By Jonathan Manteuffel
Special to BassFan

Smith Lake can be a tough nut to crack any time of the year, under the best conditions. With heavy rain and flooding during practice, followed by sun and falling water, last week did not present ideal conditions.

While David Williams proved impervious to the changes, notching his first tour-level victory in wire-to-wire fashion, others didn’t have it so easy. For most of the anglers competing in the Smith Lake FLW Tour, numbers were not the problem, as around 90 percent of the field recorded limits (12-inch minimum length under a special permit granted by Alabama Game and Fish as part of a study).

Size, though, was another matter. Many of the spotted bass that dominate Smith were on the skinny side, having recently completed their spawning duties.

Williams and 9th-place finisher Todd Auten appeared to be the only anglers who found a shad spawn in progress. Others fished everything from flooded shoreline brush to bridge pilings to bedding fish to suspended fish in open water, along with the usual points and bluffs.

Here’s how the rest of the top 5 found success.

2nd: John Cox

> Day 1: 5, 14-02
> Day 2: 5, 13-14
> Day 3: 5, 15-12
> Day 4: 5, 16-00
> Total = 20, 59-12

John Cox was the most successful of those who fished the flooded shoreline, targeting largemouths that were hopefully heavier than the easier-to-catch spots. He defied the odds and weighed almost all largemouths all 4 days.

“I felt like the whole time practicing it was probably completely pointless,” he said. “I just rode around a lot, knowing the conditions were going to change, and were changing, so much. The way the water came up so fast, none of us knew what we were going to fish.

“It was similar to Beaver Lake last year. You could just throw practice out the window. I just picked an area that looked good and tried to cover a lot of water, trying to be around them when the bite window happened,” he added. “Smith has a lot of shallow fish (that don’t get fished for as much).

“Places I was catching bass were up in people’s yards. I always hope for it to flood and I’m always looking at stuff on the bank, thinking about where the fish would be if the water got up there. Even in practice, people didn’t clue in on what would become the targets after the water came up 4 or 5 feet.”

He bounced around in the backs of creeks and pockets every day trying to get onto something solid, but it didn’t materialize until the last day.

“I was up in the back of Ryan Creek swimming a Dirty Jigs Swim Jig in flooded bushes,” he noted. “They wouldn’t take it flipping, but they’d come up and smoke it when I swam it over the bushes.”

He caught only six keepers on day 4, but it was his best sack (16-00) of the tournament and lifted him to 2nd.

He caught most of his fish flipping a jig to cover, but caught a big one off a dock with a wacky-rigged Berkley PowerBait MaxScent The General (like a Senko). He would also use the stick worm around isolated wood that wasn’t as snaggy.

> Jig gear: 7’6” heavy-fast action Nano ETS 90 MHX casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo Premier casting reel (7.6:1 ratio), 50-pound Berkley Solutions braided line, 1/2-oz. Dirty Jigs Swim Jig (black/blue), Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Meaty Chunk (black).

> Stickbait gear: 7’ medium-action SJ842 MHX spinning rod, Abu Garcia Rocket spinning reel, 10-pound Berkley Fireline (with 10-pound fluorocarbon leader), unnamed hook, Berkley PowerBait MaxScent The General (baby bass).

> Swimbait gear: Same rod, reel and line as The General, 1/4-oz. homemade ball-head jig, Berkley Havoc Grass Pig Jr (green-pumpkin).

> Main factor in his success – “Being willing to just fish what looked good and not worry if it was the wrong thing.”

> Performance edge – “My Crestliner boat. I can maneuver it between docks and around brush so easily. That and the MHX rod; I used it around and in the trees and it held up to the abuse banging into branches and stuff.”

Photo: FLW

Cody Meyer fished bridges in all three of the lake's major creek arms.

