By Todd Ceisner
The one word that kept coming up in talking to the top finishers about how they went about their work at last week's Lake Dardanelle Bassmaster Elite Series was "simple."
Winner Jason Christie forced himself to focus on one area of the lake and eventually settled on one technique to catch the winning stringers. Runner-up Gerald Swindle did the same in terms of zeroing on a specific area, but employed a couple techniques that proved effective throughout.
One would think with so many variables changing seemingly multiple times a day, fishing would be anything but simple But those who stuck with their game plans and didn't get into running around the lake chasing bites had the best outcomes. Despite water temperatures that plummeted 15 degrees in some areas in the matter of a few days to rising and falling water after steady rains in practice, the fish proved to stay generally where they had been.
It just took a few adjustments each day to get tuned in to what the Arkansas River bass were up to.
Following is a recap of how the rest of the Top 5 filled their livewells at Dardanelle.
2nd: Gerald Swindle
> Day 1: 5, 18-12
> Day 2: 5, 14-02
> Day 3: 5, 19-00
> Day 4: 5, 20-01
> Total = 20, 71-14
Swindle was bent on not getting caught up in a how many places he could fish each day during the tournament. Instead, he pared his options down to Mud Creek and Shoal Bay in the mid-lake area.
"I focused on key areas I'd fished before and I knew where they lived in three or four creeks down there," he said. "I limited myself to that area."
In practice, he shook off most every bite so he wasn't able to gauge the true potential out of Shoal Bay or Mud Creek.
"My whole strategy was to fish the tournament there and figure it out and not run around a whole lot," he added. "There were a couple patterns going on and it changed every day so I had three or four rods ready and I knew if I stayed in there, I'd be able to figure out what they were doing."
His main focus was shallow vegetation where fish would pull into or out of depending on whether the water was rising or falling.
"When the water got high, the fish got up in the grass or even behind it and I had to flip or punch through the mats to get a bait to them," he said. "On day 2, the water fell out and fish moved out to the front edge of the grass and by the afternoon they were way out in front of the grass and that's when I picked up a black and blue ChatterBait with a Zoom Z-Hog Jr. and started catching them out there."
He said he'd keep his boat in 3 feet and throw up into water 1 1/2 feet deep in front of the grass. He eventually figured out the farther he moved off the bank – "no man's land," as he called it – the better the bite was.
"That gave me a chance to build on it on day 3," he said. "I caught a good limit, but the water was back up and by the end of the day, I went around flipping isolated cover. Everything was in the same area and I'd just keep going around and around. There were fish on logs, sticks, pretty much everything. I culled a bunch of times with a Booyah jig."
He felt like that pattern would hold up through the final day, but as had been the case throughout for many competitors, he had to figure them out all over again.
"I caught two on the ChatterBait right where they were supposed to be," he noted," but then it died off. I went flipping and caught a 5 1/2 and a 14-incher. I didn't have my fifth keeper until about 2 o'clock. I struggled more to find them. John Crews had been fishing in there, too, so I started to think that maybe we had fished it out."
He made a move and started getting bites again with the bladed jig on the outside grass lines as the water dropped about 10 inches from the previous day.
"I figured out on day 4 they wanted it a lot faster," he said. "The other days it was right along the bottom, but the last day I saw them all eat the bait right under the surface."
On his way back to the ramp on Sunday, he stopped on a couple places on a whim and picked up two key upgrades that helped him lock down 2nd place.
"It was just small, simple adjustments and not thinking or fishing out the box," he said. "You just had to figure out the positioning of the fish. It seemed like they changed twice a day. They'd be within 10 feet of grass and then they'd be 25 or 30 yards out in front of it."
> ChatterBait gear: 7'2" medium-heavy Quantum Exo PT Tour casting rod, Quantum Tour Mg casting reel (6.3:1 ratio), 18-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. Z-Man Original ChatterBait (black/blue), Zoom Z-Hog Jr. trailer (black sapphire).
> He also caught a few fish on a chartreuse and white ChatterBait, but the black/blue model seemed to produce better in the muddy water.
> He opted for Shooter fluoro because "it's real strong, but it has a small enough diameter that it still gives the bait good action," he said.
> Flipping gear: 7'6" heavy-action Quantum Exo PT Tour casting rod, same reel, 25-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. Booyah Boo Jig (black/blue), Zoom Big Salty Chunk trailer (black/blue).
> Main factor in his success – "Taking a simple approach and not getting caught up with running around and looking. I went to where I got bites and fished around and fished everything I could. Whether it was a stump, blowdowns, grass, I never let my guard down and was on red alert the whole time. It forced me to be more patient and work around everything. It was simple once I understood what the fish were doing."
