By Todd Ceisner
The expectation going into last week's Kentucky Lake Bassmaster Elite Series was that it was going to be a different kind of tournament compared to past Elite Series visits to the prodigious TVA reservoir. The bass had not moved out to the Tennessee River ledges, as they were still working their way through the spawning cycle.
It was as challenging a tournament as many could remember competing in at Kentucky Lake. Some cited the time of year while others pointed to a potentially bigger issue with the lack of smaller bass in the 13- to 15-inch range and the relative shortage of shad.
Another factor competitors had to grapple with was the rapidly falling water through practice. Bushes and sight-fishing opportunities that were there early in the week were taken out of the equation, thanks to the TVA pulling the plug on the lake to bring it down to summer pool level.
There were still some bushes left to work over, but the fish weren’t coming to the bank like they probably had been prior to the water dropping. With water temperatures climbing through the 60s, a morning shad spawn materialized and provided a starting point for many, but the challenge lied in how the balance of the day would be spent.
Tournament winner Wesley Strader had an array of options, the shad spawn and flipping bushes among them. Others opted to fish their strengths, targeting either the bushes for spawners or mid-range depths for fish coming to and going away from spawning areas.
Here’s a rundown of how the balance of the top 5 caught their fish last week:
2nd: Skeet Reese
> Day 1: 5, 23-11
> Day 2: 5, 21-10
> Day 3: 4, 13-07
> Day 4: 4, 17-10
> Total = 18, 76-06
Skeet Reese said Kentucky Lake was as challenging last week as it’s ever been for a tournament he’s fished there.
“It’s not the fishery that it was,” he said. “There’s a much bigger issue than me finishing 2nd. It just doesn’t have the population of fish (it used to). It’s as if there are a couple year classes of fish that are gone. I didn’t see a lot of 1 1/2 pounders and look at how many guys didn’t have limits. This time of year, guys should’ve been catching 20 to 40 per day.”
Coming off a 67th-place finish at Grand Lake the week prior, Reese said finding fish beyond the shallow and mid-range depths was a challenge. There wasn’t much an offshore ledge bite as many of the fish were just moving in to spawn.
“When the water was up, I’d fish the bushes, but they sucked the water out,” he said. “Then I fished secondary stuff, but I didn’t know that bite would die at 10:30 each day.”
He also targeted deeper channel swings that had “steeper contours instead of low, shallow, flat stuff,” he said.
He opted to use an array of bigger baits to mimic the gizzard shad that were spawning in the mornings.
“I’ve won several times this time of year fishing big baits,” he added. “With post-spawn fish and a population of fish in the 4- to 7-pound class, it set up perfectly for it. It’s high risk if the conditions aren’t right.”
> Crankbait gear: 8’ heavy-action Wright & McGill Skeet Reese Series casting rod, Wright & McGill Pro Series Elite casting reel (6.3:1 ratio), 20-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon line, Lucky Craft SKT Magnum 105 crankbait (chartreuse shad).
> He also caught keepers on an assortment of other baits, including a hollow-belly Basstrix swimbait, a Berkley PowerBait tube, a Lucky Craft Slender Pointer and the 8” Megabass Mag Draft swimbait, acting on a tip from day-1 leader Chris Zaldain.
> Main factor in his success – “Once I got dialed in that there was a shad spawn bite and they were big shad, I knew bigger baits would work and that’s where I have confidence. That’s where the SKT Magnum came in. I knew I could go behind anybody and catch them. It also seemed like that bite started disappearing as the week went on.”
> Performance edge – “My Lowrance mapping was key to look for those little subtle indentations on the shoreline and points – that little place with deeper water. I could start calling my shots on day 2 that way.”
Kelley Jaye relied solely on a jerkbait to record the best Elite Series finish of his career.
3rd: Kelley Jaye
> Day 1: 5, 22-00
> Day 2: 5, 11-14
> Day 3: 5, 21-01
> Day 4: 5, 18-07
> Total = 20, 73-06
Some anglers find comfort throwing a spinnerbait or jig. For others, it’s a wacky-rigged soft stickbait or a shaky-head. Kelley Jaye’s comfort zone is all about a jerkbait and that’s what he relied upon last week.
"I tried a bunch of different stuff and had a pretty good practice once I figured out where they were,” he said.
