By Todd Ceisner
Don’t expect to see Phil Marks pulling his boat all over the country anytime soon as a competitor on one of the major tournament trails. He’s pretty happy with his day job at Strike King working with pros on new product development and overseeing key sales accounts.
But every once in a while, he likes to scratch that tournament itch, and there are few lakes he enjoys doing that more at than Sam Rayburn Reservoir, a lake he used to call home several years ago.
Combining a big-fish mindset with some astute observations related to his electronics, he opened up a can of whooped bass on the field to capture his first tour-level win at the Rayburn FLW Tour Open last week.
What started as a somewhat disappointing event in terms of overall weights compared to the known potential of Rayburn, Marks closed out the tournament in spectacular fashion with a 32-12 final-day stringer that ranks as the seventh-best single-day weight in the history of FLW Tour competition and the top single-day effort on a fishery not named Lake Okeechobee. It also was the heaviest final-day weight ever in an FLW Tour event.
His massive bag on the last day propelled him to a 4-day total of 82-00 and a 16-plus pound victory over friend and fellow Texan Keith Combs.
“Obviously, it’s by far the biggest tournament I’ve won,” said Marks, who lives in Dallas now. “Fishing a 4-day event like this under this much pressure for this much money, it’s a whole different mindset than going out and fishing a 1-day team tournament where you’re just trying to catch a bag full of giants. I do specialize in catching big ones because that’s what it takes to win those 1-day tournaments. You can’t push a bad hand and hero or zero one day because then you’ll be out of it.
“That takes a little bit of learning over time. This is the highlight of my tournament career. I’m tickled to death in the way I won it, but I don’t have any plans to make any lifestyle changes.”
Here’s how he did it.
Marks has seen Rayburn go through the cyclical changes it seems to be experiencing lately. After a couple years of low water, the lake came up significantly in the spring and the fishing just hasn’t been the same since. The big fish were so scattered in practice it was hard to count on them in any particular area, prompting many pros to head to the grass mats and pluck out limits of 2- to 3-pounders.
Sensing the better fish were holding on distinct pieces of offshore structure and/or relating to the presence of shad, he focused his practice on main-lake flats that had sizable “drains, depressions or ditches that ran into them,” he said. “I would fish the breaks of the ditches. I wasn’t keying on brush piles.
“I would find a small patch of hard bottom and that’s what I was keying on. It took me a few hours in the morning to find them and I ended up finding about six or seven spots, two of which I had knowledge of prior to this tournament.”
As a backup plan, he also located some shallow fish in the back of a creek up the lake that he could pick off with a shallow-running squarebill crankbait.
“It was just a typical fall pattern with a bunch of 2- and 3-pounders roaming around busting shad,” he added.
> Day 1: 5, 17-01
> Day 2: 5, 14-02
> Day 3: 5, 18-01
> Day 4: 5, 32-12
> Total = 20, 82-00
The key part of the day for Marks during the tournament was the first 2 hours. On the first day of competition, warmer temperatures had replaced the chilly conditions that had been prevalent during practice. Changes in the weather didn’t seem to affect his deeper fish. In fact, they seemed to bite better and longer under some clouds and with some wind.
He scored 17-01 on day 1 to open the event in 3rd place, catching his bigger fish on deep-diving crankbaits, including a prototype Strike King Series 10XD, and cleaning up with a big football jig.
“I had to do my damage really in the first hour,” he said. “It was about a 20-minute run to get down to where I was at so I had a limited window. The drains I was targeting, I’d crank right up the middle of them first thing in the morning just looking for them. If I saw some on the DownScan, I’d swing the boat around and throw a 1-ounce Strike King football jig out there or an 8-inch Strike King Rage Recon worm. You had to keep moving and fish fast to catch those active fish.”
He knew he was around some big fish from the get-go as his co-angler on the first day stuck a 9-pounder.
The early bite didn’t happen for him on day 2 and he made the move to his fish in the back of the creek, where he caught 14-02 that kept him in 3rd place entering the weekend.
