By Todd Ceisner
When BassFans hear “Ohio River,” thoughts of the low-weight 2005 Bassmaster Classic and 2009 Forrest Wood Cup probably come to mind. Granted, both of those events were staged out of Pittsburgh, Pa., where the Ohio meets the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, but the Ohio has always had a reputation for small fish and for being an agonizingly tough fishery.
Last week’s Rayovac Series Championship, staged out of Paducah, Ky., with the Ohio River serving as the main fishery, did little to alter the river’s reputation, but the top finishers were sure surprised at the quality of fish they were able to tap into.
With the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers also in play, anglers founds themselves seeking out areas with cleaner water after a big rainstorm came through just before the tournament. While clean water was key, finding subtle current breaks where smallmouth could position and ambush prey was instrumental in the patterns of not only winner Ray Hanselman, but also runner-up Brandon Perkins and Trevor Fitzgerald, who rallied from a tough start to take 3rd.
The following is a rundown of how Perkins and Fitzgerald put their patterns together.
2nd: Brandon Perkins
> Day 1: 5, 13-10
> Day 2: 5, 13-11
> Day 3: 3, 11-04
> Total = 13, 38-09
Because he hails from Counce, Tenn., and fishes Pickwick Lake a fair bit, Perkins was tabbed as a “local” at last week’s Rayovac Series Championship. While he remembers fishing the stretch of water near Paducah, Ky., as a young kid, he’s spent no time at all there in recent years.
Still, his results at the Ohio River smacked of someone familiar with how to catch fish that were relating to structure in strong current.
“It fished just like below Pickwick Dam,” he said. “There just was not an abundance of fish. I still looked for the same deals and still used SideScan to look for current breaks and rock piles, any hard bottom really. There was a lot of soft, mud banks and guys were missing the hard stuff because they were running by it. I found several key areas with hard rock bottom off a sand bank.”
Perkins said he ultimately fished a 3-mile stretch throughout the tournament and he came away with one of the more impressive finishes of his fishing career.
“I get my butt whipped pretty regularly by Randy Haynes, but I won the ABA National Championship back in 2009 at Pickwick so that was my first real taste of success,” he said. “This is up there at the top because of the level of competition I was up against. I’m way more excited about the Cup being on Wheeler than I was about this tournament.”
Despite losing a key fish each day that took him out of the running for the win, Perkins felt like he was always fishing for 2nd place.
“I feel like it was Ray’s to win,” he said. “He’s just on fire. He’s the hottest fisherman on the planet and I feel like it was destiny for him. If I’d have kept the fish on, I could’ve given him a run for it.”
Perkins, who works full-time for a hospice company, opted to skip the 3 days of official practice before the tournament. Instead, he put in time on the water during the weekend prior to competition.
“I fished the bank some, but all I could catch were 12-inch spotted bass and drum,” he said. “My strength is offshore so I realized I needed to get out there. Everybody was on the bank and I was out there scanning around. Everybody started looking at me.”
His best spot had a rock pile in 19 feet of water and he cycled through a variety of baits before settling on a cranking pattern for the tournament.
“I chose the crank because every time in practice I picked up a swim jig or swimbait or Carolina rig, it’d be a drum,” he said. “I caught some of those on the crank, but not near as many because I was fishing it so fast.”
The snaggy features around where he was fishing claimed several dozen 6XD crankbaits during the tournament. He wound up with three left in his boat at the end of the week.
The wind was out of the south on day 1 and that allowed him to make extra-long casts with the deep-diving plug.
“It kept the bait in the strike zone for so long,” he said.
He caught five keepers, had a 4 1/2-pounder jump off and wound up with 13-10, but he made a discovery later in the day that benefited him on day 2.
“I’d already caught my limit off my good spot and I had no trolling motor battery left so I was drifting along some bank throwing a spinnerbait,” he said. “I saw this crankbait randomly floating and I remember thinking that I figured I’d need some more. It was a chartreuse blueback 6XD so I tied it on and caught three fish the next day on that exact bait.”
A dense wall of fog in the morning kept him from running to his best spot right away so he stopped on a rocky shelf and caught two largemouth with a spinnerbait.
When he eventually got to his best spot, the fish weren’t ganged up liked they’d been. He left and came back four times throughout the day and when he returned around 1:30, he caught a 4 1/4-pounder and two others while another good one pulled off. He wound up with seven bites and weighed 13-11 to make the Top-10 cut in 5th place.
For the second day in a row, the wind and current made it difficult to make effective lure presentations on his key stretch and his trolling motor batteries became a concern again.
“I knew going into the last day it was an afternoon hole and I should’ve drifted with the current on my other stuff,” he said. “By time I got to my hole, my trolling motor was drained. I caught a 4 1/4 and a 5 1/4 right away.”
Without his trolling motor at full capacity, he’d have to idle past his sweet spot, make two casts, then idle back up and start the process over again.
“The problem was over the last 2 days, the wind was blowing with the current and my bait was only in the strike zone for 5 feet rather than 40 feet,” he said.
He managed to catch three on the final day that weighed 11-04.
> Crankbait gear: 7’11” medium-heavy Hammer Rods casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo casting reel (6.4:1 gear ratio), 12-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line or 10-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, Strike King 6XD (chartreuse blue back or citrus shad).
