One thing on which Rapala® Pros agree this week is that more than one key bait will be needed to win the 2021 Bassmaster Classic. With water levels three-feet higher than normal on Texas’ Lake Ray Roberts, bass could be atypically dispersed throughout the water column during the June 11-13 tournament. And that means hitting the water with multiple rods rigged with Rapala®, Storm®, Terminator® and VMC® tackle.
“I’ve got 30-some rods rigged up right now,” said Rapala Pro Seth Feider in an interview recorded two days before the Classic practice period began last Friday. “I think it’s going to be pretty wide open.”
The front deck of Rapala Pro Brandon Palaniuk’s boat will be equally crowded with rods rigged with multiple Rapala and Rapala Respected Brand baits.
“I’ve got about everything you can imagine loaded up in the boat,” Palaniuk said. “I’ll probably have a mixture of a lot of different things, at least to start with, in practice.”
Feider, Palaniuk, fellow Rapala Pro Patrick Walters and college angler Trevor McKinney agree that baits likely to be key in the Classic include Rapala DT-series crankbaits, Storm Arashi topwater baits and VMC hooks and tungsten weights. Terminator frogs, jigs and spinnerbaits could put big bass in their boats too.
“The big kicker here is the water level,” Palaniuk said. “Normally you’d come into Texas in June and say, ‘OK, I can pretty much bank that most of the bigger fish are going to be offshore.’ But when you throw three-and-a-half-feet of water on top, that kind of changes things. That’s enough water to be able to push more fish up shallow. It adds a lot of extra cover in the water. I think it opens the door for more techniques to be available.”
When Rapala Pros were interviewed on Wednesday and Thursday of last week, the water level on Ray Roberts, a 29,350-acre north Texas reservoir, was more than three feet higher than normal pool level for this time of year. If the water remains high, groups of biting bass could be found in depth zones shallower than the deep-ledge spots they typically haunt in the summer months. But if the high water falls, those shallow bass could follow baitfish to mid-depth and deep cover and structure.
“I’ll probably have a DT® in about every depth range possible tied on,” Palaniuk said. “Everything from DT-4 all the way to DT-20s.”
DT stands for “Dives To.” Rapala DT-series crankbaits dive fast to pre-set depths and stay in the strike zone longer than any other similar crankbaits. A Rapala DT-10, for example, dives to and swims at 10 feet; a DT-16, to 16 feet, etc.
“At first, I was thinking this was going to be a DT-20, DT-16, DT-14 kind of tournament,” Walters said. “But I think we’ve completely switched gears, and now it’s going to be more in the DT-6 range. More of that shallow-running, shallow crankin’ line-up.”
Feider and McKinney both said they “definitely” will be throwing a variety of DT’s. “You can catch ‘em on a DT-6 any time of the year, anywhere you go,” McKinney said. “I’m probably going to throw a shad color – probably ‘Penguin,’ that’s my favorite color.”
Storm Arashi topwater plugs will likely be key baits in the Classic as well, Feider, Palaniuk and Walters agreed.
“I’ll definitely have a Storm® Arashi® Top Walker and Cover Pop on the deck,” Palaniuk said. “The Cover Pop for around some of the brush and water willow and stuff.
And the Top Walker will be good to cover water and go down some rocky banks and in and around some of that standing timber, if the fish want to be suspended.”
Opinions differed among Rapala Pros on how much the water level might change by Friday, the first day of Classic competition. But they agreed generally that in stable to moderately falling water, Ray Roberts’ bass would remain shallow, but rapidly falling water could send them back to their traditional summer haunts in deeper water.
“Water fluctuation, I think, is one of the biggest factors in fish movement,” Walters said. “And when I say ‘fish,’ I’m not talking about just bass. With high water, the baitfish stay shallow. The bream are going to be up there, the shad are spawning in the willow trees, instead of out there on the rock or clay. Everything stays shallow, and that’s why the bass stay shallow with ‘em. There’s no reason for them to leave the bank and go out deep if there’s no life out there.”
“If the water stays high and it’s cool, you’re going to have shallow fish still even though, on paper, this ‘should’ be an about 100-percent offshore deal,” Feider said. “But this spring just hasn’t shaped up that way. So I think you’re going to have fish from 2 foot to 20-plus – a little bit of everything and not a whole lot of anything.”
“Generally, you’d think this time of year that the fish would be pretty stable,” Palaniuk said. “But that high water may start dropping about the time the actual tournament starts, and that could change the dynamic of this tournament.”
“There’s probably going to be some fish gradually moving out, and I think there’s some already out,” Feider said. “And some fish live shallow all summer too. I think whatever they’re doing, they’re going to be pretty consistent from what they do in practice to the tournament. I think they’ll be more stable.”
Bait selection will depend on the depth in which the most hungry bass are found. In addition to shallow-running DT crankbaits and Storm topwaters, most Rapala Pros will target shallow bass with VMC hook-and-weight rigs. McKinney has rigged up several Terminator baits for his shallow-water arsenal.
“If the water stays high, it’s going to keep ‘em in the bushes,” Walters said. “So I’ll probably have a VMC® Tokyo Rig® in my hand for flippin’ bushes.”
Palaniuk said “odds are there will be probably some flipping done, so I’ll have a lot of the VMC hooks and tungsten weights.” He’ll likely try to tempt additional bites with a Neko Hook-armed dropshot rig as well. Feider said VMC Neko Rigs and Tokyo Rigs could both be in play.
McKinney said he’d target bass in shallow bushes and flooded timber with a half-ounce Terminator® Pro Series Jig and a Terminator® Pro Series Spinnerbait.
Originally scheduled for March 19-21, this year’s Classic was postponed until this week due to pandemic-related restrictions on large gatherings. Takeoffs will be held each day at 6:15 a.m. CST from Ray Roberts State Park – Isle du Bois Unit in Pilot Point, Texas. Weigh-ins will be held each day at 4 p.m. at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth. The full 54-angler field will fish the first two days, and then the Top 25 will advance to Championship Sunday for a chance at the $300,000 first-place prize and the Classic trophy.
Feider, hailing from rom New Market, Minnesota, qualified for the 2021 Classic by ranking 12th, with 638 points, in the 2020 Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year race. Over halfway through the 2021 season, he leads the AOY race.
Palaniuk, a Rathdrum, Idaho, native qualified for this year’s Classic by ranking ninth, with 639 points, in the 2020 Bassmaster Elite Series AOY race.
Walters, from Summerville, South Carolina, triple-qualified for this year’s Classic by winning the 2020 Basspro.com Bassmaster Eastern Open on Lake Hartwell, winning the 2020 Texas Fest on Lake Fork, and ranking third in the 2020 Bassmaster Elite Series AOY race, with 669 points.
McKinney, a McKendree University angler, qualified for the 2021 Classic by winning the 2020 Carhartt College Classic Bracket presented by Bass Pro Shops.
Bass-fishing fans can catch all of the action with streaming coverage all three days on Bassmaster.com. The Classic will also feature four hours of live coverage on the FOX broadcast network Saturday beginning at 7 a.m. CT, as well as four hours of Championship Sunday coverage on FS1 beginning at 7 a.m.