By Todd Ceisner
Jason Christie feels the most comfortable on the water when his front deck isn't littered with rods and a slew of baits tied on for various techniques.
"I'm best when I get one rod in my hand and pick an area and try to catch every fish in that area," he said.
He employed that simple, straightforward approach last week in dissecting fields of water willow in Illinois Bayou, a popular area that produced his winning stringers at the Lake Dardanelle Bassmaster Elite Series.
By swimming a jig around the edges of matted vegetation, he averaged just over 18 pounds a day to outdistance Gerald Swindle by 4 ounces and claim his fifth career tour-level win and fourth in the last 14 months.
The field had to contend with rapidly falling water temperatures as well as rising and falling water following heavy rains during practice. Rather than run all over the lake trying to hit areas when conditions were right, Christie spent the duration of the tournament in Illinois Bayou a short boat ride from the launch ramp. He adjusted his presentation based on whether the water was coming up or going down and gradually moved his way up the leaderboard from 26th after day 1.
Here's how he did it.
Christie didn't arrive at Dardanelle until last Monday morning after placing 5th at the Toyota Texas Bass Classic at Lake Fork the previous day. He launched at Spadra Creek around 11 a.m. and spent his day in there.
"I thought that's where I'd end up fishing," he said.
After seeing a lot of rain in the forecast for the coming days, he opted to scratch all of the creeks off his list, knowing some of them would be borderline unfishable with the rising, dirty water.
"I felt like with the water getting dirtier, water willow would be a big key and I didn't see a lot of it in Spadra," he said. "There were more cattails, wood and lily pads in there."
On Tuesday, he fished the lower end of the lake and on Wednesday, he launched on the lower end with the intent of fishing up to Spadra Creek, but never got anything going that way.
"Once it started raining, I started looking for areas with potential rather than fished," he said. "I fished some, but I really just looked for spots I liked the looks of.
"In Illinois Bayou, there wasn't a better part of it. It was all about fishing the wind and current in the water willow. When you could both together, that's when it was good."
He deemed his practice average, but he figured if he could focus on one area and narrow down his techniques he'd have a shot at catching quality post-spawn fish that were sliding up and down with the current changes. He also felt comfortable committing to a shallow-water pattern with the amount of rain that came in, which put a good deal of stain in the water.
Still, he had no inkling that he was around the winning fish.
"The thing that bothered me in practice was I didn't have an area where I thought I could go and just catch 'em," he said. "I had the choice of fishing Illinois Bayou or Spadra. The thing about Spadra was I caught some good weights there, but I caught them cranking and flipping and it was just here and there. There wasn't a set way to catch them.
"In Illinois Bayou, it was surrounded by water willow and I'm pretty familiar with it and I've fished it a bunch. I had a lot of experience with fish and how they act in it when the water comes up and the current gets going."
> Day 1: 5, 16-07
> Day 2: 5, 16-10
> Day 3: 5, 20-00
> Day 4: 5, 19-02
> Total = 20, 72-03
At takeoff on day 1, Christie faced a coin-flip choice of whether to fish at Spadra or stay in Illinois Bayou. He ultimately chose the latter and wound up spending his whole tournament in there.
The weights across the board were surprisingly strong on day 1 and his 16-07 stringer put him in 26th place. He said he fished the entire area and there was a considerable amount of fishing pressure within the bayou, but he stuck it out.
"I was just fishing to move up in points and get a good finish," he said.
A 2-hour fog delay at the start of day 2 caused him some consternation as the time immediately after takeoff had produced some quality bites on day 1.
"That was the toughest day by far because it got sunny and slick," he said. "There seemed to be two feeding times for those fish – during the first hour or so and then from 1 p.m. on. Some of it was due to current, I think a lot of it was due to the full moon. Usually on a moon, there's a good bite in the middle of the day."
It was around the middle of day 2 when he opted to narrow his fishing options down to a mile-long stretch rather than try to fish the whole area like he'd done the first day.
"There were a lot of key places on that stretch because that’s where the water was the dirtiest," he said. "I got lucky because toward the end of the first day and at the start of the second, the water had started to clear up, but the creek up above my stretch got muddy from the rain we'd had Thursday night and it made it dirty again."
He brought in 16-10 on the shortened day to move into 10th place, nearly 7 pounds behind then-leader Greg Hackney.
"I figured if I could make it to Saturday, the place would clear out, but it almost seemed like there was more traffic in there Saturday," he said. "The good thing was a lot of the guys were fishing riprap and bridges and I wasn't playing that game myself."
