By Jonathan LePera
Special to BassFan
The last time that the Elite Series visited the Mississippi River in 2016, a 12 1/2-pound average through two days was good enough to cash a check. Things have changed as the largemouth have been on a feeding program since then. This time around, another half pound was needed to take home some dough.
The Mississippi was a different animal last week. From the moment practice began, the water steadily rose a foot or more per day. While anglers were able to find fish during the practice period, by no means had anyone found a stable pattern that they could ride into the top 12. Those who survived both cuts were forced to pre-fish each day after earning respectable limits as a means of survival.
As Aaron Martens left his campsite for the final morning, his wife Leslie was forced to relocate their trailer, as it would soon be surrounded by water. It is fair to say that many of the bass brought to the scales this past week had never seen a lure before nor a bass boat. Anglers relied on a variety of satellite imagery to avoid hitting obstacles, getting parked on sand bars and unlocking key areas that afforded untapped virgin waters, new cover and aggressive fish.
While the frog played an important role this week, so did topwaters, flip baits and jigs.
Here's a rundown of how the rest of the top 5 went about their business.
2nd: Jacob Powroznik
> Day 1: 5, 16-14
> Day 2: 5, 15-8
> Day 3: 5, 15-11
> Day 4: 5, 16-11
> Total = 20, 64-12
Known as a shallow-water expert, Jacob Powroznik was right at home fishing a frog in close quarters.
Powroznik started and finished in Pool 8. He was confident in his area. Having grown up fishing the James River under the tutelage of former Bassmaster Classic winner Woo Daves, he learned the intricacies of tidal bass fishing and how they react to an influx of water. Even better, he never saw another competitor the entire tournament.
On the final day of practice, a single bite clued him into the largemouth moving to the trees, especially since the mats had been blown up against them.
“I’ve seen it so many times before when a river floods, nine out of 10 times they go to the nearest hard cover, which was the trees,” he said.
From day 1 of the tournament, he knew his area would be the shallowest water in the river system and he followed the bass wherever they went. As day 1 unfolded, Powroznik realized he’d found a special area with a lot of fish. Roughly a 3-mile square, it offered some of the most pristine, untouched frogging territory he’d ever seen.
As the water rose, it unlocked more areas for Powroznik to access and he was able to fish farther back into his area.
Toward the end of the tournament, he saw small frogs, maybe 2 1/2 inches long, on top of the mats. Powroznik believes they were living in the dead trees and once they got immersed in water, the frogs flooded the area. He definitely saw an increase in bass activity in the area once that occurred and was sure to capitalize on it.
Powroznik worked a rotation of generic frogs and a black-dotted Livingston Freddy B Tournament frog, thoroughly dissecting each section of slop, especially the stuff surrounding trees. Any time there was current, he’d use his Power-Poles to anchor, preventing him from drifting into areas that he wanted to fish.
Looking back, he has only one regret.
“I wish I had slowed down on day 2, but I wanted to cover as much water as I could,” he said.
He kept an open mind and allowed the frogging deal to unfold as it did, adjusting to the rising water levels and new areas each day. He used the Lowrance C-Mapping and Google Earth feature to navigate into new areas each day.
“I could see the trees and where I was going,” he said. “I turned it on and ran around and it paid off.”
> Frog gear: 7'4" medium-heavy Quantum Smoke casting rod, Quantum Smoke S3 casting reel (8:1 gear ratio), 65-pound HI-SEAS braided line, Livingston Lures Freddy B Tournament Frog (black), other unnamed hollow-body frogs.
> Main factor in his success – “That Lowrance CMAP. I put that Ranger in places that hasn’t seen a boat before.”
> Performance edge – “If you aren’t running Power-Poles you are missing out.”
Randall Tharp had no regrets after finishing 3rd by fishing his strengths.
3rd: Randall Tharp
> Day 1: 5, 16-06
> Day 2: 5, 17-12
> Day 3: 5, 15-10
> Day 4: 5, 14-o9
> Total = 20, 64-5
It came as little surprise that Tharp was a contender in this tournament. He fishes varying water levels when he’s at home in Florida (and previously Alabama), and any chance he gets to tie on a frog or a jig, he’s all over it.
Despite holding the lead after day 3, he came away with no regrets.
“I didn’t lose any big fish,” he said. “I’m pleased with a 3rd place after my main deal went away. The river (we finished on) was not the same river we started on.”
Tharp committed himself to Pool 8, but knew the most difficult element of the tournament was not knowing what the current would do to the fish. He continued to practice throughout the tournament and found himself fishing a different place each day. He was confident that he would have a flipping deal to himself and more so in that he was able to fish his strengths.
Once the tournament began, though, he realized he was on a dying pattern. During day 1, he was able to call his shots as he dissected cover in shallow-water areas. He worked a jig methodically through cover, hopping it once or twice before making another presentation.
Midway through day 2, his gut told him he needed to make a change if he hoped to stay in the mix.
“When I pulled up on my best spot first thing and I never even saw a fish on my first pass, it was my greatest nightmare,” he said. “When I made a pass on my best stretch (on day 4), I knew it was done. I did not get a bite in a place that I could call my shots on the last two days.”
He found the spot, which was actually one of Aaron Martens’ back-up areas, that propelled him to the top during the last half-hour of day 2 and that clued him into what he might be doing Sunday after boating 2- and 3-pound fish from it.
“The rising water was the greatest challenge of the tournament as not a single person knew what it was going to do to the fish. It’s all about adapting and overcoming and continuing to practice throughout the event,” Tharp said.
He found another area on day 4 that had largemouth sitting in protected eddies where bait was being brought to them “almost like a conveyor belt.”
Before the tournament started it was on dry land. His sole regret of the tournament is that he didn’t pull the plug on his initial plan earlier on day 2.
