By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Tommy Biffle's boat was the fifth to leave the launch in La Crosse, Wis. on day 1 of the Mississippi River Bassmaster Elite Series, and it was only a short drive to his first stop. He didn't make his initial cast for more than a half-hour, though.
He spent that time hiding from the other anglers who headed downstream in Pool 8. He simply tucked in behind an island and allowed them all to pass.
That island had a bunch of big smallmouths hanging out around it, and the veteran from Oklahoma had basically stumbled across them during practice. He was determined to prevent other competitors from seeing him fish there.
"I figured once I pulled out there, I could catch 18 pounds in about 10 throws and be gone," he said.
It wasn't quite that easy, but the place did indeed play a big role in the fourth Elite Series triumph of his career, which also turned out to be the event that pushed him past the $2 million mark in B.A.S.S. earnings. He visited it at various points throughout the course of the derby and always left with at least one bronzeback that he'd eventually take to the scale at the end of the day.
When it was over, his 64-02 total for 4 days bested runner-up Aaron Martens by a little more than 2 pounds. It was his first Elite win since 2010, when he prevailed on his home water (Fort Gibson Lake).
Here's how he did it.
Biffle is no smallmouth guru and he had zero intention of pursuing brown fish when practice got under way. He was determined to stay in Pool 8 (site of the launch) after a multiple-pool approach had produced a dismal 96th-place finish a year earlier. His focus this time was entirely on largemouths, which had dominated the 2012 event.
"I ran around a bunch in the lower part of the pool and I fished a lot of different stuff – grass, wood where I could find it, current breaks, a little bit of everything," he said. "I hadn't had hardly any bites at all and I was coming back upriver and saw what looked like a willow island.
"When I pulled over to it I saw that the willows were too shallow, but as I was going around the end I had a (Gene Larew Biffle Bug) on a flipping stick and I pitched it out on the point and caught a pretty good smallmouth. Then I let the current wash me off the point and I got a Bug on a (Gene Larew) HardHead out, and it was on."
He spent the second practice day flipping in and around the Black River, then returned to the island on the last day.
"Smallmouth are notorious for leaving and I really thought they'd be gone. I was in that area looking around for something else and I couldn't keep myself from it. I threw one time and a good one got it, and I knew they were still there."
> Day 1: 5, 14-00
> Day 2: 5, 16-00
> Day 3: 5, 17-05
> Day 4: 5, 16-13
> Total = 20, 64-02
After waiting out the procession of south-bound boats on the morning of day 1, Biffle quickly caught a 3-pound smallmouth from the island. He boated several fish thereafter, but all were considerably smaller.
"The big ones weren't there," he said. "I ran to my flipping fish and caught a pretty good stringer of them and I ended up weighing four largemouths and the one smallmouth."
He moved up from 14th place to 3rd on day 2, and then to 2nd that night when runaway leader Brandon Palaniuk was disqualified due to a violation of one of Minnesota's archaic culling regulations while fishing that state's portion of the river. He reversed his itinerary that day (which started more than an hour and a half late due to thunderstorms that came and went throughout the event) and flipped up a limit before heading to the island. When he finally made his move, he caught a 4-pound smallmouth on a long cast before he even reached his waypoint.
The biggest fish in Biffle's bags each day were of the smallmouth variety.
He popped another 4 on his third cast and a couple more good ones over the ensuing few minutes before slipping away unseen.
"That kind of gave me the idea that it was an afternoon spot," he said. "The only two times I'd fished it in practice were in the afternoon and they were there both times."
Day 3 was more of the same – he made only a few casts at the island late in the day and departed with a 4-pounder and a 3 to pull within 7 ounces of Martens, whom he'd trailed by nearly a pound and a half when the day began.
He'd planned to spend all of day 4 at the island, thinking he could catch 18 to 20 pounds if he gave the place a full day's worth of attention, but it didn't work out that way. His notion that it was an afternoon-only locale gained more credence when he had just a single 3-pounder at 9 o'clock (he'd also lost one that size). He caught other fish, but they were miniscule.
He'd nearly resigned himself to fishing for 2nd place by the time he went to his flipping fish in pursuit of a 10- to 12-pound bag. He picked up another 3-pounder, but that was it in terms of quality.
His second visit to the island produced yet another 3-pounder and a few small specimens.
"I had a feeling that the 4-pounders weren't there or I'd have caught one," he said. "I stayed there until there was 45 minutes to go, then I knew I had to try to make something happen. I decided to run down to another island a little farther downstream where I'd caught some off the backside.
"The rain (from a powerful storm the night before) had muddied up that water, but there was another place by it where the current was running through some little chutes – I fished it in practice, but I didn't catch anything. My first cast in there I caught a 4, then I pulled back up there with the big motor and made another cast and got a 3-something, almost 4. The next time I pulled up, I let the current push me up against a log. I put the Power-Poles down and went to whacking on them."
He caught a half-dozen fish in those closing minutes and made three culls.
"I thought I might've had enough (to win), but my initial thought was I had 15 pounds. When I got back and found out I was over 16, I knew I was in good shape. That meant Aaron needed more than 16, too."
> Biffle's primary island area had a relatively featureless sandy bottom, but a small ditch was formed where the current made a turn. "I'd get on the downstream side and throw upstream, and then bring the Bug down with the current and let it fall over that ditch. That was really the only thing in there for them to be on."
Quantum EXO reels with a 7.3:1 gear ratio played key roles in both techniques that Biffle employed.
> For flipping, he began the event using a smoke silver Bug, but switched to green-pumpkin with some orange dye after he and fellow competitor James Elam both found crawdads of that color in their livewells. "I flipped one of those into a bush right beside the boat right after I'd just flipped the silver one in there, and as soon as I did it, one bit it. From then on I only fished that color and just caught the heck out of them. On day 3 I caught between 55 and 65 fish, so it was definitely a color they wanted."
> HardHead gear – 7'6" heavy-action Quantum EXO flipping stick, Quantum EXO PT 300 casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 20-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 7/16-ounce Gene Larew HardHead, Gene Larew Biffle Bug (green-pumpkin).
> "That rod isn't as stiff as my signature series flipping stick and I teased (Quantum) when they made it and told them I could use it for crankbaits," he said. "I like my 6'10" rod for the Bug most of the time because it's stiff, but I've used that longer one in the current a couple of times now and I can get a longer swing with it. Those fish were picking the bait up and swimming toward me, and I'd jerk with the rod and run backward almost to make sure I got them."
> Flipping gear: 7'6" extra-heavy Quantum Tour Elite Tommy Biffle flipping stick, same reel, 25-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon, 5/16-ounce Elite Tungsten weight, 4/0 Paycheck Baits Punch Hook, Gene Larew Biffle Bug (smoke silver or green-pumpkin).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "The biggest thing was not letting anybody see me on that spot."
> Performance edge – "I'd say the Bug and the HardHead – having the right bait and the right color."
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