By Todd Ceisner
There's a rusted out bulldozer on one bank, an abandoned yellow school bus on the other. There's a backwater pond made famous by a goose with a temperamental bowel.
The popular community fishing holes are known as Sullivan's, White House, McDade, Big Jungle, Little Jungle, Bobo's Hole and the Beehive. All have a story unto themselves the one about the dozer is a doozy that would be best told on an episode of Maury.
For years, some considered it to be the poster child for government pork barrel spending. Now, it's become one of the top venues for major bass tournaments, especially when the big $500,000 big money's on the line.
Welcome to the Red River, where over the next 4 days, 46 anglers from 20 different states will brave grueling summer heat, pesky stump after pesky stump and the pressure that's inherent to a championship event, all in pursuit of one of bass fishing's crown jewels the Forrest Wood Cup.
The fishing figures to be a grind, seeing that any specimen over 2 pounds is being hailed as a "quality" bite this week. From the sounds of it, the first couple hours in the morning could be critical to putting together a stringer of double-digit quality because once the Louisiana sun starts beating down, things slow way down. Keepers are fairly easy to come by, but four straight bags of 14-inchers won't get it done here.
Compared to past tour-level events at the Red, the bulk of which have been held much earlier in the year, the river is in good shape. While the water has dirtied up since pre-practice, it's chock full of vegetation and wood, and water levels have been relatively stable since late June. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, parts of northwest Louisiana in the Red River watershed are presently considered to be abnormally dry or in a moderate drought.
A semi-cold front started to push through the area Tuesday and should be gone by Thursday morning, but it's hard to forecast how the off-day cloud cover will affect the bite, if at all. The Red is notoriously sensitive to any sudden influx of water so it could be a bit dingier come tournament time.
As far as the backwaters go, some are easily reachable. Others are silted in or choked with hyacinth and lily pads with stems bulging 6 or 8 inches out of the water. Laydowns, standing timber and the ever-present stumps figure to draw plenty of attention this week as well.
Water temperatures in the low to mid 90s some backwaters topped out near 100 degrees were common during the 3 days of official practice that concluded Tuesday. The river will be a player this week simply due to the volume of bass that swim the main channel, but the action won't be fast and furious from Shreveport in Pool 5 to Natchitoches in Pool 3.
"It's the toughest time of year to pattern fish," said seven-time Cup qualifier Bryan Thrift, who finished 3rd last year at Lake Lanier. "It doesn't matter where you're at. It's just hard to get on a consistent bite this time of year. It's typical, hot summertime fishing. It doesn't matter if you're in a reservoir, natural lake or river, you can't predict what they'll be doing. You can catch them from 2 inches to 30 feet because they're doing so many different things."
JT Kenney has had some flourishes in the morning before the temperature really starts to rise.
Most competitors who spent time at the Red prior to the off-limits period were pretty sure the fish they located then will likely remain in the same vicinity this week, especially those that roam the backwaters. Some have remarked that with such a small field, crowding shouldn't be an issue, but that will be one area to monitor, especially if guys stake a claim to spot on day 1.
This will mark the second Cup staged at the Red (Dion Hibdon won the first in 2000) and the third time in 5 years it's hosted one of bass fishing's marquee tournaments (the 2009 and 2012 Bassmaster Classic were held here as well, albeit in February both times).
It's fast becoming one of those venues that offers a little bit of everything plenty of water, challenging fishing with the opportunity to catch a big kicker and even more challenging navigation while forcing competitors to make some pretty hard decisions along the way.
Bottom line, the Red has everything you'd want in a championship-level fishery. As longtime Red River guide and winner of the 2002 Bassmaster Central Open Homer Humphreys put it, "I remember going off on tour with B.A.S.S. and seeing all the different places and coming home and saying I wish I had a place like that at home. Now I do, love it or hate it.
"It's got anything you would want to do fishing wise and to me, it's better than Social Security. The fish will be there."
He also expects the spectator traffic to rival that which was seen at the two Classics that were based in Shreveport and Bossier City.
"You're 45 minutes from Arkansas, 2 hours from Mississippi, 45 minutes from Texas and 3 hours from Dallas," he said. "It's just perfect. This is going to be as good or better than anything they've ever had here."
Before getting into more specifics about the bite, as well as reports from the field, here's more about the Cup waters.
