and photos by Dan O'Sullivan
In 2009, while serving as Field Editor for Bass West USA Magazine, I had a conversation with Byron Velvick about his learning curve with swimbaits over the years.
Known as the man who put swimbaits on the map nationally with his record setting win at Clear Lake, Velvick experienced a steep learning curve with the lures and eventually came to a conclusion that they had their place.
The information is good for all of us looking to employ a big bait into our tournament or everyday fishing outings. It wasn't long after this article ran that Velvick brought his experience with swimbaits to the forefront and applied it in victory at Clear Lake again. This time during Elite Series competition against the best anglers in the world.
So, here it is, Byron Velvick - Putting Swimbaits in their Place
For many people, April 15 is a day to be on alert, as their taxes are due. On April 15, 2000, the fishing community was on point for an entirely different reason.
Byron Velvick claimed the California BASS Invitational at Clear Lake with 83 pounds, 5 ounces, a weight that still holds the three day weight record in BASS competition. His astonishing dominance of that event, and the way in which he did it was a shot across the bow for bass anglers the world over; swimbaits had arrived on the national tournament radar screen.
What many did not know at the time, is that Velvick, and a few other western anglers, like Dave Rush and Russ Meyer, had been employing a large saltwater bait called the Worm King Dinosaur in tournaments. To most, outside of southern California, the bait was largely a triggering mechanism for big spawning females who wouldn’t respond to traditional bed fishing offerings.
For Velvick, the bait had broader appeal. His experience on southern California waterways proved to him that swimbaits were more than just for spawning fish, they also worked when retrieved through the water column on a steady retrieve. His nearly 28 pounds per day performance at Clear Lake proved their effectiveness to the world.
“I had been able to keep the whole thing quiet for several years, basically by lying through my teeth,” Velvick said. “I’d catch a fish in a draw tournament on a swimbait and act like it was a total surprise, and sometimes even tell them it was my first fish on them, but Clear Lake exposed them to everyone.”
Even with the win and the record, he would have rather had it remained secret, but the presence of national media made sure that wouldn’t happen. “When Steve Price (Bassmaster Senior Writer) was on the water taking pictures of me throwing that original Basstrix the final day, I knew the secret was out,” Velvick remembered.
That fateful day would become a turning point for the then 35-year-old pro. Until that day, he had been one of the most successful anglers following the western circuits. “The prize boat I won that day was like my 14th boat won in competition,” said Velvick. “I’d also won a Rolex watch and a truck in my career, but that Clear Lake tournament changed my focus; I knew I could make a big splash across the country on swimbaits.”
So, with the help of Bruce Porter at Basstrix, Jerry Rago, Mickey Ellis at 3:16 Lure Company and Ken Huddleston, Velvick loaded up on swimbaits and set out to prove to the world that big swimbaits were effective everywhere. “I was intent on proving that they would catch fish everywhere,” he said. “I was determined to do for swimbaits what Dee Thomas and his protégé Dave Gliebe did for flipping; I was going to be the Godfather of swimbaits.”
What resulted were several years of frustration for the successful western based pro. He had grown accustomed to cashing checks with regularity, and winning his fair share of events, but was finding himself finishing out of the paycheck line more often than in. “I had so many close calls in those days,” he said. “I’d have tremendous schools of fish attacking my swimbait in practice, then have the weather change on me. Or, I would have them located, then realize as the tournament started that I was sharing water with other guys, and the big results never came.”
One other thing that Velvick realized in hindsight was that the lack of landing nets in BASS competition was another factor. “I’ve learned that swimbaits and landing nets are almost like peanut butter and jelly,” he said. “I’ve lost more giant swimbait fish in Bassmaster tour level events at the side of the boat than I’d care to remember.
He said that there were many days during competition that he would throw the big bait, hook up big fish, only to have them leap a few feet away from the boat and come unbuttoned. “Out west, and in the Opens, nets are allowed, but on the BASS Elite level, they are not, that was a factor I didn’t recognize early on,” he said. “There is a lot of weight being tossed around in a swimbait, and if they (big bass) can throw a lipless crankbait so easily, then swimbaits have a higher percentage of opportunity to become dislodged.”
Velvick is quick to point out that he is not one to make excuses, that he chose his path, and that the chances for tremendous reward was there on the next cast. He also realized that with the chance for glory, came risk of humiliation. “I wasn’t used to finishing in the bottom of the field,” said the two-time U.S. Open Champion. “I was finding myself in the 90’s and 100’s in the standings more than I would like, and I needed to re-think my strategy.”
