By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Mark Daniels Jr. had never been to Oklahoma's Grand Lake prior to the start of the Federation National Championship. His unfamiliarity with the venue didn't prevent him from finding quality fish, though – or from relocating them after they'd moved.
The 31-year-old agricultural biologist from Northern California took over the lead at the event with a tournament-best sack on day 2, then caught another hefty stringer on the final day to close out the victory.
His 62-04 total for 3 days bested runner-up Jason Hickey of Idaho by 6 1/2 pounds. It garnered him a host of prizes, including an offer of an expenses-paid season on the FLW Tour in 2014, which he plans to accept.
Here's how he did it.
Daniels arrived at Grand expecting to pursue pre-spawn fish, but a warming trend in the region put a temporary kink in that plan.
"When I got there, the (high air temperature) was in the 80s and the water temperature was getting into the 60s in the afternoon," he said. "I started looking for spawning fish, and I found them.
"Then we had this tremendous cold front overnight – the air temperature went down to 40 and the water was only coming up to about 52. That sucked those fish right back out to deeper water."
He figured the pre-spawners would still be actively feeding, so he switched his focus to the mouths of major creeks and threw an umbrella rig in water that was 5 to 15 feet deep. Drowning Creek, located in the middle portion of the lake, proved to be the most productive.
"I hit other areas of the lake, but every fish I weighed in came from Drowning Creek. At one point I went all the way to the end and caught fish there – I think there were a few that had committed to staying shallow and didn't pull off."
> Day 1: 5, 18-06
> Day 2: 5, 24-10
> Day 3: 5, 19-04
> Total = 15, 62-04
Daniels boated three 5-pound chunks on day 1, but he was also forced to weigh two fish that barely made the 14-inch minimum length requirement. His lightest stringer of the derby landed him in 9th place.
He moved to the top of the standings the following day with his monster sack that was headed up by a 7 1/2-pounder and also included a couple more in the 5-pound class.
"Most of the fish I caught that day were really white in color," he said. "That told me they'd been hanging in deep water for a long time and had just started to make the move. They were extremely fresh and they probably came up that day – or maybe even within the hour."
He carried a 14-ounce lead into the final day, which started somewhat slowly.
"I pulled up on a stretch where I'd been catching quite a few fish all week and I never got a bite in a half-hour. That got me a little nervous, so I took a deep breath and told myself I needed to relax.
"I made a minor move, about 1,000 yards down the bank to another little spot where I'd been getting bit, and I caught two within 5 minutes that were both over 3 1/2 pounds."
He added a 4-pounder about 40 minutes later, and then endured a lull for about 2 hours before picking up his fourth fish, which was a little shy of 3 pounds.
"Thirty or 40 minutes after that I went farther back in the creek and fished a stretch I'd fished in practice, but only caught dinks. The reason I went back there was that, although the fish were small, it was a place where I could envision a big fish setting up as it was moving back to spawn.
"On my second cast on that spot, I got one that was close to 6."
> 7'6" medium-heavy Powell 765 SBR rod, Shimano Curado G7 casting reel, 20-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, Hi's Tackle Box Crazy 8 umbrella rig, 1/16-ounce Picasso jigheads, 2.8" and 3.8" Keitech Fat Swing Impact swimbaits (rainbow shad, Tennessee shad or silver flash minnow).
> The Crazy 8, designed for his home state (which allows only three hooks on such a rig), has five "dummy" arms that are closest to the head at staggered lengths. The three "live" arms are to the rear and the lengths are also staggered.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "I'm not trying to toot my own horn, but I could visually see places where I thought fish would be moving through. I caught 5-pounders on spots I never fished in practice, and I fished them (in the tournament) because they just looked right."
> Performance edge – "It was definitely the custom-made Alabama Rig and I really have to thank Hi's Tackle Box for it."
> Daniels said he'll try to hold onto his daytime job and fish the FLW Tour next year, but that might not be possible. "I do plan on fishing the tour and even if I'm unable to keep my job, I have to go for it," he said. "This is the chance of a lifetime for me."