In the Google map below, we've pinpointed some key locations in pools 4 and 5 with Humphreys' help. Click on any of the pushpins to reveal more details.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Red River
> Type of water: Lowland flood-control river
> Fishable miles: 120-plus
> Primary structure/cover: Pads, hyacinth mats, stumps, laydowns, standing timber, riprap, river ledges
> Average depth: Roughly 4 feet in the oxbows
> Species: Largemouths
> Reputation: Lots of fish, some big fish, but they're in specific places and timing is a major factor.
> Weather: Temperatures will push into the 90s during the tournament days with overnight lows in the upper 60s. Should be mostly rain-free.
> Water temp: Upper 80s climbing into the 90s during the daytime.
> Water visibility/color: Stained in most places with 6 to 12 inches of visbility. Backwaters are in good shape.
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: 1 to 10 feet
> Fish phase: Summer
> Primary patterns: Flipping (jigs, plastics), crankbaits, topwaters, frogs, spinnerbaits
> Winning weight (4 days): 51 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 20 after 2 days): 19 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for the Red
> Biggest factors: The big bite. They're just so random at this point. One a day could earn you some separation from the pack. Two a day could put you at the top of the heap.
> Wildcard: Pool 3. With longer fishing days, it's conceivable someone in the later flight could run down there and fish for 3 to 4 hours and bring back some weight. It's a long way down and back, though, with two locks to negotiate.
So Many Variables
You'd think with it being the dead of summer in northwest Louisiana, fishing strategy would be simplified to a point. Think again. At the Red River, nothing's simple. Sure, there are areas where you can catch 30 to 40 fish in a day, but to reach the anticipated 12 pounds a day some think it will take to contend for the Cup, someone will need to collide with a 3- or 4-pounder each day.
It's fair to say a good majority of fish will be caught shallow (1 to 6 feet), but that's about the only surety. The variables that will come into play this week are almost too numerous to mention. From the mental and physical toll of fishing in the heat to making the right decision on where to start in the morning to keeping your boat and motor in one piece, each competitor will have a full plate in addition to trying to locate the most fertile fishing areas.
As much as people enjoy fishing the Red earlier in the year because of the big-fish potential, Humphreys likes the summertime because it narrows down where the bass will be.
"In August, I love it because the fish on the river live in 1 to 5 feet of water all year long," he said. "There are so many baitfish out there. You don't really catch them in 15 to 20 feet. They're all caught flipping or pitching or casting shallow cranks.
"To catch numbers, the river is loaded with them. You have to do a lot of weeding through fish, but if you can catch to 10 to 12 pounds a day on the river and go down into Pool 4 for a chance at a kicker fish, you'll be in good shape."
A Red River lifer who's used to the intense heat and humidity, Humphreys said it takes a special mindset to hunker down and fish hard for 4 straight days in hot weather.
David Dudley says luck will play a major role in the outcome this week just because the bigger fish are so scarce right now.
"Mentally, if you have the right attitude, it's hard to beat you in the summertime," he said.
According to Humphreys, flipping, topwaters and crankbaits will be the primary methods of catching fish this week.
"The crankbaits will be a factor," he said. "You can cover a lot of water with them, especially on the river. It'll catch numbers and it'll catch some bigger fish. If it were earlier in the summer, I'd say maybe a swimbait would work, too, but it's just not the right time for it.
"If someone's totally lost or they spent a couple hours in a backwater and got skunked, they could get a crankbait going on the river and catch a stringer of fish. Flipping and pitching will be a mindset thing. You're going to get one to six bites if you're lucky fishing that way and there are 2-pounders in places where you're sure a 7-pounder lives."
Pace And Timing Will Be Big
In 2012, Humphreys was called upon to help out the Shreveport Times for its Classic coverage. He was asked to choose one competitor who he'd send home right away because his fishing style didn't jive with the Red River. Considering all of the options, he defiantly chose Kevin VanDam, who was coming off back-to-back Classic victories.
"I said, 'He fishes way too fast and the river's way too slow for him,'" he said. "The Red is a slow fisherman's dream."
Consequently, VanDam finished 11th at the Red. It's true that the Red is hardly a power-fisherman's paradise. Idling in and out of backwaters is time consuming and treacherous at times and you can go hours targeting fishy-looking areas up and down the river without getting bit.
