Heading into the first Central Open of the year, I was pretty certain that the winning catch was likely to come out of Pool Four, and eventual winner Stephen Browning proved my hunch to be correct. With that in mind, I spent three days of practice down in Pool Four, and the other two in Pool Five, where the launch site was located. Of course you always want to fish where there are the most big fish, but any time you mess around with locks you’re taking a chance so I wanted to have all of my bases covered.
I located fish quickly in both locations. There weren’t necessarily huge numbers of them, but the quality was good. With the full moon upon us they were also in a wide range of stages – some were bedding, others were guarding fry, and a third group was well past the spawn.
On my last day of practice I went into an area in Pool Five where I’d caught some fish during an FLW Tour event and everything about it was right. I caught two really big fish in there, plus a couple of other good ones, and that convinced me that I’d have to spend some competition time in there. I figured that if I drew a short day the first day that’s where I’d go. If I ended up with a long day I’d lock down to Pool Four, because the lock would probably eat up two or three hours of time.
As it turned out I was in the fourth flight, boat number 66. In other words, just about in the middle of the pack. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it forced me to make a decision and I decided to stay close and not mess with the locks. Thinking back on the tournaments where I’ve done well recently, the best ones have been when I’ve slowed down, picked an area apart, and not allowed myself to get in a hurry.
There was a big bedding fish in my chosen area, but by the time I got there someone else was set up on her, so I eased off and fished around. By 10:30 I only had three fish in the well, so I switched areas, filled out my limit and culled up a couple of times, ending the day with 11-12. That put me in 25th place, which kind of surprised me because I figured it would take more like 13 or 14 pounds to be in that range.
Even though I had a 4pm weigh-in on the second day of competition, it was pretty easy to make the decision to put down stakes in my primary area and stay all day. I knew that the right fish were there and if I could fish for them all day I’d have a shot to move way up in the standings. I had a five-fish limit in the boat pretty quickly, but they only weighed around 6 pounds.
At 11:30 I came very close to locking down to Pool Four to try to upgrade. I knew it would be a huge risk and only leave me two hours to fish at the most. After thinking about it, and considering the fact that the water had dropped overnight, I decided to stay where I was. My reasoning was that the fish I had down there were bedding, and even if they hadn’t been caught, their environment might have been changed enough that they wouldn’t be catchable. I’m glad I stayed. I’m also glad that I decided it was time to fish like a big boy. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, if I was going to go down, I wanted to go down swinging. I tied on my Lunker Lure Jig and it was on almost immediately. I caught a five-pounder, a couple of threes, lost a four, and culled a couple of times, all in about 45 minutes. That brought me up to five for 15-05 and into second place behind Mike Pedroza by about two pounds.
That left me committed to throwing the jig all day on Saturday. It wasn’t anything fancy – just a standard-issue ½ ounce Lunker Lure Rattleback jig with a Zoom Salty Chunk, both in black and blue. It’s just about unbeatable during the spawn and pre-spawn. I fished it on an 8-foot Carrot Stix Black Wild Series extra-extra-heavy flipping stick, paired with a Lew’s Super Duty Reel spooled with 50-pound Power Pro Braid. With that setup in my hands, I felt like my chances to win were as good as anyone’s.
I was sharing my best area with fellow FLW Tour pro Randall Tharp, who was in 3rd place. Even with him there, the overall traffic was still much lighter than it had been with a full field of anglers. We had the whole thing to ourselves. I felt that if I could get four or five bites on the jig I’d win, or at least give the winner a scare. At about 7:20 I caught a 2 ½ pounder on the jig and figured it was on, but then I didn’t catch another until 11:30. It weighed over 4 pounds, so that gave me hope. Unfortunately, the water had come back up and the sun never came out, so the fish didn’t really position the way they had the prior day. I eventually brought out a square billed crankbait and caught two more fish, but I jumped off my fifth fish a couple of times. I suppose I could have fished harder with the squarebill or some other lures, but that probably would have only put me in position to move up a couple of spaces and make a little more money – I still feel that even though I ended up a little bit short the jig was my best chance to win.
Of course I’m a little disappointed that I couldn’t close out the victory and qualify for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic on Guntersville, but I’m fishing very well and I’m confident about what I’m doing. My instincts are leading me in the right direction and I’m adjusting to the conditions as they change. If I continue to put myself inside the cut, eventually my number is going to roll up and I’m going to take home the trophy. My primary goal is to qualify for the Elite Series, but now that I’m doing well in multiple Open divisions, I can’t help but think about how sweet that Classic berth would be. Next up is Logan Martin, the final Southern Open. Since I’m leading the Southern point race, I have to decide whether to swing hard for a win or play it conservatively for points. I can’t do that until I see how the lake is fishing, and I intend to spend a fair amount of time down there before the event to make sure I give myself every chance to achieve my goals.
14 fish, 35-14