> Performance edge – "My decision to fish slow and remain patient and not get rattled. I joked with my marshal every day about the bracelet I wear that says, 'PMA' on it. It stands for Positive Mental Attitude. That was the whole key. Guys would run in and run out and say they only got a couple bites. Of the 9 hours we had, I spent 8 hours, 40 minutes pitching and casting the ChatterBait around. I just kept my baits in the areas where the fish were."
Greg Hackney had a bit of history at Lake Dardanelle, but he opted to fish areas he hadn't fished before.
3rd: Greg Hackney
> Day 1: 5, 21-13
> Day 2: 5, 18-01
> Day 3: 5, 16-10
> Day 4: 5, 15-03
> Total = 20, 71-11
Greg Hackney came into the event thinking 18 pounds a day would've been plenty to secure the winner's paycheck and shiny, blue trophy. He was nearly spot-on with his guess.
"If someone had given me 18 a day, I'd have stayed on the bank," he said.
As it turned out, it would've taken 18-01 a day to beat Christie – by an ounce. Hackney was right on pace for that through 3 days as he carried the lead through the middle portion of the event, only to see Christie and Swindle slip past him on the final day.
Still, he came away with his third 3rd-place finish of a busy two-tour season and moved up to 2nd in the Angler of the Year (AOY) points. He did it by flipping edges of grass mats and casting jigs along natural rock banks.
"It was real simple fishing," he said. "I couldn't tell you the last time a black and blue jig played a factor in a tournament for me. Normally, we have to trick them all out. I wasted more time on the first day of the tournament trying to catch them different ways."
He spent his entire day 1 up river and came back with 21-13, which put him behind only John Crews. On day 2, he opted to fish an area just 5 minutes from the launch ramp. Over the final 2 days, he split his time between the two in an effort to hit spots at the right time and also to manage the fish.
"Typically, this place fishes real small, but I didn't share water with anybody," he said. "I was surprised that everything I wanted to run to nobody got on it. Closer to the ramp, a lot of guys were fishing grass, but I stayed away from that."
He located some floating grass mats in shallow water upriver and was able to pick them off around the outside with a half-ounce jig. He caught a handful punching the mats when the water came up, but could only catch little ones.
"The big ones were related to the outside edge regardless if it was 1 or 3 feet deep," he said. "I think the cloudy weather was probably the reason for that."
> Flipping gear: 7'11" heavy-action Quantum Tour Hackney casting rod, Quantum Exo PT 200 casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 65-pound Gamma Torque braided line, 1/2-oz. Strike King Hack Attack jig (Bama craw), Strike King Rage Tail Craw trailer (Bama craw).
> Casting jig gear: 7'10" heavy-action Quantum Exo casting rod, same reel, 20-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. Strike King Denny Brauer Structure Jig (black/blue), Strike King Rage Tail Craw trailer (black/blue).
> When he cranked he threw an unnamed wooden square-bill and weighed in a 3 1/2-pounder on day 1 and a 4 3/4-pounder on day 4 on it, both of which came off the same piece of wood.
> He also caught four other 3-pound caliber fish from the same piece of wood during the event. "It was a special piece of wood," he said. "I found it on day 1 and went in there to crank and fired on it and caught a 3 1/2 and a 3. I went day on day 3 and caught two more 3s off it. I think the way it was sitting, those spawned out females would stop there first before heading out to the main-river grass beds and dropoffs."
> He thinks had his jig patterns not produced, he could've had a strong week focusing on wood. "It was a pattern and I thought about it everywhere I'd been this week," he said. "I just never looked for it. I had so much else to do and fish. I wish I'd gone with it more."
> Main factor in his success – "I started off practice on places I'd never fished before and that got me going in the right direction. I had in my mind where I'd start. When I was running upriver and looked over and saw something I liked, I thought, 'I've never fished there before.' And I've fished here off and on since the early '90s. There's still so much I've never looked at it. If we come back, I'm fixing to fish other places I've never fished before."
> Performance edge – "Because I was running and gunning so much, my Phoenix and Mercury. Everyone that was in my boat this week said they'd never been in anything like it. It's a hammer."
Rick Clunn averaged a little more than 17 1/2 pounds a day to notch his best finish of the season.
4th: Rick Clunn
> Day 1: 5, 18-05
> Day 2: 5, 17-14
> Day 3: 5, 19-08
> Day 4: 5, 15-04
> Total = 20, 70-15
While other competitors had their sights set on shallow and shoreline cover, Rick Clunn slid out a little further and discovered a pattern that wasn't heavy on quantity, but produced enough quality bites a day to make him a contender.