One choice some anglers will wrestle with is when or if to lock through to Pool 4 and/or Pool 3. Those choosing the latter will be sacrificing up to 2 hours of fishing time sitting in the locks, not to mention the time running down there.
It's also a place, however, where if you hit the right spot at the right time, things can go your way in a hurry.
"The time I won here and finished 2nd (2008 Central Open), I fished a 50-yard stretch and a 30-yard stretch," Humphreys said. "I'd just go back and forth real slowly and they'd move up periodically. When they did, I could catch 17 to 20 pounds.
"This place is notorious for having fish pull up to one stump or tree and in five casts someone could catch 16 pounds. Timing will be a huge factor."
Is Pool 3 Worth It?
The biggest wild card entering the Cup is which anglers, if any, will make the lengthy run to Pool 3 in hopes of finding some untouched water and maybe a backwater where the fish haven't seen a bait in months.
With the extended competition days (the field blasts off at 7 a.m. and the last flight on the first 2 days is due in at 5 p.m.), the temptation will be there to burn half the day running and locking. Humphreys doesn't feel like it's worth the time or risk because he feels there are plenty of winning-quality fish in pools 4 and 5.
"Someone asked me why I don't ever lock through," he said. "I just know too many stumps that hold fish. If you understand the river, you can do that. You can pinpoint places that typically hold fish."
"I don't see why (Pool 3) would (play a factor). Reason being, you can catch a limit off rocks in the river fairly easily. I don't see it being a factor at this time of year."
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"I havent caught any good fish and very few of them have been over 12 1/2 inches. That's been frustrating. It's hard enough to get a bite and when you do, it's one of those fish. If I feel like I can 10 or 11 pounds, I'm going to pool 3. I think 11 pounds will be a good day on the river for 4 days. Maybe you won't win it, but it'll put you in contention.
"I've done a little bit of everything. Even though I don't particularly like it, I've had a few bites flipping. You can get bit a bunch of different ways, but it's just a struggle to catch anything of any size. I'm really not that confident due to the fact that I haven't caught any good fish. I have an area or two where I've caught some fish, but the best-case scenario for me right now is 7 or 7 1/2 pounds. I have to figure out how to up the quality of a good bite.
"The morning bite will play big. Your chances are doubled to get a good bite in that first hour every day. It's going to be crucial. With as tough as it is, if you can get a good bite in the first hour that will go a long way. I think you'll see a lot of 7 1/2- to 8-pound limits so if you can get a 3- or 4-pounder out of the way in the first 45 minutes and then figure out a way to fill out a limit, you'll be in good shape."
"It definitely seems like the early bite is better. It gets pretty tough in the afternoon. The water gets hot, the air gets hot and I don't think anybody's happy to be out there us or the bass.
"A lot of the fish I'm catching are small ones. I think there will be a lot of limits, but a lot of small limits. Maybe someone on the first day will get into the teens, but I see it tapering off from there. Looking back at the last time we were here in May, even with a guy getting back into a private pond, it still only took 48 pounds to win. I can't imagine in August it'll take even that much.
"I've had a couple of good mornings and I would say pretty much everybody will have what they will have by 10:30 or 11. It slows down that much. It's like someone flips a switch. Anywhere you stop in the morning you can get bit and anywhere you stop in the afternoon, you can't.
"There's nothing I hate more than Red River backwaters because you're constantly stuck on a stump. I think there's a lot of bait on the main river and I think there's a lot of fish out there so I'm not going to fool with the backwaters."
"It's been the same as pre-fishing. It's changed a little bit. You can't catch as many keepers and it's hard to catch a 2-pounder. They're like gold. The guy who catches a big one will be in the backwaters. It just shows you how many fish are in this river right now. I had some 50-fish days in pre-practice.
"You can get bit all day long. You just have to make enough casts, but I haven't seen a good one since I've been here. It's just river fishing. It's like being at home, only a little warmer."
"It's tough. I can't catch anything size-wise. Keepers aren't an issue it's just catching good ones. I've caught a lot of 12- to 14-inchers with one 2 1/2- to 3-pounder a day. It's definitely been slow as far as decent bites go.
