By Todd Ceisner
The Red River is a massive piece of water. Pools 3, 4 and 5 comprise well over 100 miles of fishable water and that doesn't factor in the backwaters that can add thousands of additional acres, depending on seasonal water-level fluctuation.
It can be an overwhelming endeavor for an angler to try to break it all down in an attempt to find the best fishing spots, especially in August when bass tend to gang up in small areas. There are plenty of well-known community holes up and down the river, but last week Randall Tharp relied on his knowledge of how fish in shallow-water, hot-weather environments behave in order to put together the Forrest Wood Cup-winning strategy.
In two previous tournaments at the Red (both in the spring), Tharp finished 28th (2011 FLW Tour) and 4th (2013 Bassmaster Central Open) and his understanding of the river and backwater fish seemed to get stronger with each day on the water.
"This was the third event I've fished here," said the 44-year-old Tharp. "I've done well in every one and every time I come here I have a better understanding of how fish set up on this river and where they live during certain times of the year. (Lake) Okeechobee is like that for me. I was just able to figure it out."
His 18-08 bag on day 1 gave him the early lead, albeit a slim 1-ounce advantage over Bryan Thrift, but it was the kind of stringer most believed the eventual winner would likely need to offset an average day later in the event. He averaged 10 pounds a day during the middle 2 days of the tournament before closing it out with a stout 14-pound bag on Sunday to clinch the win with a final weight of 53-02.
The victory earned him $501,000, which pushed his career Tour earnings past the $1 million mark.
Here's how he did it.
Tharp's preparation for the Cup essentially started back in April, when he fished the Central Open at the Red River. He was 2nd after day 1, 3rd after day 2 and wound up 4th. Being able to feel out where the fish were living then gave him an idea of where they might be in mid-August.
"It's helped me a pretty good bit," he said. "I learned a lot. I've only been to this place four times and it helped me a lot because I really started to understand it. I fished some of the same water with a similar technique. I fished that area up the river in April. I didn't catch any big ones up there then, but I was using it for the same thing. I would go up there and catch a limit like that. It was really easy. It was a little more difficult now. I don't think the fish are as big, but they're still in there."
He came back for 3 days of pre-practice this summer and focused on the same areas, including a lake off the main river that ran into a housing subdivision north of Red River South Marina and Resort, as well as a pocket that juts to the north off Port Lake near the launch ramp. He struggled on w of the days, but caught 20 pounds in about 30 minutes in the pond near the ramp on a frog. That gave him a feel for the quality that resided there.
"It was daylight to dark. It was 100 degrees," he said. "Two days I just wasted because I had to get stuff out of my system. I wasn't going to pre-fish because I feel really comfortable here. Then I started thinking because I knew Wesley (Strader) caught them up below Caddo dam (and finished 2nd in the Open). I just wanted to go up there and see it. So I went there and knew it wouldn't be won up there because all you can catch is little spotted bass. I think every fish in that river was on a bed at the time.
"I spent a day in Pool 4 and to me it's the prettiest place on the river because it has a lot of milfoil and stuff I like to fish. I didn't get the bites down there to justify going down there. I was surprised more people didn't go down there. When we fished the Tour event here, half of the boats at least went. I fished Pool 5 in the Open this year and almost won. I just felt like that was maximizing my fishing time. I knew the bite was tough.
Getting back into this pocket near the launch ramp was challenging, but once in there Tharp did his damage with a swimjig and frog.
"The third day I was here," he continued, "in that pocket by the boat ramp I hadn't had a frog bite the whole time I was here. In 30 minutes in there, I had 20 pounds, including an 8-pounder. It's always had fish in there every time I've been there, but in the Open I wanted to fish it and there were eight boats in there. It wasn't covered in pads then."
On the final day of official practice, Tharp came off the water before dinner time, foregoing the final couple hours of daylight to prepare his boat and tackle for competition while many other competitors were still out on the Red. He had a confident look about him and was convinced he was on fish that could put him in contention if everything went his way.
> Day 1: 5, 18-08
> Day 2: 5, 5, 11-03
> Day 3: 5, 5, 9-07
> Day 4: 5, 5, 14-00
> Total = 20, 53-02
When the event started, the dock talk centered around 12 pounds being considered a decent bag of fish and anything in the teens could put someone near the top of the leaderboard.
However, a cold front that came through on Wednesday certainly changed how some areas ultimately set up for the anglers.
Tharp hit the 14-pound mark on day 4 thanks to these two kickers.
"It was definitely more of a challenge," Tharp said. "I was averaging 40 to 50 bites a day in practice. I just think the fish here like the hot weather. Every afternoon is when I'd get my big bites."
