Off Season Preparation for Bass Fishing
The term off-season is used commonly in the world of sports. This is the period of time where athletes recuperate from the previous season but also prepare for the upcoming. This term has a place in the fishing community as well.
Mike Raber of Indiana has had success at every level he’s entered in the bass fishing world, and there is no reason to think that will not continue as he enters the next level. It’s not by accident, though, but the result of meticulous preparation. “After the final tournament of the season, usually October or early November,” he explains, “I shelve my equipment, forget fishing, and go hunting. But after the hunting season, I follow a routine that has worked for me.”
The 26-year began competing while in college as a co-angler in the Michigan Division of the BFL in 2016. “The fisheries in this division (Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie, and Detroit River) are some of the best in the world, but they are massive and attract anglers from across the country.” Yet, he cashed in 3 of the 5 events and finished the season in 2nd place. The following season he won an event with 22 ½ pounds of smallmouth from the back of the boat!
In 2020 he signed on as a boater in the same division and crushed the competition finishing the season in 1st place. His sophomore season was backed up with another Top 10 finish. This year he is set to compete as a professional in the Northern Division of the BASS Opens. Raber nabbed checks at each trip to the regional events, the Mississippi and Potomac Rivers.
5 Steps of Offseason Bass Fishing Preparation
Raber hails from northern Indiana, which sees its lakes frozen for a couple of months each winter. Fishing preparation became a way of coping with the winter blues. “I am constantly tinkering with tackle and equipment,” he says. “Without many fishing opportunities, I don’t get distracted from completing everything that needs to be done before the spring thaw.”
“A lot of this takes place while I’m in a deer stand. I believe it is important to be completely honest with myself about the season. What went well? What didn’t? And why. I reflect on the decisions I made, my tackle, my boat, what needs to be added or fixed, and how I can expand my brand.” He has notebooks of jottings from tournaments as well as inventory.
“After hunting season, there is normally a couple weeks before the lakes freeze up, so I spend a lot of time on the water. I love winter fishing! But I don’t compete much, and this gives me time to work on my understanding of electronics. I’ll mess with settings and features to learn as much as I can.” He has become the go-to person at The Tackle Shack, the fastest growing tackle store in Indiana and Michigan, to assist customers with electronics.
“This is a great time to evaluate and grow the business side of fishing.” He emphasizes building relationships, “I try to avoid buying small amounts of tackle throughout the season. In other words, I buy a lot of things in bulk during the winter! I also try to buy products from local businesses. So, many times I have an $800 purchase, which gets the attention of owners and creates opportunities for conversations, then relationships, and potentially discounts or other opportunities.”
“The holidays are a special time for me to spend time with my family,” Raber admits, “but once the New Year rolls around, I’m fully focused on getting my gear, tackle, and boat prepared for the season. It’s my goal to get everything in tiptop shape and organized before the ice melts. Then when I finally get on the water, I only have to shake off a little rust in order to get my ‘sea legs’ back. Many anglers are doing the same, but also putting together their tackle and boat.”
Raber spends a lot of his free time watching YouTube videos and reading articles about the fisheries on his schedule, but he also focuses on something often forgotten about. “Everyone at the Open level is going to be researching bass fishing. It would put me behind not to do the same, but what can I do to get ahead? I also commit a lot of time researching baitfish and forage in a fishery.” He explains, “After a big tournament is won somewhere, everyone probably knows where and how the fish were caught, but do they understand why? If the bass were eating shad there, then where will they be a week or month later? I try to find information that will show me how to find and follow the forage.” He did this to perfection in 2020 to claim the crown in the Michigan BFL.
2020 BFL Dominance
“First,” Raber begins, “understand that my preparation began in 2016 when I first competed as a co-angler. Of course, I wanted to win those events, but I was more focused on learning. I got familiar with the fishery, seasonal patterns, the weights necessary to win, and how to care for my boat.”
Through his 5 steps, he was able to get financially set, and that was key, “Not having to worry about money allowed me to just focus on fishing. Without that security, I don’t know how well I could have focused.”
For the tournaments, Raber was able to find something different: “Understanding the forage is what separated me from the rest. I followed the smallmouth fishing reports like everyone else, but I also found every report I could on the forage. There are a lot of perch charters on Lake St. Clair, and I kept up with their reports. Knowing the smallmouth eat a lot of perch, this showed me where to begin my search, but also where they might go next.”
Raber finished 3rd place in the season opener with 21 ½ pounds of smallmouth. Following the forage led to the discovery of a huge school of smallmouth bass. Three weeks later for the second event, he harassed the same school for nearly 25 pounds of smallmouth bass and finished 2nd place!
The first two tournaments took off from Lake St. Clair, but the final three took off from the Detroit River. “By the time the third tournament came, a lot of other guys found the same school I was fishing. That turned out to be a good thing, because I knew the shad were beginning to show up at the mouth of Lake Erie (Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie are connected via the 28-mile long Detroit River). The shad make an annual migration to the river from Erie, which the smallmouth follow, and I discovered it before many others.” Another 2nd place finish followed; he built a huge lead in the Standings.
Had Raber not learned about the forage, it is unlikely he would have had the same success.
Raber laughed, “A lot of prayer is a necessity! Boats are going to have things break when spending a lot of time on big bodies of water, and you have to be mindful at all times. In fact, I budget for this.”
“You should know exactly how the motor and boat feel and sound. Take action immediately if something is different because the big water will break whatever is weak. Be proactive, not reactive.”
Before leaving for a trip, he tightens every bolt he can find, especially jack plate bolts, “Every season I see boats at the ramp with the outboard barely hanging on.”
“Screws under the rub rail come loose and need to be tightened routinely. Bolts on Power Poles come loose. I had several graph mounts break on my boat, until I switched to a Str8-Up Mounts this season. Make sure trolling motors and graphs are mounted correctly!”
Preparation for BASS Opens
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! And Raber’s method has proven itself, but he recognizes that this a new, tougher, challenge. “I’m super excited! But there are differences I’m preparing for. For starters, practice for the BFL’s. Even though they are massive bodies of water, I only practiced for 2 days. I only live 3 hours away and spend a lot of days throughout the year on them. The Opens are further away, so I’ll spend 4 or 5 days practicing for each of them.”
“I’m also in the process of researching. My goal is to put the pieces together quickly. I don’t want to retrace my steps each day of practice. The days should build on each other. The BFL’s I’m coming from are slugfests, and while the Opens are on outstanding fisheries, the weights will not be as high. They are also largely largemouth lakes (James River, Oneida Lake, Chesapeake Bay).”
Despite the challenges, Raber feels confident in this process; plus, he has a new Nitro Boat coming, which will be protected by a Megaware KeelGuard!