"I spent 3 1/2 days here before cutoff and spent every minute in the backwaters and caught very few fish. I caught two 3-pounders and one close to 5 and a couple little ones and that's it for 3 1/2 days. There's a lot more fish to be caught on the main river, but the size just isn't there.
"You're going to have somebody with an area or two in the backwaters that they can go to early or any time and get a good frog bite or a topwater, but I don't think you can win out of the backwaters only. I've pretty much fished them all and you're getting a bite every 2 1/2 hours if you're lucky, along with a lot of little ones. I think it'll be a combination of backwaters and the river and I do think you can win it on the main river alone."
"I came and pre-fished here and it really wasn't good at all. I fished for 3 days and had 1 really good day and 2 horrible days. I felt like for a couple days I had to get some stuff out of my system and just ran to some places that I'd never been to before. The last day, I settled down and fished what I was comfortable with and had a good day.
This week, I pretty much put all of my eggs in one basket and found a little something every day that I think is going to help me in this tournament. Catching fish is definitely not a problem. I can catch a bunch of them. To me, a quality bite is going to be 2 1/2 to 3 pounds. If you can get three or four of those a day, I think you're going to separate yourself from a lot of guys just because big bites are so hard to come by. If you catch a 7-pounder here like I did this spring, it'll put you fishing the final day as long as you're some kind of fisherman.
I've had some good bites every day this week. I haven't set the hook too many times, but what I'm doing I can see them. I'm going to be fishing most of the time. I'm not running a real long way. It's the first championship I've ever fished that suits the way I like to fish. I feel good about it. It's the first one that's not going to be a grind to go out and catch a decent sack of fish for me. At Lanier and even at Ouachita where I finished 2nd, it was an all-day thing to get five bites and get them in the boat. It's a lot easier for me to catch them here."
"It's been terrible for me. You don't want to jerk on anything, but at the same time you want to get some bites. I'm not getting many bites, but when I do they're small. I know there are a lot of fish that live here, but where they're at I haven't figured it out. Everybody's talking about 12 pounds a day. I don't know if I can catch 12 pounds in 2 days.
"When I came for pre-practice, I'd decided that the more practice I missed, the better off I'd be because I knew it'd be tough. I think the guy that just goes fishing is going to be the guy that will come out good.
"This is a little different place. You can't bounce around. You have to pick an area and stick with it. I'll probably flip a quarter to see which pool I'm going to. I really don't have a clue. I think both of them are fishing about the same. I might be better off just staying in 5 and spending all day fishing. Then again, I think a lot of guys are going to do that. It's hard going from 75-degree weather catching 20 pounds a day to 95 degrees and catching 6 pounds. The thing is it's my kind of fishing. I love this kind of fishing, but there's just something different about it. I wish it were one of those deals where it was tough to get a bite, but when you did it was a good one. This is totally different. I feel like I'm lost. "
"You can get a lot of bites, but the trick will be breaking the 9-pound barrier. It might shock me Thursday and there be a lot more 9-pound limits than I thought. I can't see it being better than it was in May (2011).
Scott Martin struggled at the start of practice, but hopes he can on something solid early on day 1.
"The biggest thing that changes the mood of these fish is not water temperature this time of year. It's the clouds and wind.
"It's hard to get my confidence up about doing well on this river because I know how much one fish can make a difference. There are other places we go that have a decent amount of quality fish where you can make things happen. Here you can't really make it happen. I'm a firm believer that a big fish is luck."
"I thought I had a little something different going in pre-practice, but that's totally out the window. It's not working at all. I had several places where I thought it might work. There's one place where they're still there, but I haven't caught a good one there at all, only rats.
"This place is full of fish. You can catch a ton of keeper fish, but that won't get it done. Everybody knows that. I really think it'll be the same Red River. The best that we've seen it is an 11- or 12-pound bag is a good sack of fish. It's going to be the same and there won't be as many bags like that.
There will be some places that are a little better than others. There's going to be 10 boats in one area and everybody else will be scrambling around. I think a lot of guys will go to Pool 3, more than people think. I know it's the Cup and you have to take a risk if you want to win, but very few tournaments that launch out of this marina are ever won in 3. To me, it's not worth the risk. If I don't go to 4, I'll be surprised. If I wake up Thursday with a different mindset, I might not burn 5 gallons of gas."
