PICK CITY - They are an exciting fish to catch. No question about that, but where do you find the big ones when you most wish you would?
That was the problem to be solved by participants in the Badlands Bass Bandits 2013 season-ending Classic Championship. The event was held Sept. 28-29 on sprawling Lake Sakakawea. Even for the some of the most experienced and enthusiastic bass anglers in the state, the combination of cold fronts and stubborn smallmouth bass made the weekend a very challenging one.
On Day 1, the Bass Bandits launched from Beulah Bay on the south side of Lake Sakakawea. On Day 2, they moved farther east to Lake Sakakawea State Park. The weather was blustery both days as a series of dreaded cold fronts - no friends of fishermen - moved through the region.
Winners of the 2013 Classic Championship at Lake Sakakawea included, from left, Chase Fernandez, Beulah, second place 2013 Classic championship; Paul Reinbold, Dickinson, 2013 Classic champion; Nate Dirks, Minot Air Force Base, third place Classic championship, first place Classic team championship; Janine Wetzel, Mandan, Classic championship “Big Bass” award for day two displayed by her daughter, Journey; Jeff Wetzel, Mandan, first place Classic team championship.
Nevertheless, competitors launched in the hopes of hooking a few of Lake Sakakawea's growing population of big smallmouths. However, even for the best of anglers, the big smallies were elusive.
"The first day was quite tough. I found fish but they were just not the size I wanted," said Cody Arth, Bismarck, during the weigh-in on Day 2. "It was pretty much the same today. It was just hard to find the bigger ones."
Arth wasn't alone. Several fellow Bass Bandits indicated they struggled to locate and catch big bass too.
Badlands Bass Bandits 2013 Classic standings
1 - 8.32 lbs., Paul Reinbold, Dickinson.
2 - 6.07 lbs., Chase Fernandez, Beulah.
3 - 5.62 lbs., Nate Dirks, Minot AFB.
4 - 5.41 lbs., Janine Wetzel, Mandan.
5 - 5.35 lbs., Jeff Wetzel, Mandan.
6 - 5.15 lbs., Steve Basinger, Minot AFB.
7 - 4.97 lbs., Eric Vossler, Bismarck.
8 - 4.75 lbs., Cody Arth, Bismarck.
9 - 2.46 lbs., Beth Basinger, Minot AFB.
10 - 1.92 lbs., Eric Fernandez, Beulah.
"I caught a lot of fish but not the size I wanted," said Chase Fernandez, Beulah, at the final day weigh-in. "Today started like yesterday, which was bad. Then it warmed up and the fish started biting. They started cooperating. I used a bunch of different baits."
Fernandez brought three smallies to the scale. The total weight of the trio was 4.06 pounds - nothing special, but a decent catch on a day when weather conditions obviously kept large smallmouths from biting. It was also enough to give Fernandez second place in the Classic.
Former Bass Bandits Angler of the Year Paul Reinbold, Dickinson, didn't adhere to a common bass tournament strategy and returned to the dock well before the official close of tournament fishing hours. He had his limit of three bass. Some of the Bandits elected to put two bass in the livewell and then fish for a "kicker," or bigger bass that could potentially move them up the leader board.
North Dakota is a "no cull" state, meaning any fish in a livewell counts against a daily limit and cannot be returned to the water. Once Reinbold put his third smallie in the livewell, even though it would be considered somewhat undersized to keep for most tournaments, his day was done. The decision was rewarded. Reinbold captured first place.
"I was hoping to catch about the same amount as I did on the first day," said Reinbold. "The way fishing has been here the last couple of days, I figured if I could just match what I had, I'd be alright. It started off a little scary. It was too rough out there."
Increasing winds forced Reinbold to vacate a spot that he had intended to fish and turn his boat toward a sheltered bay. The move paid off. Reinbold followed his catch of 4.17 pounds on Day 1 with 4.15 pounds on Day 2. The total of 8.32 pounds was easily enough to earn him the title of Classic champion.
"The smallies were feeding on baitfish in the back of the bay. The baitfish were holding in the moss and there was a lot of it," said Reinbold. "It wasn't hot and heavy. I had to work for them."
Another former Bass Bandits Angler of the Year, Janine Wetzel, Mandan, found the fishing conditions difficult and the bass uncooperative.
"It was pretty tough. We fished Scoria Bay, the face of the dam, Fort Stevenson and then made it back across through all those big waves. We wound up fishing a little bay and it was really, really, really tough," said Wetzel. "I got one with about a half hour left in the tournament. It came off a rocky, windy point."
Wetzel was surprised when she learned that her lone bass, 1.82 pounds, proved to be the largest one of the day.
"My final fish was about 2 pounds and I was glad to see it," said Reinbold. "In a way, the 2-pounders are disappointing because this lake has such potential. I've seen big ones caught. No one has tapped into the big ones in a tournament yet. I'm hoping to be that guy someday."
Eric Vossler, Bismarck, was among those hoping for a big fish to complete his limit. For him, finding smallies was not the problem. He just couldn't convince any big smallmouths to bite.
