By Todd Ceisner
One thingís for sure heading into this yearís Forrest Wood Cup at Lake Ouachita: There are no sure things.
Thereís plenty of grass (hydrilla and milfoil) in the lake now, some of it lush and tall, and some will try to build a pattern around that this week, but can it win over 4 days? Maybe.
The shallow-water bite was expected to be strong with the bluegill population as dense as itís ever been, but the bass that commonly stalk the bream beds have been few and far between in the shallows during practice. Still, itíll be worth a daily look-see. Can it win? Maybe.
The bottom of the lake, especially points and dropoffs, is littered with brush piles, and having a milk run of productive and dependable piles has been a go-to pattern at Ouachita for some time. The challenge this week will be finding the sunken wood that is holding the better fish. There are certainly piles that are loaded with fish, but 13-inch spotted bass wonít get anyone a sniff of the $500,000 winnerís share.
The one unknown is what effect the mild cold front that moved into this part of the state toward the end of practice will have. After a run of several days where the mercury crept into triple digits and the heat indexes were even higher, a couple cooler nights and days and maybe even some rain could shake things up.
Ouachita has quickly become a rich manís lake Ė how many other lakes can claim to have been the venue for three winning payouts of at least a half-million dollars? When Scott Suggs became the sportís first instant millionaire by winning the 2007 Cup at Ouachita, he did it by coaxing bites from fish relating to standing timber. In 2011, when Scott Martin took home $600,000, his best fish came deep.
What will it be this time around? Most likely a mix of all of the above. Practice ended Tuesday with some saying getting five bites on Thursday would be a vast improvement. Others have been catching small fish, but canít seem to trigger the bigger ones to eat.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Lake Ouachita
> Type of Water: Highland reservoir
> Surface Acres (full pool): 40,000 acres
> Primary structure/cover: Grass, standing timber, points, humps, creek channels, brush piles
> Primary forage: Shad, crawfish, sunfish/crappie
> Average depth: 51 feet
> Species: Largemouths, spotted bass, smallmouths
> Minimum length: 13 inches for largemouths and spots (smallmouths are catch-and-release only)
> Reputation: A beautiful, undeveloped lake that varies in fishing quality by season
> Weather: Seasonably warm with only mild breezes and daily potential for thunderstorms
> Water temp: High 80s
> Water visibility/color: 8 feet/slightly stained
> Fish in: All depths (down to about 25 feet)
> Fish phase: Summer
> Primary patterns: Carolina- and Texas-rigged big worms, jigs, shakey-heads, dropshots, some early topwater, flipping, swimbaits
> Winning weight: 54 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 20 after 2 days): 22 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for Ouachita
> Biggest factors: Decision-making. Some will try to stick with one thing too long while others will fly by the seat of their pants.
> Biggest decision: Deep or shallow? A mix will most likely be required, and timing could be critical
> Wildcard: Schooling fish. If youíre fortunate to be around them when they break the surface, good things can happen in a hurry.
Below is a map illustrating how Ouachita lays out, courtesy of Navionics:
Will Piles Play?
Elite Series angler Stephen Browning resides in Hot Springs and is pretty well versed in the habits of Ouachitaís bass population. A noted river rat, he doesnít see any of the river arms playing much of a factor in the Cup over the long haul.
ďThe winning fish wonít be up there,Ē he said. ďIt might be good for a day, but over 3 or 4 days will be a tough chore. Mid-lake and downlake is where itíll be won, I think.Ē
Suggs says itís rare these days for tournaments at Ouachita to be won strictly fishing brush. There are piles that hold fish, but having the right amount of brush to rotate around in the right depth zone will be a big challenge this week.
ďIíve tried that and you cannot consistently win out of them,Ē he said. ďFor some reason over the last several years, those fish have not been dominant. We could go there today and hit five or six different piles and weíll both catch a limit, but if we catch a largemouth, Iíll be shocked. Those spots pile up in those brush piles this time of year. Every now and then, youíll stumble into a good largemouth out there.