While others were getting tripped up by the water receding out of the bushes, Jaye was catching roughly 23 pounds on the second day of practice, all on a jerkbait.
“I’m just comfortable with it, especially with the way our schedule sets up,” he said. “We’re either fishing pre-spawn, spawn or post-spawn so you can throw it all year the way our schedule lines up. I have a lot of confidence in it and it catches a lot of big fish. People think it’s just a pre-spawn bait, but guys throw it year-round.”
Jaye never picked up a flipping rod to target bushes.
“Especially as the days went on and the water was dropping,” he said. “They got beat to death. I knew I wouldn’t do well.”
Instead, he focused on where fish were moving in and out of areas as they transitioned from pre- to post-spawn.
“It was about trying to figure out where those fish would be relating, either going into the backs of creeks or pockets or out to the main channel,” he said. “I tried to find stopping points along that route.”
Each fish, both pre- and post-spawners, was caught in 5 to 8 feet of water. He said the retrieve was pretty consistent across all four days.
“It was mostly jerk-jerk-short pause,” he said. “I was basically walking the dog under water.”
> Jerkbait gear: 6’9” medium-action ALX Rods Kelley Jaye signature series casting rod, Team Lew's Pro Magnesium Speed Spool casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 14-pound unnamed fluorocarbon line, Megabass Ito Vision 110 jerkbait (matte shad), Megabass Ito Shiner (custom color).
> Main factor in his success – “I stuck with what I had confidence in. I didn’t hit the panic button and do crazy stuff. I just put my head down and made it work.”
Jason Christie hammered away at bushes all week, trying to put his bait where other competitors might have missed.
4th: Jason Christie
> Day 1: 5, 20-13
> Day 2: 5, 18-15
> Day 3: 5, 16-09
> Day 4: 5, 15-03
> Total = 20, 71-08
The tournament was an absolute grind for Jason Christie, whose weights fell off each day, but he scratched and clawed enough bites doing what he loves to do to record his fourth top-10 Elite Series finish in the last 13 months.
“I was pretty worried the first day after I made a pass down a row of bushes and expected to get five to 10 bites and I got two,” he said. “I said, ‘Man, this isn’t going to be the deal to win.’”
At the next stop, he caught a decent one, which kept him from experimenting with other patterns.
“That was just enough to keep me doing it,” he said. “Once I started having a couple decent days, I was committed to it 100 percent.”
In practice, the water levels were unnerving to him. It was inconsistent until the tournament got going.
“On the first day, I kept telling myself the water needed to come down for it to be good,” he said. “The farther south I went the more flooded it seemed to be. Late on day 2, it got to about where it needed to be. Then on day 3, it was like, ‘We don’t have enough water.’”
He thinks the amount of locals he saw targeting bushes was more an indication of how good the fishing had been with the high water as opposed to locals mimicking the pros.
“What surprised me is I figured a lot more guys would be fishing other ways, but a lot of other guys were in the bushes,” he said. “That told me that in the previous couple weeks, the bush bite was probably good because everybody I saw was flipping bushes.”
He said bait presentation was critical to getting bites and staying confident in his approach.
“There were two different kinds of bites,” he said. “I caught some on the outside, in the middle of the stuff and some lobbing over some bushes into the back. After day 1, the only thing in my mind was I had to get my bait where nobody else was putting theirs. I felt like every bush had been fished and no new fish were moving in so when I went down a row of bushes, I had to dig them out. I had to make a pitch way back or to where I felt nobody else had tried to flip.”
He said when his bait dropped in where he felt nobody else had pitched before, he got bit on the initial fall. When he targeted the outside bushes, he tried to imagine where a bed would be in relation to the bush.
“I’d just barely move it and they’d get it,” he said.
He stayed in one creek for the duration of the tournament, short of a stretch on day 4 when he ran toward New Johnsonville to check something different. Overall, he enjoyed the style of fishing that the lake offered compared to his previous tournaments there.
“I’ve done well on the ledge deal, but when you fish there it can be stressful because you spend three days idling and you don’t dare make many casts because you don’t want people to see you,” he said. “When those tournaments start, you’ve got 15 schools so you run to the best one. Maybe someone is on it, so then it’s on to the next best one. At least this was a fishing tournament. Let’s get the flipping stick out. Even though it was a grind it was kind of fun because it wasn’t easy.”
