By Todd Ceisner
Main river for limits, backwaters for big-fish opportunities. That was the long and short of many anglers' strategy at last week's Forrest Wood Cup.
Figuring out where exactly on the main river and what specific backwater held those particular fish was the key to making it past the first cut and finishing near the top of the standings. Pool 5 drew the most attention throughout the course of the tournament, but a handful of anglers ventured to Pool 4 to catch some, if not all, of their fish. Pool 3 was simply a non-factor all week other than a temptation to some who had found fish there in practice.
When practice got under way, the Shreveport, La., area was in the midst of a summer heat wave. On the off day before the tournament, a cold snap moved through the region, knocking air and water temperatures down considerably. It changed the bite for most anglers as it became tougher to generate the volume of bites they saw in practice, especially in the early morning.
While winner Randall Tharp had a pretty set game plan that he tightened up as the event wore on, the rest of the Top-5 finishers had to make adjustments along the way. Other than Tharp, 3rd-place finisher Bryan Thrift and 5th-place finisher Larry Nixon also spent the duration of the event in the Top 5.
Below is a recap of how Tharp's closest challengers caught their fish at the Red.
2nd: Jacob Wheeler
> Day 1: 5, 7-04
> Day 2: 5, 13-07
> Day 3: 5, 14-04
> Day 4: 5, 14-03
> Total = 20, 49-02
Jacob Wheeler was the only pro to weigh three stringers in the teens during the Cup and fell 4 pounds shy of becoming the first two-time Cup winner not to mention a repeat champion.
Like Tharp, he fished the Bassmaster Central Open at the Red in April, and he also figured the backwaters would produce the better fish. That's where he spent the majority of his practice.
"I wanted to try to figure out what caught fish in the backwater," he said. "The backwaters were key to getting a little bigger bite. You could catch a lot of fish on the main river and you might have to run through 40 or 50 to get to 8 or 9 pounds. It was committing to that and figuring out what backwater I wanted to spend the most time."
Keepers were not a problem the first day, but he started in some backwaters that went cold in the morning after consistently producing in practice. He moved to the river, but could only muster 7-04, which had him in 40th place. He eventually dug his way out of it and was just 4 1/2 pounds off the lead entering the final day.
"I knew I needed one more big fish," he said. "I messed myself up on day 1 with just 7 pounds. I needed an 11- or 12-pound bag. You live and learn. I learned so much from this event. If you can take what you learn from each tournament and apply it to the next one, that makes you a better fisherman."
He did most of his damage with a wacky-rigged worm that he'd pitch to holes in the pads in the backwaters of Pool 5. He also caught a pile of keepers and his better fish on a SPRO Bronzeye 65 frog.
"They were mostly off wood and pads," he said. "Anywhere that had little deep channels or ditches near a flat. That's where they seemed to set up. In some of the backwaters, they'd be so far back in those areas, you'd have to go back as far as you could possibly could go and there'd one little 3-foot by 3-foot hole and you'd throw the frog in there and they'd just destroy it."
> Wacky-rig gear: 7'1" medium-action G. Loomis NRX spinning rod, Shimano Stradic Ci4 3000 spinning reel, 10-pound Sufix 832 braided line, 15-pound Sufix Castable Invisiline fluorocarbon line (leader), 2/0 VMC Wacky Weedless hook, 5 Trigger-X Flutter Worm (watermelon red).
> Main factor in his success – "Just sticking to my guns and with the baits that worked after I realized how the fish had changed."
> Performance edge – "Because I was switching baits so much in practice, I needed to keep organized and my Plano boxes were key for that. My Evinrude started every time. I bent four props this week running over stuff, but just knowing that it's going start up after running over the nastiest stuff give me a lot of confidence. Also that Sufix braid was big, knowing that I could get those out of that heavy cover. That was my life line to those fish."
> Wheeler is currently 9th in points in the Bassmaster Northern Open division with one event remaining at Lake Erie next month. He said he would accept the invitation to fish the Elite Series in 2014 if he qualifies (top 5 in points get invites). He's just not sure yet if he will fish both circuits simultaneously.
Bryan Thrift had a strong 1-2 punch of a ChatterBait and shaky-head to catch his weigh fish.