Dave Lefebre says there should be more bass shallow for as many bluegill as there are.
ďDonít get me wrong, there are certain piles theyíll catch them out of, but they wonít catch 20 pounds fishing piles 4 days in a row. It just wonít happen. When I won, I mixed in a few brush piles the last day, but I had to run around to 30 piles to catch what I caught. Brush will not dominate that tournament.Ē
Suggs believes one element this week that could get overlooked is the effect the thermocline will have, especially on those anglers focused on deeper brush piles.
As the water has warmed up this summer Ė and with the water level dropping at the same time Ė the thermocline has moved down in the water column. This will, in turn, take some brush piles out of play, Suggs says, because the fish will tend to gather in the section of the water column where oxygen and baitfish are the most plentiful. When the thermocline changes, the deeper fish will tend to move with it.
ďThe thermocline and brush are a fine line,Ē he said. ďThe ones that were in the perfect depth 2 weeks ago, the thermocline will keep falling past that and those piles will be in 17 or 18 feet while the thermocline will be in 25 feet. Thatís why itís so hard to have enough brush out for the perfect time and perfect situation.Ē
Green Leads To Green
Browning believes the outside edge of the deeper hydrilla could be a real factor, but ultimately he believes whomever wins could do it riding one particular pattern, hydrilla included.
ďWith the grass and brush and shallow water, those are three things that are going to be key,Ē he said. ďWhatever a guy feels comfortable doing, heís going to fare well. I donít think a grass fisherman needs to look for brush piles and I donít think a brush pile guy needs to be on the bank. You can win doing one of those three things, but I think the deeper bites Ė the grass and piles Ė will be more productive and reliable.Ē
Suggs concurred, adding that he saw hydrilla standing 15 feet off the bottom just last month.
ďI donít know if the lake will get low enough to bring the milfoil into pay for a frog bite, but some guys could catch a few fish flipping a big jig or a big weight in the hydrilla, especially on the deeper, outside edges,Ē he said. ďThe year I won, that played a little bit. In fact, Jack Wade made the cut doing that and he came up to me the one day and said, ĎIím coming after you.í I told him, ĎNo, youíre not because thereís not enough of it to do what youíre doing and the boat traffic on the weekend will kill you.í Sure enough, he came up to me later and said I was exactly right.
ďThereís more this year than there was then so it could spread some guys out. Thereís also a lot of grass on the main lake thatís fishable. Itís a little different this year than past years when the Cup was here. Thereís a lot more grass that could play into this tournament.Ē
Browningís X-factor for the Cup is the standing timber in the mid-lake section. Thatís how Suggs did some of his damage during the í07 Cup and if fish are relating to it, a swimbait could play a key role in getting them to bite.
Matt Stefan has some fish found in different types of cover, but generating consistent bites was the biggest challenge in practice.
ďEspecially with the water coming down and with the thermocline in 22 to 25 feet,Ē he said, ďthat standing timber could play a role.Ē
Follow the Bream
Most anglers who decide to comb the shallows this week trying to capitalize on bass keying on spawning bream will most likely have a topwater propbait tied on. Suggs says itís been a key tool at Ouachita for years for that tactic.
ďWhat people donít understand is the bream will spawn a little deeper through the summer,Ē Suggs said. ďTheyíll do it in 4 to 10 feet say in May and then 8 to 14 in June. In July, theyíll be out in 12 to 18 and sometimes 20 feet. By August, the pH levels will be right for them to go back shallow when itís the hottest. Theyíll come back to the bank because thatís where the most oxygen is because itís being turned over by wind and boat traffic.Ē
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
ďI like this lake. It reminds me of Smith Mountain. I had 10 bites Sunday and six bites Monday, but itís going to be tough. I donít think itís as good as when we were here in 2011. I could be wrong.