"I ran over to Douglas Bay early in the morning and found several schools of fish," said Vossler. "I just couldn't come across any big ones. I kept two in hopes of a big one. I waited and waited. Finally I went back and picked up another small one. Then I had to make the journey across the lake in 4-foot rollers."
Season points leader Matt Sullivan had the 2013 Angler of the Year title all but wrapped up prior to the Classic.
"The day wasn't so good but it was a day on the water, so you can never complain about that," said Sullivan shortly after weighing in his catch. "Today was a reaction system. It was all swimbaits, rattle traps, crankbaits - stuff that was getting that strike triggered with the weather fronts coming through. Today was all reaction. You kind of had to knock them in the head with it a little bit."
When the tourney came to a close Sullivan weighed only a single fish. It mattered little. His season-long mission was accomplished.
"This year was real good, exactly what I wanted," said a very happy Sullivan. "I wanted to win Angler of the Year. That's what I was going for and that's what I accomplished. It just came down to time on the water and putting everything together this season."
Sullivan succeeds 2012 Angler of the Year Marty Mantz of Center. Mantz was unable to fish the classic but finished third in the season standings. Fernandez was the 2013 season runner-up.
In addition to Angler of the Year, Sullivan earned postseason honors for the biggest largemouth of the year, 5.23 pounds, and the biggest smallmouth of the year, 4.42 pounds. Beth Basinger, Minot Air Force Base, was named Rookie of the Year. Arth won Heaviest Mixed Bag for the regular season with a combination of largemouth and smallmouth weighing 8.49 pounds. Reinbold captured the regular season Big Bass Challenge with a 36-inch total composed of a 21-inch largemouth and a 15-inch smallmouth.
Arth caught his bass on Day 2 by throwing a tube bait in 10 feet of water. While hopping a tube is a common method of fishing it, Arth said he used a different approach to fool the cold front smallies.
"I just slowly dragged it back," said Arth.
While Arth was slowly dragging a tube bait, Reinbold was fishing with speed.
"I was throwing a jig head with a 4-inch white grub on it," explained Reinbold. "I was burning it just as fast as I can. The smallmouth and the northern pike just loved the heck out of it. When the wind and weather changed that bite quit, I switched to a white jerk bait and it wasn't 10 minutes until I caught my biggest bass of the day."
"Today the fish were liking a white Senko," said Vossler.
Senkos are a stick-type worm noted for their tantalizing slow descent.
"Really, really slow," said Vossler. "Also, today they hit anything that looks like a crawdad."
A few yards away Bass Bandits competitor Steve Basinger, Minot AFB, was removing crawfish from his livewell. They had come from bass that were caught during the tourney.
Badlands Bass Bandits growing
The Bass Bandits was formed several years ago for the purpose of promoting bass fishing in North Dakota. The idea took a while to catch on, but the organization has grown each year. Reinbold was the founder of the club and has witnessed its acceptance.
"We've had our highest membership this year with 30. We had eight tournaments this year with an average of 20 to 25 fishermen per tournament. We've never had that before. A lot of people know about us and know what a bass boat looks like now," said Reinbold with a laugh.
The original purpose of the club holds true today. It was organized to promote bass fishing, including the sharing of information among club members and others to help all become better bass anglers.
"We're growing but we still have that camaraderie amongst each other. We still help and teach each other. That's a bonus right there," noted Reinbold. "It's really neat to grow, especially in an area that is not known for bass fishing."
Whiskey River Baits arrive
An example of the club's growth is the arrival of Whiskey River Baits, an assortment of artificial baits designed specifically for bass fishing applications in North Dakota and other regions of the country where cold water fishing is dominant.
Janine and Jeff Wetzel, Mandan, are part owners of Whiskey River Baits. Both are avid Badlands Bass Bandits tournament fishermen.
"My brother and I started the company," explained Janine Wetzel. "He's in Pennsylvania and I'm here. He does all the choices of colors and designs the baits. It started about three years ago."
Bass fishing in Pennsylvania, and throughout much of the United States, is primarily for largemouth bass in water that gets much warmer than does most water in North Dakota. That's why Janine Wetzel is counted upon to provide Whiskey River Baits with information obtained during her time on the water in this state.
"I love bass fishing, just love it," said Janine Wetzel when asked about being a source of information on baits that work in a northern climate. "Up here it is different fishing. We have a lot of coldwater smallmouths here. Elsewhere it is a lot of largemouths in warmer water."
Whiskey River Baits have begun to be noted in the vast competition for angler's attention. Much of the development of the expanding line comes from information provided from fishing a variety of conditions in North Dakota waters, clear or murky, and most often several degrees cooler than virtually anywhere else in the U.S.
Wetzel's big bass of the day on Day 2 of the Classic came on - what else - a Whiskey River Bait.
"I use them all the time. They are neat colors and just a good, quality bait," said Wetzel. "I caught today's bass on a Money Maker 2."