By Todd Ceisner
Drew Benton has seen steady improvement in his Elite Series finishes in 2018. Today, he took a quantum leap forward.
After stumbling at Lake Martin (101st) in the season opener, he was 73rd at Grand Lake and 45th at Kentucky Lake. He didn’t have high expectations at Lake Travis for the latest Toyota TexasFest, but after surging into the lead with a 20-pound effort on Saturday, he closed out his first Elite Series victory – and second career tour-level win – with a 16-15 stringer today.
Amidst rainy and cloudy conditions that were less than ideal for his topwater strategy, he logged a key upgrade in the afternoon with a 3-pounder that gave him the cushion he needed to fend off Jacob Wheeler, who started the day in 2nd.
Benton’s four-day total of 67-15 bested Wheeler by nearly 3 1/2 pounds and earned him a spot in the 2019 Bassmaster Classic.
Benton’s triumph comes 5-plus years after his first tour-level win at Lake Okeechobee in his FLW Tour debut in 2013. After turning 30 less than two weeks ago, he has a renewed appreciation for what it takes to succeed at this level.
“I never took the first one for granted but being it was my first year and my first event I didn’t understand what it meant,” Benton said. “This is my sixth season now and I understand how hard it is to win an event and how much you have to invest mentally and physically. You have to put your whole heart and soul into it and even then, you’re still going to lose despite doing everything right.”
Benton’s commitment to a topwater strategy to lure Travis’ bigger bass to the surface proved to be the right move
Wheeler’s quest for a 6-pounder or better today came up short (his big one was a 5-07), but his 16-02 gave him 64-08 and his third straight top-25 finish since finishing 95th at Lake Martin in the season opener.
Cliff Pace finished where he started – in 3rd after catching 15-09 today. His total wound up being 61-12, but nearly 30 percent of it was because of two fish – an 8-01 brute he caught today and that 10-05 he caught Thursday that earned him big bass honors and a new Toyota Tundra valued at $50,000.
Keith Combs capped his tournament with the final day’s only 20-pound stringer (20-04) and he improved six places to finish 4th with 60-10. New Angler of the Year points leader Brent Chapman caught his third 15-pound limit of the event (15-13) and rounded out the top 5 with 59-02.
Here's a look at the totals for the rest of the finalists:
6. Gerald Spohrer: 55-09
7. Bobby Lane: 55-04
8. Jamie Hartman: 52-06
9. Ray Hanselman: 50-11
10. Jason Christie: 49-07
11. Marty Robinson: 48-15
12. Clifford Pirch: 48-07
The Elite Series takes a week off before heading to the Sabine River on June 7-10 for a tournament that was postponed from April 6-9. The competitors will have Monday and Tuesday this week to scout the river before it goes off limits on Wednesday.
Benton feasted on Travis' marinas this week.
Benton’s Confidence Never Been Higher
> Day 4: 5, 16-15 (20, 67-15)
Each tournament day was different for Benton and today presented a new host of challenges. First, he had to serve a 15-minute penalty delay due to a rule violation that occurred Saturday. Then, upon arriving at his starting spot, it was apparent the fish weren’t as active as they’d been. Then, the rains came and had him doubting whether his topwater strategy would hold up.
He stuck with it and despite catching his big fish of the day on a flutter spoon, he’ll look back at Travis as the tournament he won almost exclusively on a walking bait.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he said. “It’s one of those lakes where you have to go fish and take what it gives you and roll with the punches. You never knew what you’re going to catch or where. There are so many variables with these clear lakes with boat traffic and everything else. Today was totally different. Every day was. It was almost like you had to fish it like a 1-day event.”
He said after committing to a topwater bait on day 2, things started to happen that gave him a sense that a win was possible.
“It was one of those where you can almost feel something happening,” he said. “I hooked a 4-13 in the top of its head on a topwater with one treble hook. Just random stuff like that. Fish would come up and not commit and I’d catch them foul-hooked. It was like, ‘Hey, something’s going my way right now.’ That has to happen in order to win.”
Benton said Marty Robinson had been fishing the same marina in the morning, but Robinson told Benton on Saturday night that he would cede the area to him as he had the better chance to win.
“That’s huge,” Benton said. “That was real nice of him and in this particular event, there was a lot of money to be had by moving up.”
When Benton arrived there today, “it wasn’t happening,” he said. “The shad weren’t spawning. I fished there for an hour and never had a (keeper) bite.”
