STANDING OUT IN THE GIVE AND TAKE OF CALIFORNIA’S BIG BASS FACTORY: The Top-Five baits of The 2024 California Open

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AUSTIN BONJOUR with a couple biggies that helped propel him to the top of the leaderboard.
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By JODY ONLY

LAKEPORT– The 2024 WON Bass Clear Lake Open was set for mid-April, smack in the middle of the spawn, and every phase of it, showed up for the anglers at the big bass fishery. The three-day, shared-weight event presented Clear Lake at its finest and its finickiest as 354 anglers competed for the heaviest 15-fish tournament total. If you wonder how that kind of juxtaposition played out, read on.

The first day’s news flew through the fishing community. Not one, not three; but no less than six, limits broke 30-pounds. That’s right, a team could not even take a spot in the top-5 with anything less than 31-plus. But that’s not all!

The event, which paid out to the three biggest bass of each competition day, turned away pros with nine-pounders from the Big Bass payout line. Because on Day One, if the Big Bass couldn’t beat 9.80, they weren’t in the top-three. It sounds amazing. It sounds like Clear Lake of yesteryear, and it sounds like the bite was wide open. That was NOT the case.

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Ironically, the lake that giveth to so many, taketh from so many more, and the feast that was had by those at the top did not trickle down to those that felt the famine in the bottom half of the field. Of the 177 draw-partner pairings on the first day, 80 teams did not have a limit, and 50 teams had two or less fish, with 25 percent of those totally blanking. By the end of the Open, only 57 of the 177 pro anglers would have come to the stage with 15 bass for their total weight. So, yes for the few that made big fish, big stringer news, it was the Clear Lake we all dream of and for far more, the struggle was real.

In the end, Austin Bonjour of Templeton, Calif. was the only pro to consistently return with a daily average of more than 27.75-pounds a day, with a winning weight of 83.28. He bested his nearest competitor by nearly six-pounds. His weigh fish translated into a 5 ½ pound average; but his biggest went 7.86 and was caught on Day One among his five-fish limit that weight 33.84, yet only ranked him into the 3rd best position, behind fellow top-five finalist Nick Klein of Oroville, Calif. who earned the Day One Big Stringer honor with 35.59 and Joe Mariani, of Winters, Calif, who boated a 9.21 that didn’t even qualify in the top-three Big Bass of the Day but bolstered his runner-up sack of five to 34.34.

If we look at the game-changers for the pros, we don’t necessarily find different baits, or different methods of presentations or even different overall areas. In this event, spots on spots and occasionally some specific bed fish are what really set anglers apart. Here are the tools that top-five used to bring it this past week.

AUSTIN BONJOUR

Champion: Austin BonJour 83.28 | Biggest Limit 33.84 – Biggest Bass 7.86

Bonjour started Day One in third place, sacking up his biggest limit. Following that up on Day Two with 25.41, he climbed into the top-spot and never looked back, holding on to the lead through the end of the final day. His focus was on the north-end of the lake, searching for docks and brush.

“I was fishing in the 6- to 10-foot range, under docks on the northwest side and later in the day on the northeast side,” he shared. “I was mainly throwing a glidebait and a minnow the first two days, but on the last day, I pretty much put everything away except the glidebait.

“I was fishing for the six to eight-pound fish this week. I was fishing for the girls, and I just stayed on ‘em. The males were up on the bank and the females were eating hitch and staging a little further out than the males. That’s why I was using the swimbait and the minnow, because it looked like they were singling out individual hitch.”

Of his 15 weigh fish, two came directly off beds. “It was the last day, and I knew they were coming up,” he said. “I always looked for ‘em, but I never slowed down and fished for anything that was under six-pounds. I was looking for the 10-pounder that Ish Monroe caught, but never found it.”

Overall, the glidebait was the main player for Bonjour, and he didn’t immediately disclose the brand. “It was a slow sink Deps 250 in a trout color and a bone white color,” he later stated. “And it caught seven or eight of my main fish.”

