By Todd Ceisner
In his more than 20 years as a pro angler, Wesley Strader has just about seen it all when it comes to changes in conditions. That’s why, as the water fell during practice for the Kentucky Lake Elite Series, he didn’t panic or wring his hands over what that would do to his game plan. He calmly adjusted and plotted his strategy regardless of how much water was left in the bushes once things stabilized.
He’d fished the lake many times in the past and knew there would be opportunities for him, especially considering how the fish seemed to be spread out through the various phases of the spawning process. His mindset was to follow his instinct and throw baits that fit the scenario immediately in front of him. It was this open-minded approach that guided him to the biggest win of his career as he averaged a tick more than 20 pounds per day, punctuated by the heaviest stringer on each of the final two days.
“Not getting locked in on one thing (was key),” he said. “Even after day 1, when I got bit flipping, I didn’t catch any flipping fish the next two days, but I kept it honest. I kept checking it.”
This victory was a long time coming for the Spring City, Tenn., native. He won an FLW Tour back in 2002 and a Bassmaster Open in 2016, but his latest triumph tops them all.
“It took me four years to get an FLW Tour win,” Strader said. “Here I am in my third tournament and I get a win on the Elites. It’s just a weird feeling.”
What really helped it sink in was the “attaboys” he got from the rest of the finalists he’d just beaten.
“What felt great was being congratulated by guys I look up to and respect like Skeet and those guys,” Strader said.
Here’s how he did it.
Strader said practice was “a grind,” but he was encouraged by what he found each day.
“I had five bites the first day, a pretty good day on day 2 and eight or nine bites on day 3 – the ones you’d want,” he said. "Day 1 was not very good, but the water was very high. I’d looked at the predicted elevations and knew it would fall, but I also knew it would stabilize around 359.
“I knew things would get better just because there was so much water back in the bushes. That’s not good because it eliminates places they can be.”
He had three focal points coming out of practice – the morning shad spawn as the water warmed through the 60s, docks and flooded bushes.
“The water temperature threw me off in practice because I’d never seen it that low in the first week of May,” he said. “It was 64-65 when we started and the highest I saw was 69 until Monday when I saw 75. It stayed relatively cool and I don’t know if that factors into what’s going on. I know the shad want it to be at 70 before they get busy spawning.”
> Day 1: 5, 19-06
> Day 2: 5, 17-13
> Day 3: 5, 22-06
> Day 4: 5, 20-11
> Total = 20, 80-04
Strader started strong with 19-03 on day 1, capitalizing on the shad spawn along a submerged roadbed. He had most of his weight by 10:30 that morning on a spinnerbait and buzzbait before going to check a pattern that had worked for him in the past. It didn’t materialize this time around, which he says benefitted him in the long run.
“That might’ve won the tournament for me because I went three hours without a bite so I said, ‘I won’t do that again,’” he said. “I never went back to it.”
He upgraded a couple times later in the day on a frog.
The 17-13 he caught on day 2 was his smallest stringer, but he moved up five spots to 11th as several of the day-1 leaders struggled to catch limits under overcast and rainy conditions. The roadbed produced for him again in the morning before he flipped bushes later in the day.
“I’ve known about the road bed for years,” he said. “I’d never caught them there. It’s a funnel in and funnel out spot and the shad were spawning there. When I checked it, lo and behold, they were there.”
He also threw a frog some, but missed a bunch of fish that weren’t committing to it.
“I told myself that on day 3 I wouldn’t do that until later in the day because it seemed as the warmer the water got they’d come up and get it,” he said.
The sun re-emerged on Sunday and Strader catapulted himself into the lead with a 22-06 stringer, the bulk of which was caught on a balsa crankbait around docks. A spinnerbait accounted for one keeper and a buzzbait accounted for another.
“I caught everything on a crankbait under dock walkways, but by the end of the day, they’d moved from the walkways to the main floats,” he said. “I usually catch them flipping the docks, but I couldn’t catch them this week that way and I think it had a lot to do with the shad spawn.”
A frog accounted for a 5-13 upgrade later in the day to push his total past the 22-pound mark.
On the final day, Strader fished with an open mind despite having his first Elite Series win within reach. He said he never pressed and kept his options open through the day. He caught an early limit on a spinnerbait, then fished docks and the nearby bushes and trees. The frog produced a keeper around some overhanging trees and his three biggest fish were caught in the matter of an hour flipping horizontal cover near bushes and willow trees.
“They say you never forget your first kiss,” he said. “This is one of those days I’ll never forget.”
After three events, he’s getting used to the smaller field of the Elite Series.
“Just the amount of boats that are not out there,” he said. “It feels good to make a decision to go fish somewhere and there be a slim chance someone might be there. I never saw another boat all day except for the people who were following me.”
Of all the tournaments he’s fished at Kentucky Lake, he said this was among the most challenging for several reasons.
“What I don’t understand is you either caught a keeper or didn’t catch a fish,” he said. “It’s like there are no 13- to 15-inchers in the lake. I can count on one hand the short fish I caught all week. It’s comforting, but unnerving at the same time because when you got bit you knew, more than likely, it’s going to be a good one.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Spinnerbait gear: 7’5” medium-heavy Powell Endurance cranking rod, Team Lew's Pro Magnesium Speed Spool casting reel (6.8:1 ratio), 16-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 5/8-oz. Stan Sloan’s Zorro Bait Company Bango Blade spinnerbait (chartreuse white), Zoom Split Tail trailer (pearl white).
> Flipping gear: 7’9” mag medium-heavy Powell Endurance casting rod, same reel (7.5:1 ratio), same line (20-pound), 5/16-oz. Reins Tungsten worm weight, 5/0 Lazer TroKar TK130 flippin hook, Zoom Z Hog (green-pumpkin), Reaction Innovations Sweet Beaver (tramp stamp).
> He opted for the Sweet Beaver on the final day mainly because the bait color matched up with the water color. “It was tannic color and that’s the best color bait for that water color,” he said.
> Crankbait gear: Same rod, reel and line as spinnerbait, PH Custom Lures W Special crankbait (money).
> Strader says the W Special is a hybrid square-bill plug that has a good in-between action (not too tight and not too wide). He said it will run down to four feet on 16-pound fluorocarbon.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Adjusting every day to what was going on. Just picking up the bait that’s best suited for the situation you’re in or the structure you’re throwing at and just going with my gut. That was my main key to success.”
> Performance edge – “My HydroWave was a key Monday. I didn’t run it around the docks because those were shad-spawn fish. When I went to the bushes, I turned it on 45-second delay power pattern. It might not make them bite, but it masks your human noise. I had a lot of boats following me and I think it just relaxed those fish.”
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