By Pete Robbins
Stephen Johnston remembers the first day of the 2007 EverStart tournament on Toledo Bend like it was yesterday, but you’d have to forgive him if he’d forgotten pertinent details – after all he put nearly 25 pounds of bass in the boat in 3 ½ minutes according to his co-angler.
“I had nine sticks on the front deck,” the popular guide and tournament pro recalled. “They were all jigs, all the same color. My first fish was a 7 and the second was a big 8.”
It took nine flips to get the job done, but only because the action was so fast and furious that on a few of his casts the fish tore off his jig trailers and got away.
Once the flurry was done, he moved 200 yards away in order to get his tackle and his wits back together. That’s how fast it can happen when you’re fishing an East Texas “scrape” in the post-spawn.
Scrapes are caves in deep-lying hydrilla. The grass will often grow out to 15 or 18 feet, but that includes a 6 or 7 foot canopy, and when you find one that’s right, the bass will often be crammed in there. That’s why Johnston had so many identical rods at the ready. He wanted to be able to get the job done before the fish lost their fire.
“Once you stick the first fish, it puts the others in a feeding frenzy,” he said. “It’s like if you’re sitting on your couch with your family watching TV and someone sticks a french fry in your face. When that happens, the whole family looks around for some, so the sooner you can get another one down the better.” When the fish are locked in on this bite, “your bait won’t go down 10 feet before they come up and eat it.”
In order to keep the action moving, you’ll need to have the help of a friend or tournament partner. You don’t want the fish flopping around on the carpet, so ideally with a little teamwork you can keep the fish fired up – net a fish, grab it, put it in the livewell while your partner grabs another rod.
The hardest part, of course, is locating these treasure chests in the grass. Points in the grass or the topography can be dynamite, but they’re often most targeted by other anglers, too. “They get hit harder than the straight-aways,” Johnston said. “I look for a ‘belly,’ a small ‘U’ in the grass line, maybe a two to four foot change in the wall. It usually happens where something in the bottom changes and creates an ambush point.”
He said that his dual Humminbird 1198 sonar/GPS units are “priceless” in this scenario. “In the old days, we all used flashers to find the isolated stalks of grass,” he explained. “But these are 500 times better. It draws every stalk out there.” When the bite is really strong, you can even use them like a video game, watching the streaking fish come up to intercept your bait. He keeps the units in split screen mode, with one side dedicated to two-dimensional sonar and the other on Down Imaging.
His search bait is an 11-inch V&M worm, usually in junebug or redbug, and typically paired with a ¾ ounce tungsten weight. He uses a Power Tackle PG104.5 flipping stick and 50 lb. Sunline braided line.
“You can cover a lot of ground with the worm,” he explained. “You get a lot of bites, more than with the jig. But when I get a bite, that’s when I switch up.”
His ultimate tool is a 1 ¼ ounce V&M flipping jig, usually black/blue/purple or black/brown/amber or pumpkin with green flake, and tipped with a V&M chunk. When he switches up to the jig, he upsizes to a Power Tackle PG105 flipping stick and 80 lb. Sunline braid. “Lots of times on a scrape it doesn’t matter what you drop in,” he said. “The jig is faster and usually has a better hookup percentage.”
Typically, the scrape bite doesn’t get hot until all of the fish have left the bank, but when it gets going it’s often the best game in town. Johnston expects that it will contribute to the winning catch when the Elite Series visits Toledo Bend later this year.
If you like to fish deep grass, and you have an extra three and a half minutes, you might want to give it a try.