite by de-emphasizing the subtle skittering sputtering action of the frog with the massive rolling waves.
(4) And lastly, the wind can enhance the reaction bite for lures like crankbaits and spinnerbaits by “activating” fish with a constant moving fresh supply of nutrients, plankton, and then of course bait (which will follow the plankton) along the wind-blown banks.
“Are we going to be chasing the tides today Robert?” I asked.
“No.” He replied. “I don’t know the tides down here as well as some of the guys that spend a lot of time on the delta.”
REALLY – I thought. This ought to be interesting.
Robert went on to explain that he does not get into tide-chasing. His approach is actually, surprisingly simple. He likes to crank rocky banks by moving into the current/tide/wind on the higher tides and he likes to move toward the islands and tulle banks to flip and pitch on the lower tides. That would, essentially, prove to be our battle plan for the day.
The General’s Artillery
Robert’s plan of attack and equipment echoed the same theme and early in the day I learned there is one overarching theme to Lee’s approach to bass fishing – keep it simple, don’t overthink your approach, learn the basics, master the basics, employing the basics better than your competitors but never forget to keep an open mind and an eye on detail.
Robert sticks to monofilament line. He learned on Stren mono as a boy and so he sticks with Stren mono. I asked about fluorocarbon lines and braid and he explained that he does use braid when he is punching into very thick cover but that he generally does not like braid because he sets the hook so hard (since he learned on mono growing up and got used to the stretch in mono) that he tends to rip hooks out of a fish’s mouth with braid. And with fluorocarbon, he went on to explain, he will set the hook so hard that he tends to snap it much of the time because of fluorocarbon’s lack of shock-resistance.
An hour or so later in the day, incidentally, at a point when Robert and I were fishing casually and joking around with the camera crew, he sprung into a hook-set that would have made Tiger Wood’s T shot look tame. To say Robert has a “hard” hook set might be the understatement of the year. He can go from leisurely chatting to violently yanking a hook into a fish’s face unlike I’d ever seen before. This particular 2-pound fish underwent an out of water experience and flew halfway back to the boat as Robert erupted into it like a big-league slugger jumping all over a hanging curveball.
So at a time when many anglers are trying to gain an advantage from the latest line innovations, Robert is still using what he used as a young boy. But that does not mean he is stuck in his ways by any stretch of the imagination. Robert stresses the importance of trying new baits, net techniques and employing new ideas. Whether it be wacky worming, a newer bait like a Sweet Beaver, or trying unconventional colors and techniques in less than textbook situations, Robert is game. He is quick to point out that you must always keep an open mind with baits and presentations. But you must also be equally quick to abandon something you realize is more hype than substance and return to what you do well.
As for sticking with the basics, Robert used two baits for about 90% of the day: a Reaction Innovations 4-inch Boom-Boom Tube (green pumpkin and watermelon) and a DT 6 Rapala Crankbait in brownish craw pattern. Robert also pitched a Senko, flipped a Beaver and ended the day with a new 7-inch jointed slow sinking swimbait, but I would estimate about 90% of his casts were with the tube and the crankbait.
Simplicity, Basics, Detail, and a March to Victory
So we ran rocks with crankbaits in the higher tides and flipped and pitched a tube on the lower tides. That is pretty darn simple. I’m sure many reading this are still wondering what makes Robert Lee so darned good.
The answer: Execution, dogged relentlessness and attention to detail.
Robert’s honesty, lack of arrogance and matter of fact directness are so refreshing it was truly a treat to spend a day on the boat with him. As someone who has fished with many of the very best professionals in tournaments, for articles and TV Shows, I can tell you my day with Robert was one of the top five because of his honesty and directness. He makes no effort to appear to be something he is not or to pretend he knows something about the fish that I suspect nobody can know. All too often you will be out with a professional that will tell you exactly what the fish like to eat, in what locations, on what days, with what scents, in particular, light conditions and wind directions on June 16th at 10:07 in the AM of odd-numbered years. It really can get to be a bit much. Robert is so far from that and truly such a consummate professional that it just made for a refreshingly fun day.
Much of the first half of our day was spent cranking and I used a very popular shallow diving, square billed crankbait in an orange-ish brown crawdad pattern. Robert’s DT-6 looked similar but dove a touch deeper and had a rounded bill on it. I’d always been taught and subscribed to the “use a square billed crankbait when fishing heavy cover” mentality. My day with Robert has caused to me to slightly modify that mentality and greatly improve my delta cranking.
I was cranking with 30-lb braid and whenever I’d encounter weeds, I’d rip my rod forward to pop free from those weeds relying on the strong no-stretch property of my line. Still, the weed growth was so significant that I had to pull weeds off of my crankbait about every other cast. Had I been cranking with mono (like I would in almost all other bodies of water) I’d have been picking weeds off on nearly every cast. Robert, on the other hand, was only pulling weeds off of his crankbait (that he was cranking with 14 lb Stren mono) about every 5th or 6th cast. What in the heck is going on here!
Then he showed me the difference between my squared and his rounded bill. Once he went to the rounded bill, he explained, he could fire off more casts more efficiently because he was simply catching fewer weeds and had to take less time to pull weed off of bills. Wow. It was so simple, yet a huge difference-maker. Square bills he expanded still work best for him on timber and rocks, but in weeds, he will take that rounded bill every time.
Square Billed Crankbait
Rounded Bill Crankbait
Crankbait bills were not the only reason Robert fired off more casts than me – not by a long shot! I don’t know if he is the best caster I’ve ever seen, but lets just say he is in a class with Aaron Martens (who I watched skip swimbaits way back into 6-inch openings in timber fields with a bait caster) and Bobby Barrack (who is an absolute witch with a frog rod) as one of the top three with whom I’ve ever shared a boat. Robert’s casting is effortless and doggedly relentless as he whips every open morsel of high-probably water along with tulle or rocky bank. He fired off an endless number of accurate, quietly placed, effortless and effective casts as he hummed up the bank at a pace that would be too fast for an average fisherman. When you spend a little time with a guy like this you just realize, he is in a class of his own. He can effectively place his bait in more tiny openings with a subtle but fast presentation better than his competitors. It is that plain and that simple. And because he can do this, he will catch more fish than them. I would estimate that Robert is probably getting off 25% more effective casts than the average professional against whom he is fishing in the FLW Stren and National Guard Series.
Robert will be headed east to the 2008 FLW Stren Series Championship in November on Table Rock Lake in Missouri. Best of luck to you Robert, we’ll be watching – and be careful, Missouri was one of those “Border States” in the Civil War!
Picking the General’s Brain
Throughout the day, I peppered Lee with questions about his preferences for all things fishing. Here is a summary of his responses:
• Favorite tide: about 20% to 40% from low.
• Least favorite tide: high slack.
• Best days to fish the delta: 3 days from a full moon and 3 days from a new moon, he feels the delta is more moon-dependent than other bodies of water.
• Rods: Lamaglas.
• Line: Stren monofilament.
• Reel speed: 6.3 to 1 or 7 to 1. Nothing slow.
• Offshore structure or the bank: the bank for sure. Robert makes no bones about the fact that he loves to beat the bank. (I would too if I could cast like that!)
• Who are better, western or eastern anglers: Western anglers are every bit as good if not better than their counterparts from the East because we have so many different types of lakes to break down out west and our anglers are incredibly versatile.
• Wacky or Texas Rigged Senkos: Texas rigged usually, but both.
• Favorite bait on delta: probably a 4 inch flipping tube.
• Flipping or pitching: Both, but flips more often because he can get in more casts per day when he is flipping as you are not having to engage the reel each time you flip.