"The first day of practice was miserable. The second day I went to some new water and it didn't work out too well. It was pretty discouraging. (Tuesday), I buckled down and got a few bites and saw some areas where I think there might be some opportunities to catch what I'd call a contingency bag.
"It's going to be extremely hard to be consistent here. The difference is those 2-plus pounders right now. It's ridiculous to be sitting here talking about a 2-pounder being a good fish. Based on coming out here a month ago and I didn't catch them good then I saw the potential for 13 or 13 1/2 pounds. On Sunday, I was thinking more along the lines of 12 pounds. Monday, I was thinking 10. Tuesday, I was back to thinking 11 1/2 pounds a day will win this thing.
"There will be some guys who find a secret corner in the back of a backwater that maybe has a decent amount of fish in it that might shine for the first couple of days. Then I think some of that stuff is going to fade."
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Andy Morgan His consistency was finally rewarded this year with his first AOY title. The Red plays to his strengths, too, with all the shallow-water opportunities presenting themselves.
2. Jason Christie He hig-htailed it here from the U.S.-Canada border and is likely pretty low on energy, but nothing gets pro anglers' attention like the chance to win a cool half mil. His shallow-water and junk-fishing skillsets will serve him well this week and he's proven this year he can figure out winning patterns right quick.
3. Jay Yelas The Cup is the only trophy of major significance missing from his mantle. He came close last year but wound up conceding the upper stretches of the Chattahoochee River to eventual winner Jacob Wheeler. The Red is a flipper's paradise and there's nothing Yelas likes to do more than flip and pitch.
4. Randall Tharp For the first time, he says the Cup will finally suit his style of fishing, which usually means he's got a big flipping stick in his hand and a punching rig tied on. Finished a career-best 10th in points this year. He was 2nd to Scott Martin at Lake Ouachita in 2011.
5. Ish Monroe He's in the midst of a wicked-busy month, but these are the events he lives for. Anytime a flipping stick or a frog is the weapon of choice, he's always a threat.
6. Stetson Blaylock Another Arkansan who likens the Red to the Arkansas River, he's coming off a career year that saw him finish 2nd to Morgan in AOY points.
7. Barry Wilson Cut his teeth on the Alabama River and is really strong with a squarebill crankbait, which could be a big player on the main river this week.
8. Bryan Thrift He's on the record stating how much he hates flipping, but he has a real knack for figuring out suitable alternatives when others are catching them shallow. His tendency to get up and go after a few casts may be limited this week, however.
9. Jacob Wheeler As the defending champ, the confident 22-year-old cut his teeth on tough fisheries like the Ohio River and small lakes around Indiana. His willingness to go where few thought to go last year at Lanier resulted in a historic Cup victory. Let's see what he has planned this time around.
10. John Cox His adventurous side in 2011 led him through a culvert to a secluded backwater where he built a 7-pound lead after 2 days en route to his only FLW Tour win. He'll be in an aluminum boat again this week, but water levels might prevent him from getting back where others aren't willing to put their fiberglass rigs. He's shooting for a Top-5 finish in hopes to continuing to fish at the tour level in 2014.
> Anglers will launch at 7 a.m. CST daily from Red River South Marina (250 Red River South Marina Road, Bossier City, La.; use 7154 Barksdale Blvd. for GPS). Daily weigh-ins will get under way at 5 p.m. at the CenturyLink Center (2000 CenturyLink Center Drive, Bossier City, La.). The FLW Expo will be from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily at the Shreveport Convention Center (400 Caddo St., Shreveport, La.).
> Thurs., Aug. 15 Partly Sunny, Chance of AM thunderstorm 89°/68°
- Wind: From the NE at 6 to 9 mph
> Fri., Aug. 16 Mostly sunny 90°/67°
- Wind: From the NE at 7 to 11 mph
> Sat., Aug. 17 Mostly sunny 91°/73°
- Wind: From the NE at 6 to 10 mph
> Sun., Aug. 18 Mostly sunny 92°/68°
- Wind: From the NE at 5 to 9 mph
> The host city and venue for the 2014 Forrest Wood Cup will be announced prior to Friday's weigh-in.
> Jay Yelas and Luke Clausen have wrapped up their Cup preparations. To read about their practice, click here to read BassFan's Pro View Reports.