Bass Pro Hunter Shyrock got the invitation of a lifetime: fish with his pro brother, Fletcher, at Mexico's famous Lake El Salto for world-class largemouth bass.
After catching a few nice Florida-strain bass, Hunter hooked into a mama, and everyone on the boat, and another boat nearby, knew it. Anticipation, and pressure, was high. This could have been the lake record.
"It was ginormous," said Hunter, who grew up fishing for big muskie and aggressive smallmouths in Ohio.
As the big girl came to the boat and put pressure on the gears, Hunter gave it some line, but too much. It turned and swam for sticks under the boat.
"Don't let her get in those trees!" yelled Fletcher in a panic. Too late. She tangled in the trees and never came up. The line popped.
"What a heartbreak," said Hunter. "I did the right thing to give it slack, but didn't pick it up again fast enough."
Dave Wolak also learned a lesson the hard way. While fighting an estimated 13- to 15-pounder, the former pro let the fish play a little too much next to the boat.
"I learned through the insanity of that loss that a bass of that caliber is so powerful that it'll rip the hook hole larger during the fight," said Wolak. "I was not happy."
On the deck of Tommy Biffle's Ranger, I was fighting a fish that Tommy saw on his DownScan. I had worked the small rock pile and turned her on with a Biffle Bug. This would be my biggest largemouth to date.
I fought her all the way to the boat when Tommy yelled, "Hit the button! Hit the button!" in his thick Oklahoma accent. But I was too late. The line parted near the hook and the big girl swam off to be caught another day€¦literally, the next day.
A friend of mine, outdoor writer Dan Johnson, caught the 10-pounder the next day off the same small pile of rubble in 24 feet of water. I may never forgive myself for losing it nor Dan for catching it.
In all these scenarios, one thing rings clear: you've got to fight a big bass differently than your average dink, especially at the boat. You can learn from Hunter's, Dave's and my mistakes so you don't have to go through the agony of defeat like we did.
1) Maintain Control of Your Line
"The bigger the fish, the more anxious you will be to get it in," said Hunter. "Problem is, you don't get the opportunity to practice catching big fish like you do on 3-, 4- or 5-pounders."
So, when he does have a smaller fish on, he practices controlling the button on his Revo MGX baitcaster so that it's like an extension of his mind and hand. He's not going to let that El Salto scenario play out again in reality. It plays out enough in his mind, over and over again.
Hunter said he takes seriously the angle of the rod. "I practice keeping the rod at 90 degrees from the fish," he said. He learned that from his brother, Fletcher.
"It's important to keep it at 90 degrees," said Fletcher, who won the 2011 Bass Pro Shops Open on Lake Norman, "not 120 or 45 but always perpendicular to the fish."
If you point the rod at the fish (less than 90 degrees), you aren't maximizing the rod's arc as a spring to keep pressure on the fish. If you point the rod away from the fish (more than 90 degrees), similarly, you are losing out on the design of the rod and giving the fish an advantage.
"You have to keep the right amount of load in the rod," said the pro.
While it's not hard to do this when the fish is out in the open water, when it gets to the boat, things get hairy.
2) Play At The Boat
Speaking of angles, Dave Wolak wants anglers to know that changing the side-to-side angle of the line will expand that hole in the fish's mouth and give the hook a chance to slip out — if you don't keep the pressure on.
"Basically, a big fish is stronger than the tissue in its mouth," said Wolak. "I fought that fish all the way to the boat with braided line against major tension, but I let the fish play a little too much next to the boat and moved the rod too much. It shot the jig loose. I saw that large hole in its upper lip as it swam away."
He's since learned that "the most dangerous time" in a bass fight is when the angler sees the fish. This is when most mistakes happen out of sheer panic. It's also when there is less line out, and less room for mistakes. With a lot of line out, even braid can stretch and take up a lack of pressure during a jump or an angler error. But at the boat, that cushion is gone, and there is no room for error.
3) Ripping Lips
While there was a lot of money on the line when Wolak lost his big bass, there were only bragging rights at stake when I fished with Biffle. But failure still sucks even if it won't hit your wallet.
My big bass popped off at the boat when it surged toward the bottom — a lot like Hunter's did. But I kept pressure on. Unfortunately, that fish was so big I needed to give her slack to prevent the line from breaking. Who knew? I had never had such a big bass on.
As Biffle yelled "Hit the button!" I fumbled to get at it, and was too late. In addition to a loud 10-second tutorial on drag, Biffle, who has had seven first-place finishes in major tournaments, had a lot of other advice for me.
"Always re-tie, re-tie, re-tie," said Biffle. "There are rocks and trees down there, and you're dragging the jig across the bottom. Check the line every time you bring it up and make sure there is no fraying."
Biffle clips off the lure, then clips off a section of line about 18 inches and re-ties the lure after catching each fish. You can bet I do that now, too.
Like Wolak, Biffle also mentioned how important it is not to fight a bass with the rod tip near the water and then change it to the other side.
"Don't reverse the rod angle during the fight," said Biffle. "That will open the hole in the bass' mouth. "If the bass jumps, hold the rod down and keep pressure on so she doesn't get the upper hand and shake the lure from her mouth.
"Every time she jumps, there's a big risk," said the pro. "Just don't get excited until she's in the boat."
Next time you've got a big bass on your line, stay focused, keep your rod tip up and realize that there are few things in life like fighting a double-digit largemouth.