By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor

Ryan Butler said he asked his wife the same question approximately 20 times over a 12-hour period that started Saturday afternoon and ran through Sunday morning: "Can you believe I'm going to the Classic?"

Whether Mindy Butler believes it or not, her husband is indeed qualified to compete in the 2018 version of the sport's premier event. The 36-year-old resident of tiny Blue Eye, Mo. (pop. 160) caught a 15-pound stringer from Arkansas' Lake Norfork on Saturday to win the Bassmaster Team Championship Classic Fish-Off with a two-day total of 18-11.

"I remember as a young kid getting up early on Saturdays to watch The Bassmasters with Bob Cobb on TNN," he said a day later. "Fishing the Classic is something that everybody who's ever been involved in this sport dreams about.

"It's a humbling feeling, knowing that I'll be launching a boat and idling around with (the top Bassmaster Elite Series pros) in just a few months. It's something that I can't wait to experience."

Didn't Need Much Practice

Butler, a project manager for an electric cooperative, lives only about two hours from Norfork, but had visited the lake only once before qualifying for the Team Championship via the Joe Bass circuit with partner and longtime pal Dustin Lippe. His previous excursion there was for a springtime derby about five years ago.

He made one pre-practice trip prior to the off-limits period with his 6-year-old son Luke just to familiarize himself with the layout. Competitors were allotted three official practice days early last week, but he and Lippe used only one.

"We fished in separate boats on that Sunday and we figured out what we wanted to do," he said. "Then we went back to work (at their day jobs)."

Norfork fishes similar to their home lake, Table Rock, but at only 22,000 surface acres, it's less than half the size. With 162 boats in the Team Championship, the fishing pressure on the impoundment would be tremendous, so they sought out patterns and techniques that would separate them from the masses.

After an unseasonably warm fall, the weather finally turned cold during the days leading up to the event. However, the water temperature remained in the mid 50s.

"We knew a lot of guys would fish the weather and not the water temperature," he said. "That was a big key for us."

On their lone practice day, they were able to entice some quality bites close to the bank with a River2Sea Whopper Plopper.

"We knew it was a bait the fish weren't going to see a lot of," he said. "We're certainly not the first ones to make it popular on the Ozarks lakes – guys have caught a lot of good fish on it over the last few years.

"It's a good bait here, but it doesn't produce a lot of bites. You can bust a big bag on it or you might not catch anything."

He had the confidence to stay in the skinny water because of what he'd learned long ago from longtime Table Rock guide Bob Whittaker, who'd served as a mentor during the early part of his competitive career after his dad and grandfather had gotten him started in the sport.

"He told me there's always a concentration of fish that stays shallow, no matter how cold it gets, and that usually the ones that stay up during the winter were good ones.

"I could've backed out and thrown a jig or a spoon, but for that tournament, you have to catch the right fish. Those were the shallow fish."

Big Final-Day Rally

Butler and Lippe rallied from 11th place after day 1 of the team competition to finish 2nd behind the winning brother tandem of Brett and Beau Govreau. Members of the top 3 teams then split up to compete for two more days in the Classic Fish-Off.

Butler managed just two fish for 3-10 on the initial day of the individual competition, but that left him less than 3 pounds behind leader Robert Dodson Sr. on a calm, brutally cold day that saw only six bass come to the scale (Lippe and two other competitors blanked).

A lot more fish were caught the next day, and Butler's haul included some quality specimens. He boxed a 3-pound smallmouth right away and had four fish in his livewell by 9 o'clock, including a 4-pound largemouth.

It took him several hours after that to secure the fish that completed his limit, but it turned out he didn't need that one, anyway, as his final margin over runner-up Beau Govreau was well over 4 pounds.

Pattern Notes

> Butler said he caught all of his fish within 6 feet of the bank. They were sitting in 1 to 4 feet of water. "I saw a lot of gizzard shad up there during the week and I don't know if that helped, but it sure didn't hurt," he said.

> The wind was a critical component in making the Whopper Plopper effective. "When it's calm, the fish can see and hear that bait coming from a long ways away. If you've got some chop on the water, it's on them before they know it and they have to react. And when they commit, they eat it good."

> His casts were as long as he could make them (sometimes with a 15 to 20-mph wind at his back and sometimes with it in his face) and he varied the retrieve speed until he hit on what was most effective under the present conditions.

> He used the 130-size Whopper Plopper, which is the middle of the three versions offered (90 and 190 are the other sizes). "i've got a lot of confidence in that one and I think the sound it makes is the key. I rushed to the tackle store one day to get another 130 as a backup and I bought a couple of smaller ones to try when it slicked off, but they didn't make the same sound. The 130 made just enough sound and commotion to trigger those strikes."

> Revisiting places that had surrendered fish previously was pointless. "You could not catch a bass on the same bank twice. Running new water was critical. That lake is full of rock and I fished whatever looked and felt good. It seemed like there were a few more on the flatter stuff, whereas typically you catch the bigger ones on some of the steeper stuff. You just had to go with your gut."

Winning Gear Notes

> Topwater gear: 7'4" medium-heavy Denali Lithium rod, Lew's Super Duty casting reel (7.5:1 ratio), 40-pound PowerPro braided line, River2Sea Whopper Plopper (loon).