From there, he pulled out a big flutter spoon and started his day with a 4-11 kicker that took the edge off. With the storm clouds rolling in, he cycled back through some topwater areas he hadn’t fished without sunny skies.
“I had a couple roll on it, but as soon as the front came through, I went to a stretch where I’d caught some good ones and caught a 3-05,” he said. “I just kept with it and kept at it.”
He caught a 1-10 before foul-hooking a 2-10 on a topwater along a bluff bank to give himself roughly 12 pounds for four fish.
His fifth was a 3-06 and gave him 15-10. He gained a few ounces with a 1-14 a few minutes later, but the key fish came off a spot where he’d seen a good fish follow his bait each of the first 3 days.
“There was one bank where I’d had a 3-pounder follow me, but wouldn’t eat,” he said. “It was lightly sprinkling and I told the camera guy that story and right then he blew up on it.”
It turned out to be a 3-pounder, which earned him another pound.
He said his confidence couldn’t be any higher than it is now after this win.
“I stopped worrying about anything but fishing how I know how to fish and fishing my strengths,” he said. “I quit worrying about how it’s going to be won or how this guy’s gonna catch ‘em. That’s why I’ve been fishing good. When I find a groove, it’s unexplainable. When you get momentum and confidence you feel like you’re going to catch them everywhere you go. That’s how it felt today. I told myself to just keep the topwater in my hand and you’ll get it done.”
Full details of his winning pattern, as well as those of the other top finishers, will be published this week.
2nd: Wheeler Couldn’t Add to Early Big One
> Day 4: 5, 16-02 (20, 64-08)
Coming into today, Wheeler had a pretty good handle on how to catch 2- and 3-pounders and the odd 4-pounder. What had eluded him were the 6- to 8-pounders that would’ve closed the gap on Benton and possibly catapulted him to the win.
His first fish was a 5-07 today, but that’s as good as it got for the Tennessee resident, who culled four times. His other four fish ranged in size from 2-03 to 3-00.
“I spent most of my time up the Colorado River fishing water that was dirtier than the rest of the lake,” Wheeler said in a press release generated by B.A.S.S. “Most of my fish came on a 7/8-ounce silver jigging spoon that mimicked the plentiful shad in the lake. I also caught a few bass on a custom topwater prop bait when they were on the surface chasing bait.”
Cliff Pace shows off the 8-01 he caught on a jerkbait today.
3rd: Pace Perplexed
> Day 4: 5, 15-09 (20, 61-12)
Pace said it was maddening to catch two giants this week and still wind up 3rd.
His 8-01 came on a Jackall DowZvido jerkbait, a deeper runner compared to the Jackall Squad Minnow he’d been throwing earlier in the tournament.
“Today was frustrating,” he said. “It was awesome to catch another giant, but it was aggravating to catch that and not a giant stringer. That lake was so random. I caught them different every single day and in a different area every day.”
Where he stumbled today was returning to a spot he’d found Saturday that he felt like he could duplicate some success he had there.
“I found an area on day 3 that I was excited about and it didn’t work at all,” he said. “I caught two 1 1/2-pounders there and then scrapped it. Every day was different. Where I messed up today was I fished too long like yesterday and couldn’t make it work.”
A Carolina rig with a soon-to-be released bait from V&M Baits called the Drop Shad accounted for the majority of his weigh fish this week.
“I did the best I could do with the conditions I had,” he added.
4th: Combs Cranked ‘Em Up
> Day 4: 5, 20-04 (20, 60-10)
With two sub-85th place finishes on his ledger this season already, Combs needed a pick-me-up and Travis delivered. The Texan was able to get offshore and grind a deep-diving crankbait and mix in a big flutter spoon.
“With the way this year started out, I’m very happy to get a good finish,” he said. “I wish I could go out there tomorrow because I think I could win.”
His only regret was getting hung up on a spot that, in hindsight, he thinks led him astray and caused him to waste time.
“I had three spots I was excited about after practice and one in particular I thought was the winning hole,” he said. “It just never came through like I thought it would.”
After shifting to another spot on day 3, he caught quality fish on a more consistent basis and it was more of the same today.
“I caught them solid on every cast for a full hour today,” he said. “I got so fed up with that other spot, but I almost stopped on it this morning with the dark skies. I backed off the throttle, but I was like, ‘Nope, go where you caught ‘em.’ My first cast was a 3-pounder, then a 2-pouner and it went on and on.”
Keith Combs fished his strength this week and turned in today's only 20-pound stringer.
He moved a couple times and had success at about every stop.