ďWhen you idle over a brush pile and it dots up your screen, theyíre there. Itís just getting them to bite thatís tough. Itís like, ĎHow many brush piles do you need with dots on them. Every other pile has five to 10 dots. I have 50 piles with dots, but I might get a bite every one out of 10 piles.
There are some fish up (shallow), but to come away getting five bites doing it all day is going to be tough to do. Before, I was pretty confident I didnít have to worry about brush. Now, without as many bites shallow, Iíve spent some time figuring out how to catch a few out there.Ē
ďItís been incredibly tough. I had three bites all day Sunday and because that was so bad, I felt better about Monday because I stuck with something and forced it to work.
ďI donít know what the problem is (with the water coming down). They always do that and theyíre doing it a lot faster. Whatís crazy is there are 50 million more bluegill up shallow than last time. Guys are going to catch some up there. I saw some wolf packs, but itís impossible to get a bite out of them.
ďThereís a lot of grass in certain places and some places where thereís none. Itís different from the other times we were here. Itís shifted around. Usually, you can bank on schoolers here, but I didnít see any schooling in 2 days and Iíve been looking. Surely, somebodyís found them.Ē
ďMonday was a really tough day. Sunday, I had five keeper bites, but they werenít all that big. I had one 2-pounder and the rest were spots. I found one place where they were schooling and I left there. I caught one, but didnít stick around.
ďI tried to fish shallow for about 4 or 5 hours Monday and didnít get a keeper bite.
Before off limits, I did that and youíd see some wolf packs. The waterís been dropping so much, I think that has them all messed up. Guys will catch them shallow, but itís not real consistent. The deep bite is not real consistent either. I havenít been able to figure out what I need to be doing just yet.
ďIím thinking itíll wind up fishing more like the year Suggs won. Some guys will catch them and the hard thing will be consistency. Some guys arenít going to catch a limit or zero. Itís pretty brutal. I have 150 brush piles marked that Iíve been rotating through and only seven or eight that I feel like I can catch a keeper off of. I wanted to run shallow and go back and forth to brush piles. I still think I can catch them out of the piles, but I havenít been able to find them shallow.Ē
ďMonday was better than Sunday, but thatís not saying much. I mightíve had a limit Monday. Sunday, I went around and looked at places from pre-practice, but my best place I couldnít get to it because the water has fallen so much.
ďItís tough. You mark a lot of fish, but you donít know if theyíre bass. Finding bait is not a problem. You go to any point or creek channel and the bait is there. Itís just hard to catch fish and when you do, it seems like itís a little bitty one. I found some brush and Iím not even doing any good doing that.
ďThe ones Iíve found seem to be in good places. Iíve found a few schooling, but you have to be on the money with them. If they come up and you have to reel in to make a throw at them, youíre too late.Ē
ďIím fairly confident. I have a bunch of different things going on and itís going to be a scramble. We just have to see what the weather does and see what they want to bite. Iíve been catching some schooling fish and some up shallow Ė not a lot of them either way, but some decent ones.
ďI donít have brush piles so I wonít be doing any of that unless I just stumble across something. I have three piles marked Iíve found just fishing other stuff. The grass is really great. Some areas are too thick and some areas are too thin, but thereís some in-between stuff thatís really good. Itíll be a factor, but I canít find a stretch where itís boom, boom, boom.
Andy Morgan has Top-20 finishes in each of the last five Forrest Wood Cups.
ďWhat Iím noticing is youíll just get a feeling that you ought to try something and when you get there, boom, youíll catch one. Then youíll fish around and you wonít get anything at all. Then youíll run 5 miles and do something totally random and catch another one. To me, itís just going to be fishing your gut. The guy who is the most intuitive and follows his heart will win this thing.Ē
ďIíve tried just about everything and everythingís tough. Itís hard to figure much out with so few bites. So far, Iíve dabbled in a little bit of everything. No one will win it off of one spot.
ďI saw most of the lake and Iím not down about it. I feel pretty good about the stuff Iíve got considering how tough it is. If I were the only one struggling, itíd be a different story. Itís going to be a grind just trying to get five.