3rd: Bryan Thrift
> Day 1: 5, 18-07
> Day 2: 5, 11-00
> Day 3: 5, 9-15
> Day 4: 5, 6-11
> Total = 20, 46-01
The event started with a flourish for Bryan Thrift, who caught most of his keepers on a ChatterBait and his big fish on a shaky-head. He caught 18-07 on day 1, but his weights dipped from there. Still, he carried a 4-ounce lead over Tharp into the final day, but that's when the bottom fell out on him.
He'd caught big fish each of the first 3 days off a brush pile on a backwater point, including the tournament's big fish (7-09) on day 1, but on Sunday, the fish were gone.
"They were not there," he said. "I fished it three times and probably spent 2 hours on it."
He came into the tournament hoping to find an alternative to flipping as it's one of his least favorite ways to fish.
"Practice was mediocre at best," he said. "I thought that if I got lucky, I could catch 10 pounds after my practice. The places I'd found where I'd get the multiple bites that I was looking for, I didn't really fish them hard in practice. I'd pull up there and if I got two or three bites, I would leave. The place where I caught all of my big fish, that's what I did in practice. I pulled in and got two bites and two casts and shook them off and left."
He couldn't generate bites throwing topwater baits in the backwaters so he concentrated on numbers spots where catching quality was possible.
"I love throwing a frog, but the frog bite was virtually non-existent in practice. I wrote the frog off after practice. I tried to focus more on finding places where I could get multiple bites, likes places where if I pulled in there I might stand the chance to catch five 2 1/2-pounders if there was a school there. I ended up finding three places like that. Two of them were in Pool 5 and one of them was in 3.
"I banked on the one in 5, especially after I pulled in there and caught a 7-09 on it. I pulled in there the second day and caught a 5 and lost a 4. On Saturday, I caught another 5. That was my sweet spot. The point tapered off and fell into 17 feet on one side of it. It had a pretty sharp drop on it and it had a little brush pile sitting on the side of it. Those big fish were hanging around that brush pile in 4 to 6 feet of water. All of the big fish I caught were caught right there on the Damiki Finesse Miki worm."
> Shaky-head gear: 6'10" medium-action unnamed spinning rod, unnamed spinning reel, 15-pound unnamed braided line, 10-pound P-Line fluorocarbon line, 1/8-oz. Evercast Lures shaky-head jig, 6.5" Damiki Finesse Miki worm (watermelon candy), Zoom Trick Worm (green-pumpkin green)
> He dyed the tail of the Finesse Miki chartreuse to make it stand out.
> ChatterBait gear: 6'9" medium-heavy unnamed casting rod, unnamed casting reel (7.1:1 gear ratio), 20-pound P-Line fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. Z-Man ChatterBait (brown/black), fluke-style trailer.
>He threw the ChatterBait along the bank and got 90 percent of the bite off some sort of rock. "I'd put the trolling motor on high and just down the bank. Every now and then I'd hit a little pod of fish. You could go and go and get nothing, but then you'd get a bite and then catch five or six real quick. They were just in little wolk packs cruising down the rocks. I thought it was just fluke deal the first day."
> Main factor in his success – "Just the combination of finding those places where a group of fish might set up and that 1/8-ounce Evercast Lures shaky-head and the Damiki Finesse Miki Worm."
> Performance edge – "That Damiki Finesse Miki worm and the 10-pound P-Line Fluorocarbon. I caught that 7 1/2-pounder on a shaky-head with 10-pound line dragging him over stumps and through trees.
Kerry Milner had three straight days in double figures to close the Cup and earn a Top-5 finish.
4th: Kerry Milner
> Day 1: 5, 8-15
> Day 2: 5, 12-04
> Day 3: 5, 11-10
> Day 4: 5, 11-10
> Total = 20, 44-07
Apparently, being a BFL All-American champion automatically makes you a Cup contender right away. Arkansas' Kerry Milner, the reigning All-American champ, was one of three A-A winners to make the Top 10 at the Cup. His performance on a tough fishery under tough conditions proved he can compete with the best of the best.
He put in 10 days of pre-practice prior to the Red River going off limits.
"I looked at all the water I could get my boat into," he said.
His comfort level was pretty strong based on his experience on rivers back home.
"There are a lot more fish on the Arkansas River and a lot better quality, but it fishes a lot like it," he added.