“There was a place where I pummeled 2-pounders on day 1 that I pulled up on today and it had 3s and 4s on it,” he said. “I had a solid bag with everything between 3-02 and 4-11. That’s not a common bag at Travis.”
5th: Colorado Was Good to Chapman
> Day 4: 5, 15-13 (20, 59-02)
Chapman heard all the belly-aching in practice about how Travis was going to be a stingy fishery. He found it to be to the contrary as he settled into his comfort zone up the Colorado River arm, picking off fish in the morning on topwater baits before flipping flooded trees and bushes when the sun got up in the sky.
“It was just a great event all around,” said Chapman, who will carry a 32-point lead in the AOY standings into the next event at the Sabine River. “Going into it, I’d have been tickled with a 49th-place finish. Practice was such an uncertainty and people were thinking it won’t take much weight (to do well). I didn’t know what to expect because it was such a new place to us.”
Today started slower than he expected as he didn’t record his first keeper until just after 9 a.m. His best fish, a 4-11, came just before 10 ts recycled areas from earlier in the tournament.
“I had a milk run I was doing,” he said. “Most of my fish came off of three little stretches and all of my big fish were off a 50-yard stretch of trees.”
His only regret was pulling out a spinning rod at certain times.
“I lost a couple each day that might’ve got me 2nd or 3rd, but you want to be in position to win and it comes down to a key bite here or there,” he said. “It wasn’t meant to be for me this week.”
> Day 4 stats – 12 anglers, 12 limits.
1. Drew Benton -- Panama City, FL -- 20, 67-15 -- 110 -- $100,000
Day 1: 5, 13-15 -- Day 2: 5, 16-13 -- Day 3: 5, 20-04 -- Day 4: 5, 16-15
2. Jacob Wheeler -- Harrison, TN -- 20, 64-08 -- 109 -- $34,000
Day 1: 5, 17-04 -- Day 2: 5, 18-03 -- Day 3: 5, 12-15-- Day 4: 5, 16-02
3. Cliff Pace -- Petal, MS -- 20, 61-12 -- 108 -- $30,000
Day 1: 5, 19-08 -- Day 2: 5, 13-04 -- Day 3: 5, 13-07 -- Day 4: 5, 15-09
4. Keith Combs -- Huntington, TX -- 20, 60-10 -- 107 -- $24,000
Day 1: 5, 12-06 -- Day 2: 5, 10-10 -- Day 3: 5, 17-06 -- Day 4: 5, 20-04
5. Brent Chapman -- Lake Quivira, KS -- 20, 59-02 -- 106 -- $21,000
Day 1: 5, 16-01 -- Day 2: 5, 11-08 -- Day 3: 5, 15-12 -- Day 4: 5, 15-13
6. Gerald Spohrer -- Gonzales, LA -- 20, 55-09 -- 105 -- $17,000
Day 1: 5, 13-02 -- Day 2: 5, 13-07 -- Day 3: 5, 13-01 -- Day 4: 5, 15-15
7. Bobby Lane Jr. -- Lakeland, FL -- 20, 55-04 -- 104 -- $15,000
Day 1: 5, 21-02 -- Day 2: 5, 09-02 -- Day 3: 5, 12-14 -- Day 4: 5, 12-02
8. Jamie Hartman -- Newport, NY -- 20, 52-06 -- 103 -- $14,000
Day 1: 5, 11-07 -- Day 2: 5, 15-05 -- Day 3: 5, 15-00 -- Day 4: 5, 10-10
9. Ray Hanselman Jr -- Del Rio, TX -- 19, 50-11 -- 102 -- $13,500
Day 1: 5, 21-15 -- Day 2: 4, 12-02 -- Day 3: 5, 08-14 -- Day 4: 5, 7-12
10. Jason Christie -- Park Hill, OK -- 20, 49-07 -- 101 -- $13,000
Day 1: 5, 10-10 -- Day 2: 5, 21-13 -- Day 3: 5, 08-11 -- Day 4: 5, 8-05
11. Marty Robinson -- Lyman, SC -- 19, 48-15 -- 100 -- $12,500
Day 1: 4, 13-07 -- Day 2: 5, 15-05 -- Day 3: 5, 11-08 -- Day 4: 5, 8-11
12. Clifford Pirch -- Payson, AZ -- 20, 48-07 -- 99 -- $12,000
Day 1: 5, 11-10 -- Day 2: 5, 15-08 -- Day 3: 5, 15-01 -- Day 4: 5, 6-04