He found a critical factor to entice followers to strike was a change in his retrieve speed. “I started with slow to moderate and then I would speed it up,” he said. “I would visually watch some of ‘em bite within 10- to 20-feet of the trolling motor. I would have to make the bait dart left or right or make it erratic to trigger them.”

Bonjour’s other bait was a Garage Tech 1/16-ounce, 2/0 Forward Facing Sonar Jighead minnow. “That was paired up with a Z-Man Scented Jerk ShadZ in The Deal or a Missile Baits Spunk Shad,” he revealed. “I used them both.”

He felt a loop knot enhanced his presentation. “I didn’t want to tie a standard direct knot,” he said. “I tied the loop knot so the head would turn better left and right when I would wiggle it.”

Stealth Stixx rods, and Seaguar line completed his gear, and AFTCO clothing kept him comfortable.

 

JOE MARIANI

Runner-Up: Joe Mariani 78.39 | Biggest Limit 34.34 – Biggest Bass 9.21

Mariani’s Day One weight of 34.34 started him in 2nd place and his Day Two addition of 22.18 plus last day’s bag of 21.87, was enough for him to secure that same 2nd place finish for the final leaderboard.

Running both the north and south ends of the lake, without regard to any particular depth, Mariani threw a swimbait anywhere he could locate schooling pre-spawners. “A point, a tule point, a creek, just anywhere,” he explained. “I fished about 75 percent of the tournament in the South, the Rattlesnake and Redbud Arm.”

His bed fish game was strong straight from the gate with his Day One big – the 9.21 –coming off one. “I would say 75 percent of my fish came from beds,” he added. “I kind of knew exactly what I was looking for as I was driving down the bank and there would be bed fish in that area. I was looking for hard rock with a nice line of tules or trees.”

When targeting bed bass, Mariani used a shad-colored Rapala Crush City Cleanup Craw that was Texas-rigged with a 4/0 Owner Hook on 20-pound Seaguar InvizX.

His remaining fish fell to what once was a Clear Lake staple – the Little Creeper six-inch All American Trash Fish. “It was a natural hitch-type color,” said Mariani. “And it was on a 6/0 Owner belly-weight hook on the same 20-pound Seaguar. The key was reeling it as slow as I could reel.”

 

ISH MONROE

3rd Place: Ish Monroe 77.47 | Biggest Limit 32.54 – Biggest Bass 10.61

With a first day at the scales that notched 21.30 for 42nd place, Oakdale, Calif. pro Ish Monroe made the largest leaderboard leap for a top-five finisher. Monroe closed in on bigger bass each day, finding 23.53 on the middle day of competition and bagging the Biggest Stringer of Day Three at 32.54, anchored by a 10.61 kicker to wrap up his tournament total. Monroe called upon four different baits to do the job.

“My bed fish bait of choice is the Missile Baits D Stroyer,” Monroe explained. “I was fishing it in Watermelon Red/Black flake and White. There were so many four and five pounders in the lake, and they had no problem eating it.”

His D Stroyer was rigged on a 3/8-ounce Anglers King weight with a 6/0 River2Sea New Jack Flippin’ Hook and tied to 20-pound Daiwa Samurai fluorocarbon spooled on a 7.1:1 Daiwa Tatula Elite Pitch/Flip reel. With the same Daiwa rod and reel, Monroe also threw a Clutch Darter on 18-pound Daiwa Samurai in Camo. “I liked the Camo Samurai because of the water clarity,” he added. “It blended well.”

He also put a custom-painted River2Sea S-Waver 200 to work on a his 8-foot Daiwa Tatula Signature Series rod with 23-pound Daiwa Samurai.

“Overall, the fishing was ehhh, but the bed fishing was fantastic,” he exclaimed. And rightfully so, as Monroe didn’t sight fish all of his bass, but when he did, he went way big, catching the only double-digit of the event off of one.

