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Rods and racing

Rods and racing

While most of the Daytona International Speedway’s 180-acre infield bristled with campers, RVs, inflatable pools, BBQ grills and corn hole games of every theme imaginable, a 29-acre section known as Lake Lloyd saw a different list of priorities. Here, it was all about jerkbaits, soft plastics, sunscreen and lots of water.

A day before this famous east Florida race track kicked off Independence Day weekend by hosting the Coke Zero 400, Toyota Racing and Bass Pro Shops hosted a crossover event in which red-hot driver Martin Truex Jr. joined Bassmaster Elite Series phenom Kevin Van Dam for a morning of contrasting activities.

Pardon the riddle, but the long-time friends indeed contrasted their glacial presentations with a straight-up dose of go-fast that kept grown men grinning and giggling like kids with a new toy. More on that in a minute, but first we need to introduce the morning’s special guest; an honorable gent who ended up exemplifying the requisite seasonal strategy for unlocking a tough fishery’s potential.

Joining VanDam and Truex was U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant Oscar Dominguez, who was working a recruiting booth during the race. An avid angler stationed at Moody AFB in Valdosta, Ga., Dominguez manned the back deck and, after dumping a fish at boatside, he connected with the day’s best catch — a 3-pounder that found a properly-presented Strike King Caffeine Shad enticing.

“I had watched some (technique) videos, so I was following Kevin’s example and letting the bait drop and then I’d give it a few twitches,” Dominguez said. “I was going pretty slow; I’d cast it out and let it sink all the way to the bottom. Once it got to the bottom, I’d let the boat move it forward and then give it a few soft, slow twitches. My bites were right on the bottom.”

VanDam agrees and adds that, during summer’s dog days, the bite can be profoundly difficult on a shallow, flat lake; especially on a hot June day when morning temperatures quickly reached the 90-degree mark.

Truex, who fishes infield lakes from Homestead (Florida) to Traverse City (Michigan), said that fish and fisherman share a creature comfort preference: “These fish don’t like this hot weather any more than I do. I’ve fished here a lot in February. It’s actually really good then, but right now, it’s tough.”

BEATING THE HEAT

After a slow start, Truex nabbed his keeper in the last 20 minutes of the outing by mimicking the slow plastic drag that worked for Dominguez. VanDam, who 30 minutes prior had fooled a 2 1/2-pounder with a jerkbait, described his morning’s game plan as one of looking for the comfort zones.

“A lot of the fish are buried in the grass during the day and they primarily feed at night,” VanDam said of these persnickety Florida-strain largemouths.

On a lake lacking significant structure — a prominent fishing pier and a few overlook platforms were the only significant shade options — VanDam mostly keyed on Floyd’s vast fields of algae-coated eel grass. This, he said, is the dependable fall-back plan for stingy lakes.

“I had been here once before, but it was a lot different; there wasn’t all this grass,” VanDam said. “When Martin was here in February, he caught 50, so we figured there was some place they were wadded up. We just didn’t find that place today.

“The first thing I did was make a big lap around the lake, because on a small body of water, you can quickly see if there is anything irregular; any deep holes or anything special. We saw that the lake is basically flat, we saw where the grass was and we started breaking it down.”

In these lethargic times, natural looks trump extravagant color patterns. Green pumpkin plastics probably resembled the lake’s abundant bluegill, while VanDam’s ayou colored jerkbait must’ve looked like one of those golden shiners roaming the grass.

DRIVE IT LIKE YOU STOLE IT

Even though VanDam was able to get on pad once in the morning, Lloyd required only trolling motor transit from end to end. So, how does a bass pro who’s used to airing it out get his speed fix? Easy — he challenges his fishing buds to a radio-controlled boat race.

Toyota racing brought three Traxas DCB M41 wide body catamarans and enough spare batteries for multiple rounds of hammer-down fun. Each of these 40-inch boats bore a uniquely relevant paint job: One matched the No. 78 Furniture Row Truex drives, one displayed a mini version of VanDam’s wrap and the third proudly wore an American flag design for Dominguez.

VanDam, who’s had the opportunity to feel the power of a real NASCAR beast, said the Traxas catamarans performed best with their speed dispensed in measured form.

“It takes a little bit (of adjustment), but every one of these NASCAR drivers will tell you that anyone can mash the gas to the floor, but to have speed on the track, it’s about carrying your momentum through the corners,” he said. “So you have turn smoothly. Martin does this for a living, but I can see real quickly that you have to make nice, easy turns.”

Gripping his radio controller with relaxed determination, Truex gave his fellow drivers a few lessons on the head games of racing. Good-natured exclamations of “Whoa, look out” and “Hey, that was close,” kept everyone entertained.

VanDam joked that Truex withheld any racing advice — perhaps to avoid tipping off his opponents to the next blocking move. Nevertheless, VanDam gave a nod of respect for his friend’s rod skills.

“Martin is a really good angler; he has a place on Lake Norman and he fishes tournaments there,” he said. “Mechanically, he’s as good as any of they guys out there. He can skip with a baitcaster, he can drop-shot in deep water for smallmouth. He’s really into it.”