3rd: Cody Meyer

> Day 1: 5, 15-13
> Day 2: 5, 14-07
> Day 3: 5, 13-08
> Day 4: 5, 15-06
> Total = 20, 59-02

Cody Meyer might've run more miles during the tournament than anyone else. Every day he rotated between the three main bridges on the lake, in all three major creek arms. He would fish each one until he felt the bite had slowed too much – maybe just an hour – then run to another, then another, and then repeat the cycle.

The flooding had crested the day before the tournament started and the water receded slowly at first, then more rapidly.

“I believe the falling water caused a little current and that would keep the fish closer to the bridge pilings,” he noted. “But more importantly, it made the fish suspend more. They stayed off the bank.”

He would toss out a swimbait and swing it past the pilings, and when that bite slowed, he cast out a wacky-rigged worm.

“It was painful to wait for that bait to sink,” he said. “But they really had to be finessed. They were pressured and acting funny.

“Practice wasn’t good,” he noted. “It really meant nothing for me. I didn’t really catch them and never made a cast on a bridge. There were always boats on them. Finally, on day 1 of the tournament, I caught one mid-morning off a bridge, and that was the focus the rest of the way.”

> Swimbait gear: 7’4” medium-action Daiwa Tatula Elite Cody Meyer signature series spinning rod, Daiwa Tatula LT spinning reel, 6-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon line, 1/4-oz. Owner ball-head jig, 2.75" Strike King Rage Swimmer (shad).

> Wacky-rig gear: Same rod, reel and line, #1 Owner Mosquito hook, 5-inch Strike King Ocho 5 (KVD magic).

> Main factor in his success – “Patience, for sure. There were tons of fish on the bridges, but a lot of people were fishing them. I might have to wait 2 or 3 minutes for the Ocho to sink before I got a bite or reeled in for another cast.”

> Performance edge – “My Ranger boat and Evinrude motor ran me all over the lake,and I still had half a tank (of fuel) left each day.”

Photo: FLW

Matt Arey exploited largemouths in the bushes over the final 2 days.

4th: Matt Arey

> Day 1: 5, 15-09
> Day 2: 5, 14-09
> Day 3: 5, 13-13
> Day 4: 5, 13-07
> Total = 20, 57-06

Many competitors felt they learned nothing from practice, but Arey at least found something that produced for a day, anyway.

“I found some bedding fish that first morning of practice, before the monsoon came and the lake came up 4 feet,” he said. “I was able to catch them blind-casting to the area on day 1, but had to give that up the same afternoon and find something else.

“The conditions kept changing. Going in, I had planned to mix it up. Practice clued me in to a couple of patterns. I figured out that deeper dock fish were on more isolated docks with a transition under them. I had to keep finding more of those during the tournament.

“There was a lot of everything but not much of anything going on, if you know what I mean,” he added. “I was able to uncover several different patterns and expanded on them duringthe tournament. The largemouths were still up shallow, and a lot of post-spawn spots were feeding around deeper docks. There were some on points too, waiting for the herring to start spawning.”

On days 1 and 2 he caught most of his fish on a nail-weighted wacky-rigged worm, but that bite seemed to fade. After that he principally threw a Lunkerhunt Fetch swimbait both to catch fish and get them to give away their locations. Casting it back into flooded bushes and swimming it out proved to be the most productive pattern on the last two days.

“The largemouths in the bushes swimbait pattern emerged during the tournament, so that was one of the adjustments I had to make.”

> Swimbait gear: 7’6” heavy-action Okuma TCX Scott Martin signature series casting rod, Okuma TCS Helios casting reel (8:1 ratio), 17-pound P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon line, 6/0 Gamakatsu Superline hook, Lunkerhunt Fetch (greenback).

> Wacky-worm gear: 7’ medium-light Okuma TCS Helios spinning rod, Okuma RTX spinning reel, 10-pound P-Line TCB braid with 8-pound P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon leader, 2/0 Gamakatsu G-Finesse hook, nail-weighted unnamed worm (various green and natural shad colors).

