By Todd Ceisner
One would think with as much experience and success Keith Combs has had at Lake Conroe that he would know exactly where he wants to fish and when to hit particular spots over the course of a day.
While he does have a GPS unit full of waypoints on the southeast Texas lake, he didn't follow a script at all last week at the Toyota Texas Bass Classic. He moved when his gut told him to move. He threw an assortment of baits and generally junk-fished his way to a second TTBC crown.
He gained 7 1/2 pounds of separation from the field after averaging more than 23 1/2 pounds through the first 2 days, then closed out the victory with a 15-pound bag on Sunday that made it a 12 1/2-pound blowout. His winning total was 62-02. Runner-up John Murray was the only other angler to break 50 pounds.
"Nothing was scripted," Combs said. "Even on the morning of the last day when we launched, I didn't know where to go. I have my favorite places, but I pretty much fished whatever came to mind. If I had three spots close together, I hit them all. I just fished what felt right under those conditions. On the final day, I fished whatever the wind was blowing on. That helped a lot."
What also helped him was his commitment to stay offshore and wait out the big bites with precision casts of a crankbait or a big worm, while most of the field eventually couldn't resist the pull of the boat docks toward the bank.
"With this lake, there's some main-lake structure and they practice it, but it's so hard to get a bite," he said. "Those boat docks keep sucking people in. You can catch one up there, but it's hard to consistently catch a big one.
"I do like to catch them cranking and the kind of lakes I've had success on are places that have big fish. I have to credit all the years I spent in south Texas as a guide. You're targeting big fish all the time down there. Targeting 7-pounders is not the same as targeting 3- or 4-pounders like we do at most of the places we go on tour. Conroe has those big fish and I feel like I'm more apt to commit to fishing a big-fish pattern because I feel like I have a handle on those places that can produce 30-pound bags."
Here's how he conquered Conroe again.
Combs missed the first day of official practice as he was traveling from the Elite Series All-Star event in Michigan. He was still able to put in 2 full days and he also took part in the pro-am event the day before the tournament started.
He immediately noticed some differences from 2011, when the lake was 7 feet below normal pool.
"We were here a month later then than we were this year and the fish were on creek channels," he said. "I spent some time on those this year, but they seemed to be more out on the main lake. The deepest fish I caught this week was 16 feet, so there's still a lot of fish in summertime mode out there."
He did start to pick apart a spot he found during last year's TTBC and felt like it really set up well this year.
"I didn't catch any fish on it last year, but I caught three off of it on day 2 this year and a 8-pounder in practice," he said. "It was actually two different spots – two high spots on a flat – and someone had put some fresh brush there. It may have been green, but you can tell with a crankbait."
He knew it wouldn't be an all-cranking deal and he had some areas where he could entice bites with a big worm and also spots where he could flip a jig.
"The fact that we've been here in September before, which is a good time to catch good ones in Texas, has been a blessing," he said.
> Day 1: 5, 24-08
> Day 2: 5, 23-04
> Day 3: 5, 15-00
> Total = 15, 62-12
Combs couldn't have asked for a better start to the tournament.
Over the course of the first 2 days, he didn't hang one crankbait, which is a considerable accomplishment on lake that's notorious for swallowing up plugs.
He had productive mornings both days junk-fishing around, but made sure to be precise with his casts to specific offshore structure.
"They went perfect," he said. "And it wasn't just because I was catching the right fish. This lake is bad about snagging up. It's nothing to get hung up 30 times and lose 20 plugs a day. I didn't get hung up once through the first 2 days."
After posting 24 1/2 pounds on day 1, including a 6 1/2-pounder, he assumed he'd have some company on his areas the next day, but that wasn't the case. In fact, there were no crowding issues the rest of the way.
"All of my spots were open and everybody was very courteous," he said. "If they were in the area and saw me coming, they'd say, 'Oh, sorry. Let me get out of here.' You couldn't ask for 2 better days on the water."
It's not uncommon to go several hours between bites at Conroe and Combs wasn't immune to dry spells. He made up for them by landing everything he yanked on.
"I didn't lose anything all week," he said.
The final day brought the first significant change in conditions as clouds and a stiff north wind settled over the lake for much of the morning. His good fortune about getting hung started to run out, which is a bigger deal than some would think.
Combs didn't break off any fish during the TTBC, thanks in part to Seaguar's Tatsu fluorocarbon line.
"The fish here always bite on the first cast so it's a big deal," he said. "If I can crank through a brush pile and hang it, sometimes I'll break it off or it'll come free. If I don't get a real clean path with a good deflection or I hang it, it's a done deal. They won't bite.
"I had one hole with a couple of humps and another similar spot where it was a big deal to make those critical casts."
His big fish on day 3 came off an old house foundation. A good keeper on Saturday was caught off a sunken boat. He credits his electronics, specifically Humminbird's new 360 Imaging Bow Mount, for getting a better view of the structure he fished.
"There's so much stuff in this lake," he said. "It doesn't matter what it is. If it's in the same depth range as the fish, make a cast. You never know."
Winning Pattern Notes
> While he caught several fish off brush piles, Combs noted the bottom had to have some contour to it.
"I couldn't catch them off brush on a flat," he said.
> When he fished shallow, he targeted breakwalls with rock on them or docks with specific wood nearby.
"My best shallow spot was an area that was dredged out for a breakwall on the back off a flat," he said. "I caught a 4-04 there on Friday and caught two keepers on Sunday there."
Winning Gear Notes
> Crankbait gear: 7' medium-heavy Power Tackle Paragon crankbait rod, Shimano Chronarch casting reel, 15-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon line, various Strike King crankbaits (shad patterns or sexy shad).
> His key fish on day 2 came on a Strike King 5XD (powder blue back chartreuse). When he cranked shallow cover, he threw a Strike King KVD 1.5 square-bill (black back chartreuse), swapping the stock hooks with Owner Stinger ST-36 trebles.
> Worm gear: 7'6" medium-heavy Power Tackle Paragon casting rod, same reel, 20-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. Strike King tungsten worm weight, 4/0 Owner worm hook, 10" Strike King Rage Recon worm (plum).
> Jig gear: 7'6" medium-heavy Power Tackle Paragon flipping rod, same reel, same line as worm, 1/2-oz. Strike King Hack Attack heavy cover jig (Okeechobee craw), Strike King Rage Tail chunk (Okeechobee Craw).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "Just being confident enough to stay out there. I believed the fish to win would be caught further offshore and not along the bank. I fished a lot of spots and I really feel like field had a lot of spots on this lake given a lot of the guys have fished here multiple times at this time of year. It was very hard to stay out there when you sometimes go 3 hours without a bite, but I'm glad I did."
> Performance edge – "My Humminbird 360 Imaging Bow Mount is the real deal. What Side Imaging did a few years to the way we fish, this is fixing to do the same. It's the next big deal. I've had it on my boat since just after ICAST and I said right away that somebody will win a national event because of it. I caught a 7-pounder on Saturday off the side of what I was fishing because I saw it on my 360. A lot of the places I fished I had found over the years. It may have been one isolated brush pile or something. I learned a lot with it. This was my first full week that I got to fish nothing but structure. That thing is slick. You might be fishing one brush pile and find two more while you're there. It was a big benefit this week."
> Combs isn't quite done with tournaments this year. He has a couple sponsor commitments in Mississippi next week so he plans to stick around to fish the final Bassmaster Central Open of the year at Ross Barnett Reservoir. "I just feel like fishing one more tournament," he said.