The cold front put a dent in his expectations for day 1, but he adjusted later on and it paid off.
"I had some real quality fish found in one hole," he said. "I didn't get the quality bites there on the first day of the tournament, but I caught bigger fish there on day 2 by dragging a shaky head. If I had figured that out on day 1, I think I could've possibly changed things."
Like Wheeler, he had to shrug off a so-so day 1 and leaned heavily on a frog to produce most of his big bites and mount a comeback. He caught some fish on the river, but concentrated on the backwaters of Pool 5, particularly White House Lake and McDade, for his better bites. He also connected with some good fish on a shaky-head.
"I found three holes that I could find some quality in and I just rotated between those spots," he said.
> Flipping gear: 7'4" heavy-action St. Croix Legend Tournament casting rod, unnamed casting reel, 50-pound PowerPro braided line, 3/8-oz. unnamed tungsten weight, 3/0 and 4/0 Gamakatsu EWG Superline worm hook, Zoom Brush Hog and Baby Brush Hog (red flake and green-pumpkin magic).
> He flipped the red flake brush hog early in the morning and after the sun got higher, he went with the green-pumpkin magic.
> Shaky-head gear: 7'1" St. Croix Legend Tournament spinning rod, Shimano Stradic FJ 2500 spinning reel, 8-pound unnamed fluorocarbon line, 1/8-oz. homemade jig, Zoom Trick Worm (green-pumpkin and watermelon candy).
> He went to 20-pound fluoro when tossing the shaky-head around in the backwaters.
> Frog gear: 7'6" medium-heavy St. Croix Legend Tournament casting rod, Shimano Curado casting reel, 65-pound PowerPro braided line, SPRO Bronzeye Jr. frog (rain forest black).
> Main factor in his success – "The amount of time I spent here practicing. I decided to stay close even though I strung my practice out over all three pools somewhat. I learned that quality would be really hard to find so I stayed close."
> Performance edge – "That Ranger boat of mine has been slid over so many stumps, it has to go to Ranger next week without a doubt. My Evinrude performed great as well."
Larry Nixon found a big fish spot in White House Lake that produced until the north wind muddied it up.
5th: Larry Nixon
> Day 1: 5, 13-04
> Day 2: 5, 14-05
> Day 3: 5, 8-05
> Day 4: 5, 8-06
> Total = 20, 44-04
Larry Nixon has years of experience fishing the Red River and other lakes in east Texas and northwest Louisiana. He understands how the fish behave throughout the year and at this year's Cup, he capitalized on his knowledge to score his third career Top-5 finish at the Cup.
Patience was a key factor for Nixon, who fished a stumpy section of White House Lake and flipped certain stretches of the river in Pool 5.
"The key to the river was having flat water," he said. "If you could find any wood on flat water or any undercut banks, you were set to catch fish. It was just a matter of trolling fast and once you saw what you were looking for, shut it down and fish it real carefully.
"It needed to be 5 feet pretty close to the bank and 7 or 8 was even better, especially when flipping the cattails."
He also said the presence of any sort of wood in 2 to 7 feet was key.
"There were fish on steep stuff, but everybody was fishing that," he said
> Flipping gear: 7'3" medium-heavy Dobyns Champion 735 casting rod, unnamed casting reel, 17- and 20-pound Seaguar AbrazX fluorocarbon line, 5/16- and 3/8-oz. Gambler tungsten flipping weights with rattles, 4" Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Kreature (blue pearl silver flake).
> He opted for a white soft plastic to match the baitfish in the areas he was fishing. He also dyed the tail chartreuse. "These were are really on shad and I found if flipped a shiny white bait I could get bit behind other boats," he said. "I caught big ones on the river and I don't think think anyone else caught a big one on the river."
> He caught his bigger fish on day 4 on a SPRO frog.
> Main factor in his success – "I put 7 days in fishing the river and I'm really learning this thing pretty good. I practiced pretty hard and had some good areas and spent a lot of time doing what I like to do. The main thing was I figured out just how tough it is and it gave me a lot of patience."
> Performance edge – "My MinnKota (trolling motor) was pretty stout. It pulled me off of a lot of stuff (Sunday). It's a nightmare to troll around out there. Also, those Dobyns rods, are without a doubt, the best I've ever used."