Assume for a moment that you live in Ohio or Maine or Wyoming or some other place where largemouth bass typically don’t grow huge. I’m guessing that’s actually a fair amount of you. I fall into this category as well. Now imagine you’re finally heading someplace where big ol’ pigs are consistently a possibility. Maybe you’ve won a sweepstakes or cashed in your stimulus check and you’re off to Florida or Texas or California. How do you prepare? How do you gear up? Most importantly, how do you make sure you don’t shit the bed when you’re finally staring a hooked behemoth in its 50-cent-piece-sized eyes?
Bassmaster Elite Series pro Bill Lowen is the man to ask. He’d spent his whole life fishing the Ohio River region, one of the stingiest fisheries in the country, until he decided to go pro in 2006. For some hard numbers on that stinginess, in 2009 he finished second overall with 10 bass for 15 pounds 6 ounces—an average of just over a pound and a half apiece—at a two-day BFL tournament on his home turf. The winner didn’t even have a limit each day. In 2013, Lowen finished ninth out of 93 there with eight fish for 9-11, an even lower average. He recalls an earlier tournament where he caught a single 4-pound smallmouth and finished high up in the standings.
“The biggest limit I’ve ever seen in the Ohio River region was five for about 18 pounds,” Lowen said. “And there have been plenty of times I’ve weighed in five for just 4 or 5 pounds.”
At 32, without much of a financial fallback plan, Lowen headed south to chase his bass pro dreams. The first four stops were on Lake Amistad, Sam Rayburn, Santee-Cooper, and Guntersville, all legendary slaunch factories. At those venues it took over 18 pounds, 16 pounds, 19 pounds, and 15 pounds, respectively, per day just to finish in the top 50. It took 26 pounds, 19 pounds, 28 pounds, and 17 pounds per day over four consecutive days to win.
“At Amistad, my exact words were, ‘Holy shit,’” Lowen recalled. “I had over 23 pounds the first day. I thought I’d be leading. I thought I was the man, but I was in 22nd place.”
He ended up a respectable 39th, earning $10,000, and then reeled off three more money finishes, including a fourth place result the next week at Sam Rayburn, worth 18 grand. He went on that year to qualify for the first of 10 Bassmaster Classics to date, and has historically been one of the most consistent pros on tour, despite the majority of the events being outside of his home region.
So, what were the initial and long-term keys to that success? It started with being mentally prepared. It seems that growing up in an area where low numbers and sizes are normal actually helped.
“If I only get four or five bites in practice, that gives me something to go on. It doesn’t faze me,” said Lowen. “I’m used to it, but most of these guys are ready to jump off of a bridge if that happens. It’s harder for a Lake Fork guy to go to Ohio than it is for an Ohio guy to go to Lake Fork. They’re used to getting a lot of big bites. When I go down there, I think I’m at Disney World.”
Next, don’t think you have to go with super-sized 12-inch trout replica swimbaits and 15-inch worms just because you’re in trophy country.
“If you start off listening to dock talk, and fish something you’ve never tried before, your trip’s probably gonna suck,” Lowen said. “But if you go with some variation of the things you already understand, you’re setting yourself up for success. At home, one of my favorite lures is a ¼-ounce swim jig with a curly-tailed grub. That’s the same lure I used to catch all of my fish during my first visit to Rayburn. A big key to my success whenever I’m in the South is just fishing the way that I fish.”
He did learn a few lessons, though. One of them came from Hall of Fame jig-flipping guru Denny Brauer, who traveled and shared information with Lowen for a period of time. “You’d do a little better if you threw bigger jigs,” Brauer advised the young pro.
“That didn’t mean I had to go to 10-inch swimbaits,” Lowen said. “Just the next size up.”
The other thing that happened was Lowen determined he needed to beef up his tackle in some circumstances. He may have caught plenty of fish on his ¼-ounce jig at Rayburn his rookie year, but he didn’t win.
“I should’ve won that tournament,” he said. “I was swimming a jig on fluorocarbon and hooked a fish that was at least 12 pounds, no doubt about it, and it absolutely cleaned my clock. It busted off. Now I use a lot more braid. I just didn’t know any better back then.”
Still, Lowen thinks that the direction his tackle went—from light to heavy—provides him with an advantage over those who started with broomstick rods and rope for line, because when he has to grind it out on comparatively brutal fisheries like the Delaware River or the Sabine River where finesse fishing rules, he’s not afraid to downsize.
Lowen still fishes the tough waters of Ohio and near his current home in Indiana to stay sharp, but 14 years later he’s got no quibbles with heading south, if indeed he ever did. He weighed in a 10-06 bass on Florida’s Harris Chain a few years ago that would win many Ohio River tournaments by itself.
When you do finally get that bite of a lifetime, Lowen (and I) advise remaining calm. It’s easier said from behind a keyboard than when you’re staring that first double digit in the face, but mistakes happen and dreams are crushed when excitement clogs your brain. You want the fish in the boat so badly that you make dumb choices. It still happens to anglers on tour all the time, but the difference between them and you on your dream trip is that you probably won’t have the chance for redemption next week. But at least you don’t have tens of thousands of dollars on the line—only bragging rights.
Featured image by Oliver Ngy.