I’d been to Neely Henry twice before this tournament – once in the early spring, and once in the summertime – so I felt that I had a pretty good handle on what to expect. I had a pretty high comfort level fishing up the river and therefore I devoted most of my practice period to that portion of the lake.
Unfortunately, even my best water was pretty stingy and big bites were tough to come by. I’d keyed on certain little deals last year and on the first day of practice neither the way I’d caught them nor the specific places worked too well. I had plenty of time, though, so I just kept expanding and expanding and managed to catch a few fish along the way.
On the second day I found some areas up the river where I could get quality spotted bass to hit a Lunker Lure buzzbait in the early morning hours. It was a pretty short window of opportunity, and once it closed up the bite got tough and you really had to work to catch any more fish. I could still crank up a few with a citrus shad colored Fat Free Shad, but the size was off. The early morning topwater bite was going to be the key up there if I wanted to be competitive.
Tuesday afternoon I ran downriver about 15 miles to try to expand my focus, but they’d dropped the water and the bite was even slower there than it was where I’d started. That sealed the deal – I was going to live and die in the river. I had no intention of burning up the few precious bites that were available to me up there, so Wednesday I stayed off the water altogether and took care of some other business items. I had a game plan in mind: start with the topwater fish, then flip until about 10 or 10:30, then crank the rest of the day. The bite picked up a bit after 2pm when they turned on the water, but that’s a long time to wait if the bite is slow. It’s easy to lose confidence.
On the first day of the tournament, I made the run up to my starting spot ready to throw the buzzbait, and the spots were ready too. Well, sort of. I got the five bites I needed but rather than engulfing the lure they’d just come up and blow on it. I later figured out that the water had dropped about 4 inches and they must’ve read the textbook because that’s classic spotted bass behavior under those conditions – they’ll react, but they won’t necessarily eat.
I salvaged the day by flipping and cranking my way to a little over 9 pounds, but I knew I’d need at least 11 or 12 on Day Two to have a shot to go on. I was in 36th place and a single 4- or 5-pound bite would go a long way. Unfortunately I hadn’t had one in practice or in the tournament. I toyed with the idea of completely changing up my plan, but the water was back up and that convinced me to stick with my original area and techniques.
The buzzbait bite was disappointing again on Friday. Just one bite, a 2 pound spot, and fortunately I managed to get it into the boat. I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to make up any ground fishing that way, so I made the switch to my Carrot Stix flipping stick a little earlier than expected. In fact, I caught three more where I’d already fished the buzzbait so I knew I’d made the right decision. Unfortunately that bite petered out pretty quickly too. I’d added a 3 lb. largemouth, a pretty nice spot and a small largemouth when the flip bite just died. I cranked and flipped for what seemed like forever and didn’t get a single bite for nearly five hours.
Finally at around 2:45 they started pulling water again and the fish turned on enough to bail me out. At 3pm I caught my biggest fish of the day, a spot over three pounds, and culled out a 12 incher, but that still left one little one in the boat that I never could get rid of. It was disappointing, to say the least. If I had it to do all over again, I’d probably fish that last day of practice on the lower end of the lake, but even if I’d found something down there it would’ve been a little scary to be spread out that far. Now that the tournament’s over, I also know that a lot of guys were concentrating on tiny little creeks, but even that strategy is potentially perilous – someone can be ahead of you, vacuuming up all the fish, and you’d have no way of knowing it.
The flipping stick was once again key in this tournament, but instead of my trusty Lunker Lure jig I did most of my damage with an El Grande Hatch Match Stick, in black/blue, paired with a 3/16 ounce sinker. I focused on whatever wood cover I could find right on the bank, the thicker the better.
While I’m frustrated to have missed the cut to Day Three by the weight of one decent cull, this finish moved me up into 12th in the PAA points, right on target to make the Toyota Texas Bass Classic on Lake Conroe. Next up is the Arkansas River out of Muskogee, Oklahoma. I’ve never been there, and while river systems change from week to week or even day to day, I think in this case I’m going to head out soon to learn my way around. It’s a big river system, and we’re able to lock both up and down, which opens the horizons even further. I just want to learn how to run safely so I can maximize my efficiency and not tear up my equipment. That’s half the battle – the other half is finding the fish for the win I still crave.
22nd place; 10 fish, 21.46 lbs.