How Ott DeFoe Listens to Bass
Strategies for highland reservoir fishing.
By Lynn Burkhead
August 30, 2017
In my various years of covering Major League Fishing events, one of the most valuable lessons I've learned as a writer is to know when to pull the thread.
As in the thread that you discover after going into an interview with a MLF pro expecting to talk about one particular subject matter, only to find out that another more interesting topic is actually presenting itself.
And when you discover that is taking place, it's best to pull the proverbial thread, seeing where the conversation ultimately goes.
Take my recent visit with Tennessee bass pro Ott DeFoe as an example. Sitting in the parking lot of a launching ramp on Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks, my initial thought was to quiz DeFoe about his strategy for fishing highland reservoirs.
But only two or three questions into my interview, it was apparent that there was a different topic that I needed to explore.
And that was how an angler can learn to listen to what the bass are telling him on a body of water on any given day.
"You don't have to (go out there first thing in the morning to) catch the biggest fish in the lake, just begin to listen to the fish," said DeFoe, winner of nearly a million dollars in prize money in only five years of competition as a professional angler.
Listen to the fish? Yes said DeFoe with a big smile.
When I asked him to elaborate, the Otter began to explain his thought process in how an angler can listen to what the fish are telling him beginning with the very first cast of the day.
"It's all about taking what few pieces of the puzzle that they'll give you and going from there," said DeFoe, a three time winner on the BASS tournament trail. "Getting that first bite is (really) important. Then you want to see what will come from that."
What specifically is DeFoe looking for?
"You're looking to learn things like was that fish right on the bank or was it just off the bank?," he said. "Was it a feeding fish or did it just react to your bait because it was (moving through)?
"Was I catching it on a jig (fished slowly) or was it on a moving bait as I was reeling it in? Did it hit my buzzbait when I (reeled it in or when I) stopped it to do something else?
"Listening to fish is figuring out stuff like that, generally speaking, since you want to try and learn as much as you can from that one bite."
When I asked DeFoe how quickly he let the wheels begin turning in his head when a fish takes his lure, he said almost immediately.
"As soon as it strikes, I'm letting the process unfold in my head," said DeFoe. "I want to know exactly what was that fish living around, how deep was it, what was I doing, etc."
Once DeFoe processes all of that in his mind and lands the fish - where the MLF SCORETRACKER LIVE! leaderboard will soon record it - does the Tennessee pro try to duplicate that same thing on the very next cast?
"Not necessarily," he said. "If the same thing happens on that very next cast, then yeah. But I'm not going to look across the lake and say 'Oh, there's another place that looks exactly like this!' and then take off and go running (over to that spot).
"I'm going to continue to fish and do what I'm doing and see if there is something (more) to it (all)."
How long does it take before DeFoe believes he has heard the fish...and found a pattern that can be duplicated?
"The next bite doing that (same thing) gives me a good idea that I'm on to something, but the third bite, that lets me know that I've found something pretty concrete," he said.
How long does the Otter stick with a pattern once he thinks he has heard what the fish are saying on a given day?
"I'll certainly give it 30 minutes between bites if the fish (I'm catching) are of decent quality," said DeFoe. "But I certainly like for the bites to be more frequent than that. Some 10 or 15 minutes between bites is pretty good.
"But sometimes, you can just tell, this is pretty close but it's not quite right," he added. "If you feel you need to switch something up and you do and you get a bite, then you know that the pattern is working. (And when you know that), you really don't need to give it any (more time before committing to it)."
As important as it is to hear what the fish are saying and then run with that, DeFoe points out that it's also important to know when a pattern is going away.
"You need to stay dialed in with it," he said. "But if I feel like it's fading away, I'm willing to give it another 30 or 40 minutes (before moving on). In that span, I'm not going to go 180 degrees away from it, I'm just going to start easing away from it until I get an idea which way the fish are going (pattern wise)."
DeFoe points out that as a day of MLF competition unfolds, he is always listening to what the fish are saying at that particular moment, in addition to figuring out how that might matter later on in the day.
"You just adapt as necessary," said DeFoe. "If I find them out here schooling on a point first thing in the morning, I'm probably not going to catch them on a topwater in the third period.
"But I might still (be able to come back and) catch them on that same point in the third period, just on a Shaky Head or a drop-shot."
As the time grew near for the MLF boats to be launched onto the water, I asked DeFoe if he was always in discovery mode out on the water or whether or not he ever settled in and got comfortable with something.
"In Major League Fishing, in my opinion, you've got to always be in discovery mode until about the last 30 minutes (and only) if you've got a 10-pound lead," smiled the Otter.
That being said, DeFoe hasn't become one of the best young anglers on the planet without being able to quickly identify what the fish are doing on a given body of water on a given day.
And then milking that pattern for all that it's worth.
"If what I'm doing is working and I'm up there on SCORETRACKER LIVE!, then I'm probably not going to veer too far away from it," said DeFoe.
"But if what I'm doing has me up there - but not far enough up there and I'm not catching up (to the leaders) - then yeah, I'll probably say this isn't getting the job done and go do something else."
While the concept of listening to fish might seem foreign to some, for DeFoe, the practice has made him one of the sport's best and a rising star in the MLF game.
All because of a unique skill that he has perfected in just a few years, the art of catching a fish and listening to the piscatorial tale that it is telling.
Every single day on the lake.