ďIím not stressed about it. Iím going to fish it like itís a club tournament. Thereís no pressure on me. Itís still 10 grand. Iíll be fishing shallow bream stuff, brush piles and standing timber Ė a little bit of everything.Ē
ďThereís nothing to like about fishing in the South in August, period. Itís right in line with the other two Cups weíve had here in August. You donít know if youíre catching one, two or eight. You donít know whatís coming. If your schoolers come up, you can have a little better day, but if youíre having to the burn the bank, itís going to be a struggle to catch a limit.
ďThereís nothing to count on and I'm going to fish by the seat of my pants and hope I run into something. Iím not fishing any brush, but I have a feeling a lot of guys who are fishing that offshore stuff are going to find them. I think 99 percent of them are right behind you in the middle, suspended anyway so the ones that go to cover will go to those piles. Thatís going to be the consistent thing.
ďIím going to fish how I like to fish. Itís the championship. I donít have to catch one. Iíd like to catch a lot so that in-between stuff is out the window. I fished grass all day Sunday and I thought the water coming down would help the grass growth and it did. It looks great, but itís tough to get bites in it. It should be perfect.Ē
ďThe pattern I have figured out is there is no pattern. I donít have anything dialed in 100 percent. Itís just a bunch of running and gunning. You canít sit in one spot and catch them, I know that. Itís not good. It might take 12 pounds a day to win this.
ďI fished deep and shallow and I really donít know. Iím sure there are guys here that have brush piles and maybe they can catch them. I fished brush piles with fish on them, but I canít get them to bite. I tried to catch a bunch of them Tuesday, but it didnít happen.
ďI was thinking with the dropping water, after it got to this point I thought it would even out and theyíd come back, but those shallow fish are not there. Itís crazy not good. Itís pretty sad going into the Forrest Wood Cup, hoping to catch some schoolers. The biggest fish I caught in practice was 2 1/2 pounds. I havenít caught a largemouth worth weighing in. It doesnít make sense because this lakeís got Ďem.Ē
ďIíve got some fish deep, shallow, in between, in the weeds, on rock, on wood. You can get bit occasionally doing anything, but to get on a pattern is not good. I feel like if I can get the bites, I can do alright, but you just donít know. You can have a good day and get 15 bites, but then the next day you can get four. You hope that the areas you didnít get bit in practice just arenít good and you can go back to the areas where you did get bit and maybe catch a few.
ďItís going to be a grind. Iím looking forward to getting it started. Youíre keeping your fingers crossed thereís going to be fish where you think there are fish. I think the guy who does well is going to have an area that has more quality fish in it. I think itíll be won deep, ultimately. You can get bit shallow, but itís so sporadic and random that I donít think you can do that for 4 days.Ē
ďItís terribly tough. I donít have any idea what the weights will be, but it seemed to be real hard out there. I had eight or 10 bites on Sunday so I have something to go on. If youíre getting 10 bites here, thatís pretty darn good.
ďI donít know why itís so tough, but it is and I think the falling water makes it hard. Itís fallen 2 1/2 feet since I was here 2 weeks ago. For me, itís just going to have to go right. I have a couple different things going that I like, but you can go a long ways without a bite. Itís going to be a mental grind, too.Ē
ďPractice was as tough as beaver teeth, as tough as any place Iíve ever been. I canít catch them deep and I canít catch them very good shallow. Iím just hoping to get five good bites a day. I think a guy is going to have to mix it up between deep and shallow. Thatís the way I think itíll be won.
ďIíve had a so-so practice. Tuesday was the worst day of the three. I think if you catch 14 a day, youíll have a chance to win. You might see one big bag, but after that itíll level off. Iíve been here before and itís not been this tough.Ē
ďIím going to be fishing about 20 different ways. Itís one of those things where if you can catch five, you could be alright, but I donít even know if I can catch one. Iíve been fishing deep and I havenít caught a good one yet. Theyíre all little rats.