> Perkins upsized the stock hooks on the 6XD to 2/0 Owner 2X Stinger trebles.
> He also weighed in two fish caught on a Strike King Bottom Dweller spinnerbait.
> Main factor in his success – “Putting my time in scanning instead of fishing. I probably put 30 or 40 hours on my unit just idling and looking for stuff a little deeper than everybody else.”
> Performance edge – “I relied so much on my Lowrance HDS-12 units to find those rock piles more than anything.”
Trevor Fitzgerald had never weighed in a smallmouth before the Rayovac Series Championship. Now, he can't wait to catch another one.
3rd: Trevor Fitzgerald
> Day 1: 1, 1-15
> Day 2: 5, 18-11
> Day 3: 5, 17-08
> Total = 11, 38-02
Trevor Fitzgerald said he’d never caught a smallmouth bass prior to the Rayovac Series Championship. Now, he can’t wait to catch another one.
The Florida native bounced back in a big way from a one-fish bag on day 1 to catch more than 36 pounds over the final 2 days to claim a 3rd-place finish. His 36-05 total over days 2 and 3 would’ve been good enough for 5th place by themselves. He did it by not catching a largemouth all week.
“I’m super happy with it, especially having never been there before,” he said. “I didn’t know anybody who’d fished there. Going there, 12 to 14 pounds per day was the talk of what would be the winning weight. It was tough because I’d never been there and I didn’t know the potential of the place. The spot I had had a huge school of 2- to 4-pound smallmouth on it.”
He made that key discovery on the final day of practice during a heavy rainstorm.
“I didn’t fish a whole lot, but did a lot of graphing in the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers for isolated rock piles,” he said. “I learned at the Alabama River (Southern Open) that it was the same deal. I was fishing isolated rock piles off the bank where those fish position behind current breaks.”
He felt like he had a good thing going in the Cumberland River in practice and that’s where he headed for day 1. He had trolling motor issues early on, but the high, muddy water had the fish in a negative mood and he stumbled in with one fish for 1-15.
“I had one spot up there and I figured I could catch 10 pounds of spots and then get lucky and catch a 3- or 4-pound smallmouth,” he said. “When that went away, I went to the Tennessee River and caught that little smallmouth.”
On Friday, he went to some rock piles in the Tennessee River and found the water to be clearer and the fishing much better.
“I think a lot of it had to do with the water coming out of Kentucky Lake,” he said. “There’s a lot more grass in there and the water was just cleaner.”
He got dialed in on a swimbait and jig pattern around current breaks.
“I started catching them pretty quick,” he said. “In practice, the rock piles were exposed, but on day 2, they had parked six barges next to each other and they were parked on top of some of my piles.”
He adjusted jig sizes to a half-ounce version and would cast in front of the barges and let the current take it down.
“If I didn’t feel the rocks, that meant a fish had it,” he said.
His 18-11 stringer marked a staggering turnaround from day 1 and earned him a spot among the 10 finalists.
On the final day, four of the barges had moved out so he was able to fish the rock pile effectively. He caught more on a swimbait than he had been.
“It was more action packed,” he said, noting the rock pile was sitting in 12 feet of water. “I was catching them casting as opposed to dragging.”
He hauled in 17-08 on the final day to close the gap and capture 3rd. It was his fifth Top-10 finish of the year across the Rayovac Series and Bassmaster Opens.
“Except for day 1, if I hadn’t been so hardheaded and tried to make the Cumberland River work it could’ve been a different turn of events,” he said. “I talked to Ray after it was over and neither of usknew the potential of the spots we had. We were both blown away at how good our spots were.”
> Jig gear: 7’3” medium-heavy Fitzgerald Rods Stunner HD casting rod, 13 Fishing Concept A casting reel (7.1:1 gear ratio), 15-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. unnamed football jig (homemade peanut butter and jelly skirt), Zoom Fat Albert trailer (green-pumpkin).
> Swimbait gear: Same rod, same reel, 17-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, 3/4-oz. Revenge swimbait head, 4.5” True Bass Little Head swimbait (turbo).
> Fitzgerald said he fished the swimbait like a crankbait. “I’d throw it out and let it sink, then reel it fast,” he said. “They were reacting to it, especially if it hit a rock. I switched up the retrieve a little bit.”
> Main factor in his success – “Finding the current breaks. In practice, they were not pulling much water, but after all that rain, the current basically tripled. Once they opened those gates, it helped my pattern when looking for current breaks.”
> Performance edge – “My Interstate batteries luckily held up all day long. I had my trolling motor on 80 all day every day and they held up. I was pretty impressed with that. My Skeeter FX20 and Yamaha didn’t give me any problems either.”
> Fitzgerald said it’s a near certainty that he will not accept the invitation to join the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2016. He qualified by finishing 2nd in the Southern Open points this year.
He said the schedule demands the Elite Series would put on him would likely force him to hire someone to help run his rod company, Fitzgerald Rods, during his time away at tournaments.
“My full attention is on the rod company and maybe in 2 or 3 years down the road, I’ll fish the Opens again and hopefully re-qualify,” he said. “Then we’ll see where we’re at.”
He said it’s likely he’ll fish the Southeastern Rayovac Series and potentially the FLW Tour, but he hasn’t committed officially yet.
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