Last weekend's CITGO Bassmaster Classic shed new light on the Ohio River drainage and revealed a few surprising facts that local anglers may use in future fishing trips.
With 47 of the world's best bass anglers working the Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers, it was a sure bet that a wide variety of tactics would be tried by the Classic competitors. Local anglers watched with wide-eyed interest as the pros‚ efforts demonstrated there's no single, sure-fire way to catch river bass.
They faced difficult conditions -- low water, little current and small fish. "Welcome to our world," local anglers muttered to themselves as they watched the Classic anglers struggle to catch the Three Rivers bass.
Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., won the three-day Classic with a meager catch of 11 bass that weighed 13 pounds 3 ounces. His official weight was listed as 12 pounds 15 ounces due to a 4-ounce penalty for a dead fish.
His winning tactic was one that few local anglers use for mid-summer smallmouth bass on the Ohio and its tributaries. He jerked a 20-year-old, out-of-production Smithwick Rogue around bridge columns.
"The smallmouths suspend around bridge pilings in the top of the water column," VanDam said. "The Rogue is a bait that I used as a kid for smallies in Michigan. I needed a bait that I could fish fast and jerk hard. This particular bait only dives two feet, which is what I wanted for this tournament."
Runner-up Aaron Martens, meanwhile, caught 12 keepers -- more than any of the other contenders -- with a completely different approach. While he also focused on the bridge supports -- many of them the same ones VanDam was fishing at different times during the day -- Martens fished tiny finesse worms on drop-shot rigs tied to 5- and 7-pound fluorocarbon line.
Others caught fish drifting tiny jigs through riffle areas below dams, worked current breaks with small crankbaits, gurgled topwaters and burned little buzzbaits over flats.
A low year
The 2005 Classic underscored the fickle nature of the Ohio River system. Nobody understands the river's ups and downs better than those who fish it as regularly as the locals. The river has become a popular tournament venue because it offers plenty of water without the enormous pressure that small reservoirs like Berlin, West Branch and Mosquito experience from boaters and anglers during typical summer weekends.
However, the trade-off for the relative freedom tournament anglers have on the Ohio and its tributaries is the cyclical nature of the fishery. And despite the experience the Classic anglers gained while fishing out of Pittsburgh, nobody came up with solid answers about why the fishing was so tough this summer.
As recently as three years ago, local tournament anglers regularly caught limits that weighed 10 to 12 pounds. A two-day tournament on the New Cumberland Pool of the Ohio River in East Liverpool in 2002 was won with 10 smallmouth bass weighing nearly 30 pounds.
The good fishing peaked in 2002, started to slip in 2003 and hit rock bottom in 2004 and this year.
The next catch
Will it be better in 2006? Many of the Classic pros said yes.
They based their optimism on the large numbers of small bass they caught. Though they didn't measure up to the 12-inch size limit, the bass showed up in large numbers. Some of the Classic anglers reported catching as many as 30 fish a day.
They'll continue to grow this year and next, pass the 12-inch mark and enter the ranks of respectability among bass anglers.
Without question the fishery has enough baitfish to sustain a sizeable gamefish population.
"There's a lot of shad in the river," VanDam said. Others agreed, noting the baitfish skittered and scattered as their lures approached the schools.
He also observed great numbers of young-of-the-year bass. Others reported catching numerous bass the size of "candy bars."