By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
The Toyota Texas Bass Classic annually produces the strongest field in the sport these days – 18 of the Top 20 anglers in the BassFan World Rankings were on hand last week at Lake Fork.
And once again, Keith Combs showed them all how it's done in his bass-crazy home state.
Combs' third victory in the three-tour all-star event in the past 4 years was produced with numbers that almost defied belief. The biggest – and by far the most significant – of those was a 110-pound total over just 3 days (15 fish).
He came in with little experience on Fork (he lives only 2 1/2 hours away, but must drive past Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend reservoirs to get there), but quickly honed in on how to pull giants from various depths. He took command of the event with a 42-pound stringer on day 1 and just kept adding to his lead from there.
He employed three different methods to catch post-spawn fish that were either already set up offshore or headed that way – extremely long casts with a Strike King 10XD and other deep-running crankbaits, "strolling" with smaller plugs and slow-rolling swimbaits. He caught fish from water as shallow as 2 feet and as deep as 35.
He finished with averages of more than 36 1/2 pounds per day and more than 7 1/4 pounds per fish. He outdistanced runner-up Stetson Blaylock by the margin of his average weigh-in fish.
Here's how he did it.
Combs spent the initial practice days in relatively shallow water and had success catching quality fish that were keying on the shad spawn – they were suckers for a square-bill crankbait. Meanwhile, some of the images he was seeing on his Humminbird graph caused him to explore places that were much farther from the bank.
"I kept seeing these fish out in 27 to 30 feet," he said. "I fished a little for them but I couldn't get bit, so I wrote them off as white bass.
"Then late on the third day I caught a 5-pounder and a 6 from extremely deep water, and they were extremely fat – those shad-spawn fish were much leaner. That told me I needed to stay off the bank and stay deeper, and I found three schools of deep fish that day and one more during the pro-am (the following day).
"From there, I just kind of felt it out as I went along. I basically took a 2 1/2-hour practice window and worked off of that."
> Day 1: 5, 42-00
> Day 2: 5, 33-08
> Day 3: 5, 34-04
> Total = 15, 110-00
Combs' opening-day bag contained the biggest fish of the event – a 10-14 monster. That one came from more than 30 feet of water and its tail was dripping blood, meaning that it had just recently departed the spawning beds.
There was also a 9 3/4-pound specimen in there, and an 8 1/2. The career-best stringer left him 3 3/4 pounds ahead of 2nd-place Russ Lane.
His day-2 sack (which was topped by an 8-pounder) was considerably lighter, but it nonetheless boosted his advantage by a quarter-pound. He caught all of his weight during a 1-hour window at mid-morning on this third stop.
He overcame a relatively slow start to the final day before once again weighing the biggest stringer in the field (which by that time had been reduced to 10 competitors). At one of his late stops he came across deep-water ace and eventual 6th-place finisher Mark Rose, who was in the process of compiling a 30 1/2-pound haul on a swimbait.
"He was just knocking their lights out," he said of Rose. "I caught one 6-pounder on a 10XD, but he was catching a good one on almost every cast.
"My deal is cranking and that's what I have confidence in, but he was just killing them and I had to do something. I switched to a Strike King Shadalicious on a heavy flipping rod and it was game on."
He ended up catching an 8-pounder, a 6 and a 5 1/2 to round out his sack.
Combs focused on points that were connected to the main stem of the Sabine River. He was surprised that most of the fish he discovered were not relating to some type of distinguishable cover.
"Fork is full of timber and the ridges are covered with stumps, but these fish were mostly just on the bare sandy places," he said. "They were feeding on shad and there were lots of white bass around."
Combs' Humminbird depthfiinder played a major role in helping him locate offshore schools of big fish.
The 6XD produced just over half (eight) of his weigh-in fish. Four came on the 10XD and he got three on the swimbait on the final day.
By employing the strolling technique (making a long cast and then moving the boat in the opposite direction with the reel spool open), he was able to get the 6XD down to great depths. The method, which was used by Jeremy Starks to win the 2012 Douglas Lake Bassmaster Elite Series, is somewhat controversial because it involves a boat in motion with a bait in the water and is too much like trolling for some people's tastes, but it's completely legal.
"If you make a long cast, you can get (the 6XD) down to 18 feet," he said. "If you make a long cast and then let out another 60 to 80 yards of line, you can get it down 27 to 30 feet."
He used a reel with a 7.3:1 gear ratio to retrieve the bait as fast as he could.
"I was burning it. My thought was with those fish grouped up in big schools with lots of shad down there, I had to try to get a reaction bite."
Winning Gear Notes
> Cranking gear: 7' medium-action Power Tackle KC 170 rod, Shimano Curado casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 15-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon line, Strike King 6XD (chartreuse/powder-blue back) or Strike King 10XD (sexy shad).
> Swimbait gear: 7'6" Power Tackle KC 104.5 rod, same reel, 20-pound Seaguar Tatsu, 1-ounce hand-poured jighead, 6" Strike King Shadalicious swimbait (shad).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "I think being able to catch them from different depths was an advantage."
> Performance edge – "The way the wind blew, I'd have to give it to my new Minn Kota Fortrex (trolling motor). That was the first time I'd ever strolled, and it was grueling, but my trolling motor was stout all day. I kept it on 70 or 80 for most of the day and I was able to do what I needed to."
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