“I went to a pocket that got me into the Bassmaster Classic and I when I got there, there she was,” he said. “I pitched a Missile Baits D Stroyer, and she reacted a little bit, but not enough; so, I broke out the Ish Tube and she went nuts. She started spinning and next thing you know my line was going out to the side.  I set the hook and started cranking.”

Monroe’s Ish Tube was a 7-inch Tora Tube in Watermelon. It was rigged on a giant 12/0 Ish Monroe Tru Tungsten hook with a 3/8-ounce Anglers King weight. Fit for the big guns, the Ish Tube was thrown on his 8-foot Daiwa Signature Rod with a Daiwa Pitch/Flip reel.

“If you’re looking for a place to fish, Clear Lake will be phenomenal now,” he said. “It is the perfect moon and there will be bed fish everywhere.”

NICK KLEIN

4th Place: Nick Klein 76.30 | Biggest Limit 35.59 – Biggest Bass 8.85

At scales close on Day One, Klein led the event with the biggest five-fish limit weight at the Open this year – 35.59. Adding 21.54 and 19.07 on the final day, he slid to 4th. “I was shooting for 25 on the last day, but only made 19,” he said. “It shows how fast Clear Lake can change every day with the moon. Each day was truly a new day on the water that I had to adjust to.”

Klein kept to the northside and mid-lake areas. “I was looking for any staging spots,” he stated.

A glidebait was also with his on-deck go-tos. Klein said he threw a Gan Craft Jointed Claw 178 in Kokanee with a back hook changeout to a Size 1 KVD Triple Grip Treble, tied to 20-pound Berkley Big Game. He threw his glide on a 7’8” iROD Jr. Swim with an Abu Garcia 7.1:1 Max reel.

“On Day Two, I found a pattern on the lake and was able to execute that,” he said. “And when the bed fishing kicked in, I focused on that a little bit more; but the glide bait was for the majority of my fish. Mostly, I used bed fish to fill my limit and for a little bit of upgrading the last day.”

Besides the glide, Klein’s bass ate a Lucky Craft LV 500 in Silver Creek Ghost Minnow. “I changed out the hooks to Size 4 KVD Triple Grips and threw it on 15-pound Big Game with a 703 Powell Max rod,” he shared.

The lipless was primarily a follow-up bait that Klein used to work through the same areas when the glide didn’t get bit. “I would cast it out, let it hit the bottom and slow retrieve it back to the boat,” he said.

 

SCOTT HELLESEN

5th Place: Scott Hellesen 74.82 | Biggest Limit 30.51

On Day One, Scott Hellesen from Paso Robles, Calif. had 26.46 in the box for 13th place. His Day Two 17.44 was helped by his final day’s 30.03, boosting him into 5th for his three-day total of 74.82.

“The first day I fished pre-spawn and didn’t sight fish any,” said Hellesen. “The second day, the fish in the North seem to be on beds a lot more and I sight fished two. The final day, I sight fished the majority. There seemed to just be more and more coming.”

Hellesen concentrated on spawning bays in the north end. “I fished Creekside through Lakeport,” he said.

His best baits for the three days were a dropshot with a 6-inch Roboworm in MMIII and a white Garage Tech Baits jig for the bed fish. His dropshot rig included a ¼-ounce cylinder weight and an Owner 1/0 Cover Shot hook. His hook to weight leader was Seaguar Tatsu that stretched 10-inches long. His reel was spooled with an 8-pound Daiwa J-Braid backer joined to 10-feet of Tatsu.  “I fished it on a Stealth Stixx Lil Pete Rod with a Daiwa Tatula 3000 reel,” he said.

He threw the ½-ounce white jig on a 7’5” Stealth Stixx Pillager with a Shimano Curado reel. It was tied to 30-pound Power Pro braid with a 22-pound Seaguar Tatsu leader. “I pitched the jig on beds when I saw ‘em and if I didn’t, I would pitch the dropshot around and get a lucky bite here and there,” said Hellesen.

 

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