Tharp's tournament did not get off to a smooth start. Other tournament boats covered up his first two spots and he didn't have a fish in the boat until 10 a.m. He did all of his damage in the afternoon, catching several good fish out of the pocket near the ramp.
"Several other boats were in there," he said. "I know this because my wife stood on the bank and watched, waiting for me to get in there. Anyplace like this, the fish like to stay in the backwater for some reason. It's just a release area and it's loaded with them. I don't know why the big ones don't swim to the river. They like to stay in there."
His 18-08 bag was reminiscent of the 21-15 effort Jacob Wheeler put forth on day 1 last year at Lake Lanier that helped carry him to victory.
He came back Friday with 11-03 – he called it an "average day" – and extended his lead to 4 ounces over Thrift heading into the weekend. He got on a morning bite in Haven Lake upriver and had a limit fairly early, including a couple solid fish. His afternoon bite was a struggle, a contrast from day 1, but he started to understand more about where he needed to be and when.
"I found those big fish on the afternoon of the last day (of practice). I caught 20 pounds in 30 minutes. I knew then it was something special."
Winning Pattern Notes
> The subdivision lake off the river is essentially a 3- to 6-foot deep channel that opens up in the back with plenty of shoreline cover to flip or pull a swimjig or frog through. There were also stretches of small riprap banks and several docks, but those weren't much of a factor without much deep water nearby. It's typically not a big-fish hole, but Tharp caught numbers and ran into a couple of bonus 3-pounders along the way.
> He did fish a few main-river spots, focusing on rock jetties or anything that current washed over, but his main deals were off the river and in backwaters.
He dipped below 10 pounds on Saturday, but his 9-07 bag only dropped him 4 ounces back of Thrift. His confidence wasn't shaken because he knew he'd have his two main areas to himself on the final day.
He spent the first 3 hours of the day in his limit area, working the perimeter of the narrow lake for a handful of bites, including one close to 4 pounds that fell for a frog. He threw a square-bill crankbait along the rocky banks and then would pick up a swimjig when wood or grass were present, twitching the rod constantly with each crank of the reel.
He had another fish of comparable quality roll on the swimjig, but it never opened its mouth and didn't get the bait.
From there, he wiggled his way back into the pad-filled pond that's visible from the launch ramp. It was a painstaking process to fish around in there, but about 30 minutes after he got in there, he stuck his first of two upgrades with his wife, Sara, watching from shore.
After another lull, he stuck another frog fish that helped get him to 14 pounds.
"I caught seven fish (Sunday)," he said. "I probably had 12 bites and I didn't make a mistake.
A look at the key baits for Tharp at the Red River – SPRO frogs, a Lucky Craft 1.5 silent square-bill and a 4x4 Jigs swimjig with a Strike King Rage Craw trailer.
"It's a shallow-water fishery and these bass stay shallow all year here," Tharp said. "It's the dead of summer and I caught most of my fish in 2 feet or less. I fished in a lot of the same places that I did when I was here before."
Winning Gear Notes
> Swimjig gear: 7'6" heavy-action Halo Fishing Twilite casting rod, Shimano Chronarch casting reel (6.2:1 ratio), 50-pound Gamma Torque braided line, 3/8-ounce 4x4 Jigs swimjig (green-pumpkin head, homemade bream pattern skirt), Strike King Rage Craw trailer (green-pumpkin).
> Mark Horton fished with Tharp in pre-practice and had success with a Strike King swimjig, but it was a color pattern Tharp usually doesn't throw.
"I prefer black and blue or white, but he was catching them on a green-pumpkin swimjig," he said, noting the skirt mimicked a bluegill.
He eventually tied up a skirt himself to closely resemble the one Horton had and it turned out to be his most consistent producer in the tournament.
"There's no doubt that I probably never would've tied that jig up if it wasn't for the bites he got on the Strike King bait," he said.
> Square-bill gear: 7' medium-action Halo Fishing Twilite cranking rod, Shimano Core Mg casting reel, 14-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, Lucky Craft RTO 1.5 silent square-bill crankbait (crack black).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "It was extremely important to get off to that start. Everybody was speculating before it started that if you could catch one big bag, you might be able to ride that to the win. I didn't know how it would go down, but I wound up catching two big bags, including that 14 on the final day. I think everybody was surprised it took that much weight to win."
> Performance edge – "All of my sponsors are extremely important, but two things stood out for me. Going to that extra-heavy Halo rod on day 4 was critical. I'm not sure I would've been able to land those good ones without changing from the heavy-action to that rod. Also, my Power-Poles were definitely a necessity, especially in the afternoon places I fished. It helped me slow down."
> Tharp is currently 28th in points in the Bassmaster Northern Open division with one event remaining at Lake Erie next month. He's never finished well at Erie, but wants to change that in an effort to qualify for the 2014 Bassmaster Elite Series.