- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 21, 2004

IUKA, Miss.

Imagine being in a small group of fishing writers that came to one of the best smallmouth bass lakes in the entire United States and along a Mississippi country lane you spotted a traffic sign with a directional arrow that said “Tupelo.”

For goodness sake, people, that’s where Elvis was born. For a 1950s kid like me, it was like a sign from above. It meant rock’n’roll forever, “Teddy Bear.” “Hound Dog.” “Heartbreak Hotel.” Elvis lives.

But for now Elvis had to wait. We were here to fish in the Mississippi portion of the 30,000-acre Pickwick Lake. (The narrow, rock-strewn, high-banked Pickwick is also shared by Tennessee and Alabama.)

The whole deal began when the makers of some of the fish-catchingest lures on the market said a catalog alone can’t prove how a lure will perform. However, if you have a chance to try them yourself, they’d be willing to let the chips fall where they may.

It was a risky gamble, but the Strike King Lure Co. of Collierville, Tenn., had good reason to believe the many artificials it produces could deliver the goods. In its large stable of sponsored professional tournament fishermen are the likes of world champion bass anglers Denny Brauer, Kevin VanDam, Larry Nixon, George Cochran and Mark Davis.

These fishing hotshots don’t use Strike King products only because they get them free. No, they use them because they win big-bucks tournaments with them. If they didn’t, their names would quickly disappear from the nation’s fishing pages.

• • •

When I climbed into Roger Stegall’s Ranger bass boat, the Mississippi bass pro and Pickwick’s top fishing guide said, “Let’s see if we can’t find a bunch of smallmouths that’ll make you wish you lived here.”

At 47, Stegall is a six-time FLW/Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League (BFL) winner and holds a BFL tournament record for five Pickwick smallmouth bass that weighed an astonishing total of 27 pounds, 6 ounces. The weight of those bass is particularly noteworthy when I recall hundreds of Potomac or Shenandoah river trips during which I was happy if any of my “brown” fish weighed two pounds.

Stegall has a theory concerning the catching of trophy smallmouths. “If you want a truly big specimen,” he said, “you should be here in March when these fish are in a pre-spawning feeding mode and we normally find them around rock ledges and gravel bars in eight to 12 feet of water. During March, they’re schooling and gorging themselves on threadfin, yellowtail or gizzard shad. They’re so concentrated then, sooner or later you’ll tie into a big one.”

As he chatted quietly, he positioned his boat a good distance from shore, aware that under the surface was a rock-filled bar that fell from 6 feet of water into 17 feet and more.

He picked up a baitcasting outfit loaded with 12-pound monofilament line to which he had tied a large 3/4-ounce Strike King Premier Pro-Model spinnerbait. The triangular wire-shaft lure’s hook was hidden by a chartreuse skirt, and on the upper shaft was a single No.5 gold willowleaf blade. I don’t believe any smallmouth bass angler in Maryland or Virginia would ever use a lure of that size.

Stegall cast the huge spinnerbait, let it flutter to the rocky bottom, then engaged the reel and slowly lifted and lowered the rod tip as he reeled in slack line.

“Bang!” He suddenly ripped the rod upward and set the hook to a 3-pound smallie that acted like a wild demon before Stegall had a chance to pick it from the water, remove the hook, and let it go.

“Nothing to it, is there?” he said with a broad grin.

As he slowly moved around a jutting lake point — loons diving after baitfish all around us — he continued casting, slowly reeling and pumping the big spinnerbait. Again and again, he set the hook to bass, including one that weighed 4 pounds or so.

I, too, joined him, latching onto a smallmouth and feeling the strikes from two others, but they were too fast for me. They never felt the sting of the hook.

In one 200-yard stretch of boulder-lined lake shore, Stegall caught and released four fat smallmouth bass and two largemouths — all on the chartreuse 3/4-ounce spinnerbait.

He then switched to a Kevin VanDam model Wild Shiner jerkbait. It was a suspending lure that, when cranked down three or four feet, would stay at that depth for a while even if you didn’t turn the reel handle. The lure came close to looking just like a slender shiner. With that Wild Shiner, he taught me a fishing lesson.

“Most people will cast this type of lure out, remove the slack line, and sharply jerk the rod repeatedly while reeling in line,” Stegall said. “But it’s supposed to resemble a crippled, dying baitfish, so watch this.” He fired the lure across a deep rock bed, cranked the handle eight or 10 times, the fake shiner diving down, then stopped, allowing it to temporarily suspend, sitting still as a church mouse. When he removed the slack line, he slowly swept the rod sideways and — bang! — a bass attached itself to the treble hooks.

Just like that.

“When I crank down the lure and let it sit awhile, a bass might already be looking at it,” Stegall said. “Then when I slowly sweep it sideways, the lure looks just like a dying shiner. That bass will hit it either on the first sweep, or the second and third. But it will strike.”

• • •

Later in the afternoon, Stegall introduced me to one of the other licensed guides, Todd Rasberry,a tall, powerfully built youngster who guides for Stegall whenever he doesn’t need to be at the Lawrenceburg, Tenn., Wal-Mart Super Center, where he is co-manager.

Rasberry stands 6-foot-8 and weighs somewhere in the high 280s, so imagine how little a 6-pound smallmouth bass looked when he held it up. He had caught that smallie and four others — all of them in the 4-pound range — on a Strike King spinnerbait or with Wild Shiner jerkbaits.

Need we say more about Pickwick’s bounty, or Strike King’s effective lures? They passed the test with flying colors.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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