“I only had one 14-incher and ran to my backup spot with some shallow fish in 2 to 4 feet that no one else in the tournament had found,” he said. “Those fish saved me. I ran up there and managed to get up to 14 pounds and that kept me in the hunt.”
He started dialing in the bigger fish on day 3, weighing a 5- and 7-pounder from the same honey hole that kicked out a 5 on day 1 as he took the lead from Combs with an 18-01 sack. He had learned the area so well on his electronics that he could literally tell the difference between a school of threadfin shad and gizzard shad and, in turn, could predict what size bass were stalking which bait.
“I could tell the difference between little Kentuckys and smaller balls of threadfin shad,” he said. “What I was looking for were big-looking fish that were chasing gizzard shad, which look a lot different than a school of threadfins on the DownScan. When I’d see those what I call ‘worms’ on the screen and if I saw gizzard shad, I was fixing to get bit by a big one.
“I was moving the crankbait pretty fast and I could tell by the thickness of the mark whether it was a spotted bass or a 6-pounder.”
Marks relied on the Quantum Tour KVD reel to burn his crankbaits down through the strike zone.
Day 4 brought about another drastic weather shift, but it had Marks pumped up since he was sure his offshore fish would fire with the windy and rainy conditions. Once again, the first 90 minutes of the day proved to be crucial as he caught giant after giant off the same spot that produced his big fish on days 1 and 3. His lightest fish was a 5 3/4-pounder.
“When we’d get some weather, they’d just bite longer and more aggressively,” he said. “I caught them just like this during all 3 days in practice and all 4 days of the tournament. If you do something for a week straight, you can get pretty good at it. The last two days I was fortunate enough to catch some of those big ones early.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Crankbait gear: 7’3” medium-heavy Power Tackle Paragon Series casting rod, Quantum Tour KVD casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 12-pound Gamma fluorocarbon line, Strike King Series 6XD crankbait (pearl/black splatter with chartreuse belly).
> When he threw the 10XD (same color as 6XD), he used an 8’ Power Tackle Swimbait Special rod – a regular cranking rod is too limber – with 16-pound Gamma fluorocarbon. He also put 2/0 Mustad KVD Elite Series Short Shank Triple Grip treble hooks on the bait, which allowed him to swing his bigger fish into the boat. “When I’d get them, it was like I had six jig hooks in them,” he said. “I swung two of the big ones (on day 4). The 8-pounder wasn’t hooked too good, so I lipped him. You can be pretty rough with them. Some people were freaking out when they showed some of the footage at the weigh-in.”
> More on the 10XD: “It’s not a magic bait. Big fish eat big bait,” he said. “That’s the big deal. Those bass at Rayburn eat Kentucky spotted bass and giant gizzard shad. They were spitting up Kentuckys in my livewell, 8 and 10 ounces at a time. That being said, you can go a long time without getting a bite, but when you do get a bite, it’s going to have some size.”
> On day 2, most of his fish came on a Strike King KVD 1.0 squarebill.
> Jig gear: 7’6” medium-heavy Power Tackle Paragon Series casting rod, Shimano Curado casting reel (7.1:1 ratio), 20-pound Gamma fluorocarbon line, 1-ounce Strike King Tour Grade Heavy Hook football jig (peanut butter and jelly), Strike King Rage Craw trailer (junebug or candy craw).
> He used the junebug trailer in low-light conditions and switched to the candy craw once the sun broke through.
> He also caught a few fish on a Texas-rigged 8” Strike King Rage Recon Worm.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Targeting big fish and fishing water that other people weren’t fishing. I was targeting those bigger fish, but I was also prepared to make a move if I needed to go fill out a limit up shallow. My fish were different-looking, too. A lot of guys’ fish were long, skinny fish from up shallow. My fish were fat and round. They were just different-looking fish.”
> Performance edge – “I could not have lived without the Lowrance HDS-10s and the StructureScan. I’d crank down those drains and a lot of the fish wouldn’t be in the same place. They’d move up and down these ditches and if I didn’t catch one on a crankbait to let me know they were there, I’d see them on the DownScan, then spin around and throw the jig out. That was critical.”
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