He began to look at his approach, and what he realized, was that the scenario of being the Dee Thomas of swimbaits had a hurdle to overcome. “What Dee did with flipping was find an entirely new group of fish that weren’t being targeted,” Velvick said. “That was the beauty of Flippin’, Dee was fishing in areas that most people either weren’t thinking of, or didn’t have the right equipment to challenge him in; swimbait fishing is a little bit different.”
While Thomas and his pupils had water largely to themselves, Velvick was still in competition with everyone else. “Swimbaits are still used in the same areas that anglers throw crankbaits, jigs and Carolina rigs,” he revealed. “So, while I was using baits that would give me an advantage for the biggest bite in an area, those fish were still being pressured by everyone else, and being caught on other types of presentations, I was setting myself up for difficulty.”
The paradigm shift began to occur when in the same period, three of his friends challenged him to look at the angler he had been in the past. “My lifelong friends Steve Oliver, Ish Monroe and an outdoor writer friend of mine from the west all said basically the same things,” Velvick remembered. “They all told me that I needed to look at the statistics of my career, and the trophies on the wall of my home. What that created was a reminder that they believed in me; it was time to make a change.
His primary approach was to start analyzing how he had fished in the past. The result was that he began to remember he was a much more versatile angler than he had allowed himself to be known for. “I had become the sightfishing and swimbait guy,” he said. “I still like being known that way, but I had to realize that I needed to go back to my old methods.”
Velvick reported winning his first U.S. Open on topwater chuggers and walking baits, he remembered cashing many checks on spoons in the deep clear waters of the west. “I’ve always done it all,” he said. “If I had to throw a Carolina rig, or a Texas rigged worm, I did it; I knew how to compete, and it was time to do it. I needed to show that I was an ‘overall angler,’ that I could dropshot, throw a crankbait and be in the thick of things.”
So, beginning with the Elite Series Wildcard Qualifier in November of 2007, he began to approach things differently. “I went to Florida to practice on Okeechobee without the thought of shoving a swimbait down their throats,” he said. “I found two productive patterns, throwing lipless crankbaits and fishing big Berkley Power Worms on Texas rigs and Gambler shaky heads; I ran with those patterns.”
Sticking to his newly restored weaponry, Velvick grabbed the lead on the first day of the event, and never looked back. He won the event in wire to wire fashion; his second BASS victory. “It was an instant reminder, instant positive feedback, and it gave me a lot of confidence,” he said. “I was back in the groove, re-qualified for the Elite Series, and ready to go after things in my new way.”
His new approach has served him well. Since beating the odds at Okeechobee in the fall of 2008, and re-qualifying for the Elite Series, he has fished in 24 BASS events, and cashed checks in 13 of them. He earned more than $165,000 and tallied four Elite 12 finishes, including three in a row during the 2009 season. He also challenged for a slot in the 2009 postseason, which would have given him a chance at the Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year title. He rose to 15th in the standings at one point, eventually finishing the year in 21st place.
More importantly, he qualified for his first Bassmaster Classic in 2009, and thanks to a very strong year against the best anglers in the business, will make his second trip to the Classic stage when it returns to Lay Lake in February of 2009. All of this success is credited to his shift in approaches.
“I really began to look at what I have invested in this sport,” he said. “Like my competitors, I spend a lot of money and time chasing the tour around the country, and I owed it to myself to give success a chance. There are certainly times when swimbaits; or just going for broke in general, are the only way to compete, but they are fewer in nature. The Elite Series requires having a mind on getting as many points on the ledger as possible, and if I am always swinging for the fences, I can’t stay focused on the larger goal of being the best tournament angler I can be.”
Velvick often looks back on the votes of confidence from his friends, and leans on the sage advice of his colleague Rick Clunn, whom he calls a mentor. “Rick has always challenged me to look at how I am approaching things,” he said. “Eventually, he helped me to see when I should lean on swimbaits, and when I should leave them in the storage of my Triton. He wouldn’t tell me when I should or shouldn’t throw them, but he challenged me to look at it more closely.”
With the support of his friends, the advice of his mentor, and a remembrance of his past success, he has turned the corner of swimbait junkie, to a tournament angler with a love for the big bait, when it is appropriate. “I had to recognize that being ready to live by the swimbait sword meant being ready to die by it as well,” said the two-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier. “I feel like I am fishing at my best again. I have a young body, and a mind that has gained years of experience, and I want to keep competing in the way that I am.”
“My career has always been one of determination and fortitude, as Clunn has reminded me, this journey I am on has brought me a lot. I’ve been able to do what I love for a living; it has provided me opportunity to be on Outdoor television with my stints on Basscenter, and now my Going Coastal show as well. It’s working, and I plan on staying on this path.”
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