ďIím going to fish some grass, look for schoolers, fish a little deep and go shallow if I have to. The big ones are in the brush piles, but you canít catch them. Whoever wins is going to have something offshore, like a school in a tree, and be able to catch them for 4 days because itís hard enough to even catch them for 1 day, let alone 4.Ē
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Stetson Blaylock Ė He hails from Benton, Ark., which is just up the road from Ouachita, so he knows the lake maybe better than anyone in the field. Had three Top-10s this season and figures to be in his comfort zone this week. He hasnít won since his rookie year in 2009, but has been among the most consistent performers on Tour since then.
2. Bryan Thrift Ė If itís a run-and-gun affar, it could play into Thriftís hands. Few are more effective than him at fishing on instinct and feel. The worldís top-ranked angler coming into the week has a 7th and two 3rds in the last three Cups and was 5th at Ouachita in í07.
3. Larry Nixon Ė How cool would it be for one of the legends of the sport to finally capture an elusive Cup win in his home state? He knows the lake well and has the patience to wait out five good bites a day.
4. Troy Morrow Ė Never afraid to look for the off-the-wall patterns and his preference for fishing offshore fits how Ouachita is setting up this week. In three previous Cups, heís not finished lower than 8th.
5. Clark Wendlandt Ė Came back with a vengeance this year and wonít be deterred by the tough conditions this week Ė heís about seen it all in his career. Heís known to be among the best grass anglers in the game and that could be in his wheelhouse this week.
6. David Dudley Ė Has finished no lower than 16th in four FLW events at Ouachita, including Top-10s in both previous Cups held there. He knows what it takes to win and the í03 Cup champion will be able to fight through the hard conditions this week.
7. Anthony Gagliardi Ė The reigning Cup champ didnít have to sweat getting into the event this year. Heís fresh off a runner-up finish at the Oneida Lake Northern Open so heís got momentum. Add to that a brush pile lake with schooling, topwater fish and heís in his element.
8. Andy Morgan Ė The conditions are adding up to a tough event, which means the two-time AOY should be right in the mix. Heís known as a Shop-Vac around shallow fish, but heís adept at just about any trick there is. A Cup would be an incredible topper to a stout 3-year run heís had.
9. Scott Martin Ė Still riding high after capturing his first AOY title. Heíll attract a lot of attention this week, having won the Cup here 4 years ago. The lakeís different, but heís worked hard at broadening his skill set in the interim. He badly wants to become the first two-time Cup winner.
10. Zack Birge Ė The top rookie on Tour this year has spent plenty of time in this part of Arkansas and doesnít seem to get rattled under the bright lights.
> Anglers will launch at 7 a.m. CT all 4 days from Brady Mountain Resort and Marina (4120 Brady Mountain Road in Royal, Ark.). Daily weigh-ins will commence at 5 p.m. at Bank of the Ozarks Arena & Hot Springs Convention Center (134 Convention Blvd., Hot Springs, Ark.). The Forrest Wood Cup Expo, to be held at the Hot Springs Convention Center, will be open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
> Thurs., Aug. 20 Ė Partly Cloudy - 83į/57į
- Wind: From the NE at 5 to 10 mph
> Fri., Aug. 21 Ė Partly Cloudy, Rain Likely - 84į/66į
- Wind: From the E at 5 to 10 mph
> Sat., Aug. 22 Ė Scattered thunderstorms - 90į/68į
- Wind: From the SSE at 5 to 10 mph
> Sun., Aug. 23 Ė Mix of Sun and Clouds - 86į/67į
- Wind: From the WNW at 7 to 12 mph
> This will mark the final Cup with co-angler participation. They will fish the first 2 days. Next year's Cup, the location of which will be announced this week, will feature pros only.
> Check out Jay Yelas' practice recap in the embedded video below.
> Luke Clausen will focus most of his time shallow when competition kicks off Thursday. Check out the video below to learn more about his practice session.