> He used a 12-foot leader and by knowing the length, he could see how deep the worm was when it stopped falling. If it stopped short of the bottom depth, he knew a fish likely had it.

> Main factor in his success – “Throwing the Lunkerhunt Fetch swimbait so much. It catches big ones, and even if they miss it they show themselves. I was able to catch a few with a wacky-worm that had missed the swimbait.”

> Performance edge – “My Lowrance electronics, for sure. Being able to see the fish under the deep rocks on my SideScan was critical. I could see right where to cast.”

Photo: FLW

A Ned rig produced well for 5th-place finisher Jordan Osborne.

5th: Jordan Osborne

> Day 1: 5, 13-03
> Day 2: 5, 15-13
> Day 3: 5, 15-02
> Day 4: 5, 10-08
> Total = 20, 54-10

Jordan Osborn also didn’t learn a lot from practice, but it gave him a place to begin.

“Practice didn’t help much at all other than I had flipping bites in the same area I ended up fishing during the tournament,” he said. “That’s what sparked me to go there (to start day 1). I saw them feeding out there but I didn’t really realize what was going on.

“The first day I went into the area, I circled through and caught three small ones. Then I saw some bait coming up and didn’t have anything on the deck for schoolers. I had a ChatterBait on the deck and grabbed it and caught 13 pounds. That convinced me to really work that area.

“The next day my co-angler wrecked them on a shaky-head and they seemed like bedding fish, the way they were biting. So I put a Ned rig on a shaky-head and it was on, catching fish cast after cast. You got a bite on about every cast but you’d miss a lot.”

He threw the lightweight lure on a baitcasting rod made for crankbait fishing.

“I could fling that Ned rig easily with that Cashion rod, and it would load up good to hook them. When the bite got slow I would dip the tail in chartreuse dye and get a few more bites.”

He was fishing in the back of a major creek, in an area with a gradual slope.

“I think I was getting bites where the normal shoreline was,” he observed. “They’d hit as soon as I popped it out of the brush and it'd start swimming off. After a while, I figured out they wouldn’t drop it so I had time to wait to be sure they had it good. I missed a bunch before I started doing that.”

When he threw the ChatterBait, he found that if he brought it over the brush, then dropped it, he would often get bit. Other times he crawled it slowly over the bottom.

“In my main spot they would bust every 15 to 20 minutes all day,” he added. “As the week went on it progressed to largemouths more than spots. Maybe they were coming out of the flooded brush.”

His weedless rigging on the shaky-head kept snags to a minimum. He occasionally threw a Keitech swimbait and caught a few fish he weighed using it. On day 3 he caught a few fish pitching to floating trash mats as well.

> Ned rig gear: 7’ medium Cashion C8437 casting rod, 13 Fishing Concept E reel (8.1:1 ratio), 10-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 3/16-oz. Picasso shaky-head (with screwlock), Gambler Fat Ace (cut down to 3-3.5”, green-pumpkin).

> He rigged the Ned rig weedless, and it didn’t affect his hookup ratio. “Anybody who fishes Smith Lake a lot should pay attention to this: If you fish a Ned rig, rig it weedless like a shaky-head. I lost so many baits in practice, I wish I’d have done this the whole time I was here.”

> Swimbait gear: Same rod, r.eel and line as Ned rig, 1/4-oz. Owner ball-head jig, 3.5" Keitech Swing Impact swimbait (shad)

> Bladed jig gear: Same rod, 13 Fishing Concept C reel (8.1:1), 14-pound Sunline FC Sniperfluorocarbon, 3/8-oz. Z-Man/Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer (white skirt and silver blade), Keitech Swing Impact swimbait trailer (sight flash)

> Main factor in his success – “Finding an area with pre-spawn, post-spawn and bedding fish all in same areas, and bait coming in.”

> Performance edge – “My Bass Cat boat, especially on day 3 when I fished trash mats. It has a really nimble hull and it can maneuver in tight quarters better than a lot of boats. I can fish areas other people would avoid.”

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