> Flipping gear: 7’3” heavy-action Falcon Cara T7 Amistad casting rod, Team Lew’s Pro Magnesium Speed Spool casting reel (8.3:1 ratio), 25-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. unnamed tungsten worm weight, 5/0 Lazer TroKar TK 130 flippin hook, YUM Baits Christie Critter (green-pumpkin purple).
> Christie had two identical Christie Critter rods set up, one with a black flipping weight and another with an unpainted weight.
> Main factor in his success – “I love when I can go flipping in an event. I don’t have to worry about what rod to pick up. I just worry about the next bush. I had two or three rods laid out, but didn’t make 10 casts with them.”
> Performance edge – “I could’ve very well finished in the 40s or high 30s, but I just happened to be sitting there (Saturday night) and looked at a spot (on my Active Captain app). I saw it was tucked away and hard to get to. I went in there and caught five Sunday. That Active Captain app was a big key. It was the kind of stuff I was looking for – just those little bitty places that were being overlooked. The thing at Kentucky Lake is if you get in an area that hadn’t been fished, they bite.”
Fred Roumbanis figures he caught at least 10 4-pounders on a swimbait last week.
5th: Fred Roumbanis
> Day 1: 5, 17-15
> Day 2: 5, 22-11
> Day 3: 3, 13-03
> Day 4: 5, 16-08
> Total = 18, 70-05
Like Jaye and Christie, Fred Roumbanis was able to find a pattern within his comfort zone at Kentucky Lake. After catching one fish on a topwater and another flipping on day 1, the bulk of the rest of his weight was caught slinging a swimbait.
He tried to develop a flipping pattern, but only caught three keepers in three full days on the water. The area he focused on in the tournament was a spot he only got one bite on in practice.
“I fished exact same spot,” he said. “I caught lot of fish in one area. I literally found it based on one bite in practice in there. It was the worst practice you could imagine, but I learned it was better to eliminate stuff than to find a bunch of stuff.”
After junk-fishing the morning of day 1, he got more dialed in on the swimbait pattern that day.
“To the point where it was the only rod I had on my deck,” he said.
It was a struggle to not try other things during lulls between bites. For instance, he amassed 18 pounds pretty quick on day 2 with his swimbait, then picked up a shaky-head and caught a couple smaller fish.
“It was only 9 a.m., so I went back to the swimbait and caught a 3, then a 4,” he said. “That’s when it clicked that I needed to stick with that. It’s nice to have a couple back-up plans, but it’s more time consuming when you have more things to do.”
He focused on hard-bottom transition areas going into a creek where the fish would spawn.
“It was the perfect interception point,” he added. “Fish were going in and coming out and bait was there. I saw them on (Garmin) Panoptix. If I saw just a moving fish with no bait around, I assumed it was a carp. If I saw bait and it was getting pushed around, I knew those were bass. I saw a lot of that in that area.”
He estimated catching at least 10 4-pounders over the course of the tournament in that area.
“I knew when to lock down and fish a spot, especially when you get multiple solid bites in one area,” he said. “You stick to it because there’s probably more there.”
To change up his presentation, he learned three different casts to deliver the bait from a various angles. Most of the bites came out of 7 or 8 feet of water.
“I rotated around based on the wind,” he said. “I feel like I could go back there tomorrow and do it again.”
> Swimbait gear: 7’11” heavy-action iRod Genesis II Fred’s Crank Launcher casting rod, Cabela’s Arachnid casting reel (8.0:1 ratio), 20-pound unnamed fluorocarbon line, 6” Optimum Baits Boom Boom (rigged) swimbait (ghost rider, ghost minnow, PB shad).
> For his retrieve, Roumbanis had to reel at a painstakingly slow pace, especially with an 8.0:1 reel, which was necessary to pick up line on the hookset. “I had to crawl it,” he said. “I’d make a long cast and snap it to get the tail going and then slowly crawl it.”
> Main factor in his success – “Sticking to my guns and throwing my swimbait. It’s one of my strengths and I probably have as much confidence as anybody on tour in that bait. Whenever I can get on that bite, it’s usually a top-10 finish for me.”
> Performance edge – “That Garmin Pantopix is what gave me confidence to stick around. I saw the bait and since there was not much activity on the surface, I had to see where the fish were. There was a wolf pack of bass I was following. I could see the bait around the bass with Panoptix.”
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