By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Randy Howell made a prediction following day 1 of the Bassmaster Classic that turned out to be dead wrong, and he couldn't be happier about that right now.
After opening the event with a sack that weighed 20-03, Howell surmised that there was no way he could come in with less than that on day 2 and still retain a shot at victory. Well, his Saturday stringer was a full 2 pounds lighter, but he ended up winning, anyway.
The monster bag he caught on the final day – 29-02 – carried him from 11th place to the top of the chart in the 44th edition of the sport's premier event. He'll no longer be known as the journeyman pro with the military-style haircut and ever-ready smile; from here on out he'll be either a reigning or former Bassmaster Classic champion.
"I feel great; just on top of the world," he said a day later. "This is something I've always imagined and wondered what it would feel like and I still can't really put it into words. It doesn't even feel real that I won the Bassmaster Classic.
"It's a lifelong dream and something that you believe and hope can come true, but you don't know if you'll ever actually do it. Right now, it's the greatest feeling in the world."
His 67-08 total was precisely 1 pound more than the aggregate number compiled by Connecticut B.A.S.S. Nation entrant Paul Mueller, who weighed a record-setting bag on day 2 and another stout stringer on the final day. It also made him the second champion to prevail in his home state, following fellow Alabamian Boyd Duckett at Lay Lake in 2007.
Following are some of the particulars.
As was the case for many competitors, Howell's 4-day official practice period during the week leading up to the Classic was rendered largely irrelevant by the powerful storm that swept through the region the night before day 1 of competition.
His initial objective was to locate a few of the offshore schools of fish that have given up giant stringers (primarily to umbrella-rig devotees) over the past several winters, and then figure out how to catch them with some other technique that was legal for the Classic. That quest was entirely unfruitful.
"The weekend practice was very cold and we had 40- to 42-degree water," he said. "I struggled – I didn't catch a fish the first day and I only got two the second day. Finally (on Monday) I quit all my main-river grass hunting.
"Another big factor was that the cold spell in January killed off a lot of the shad. I eventually just wrote that whole thing off."
He'd ventured into the back of Spring Creek on the afternoon of the second day and found some warmer water. That's where he caught his two fish – a 5 1/2-pounder and a 3.
He also graphed a lot of quality fish on the riprap adjacent to the causeway in Spring Creek and four other creeks – Mill, Brown's, Town and Mink. He couldn't get many to bite, but he knew that both the bass and the shad they feed on were there, and he knew they'd begin to interact if the water temperature continued to increase.
> Day 1: 5, 20-03
> Day 2: 5, 18-03
> Day 3: 5, 29-02
> Total = 15, 67-08
Howell spent most of day 1 just running around and junk-fishing. He targeted grass, wood and rocks at various points of the day and caught fish on a crankbait, a spinnerbait and a bladed jig.
He popped a 6-07 late in the day to eclipse the 20-pound barrier and his sack put him at the very bottom of the initial Top 12. It was then that he made his faulty prediction.
"Twenty pounds isn't a great day for Guntersville and it's going to have to be my worst day, by far, if I'm going to have a chance," he said.
Although his second-day bag was down by 10 percent, he was able to dial in on the riprap cranking program. He caught far more keepers than he had the previous day and even though most were on the smallish side, he was convinced that the bigger specimens were about ready to move up onto the rocks where the shad buffet was laid out for them.
Also, the day-1 pace-setters (Randall Tharp, Edwin Evers, David Walker, et al) had also come in lighter, and Howell was only 9 pounds back going into the final day. The consensus was that anybody within 10 still had a shot at the crown.
His original plan for day 3 was to return to Mill Creek, where he'd caught all of his weight the previous day. However, after pulling away from the launch, he made an instinctive decision to head for Spring Creek instead.
He felt that the fish populations in both places were roughly equal in terms of quantity and quality, but Spring Creek receives much more angling pressure on a day-in, day-out basis. Still, he opted for Spring because those fish had yet to be worked over during the tournament, simply because they hadn't started biting.
"I'd fished all of those causeways in the different creeks every day and I was shocked when I'd catch no fish or maybe just one. When I pulled up that morning, the water temperature was up to the middle 50s. The time was right."
Howell cranked up several dozen fish on the final day en route to compiling his 29-pound bag.
Boy, was it ever!
For the first 15 minutes, he caught a quality fish on almost ever cast with a Rapala DT6. The fourth one he put in the box was a 7-03, and that one fully validated that Spring Creek had been the correct call. Before the first hour was over, he'd exceeded his day-1 weight.
When the DT6 action cooled off, he switched to a prototype Livingston Lures Pro Series medium-diving plug that he'd only had since Thursday and had never thrown. It was in a bag of baits given to him by fellow Livingston pro-staffer Byron Velvick at Media Day.
"I threw it in the water and started reeling it back and I could feel that it vibrated really hard – it rattled the rod tip. I said, 'This is the bait that's going to catch them right here.'''
He doesn't know how many fish he caught during the remainder of the day – he estimated maybe 40. He eventually culled out all of his 4-pounders in favor of specimens that were 5 or better.
Late in the day he made a quick trip to the back of the creek and used a bladed jig to pull one that was over 6 from a grassy area. That fish supplanted a 5 on his stringer and likely provided his winning margin.
Winning Gear Notes
> Shallow-cranking gear: 7-foot medium-light Daiwa Tatula rod, Daiwa Tatula casting reel (6.3:1 ratio), 12-pound Gamma fluorocarbon line, Rapala DT6 (demon).
> Demon is part of Rapala's Ike's Custom Colors series. Howell said he picked up several of those baits while serving as an instructor along with Mike Iaconelli at a recent session of The Bass University, then obtained three more from Rapala pro-staffer Brandon Palaniuk prior to day 3.
> Deeper cranking gear: 7'2" medium-heavy Daiwa Steez rod, Daiwa Steez casting reel (7.1:1 ratio), 14-pound Gamma fluorocarbon line, prototype Livingston Lures Pro Series medium-diver (red craw).
> His bladed jig was a Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits creation called the Fizzle. He threw it on a 7'2" medium-heavy Tatula rod with a 6.3:1 ratio Tatula reel and 16-pound Gamma fluorocarbon.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "Having a little bit of local knowledge about Spring Creek and the other creeks and knowing the history of how those places turn on when the conditions get right."
> Performance edge – "That Livingston bait. Before I threw it I didn't even know how it worked, but it had the perfect mixture of vibration and sound. I'd caught all I could catch with the DT6 and the other baits and I ended up culling everything except that one 7-pounder."
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