Draw tournaments equate to 2 or 3 pro pairings per event. My pairings represent catching fish behind some of the best tournament anglers in the nation. In a non-shared weight format it can also represent the most challenging conditions a Co-Angler can face.
"Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well." - Jack London
So what do I look for when trying to load the live well when angling behind a fish catching machine that seems to leave no spot untouched? First and foremost I want the pro to become comfortable with my presence in their boat. I do this in many ways but I start by showing respect for their water and what the event represents to them.
I don't fish aggressively by casting ahead of the pro into 'clean' water. I don't want a situation where the pro feels he is competing with me. A situation where he is just as concerned about my boat position as well as his. Think it's a tough bite, upset the pro and it's going to become much worse.
Attention to Detail
Focus on what you are doing by focusing on the pro. There is much to gain by observing the front deck angler. You will see where they cast and most importantly what is left clean, the spots they didn't fish. Their technique will also show which portions of the water column they are targeting.
In most situations, more so in non-shared weight formats, you want to find a way to separate yourself from what the pro is doing. Even if it is a subtle change within the same technique or placing the same lure type where they didn't. You are fishing the same area and both of you are basically casting to the same fish. If the pro has already made a presentation to a spot it is to your advantage to show the fish something different.
Even in shallow water the water column still has a Top, Middle and Bottom layer. During an FLW event at the California Delta I found myself just off the bank fishing behind a former Delta champion. This angler was successfully pitching and flipping soft plastic 'Stick Baits' in and around the tulles. The pro didn't leave many spots, if any untapped.
Falling from the surface his Stick Bait passes through all portions of the water column, yet I could see that he was looking for his bites primarily to come from the bottom. I had little choice but to fish the very same spots the pro just used. My response was to pitch a drop shot rig.
It worked; by changing my fall rate, bait profile, action and the length of my drop I was able to target a different portion of the water column. The situation had the pro commenting on the fish I caught yet moments before just rejected his lure. His Stick Bait would fall to the bottom and there he would generate bites. My drop shot worm was held up into the middle of the water column. Getting bites from fish that had already rejected a falling Stick Bait. Because I placed a different bait in a different zone in a different way, I was able to get other fish to bite.
Many times when a back deck angler finds success what can happen next can be discouraging. That's when the pro will switch to the same technique you are catching fish with. Not only are they at the spot of choice first, now they are presenting the same technique very much like you. My advice is to then switch techniques too, especially if you are not seeing clean water. Start presenting their technique, the Stick Bait. It was working for the pro so why not you? Catch a good fish and the pro will probably go right back to the Stick Bait.
The Reverse Angle
Imagine the pro on a chatterbait pattern. As they work their water their targets will probably be fairly obvious. Let's say they are fishing a stretch of bank from left to right. Imagine those same targets but coming from the opposite direction, right to left.
With a great 'snag-proof' lure such as a spinnerbait, those targets going the other way are all yours. At each spot there will be a moment in time when you have the best position for that cast. That is the Reverse Angle and again, the fish do not know which way the boat is going. When it comes to micro topography and cover the reverse angle can produce strikes that the forward angle will miss.
Not every fish will be on the predominate structure and cover elements within a pattern. Sometimes when the Pro is beating the bank throwing to the outside and deeper water is the only 'clean' target you may have. There will always be some type of opportunity you just have to keep looking until you come across them. Being successful from the back deck can be a matter of how creative you are.
Fishing down a stretch of the Umatilla River a tributary of the mighty Columbia River along the boundary of Oregon and Washington States my pro draw was hunting for cull fish as I still needed my 5th keeper. This pro, pitching a plastic crawfish on a skirted jig, was casting to every wood lay-down on the bank. With few bites coming from this pattern and no clean water I thought out loud, "I wonder if the bass will hold out in the middle of the channel"? Again with a drop shot rig I fired a cast towards the unknown and my search was rewarded with a very nice smallmouth, my 5th keeper and my limit was filled!
In flipping and pitching situations when the pro places the boat right on the cover elements making it almost impossible to fish effectively from the back deck I will have a braided punch rig tied on. Sure I will use it when I see conventional punching opportunities but that is not necessarily why I have this set-up.
When the boat is directly on the cover, on top of the targets, sometimes you will come across a protected pool on the other side of the tulles. Those pools are why I have this rig. It allows me to make a lob cast over the cover into the pool on the opposite side.
It is the same technique as tulle dipping, I am just improvising with a much shorter rod. It also provides a chance at landing a fish that I have to pull back through all that cover. It doesn't always work out but at least I am giving myself an opportunity.
Learn to be quite. No I am not referring to spooking fish. I am referencing the information you share with the pro, such as announcing a sight fish that only you see or things like a strike you just missed. Often pros will fish their way out of a stretch on the same path they used on the way in.
So by being quite about things you may have another shot at the situation. When coming back through, if the pro knows about 'your' fish they will probably take the first shot at it. Many won't wait and will just turn the boat around right then and there, either catching that fish or making sure you don't. I have seen this happen far too many times. Also a future draw may visit the same water.
What they don't know can't hurt you. It can be hard not getting caught up in the moment and speaking out. On more than one occasion my silence was indeed golden and has paid off.
One of the hardest things for me to learn was being quite about a missed swimbait fish. Swimbait strikes are EXCITING! When I did learn to keep calm and to myself the pro kept doing what they were doing, preferably something other than using a swimbait. They didn't change based on information they learned from my missed swimbait fish. That allows me to keep fishing my swimbait. Ultimately I had another strike and boated a swimbait fish.
Sure enough after my swimbait catch, into the rod locker goes the pro pulling out his Triple Trout set-up. He repositions the boat and I can't cast far enough to reach the ridge line I was fishing. At least I achieved one fish before the pro 'shut' me down. Had I announced the first fish, the missed fish, he may have 'shut' me down sooner and I might not have seen a second opportunity.
The tougher the fishing the more you need to focus. When bites are few and far between staying prepared is critical. Not always but most of the time, from the back deck, you are not going to see as many opportunities. So by capitalizing on every cast, every bite, every hook set, that can be the difference between a limit or coming up short. The difference between cashing a check or just going home. The difference in winning.
Even if you are fun fishing or a team tournament partner, if you find yourself on the back deck these are some key things that can help with a tough bite and limited opportunity. Don't make it harder than it has to be. Be aware, look for the opportunities and be prepared when they present themselves. Remember the fish do not know which way the boat is going.