His confidence started to build on day 3 when he bagged 20-00 to move into 4th place, cutting his deficit to Hackney in half.
"The second, third and fourth day, I really started learning the area and expanding the area and getting more confidence in it," he added. "I'd have stretches and see a boat fishing another stretch I had and they weren't catching them because I knew they wouldn't bite until the current got right.
"I just had a lot of confidence in the area and what I was doing and the way I was fishing. I knew everyone else around me was catching them, too, but I felt that with me swimming a jig … there's no better big-fish bait than that. The area I focused on was where it choked down and it seemed to create more current in that mile stretch. It still had flats, but above that stretch it was more of a straight ditch."
The Lew's BB-1 Pro was Christie's reel of choice for swimming a jig around water willow at Lake Dardanelle.
He caught his average of about 12 keepers on the final day, but he continued to find quality fish in and around the water willow. He had a decent morning, but that afternoon feeding window produced yet again as he culled his way up to 19-02, just enough to seal the win.
Winning Pattern Notes
> Water willow is fairly prevalent on the Arkansas and Tennessee River systems and Christie is well-versed in how fish behave around it when the water conditions change. He's fairly certain the current moving through the area is what had the fish in a feeding mode.
"Fish on these rivers feed when the current moves," he said. "You can fish right by them and not get bit when that current isn't rocking. If the water was coming up, I targeted the very shallowest stuff thinking that they had their nose on the bank and were coming up with the water."
> He said on the final day the water was receding so he looked for wider beds of water willow and targeted the outside edges. "I figured the wider it was the more fish it would pull out to me on the edge."
> He said the majority of the fish he caught were in thick mats of water willow, but the bigger ones were on the edges, and they were all fairly high in the water column. "They didn't come up to get it," he said. "They'd charge after it. I saw them all eat it. The way I was swimming the jig it was almost like a spinnerbait bite. With any other bait, I could flip it up there on the bank and bring it back out over something, but the jig acted like a spinnerbait or a moving bait and if I came to something thick or matted, I could still flip it in there and fish it normally. I didn't catch many that way because they were so high in the grass.
> His retrieve was also unique in that he ripped or thumped the jig rather than bring it back steadily all in an effort to trigger reaction strikes.
Winning Gear Notes
> Swim jig gear: 7'3" heavy-action Falcon Cara T7 swimbait rod, Lew's BB-1 Pro casting reel (7.3:1 gear ratio), 25-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. Booyah Boo Jig (black/blue), 2.75" YUM F2 Craw Chunk trailer (virgo blue).
> The Boo Jig comes with a rattle collar on it, but when Christie would fish near the mouth of Illinois Bayou and the water seemed a little clearer, he would rip the rattles off and still catch fish. "I caught some key fish on days 2 and 3 on stretches that I knew had been hammered on where the clearer water was," he said. "I just took the rattles off and kept catching them."
> He also downsized the jig's profile by removing about a third of the 50 skirt strands. By doing so, it created a more streamlined bait with the trailer. "The Craw Chunk has a good swimming action with a smaller profile," he said. "By taking the strands out, the bait was still a good size, but it wasn't as gaudy. Leaving all the strands in would cause the bait to lift and it would swim too slow."
> Christie also had a YUM Wooly Bug rigged up on a flipping rod in case he couldn't get them fired up with the jig. He also had a frog tied on in case of a blow up that he couldn't reach again with the jig. "Every cast I made with something other than the jig, though, I felt like I was wasting time," he said.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "The biggest thing for me was that first morning at takeoff as we were getting ready, I was thinking, 'Spadra or Illinois Bayou.' I made the decision right then that's where I'd fish."
> Performance edge – "Everything worked flawlessly from my engine to my trolling motor. You don't even think about it, but every cast until the end of the day was crucial. Sometimes when you have a good day, you'll come in a few minutes early. I was checking in in the last minute every day and I caught three fish over 4 pounds in the last minutes during the tournament."
> Christie said it didn't occur to him until driving home Sunday night that he'd locked up a berth in next year's Bassmaster Classic by virtue of his victory. It just happens the 2015 Classic, which will be his third in a row, will be at Lake Hartwell where he won his first FLW Tour event in March 2011. "It sure takes a lot of pressure off of me for the rest of the year," he said. "It doesn't matter where the Classic is, you just want to be a part of it."
> Christie has only fished 24 B.A.S.S. tournaments, but has won four of them.
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