I’d fished Dardanelle once before, but what really set me up to do well in this tournament was the fact that it fishes quite a bit like Crab Orchard, my home lake in Illinois. That helped a bunch. I knew that there would be a lot of boats crammed into three or four main areas, and while I don’t like fishing like that, it’s a scenario that I’m comfortable with.
Heading into practice the weather threw us a bit of a curveball. They’d had a ton of rain, which persisted throughout the three scouting days, and it continued to muddy up the water as the week progressed. There was a wave of late spawners that were just coming off the beds and they were really shallow. It’s a textbook scenario and in many ways I fished just as I did at Toledo Bend earlier in the month – just a bit shallower because the water wasn’t as clean.
Over the three days of practice I divided the lake up into three sections and attacked one of them each day. Eventually I settled on the upper end of the river, which produced the most bites. I also thought it had the potential for a really big bag. I was getting 30-35 bites a day and knew that it would be important to get a kicker or two.
A lot of us don’t set the hook on many fish during practice, so we don’t have a sense of what kind of weights our areas can produce. The first day I weighed in 18-02 and that surprised me. I caught a limit really quick, including a couple of nice ones, then proceeded to cull up by ounces all day. At about 9:30 I went to a secondary spot, targeting water willow bank grass. Any time there was any wood in or near the grass, like a laydown, it was a given there would be a fish on it. About 2pm I flipped my jig at just such a spot and hooked and landed a largemouth of almost 6 pounds that pulled me up to that 18-plus range, good for 12th place.
On Day Two, we had a fog delay that lasted until about 8:45, making for a short day. I was concerned that I’d beat up on my primary area a little bit too much, but given how productive it had been I had to head back there first thing. It was the first sunny day we’d had in a long time, and combined with a rapidly dropping water level that made the fishing tough. Still, I was reluctant to change tactics. I struggled to get bites and didn’t really figure out that the fish had moved off of the structure. I kept on thinking that the bigger bass would be buried in the thickest stuff and couldn’t back off. As a result, I weighed in only 11-02 and fell to 29th place. I had a couple of big flurries when the current moved, but couldn’t get a big bite.
On Day Three the rain returned and I couldn’t wait to get out there and take another shot at them. The water had come back up and that sucked me in to the thick cover once again. I was fishing the backs of some creeks, but I knew the post-spawners were moving out, so I tried to run some new water. Most of it turned out to be unproductive. I weighed in only 9-10 and fell to 40th. That was particularly disappointing because lots of other guys caught them really well. It’s frustrating to not capitalize on those conditions and I hope it doesn’t cost me the Angler of the Year title. It just goes to show that it’s a constant game of adjustments and this tournament threw as many changes as possible at us – those who adjusted the best got to keep on fishing.
As is often the case, my primary set-up this week was a ¾ ounce black/blue Lunker Lure jig with a matching Big Salty Chunk. I fished it on the 7’11” Denali flipping stick and a Lew’s Super Duty Reel spooled with 55 lb. Toray Fluorocarbon. When I have that combination in my hand I feel like I can compete anywhere. The other equipment that really helped me was my Humminbird electronics. Dardanelle can be a very treacherous system to run, and not only did my mapping software enable me to find key areas, but it helped me get in and out of them in a timely fashion.
With five Elite Series tournaments in the books, I feel really good about this year. I’m in fifth place in the Angler of the Year standings, and while I feel that I have more to give, I’m also happy that I’ve taken advantage of my opportunities. I’m fishing against some of the best anglers in the world and lots of them would change places with me in a heartbeat. Now we have three weeks off before Chickamauga and I can use a little bit of rest to regroup and recharge. We’ve been going hard since January and I’m ready to start planning my late-season charge.
15 fish, 38-14