"In practice, I was figuring out the bigger fish weren't really hanging out in the grass," he said. "Some guys were swimming a jig. In fact, I'd say probably 80 percent of the field was. It made me feel like I was doing something a little different and I felt good about it."
He combed the outer edges of grass lines with stumps and wood with a beefy square-bill crankbait and threw a spinnerbait where the crank couldn't get to.
"I was just making 2,000 casts during the day hoping my timing was right for the bigger bites," he added. "Other boats were on top of that stuff and that's why I was so confident. I knew the boats ahead of me or behind me weren't going to hurt me.
"The whole key was throwing that big (Luck-E-Strike) Series 4 square-bill. It works almost anytime in off-color or dirty water. In the past, I've had that bite and with all the fresh rain we had, the visibility was about 2 to 6 inches and that's perfect for that bait."
> Cranking gear: 7' heavy-action Wright & McGill S-Glass cranking rod, Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Signature Series casting reel (6.4:1 ratio), 17-pound Bass Pro Shops Excel monofilament line, Luck E Strike Series 4 RC square-bill crankbait (copper perch).
> He swapped the stock hooks for larger Lazer TroKar round-bend trebles.
> He also threw a Luck E Strike Trickster spinnerbait (chartreuse red) with a 4" Luck E Strike Ringworm trailer (white). "The key on the spinnerbait is the drop blade," he said. "It's a cross between a willow and an Indiana. It's just a big bass blade."
> Main factor in his success – "The off-colored water in the major creeks."
> Performance edge – "Everything performed how it should."
Keith Combs cranked rock and flipped shoreline cover to notch his best Elite Series finish of the year.
5th: Keith Combs
> Day 1: 5, 19-14
> Day 2: 5, 16-10
> Day 3: 5, 17-11
> Day 4: 5, 14-00
> Total = 20, 68-03
Keith Combs came in off a victory at the Land of the Giants (Lake Fork) and kept his crankbait rod handy to notch his best Elite Series finish of the year and fourth straight of 22nd or better.
He cranked a variety of square-bill plugs on riprap corners near bridges and flipped undercut banks along the river.
"It was a pretty basic pattern," he said. "When I was in the mix to win, I was thinking, 'I can't believe this simple of a pattern carried me this far.' Maybe it was too simple and the fish got burned out.
"Anytime I can do any kind of cranking is when I'm the most confident, or flipping a jig. I really fished my strengths."
He caught 19-14 on day 1 to open the tournament in a tie for 4th and he never slipped out of the Top 5 all week.
"The first day was incredible," he said. "I was shocked by how many quality fish were caught. I must've caught 16 pounds four times. I just timed everything right. I know I fished behind guys doing the same thing I was doing, but my timing was absolutely perfect. It was one of the most fun fishing days I can remember."
Moving water was a key element to the areas that produced for him.
"Everything I caught fish on had current on it," he said. "On the last day, there was no current and I didn't get bit flipping. If there was a mistake looking back that was it, but you never know how much current there will be until you go out and look at it."
Even with the changing conditions, he stayed with the same game plan and baits. He made three stops up the river each morning and worked his way back toward Russellville as the day wore on.
"I kept it simple," he said. "Sometimes the water would be muddy or clear, but it didn't matter. The fish would be there regardless of the situation. I didn't get caught up with the changes that were happening. I stuck with my program."
When he fished bridges, even the smallest rock point was worth a few casts.
"I caught a big one on day 3 flipping hardwood," he said. "I know some good fish were caught flipping shoreline grass, too, but I didn't get dialed into that. If I got bit on the crankbait, sometimes I'd get a little flurry going."
> Cranking gear: 7' medium-action Power Tackle KC 170 casting rod, Shimano Curado casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 15-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon line, Strike King KVD HC square-bill 2.5 crankbait (Tennessee shad, sexy shad).
> Jig gear: 7'6" medium-heavy Power Tackle PG 104.5 casting rod, same reel, 25-pound Seaguar AbrazX fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. Strike King Hack Attack jig (black/blue), unnamed chunk trailer (black/blue).
> Main factor in his success – "Being confident. I'd gotten bigger bites in practice cranking rocks and caught plenty of fish flipping reeds up the river, but I didn't feel like the size was there. I stuck with where I felt like I could catch the bigger ones and stayed with the bigger crankbait to catch better average fish."
> Performance edge – "It was a good, clean tournament all around."
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