“I’ve won tournaments by being stubborn, but I think I’m a little smarter and wiser and my instincts might be better than they used to be,” he added. “I used to stick with a dying pattern when I knew deep down it was going away and now, the second I know it’s going away, I change. When your confidence goes, you need to be changing and I’m better at it now than I used to be.
“From the first cast I make, if I don’t think I’m going to catch a bass, I’m going to leave. That’s the way I fish now, and I never used to do that because I didn’t know any better.”
> Jig gear: 7'6" heavy action Ark Rods Randall Tharp Honey Badger Series (King Cobra model) casting rod, Lew’s Super Duty casting reel (7.5:1 gear ratio), 17-pound prototype Suffix Advanced fluorocarbon line, 7/16-oz. 4x4 jig with custom skirt (green pumpkin/red flake), Zoom Ultra Vibe Speed Craw trailer (green-pumpkin).
> Main factor in his success – “The biggest reason I was there is because I kept an open mind and fished new water every day.”
> Performance edge – “My signature series flipping stick. I feel that it’s the best one out there and it gave me the edge as I never put it down.”
Gerald Spohrer secured his career-best finish in an Elite Series tournament relying on two areas.
4th: Gerald Spohrer
> Day 1: 5, 16-07
> Day 2: 5, 16-06
> Day 3: 5, 16-05
> Day 4: 5, 14-14
> Total = 20, 64-00
Gerald Spohrer figured the tournament would come down to mere ounces. He’d figured it would take 16 pounds each day to win, with him possibly needing to bring in bigger bags towards the end. His goal was to come out of the tournament with a top-50 and the points necessary to keep him moving forward toward qualifying for the AOY Championship tournament and eventually the Bassmaster Classic.
The Louisianan felt good about his finish, but he’s sure to be conflicted by coming up short. He lost several fish that could have made a difference. He lost valuable fishing time each day navigating the lock system and dealing with barge traffic. He left himself with minimal margin for error as he only had a 5-hour window of fishing time each day.
He exploited two key areas, one he would take his limit fish from and the other he hoped to manage well enough to take him to the win. His plan was to take limit fish from his one key area and only lean on his big-fish area to top out what he needed to accumulate the 16-pound limit he’d set as a goal. As the event wore one, he had to rely on his big fish area more and more.
“I think I had a good understanding of river fish faced with rising water,” he said. “I could foresee where the fish would move as the water rose. I knew those offshore schools would fall apart as the water continued to rise.”
He felt confident as the Mississippi River reminded him of targeting largemouth at home on the tidal waters of Venice, La., and the Atchafalaya Basin.
“When I got here, I knew it was going to be an area tournament,” he said. “Everything looked so good, I felt like I gotta fish this. I realized I had to pick up the pace, put the trolling motor on high and fish the frog fast. I realized there was so much dead water, just like in Venice, that once I found them, they’d bite.”
He said it was important to fish the backwaters, but they had to have a slough at each end of it, allowing current to pass through it.
He knew that a frog, a swim jig and a flip bait would be the ticket. Water in his area rose more than 2 feet over the duration of the tournament. On day 4, acting on a hunch, he fished a 6th Sense Dogma walking bait over areas that had flooded overnight, which produced numerous fish that were important that day. His biggest problem was that he couldn’t find those kicker fish that were so easily available earlier in the tournament.
Spohrer relied heavily on a chip prepared for him by Standard Mapping that allowed him to pre-fish more efficiently. Sloughs, grass lines and sandbars were all clearly depicted. Not only did it outline accessible fishing areas that opened up as the water rose, but it allowed him to navigate a body of water rife with obstacles and he never got stuck or hit anything. He credits the quad-core Raymarine Axiom Pro 12 unit for its ability to process immense amounts of detailed information without ever lagging or freezing.
> Frog gear: 7-foot heavy-action Duckett Fishing Micro Magic casting rod, Daiwa Tatula CT casting reel (8:1 gear ratio), 65-pound Sunline SX1 braided line, SPRO Bronzeye 65 frog (rainforest).
> Topwater gear: Same rod (medium action), same reel (7:1 gearing), same line (30-pound), 6th Sense Dogma walking bait (bone).
> Main factor in his success – “Understanding how the rising and high water would affect the fish.”
> Performance edge – Sheer confidence in his Bass Cat and Suzuki-powered outfit that he trusted to make long runs and last-minute decisions.
Jacob Wheeler threw a steady diet of topwater baits to catch largemouth at the Mississippi River.
5th: Jacob Wheeler
> Day 1: 5, 15-15
> Day 2: 5, 14-10
> Day 3: 5, 15-00
> Day 4: 5, 16-10
> Total = 20, 62-03
As best he could, Jacob Wheeler tried to prepare himself for what the fish were going to do. He spent the majority of his time in Pool 7, finishing up in Pool 8 as most anglers did before weighing in.
Throughout the tournament, he watched water invade his area, causing it to rise almost 4 feet. He tried for offshore fish, but history taught him that once the water rose, they’d be the most susceptible to leaving as Aaron Martens and Chris Zaldain discovered.
Wheeler decided to look for other areas where they would move to once that happened. Depending on the cover and the area, he fished a full-sized frog, a junior-sized frog, a buzzbait, and flipped a Gene Larew Biffle Bug. The majority of the frogs he fished were black, but anytime a bass swiped and missed, he’d usually seal the deal by following up with junior-sized frog. The buzzbait was meant to mimic a bluegill. Hence, he opted for a gold-bladed version with a green-pumpkin skirt, and soft-plastic frog imitation trailer to create enough disturbance on the surface to elicit a strike.
He decided to target fish holding on three cover types: rocks, vegetation (grass flats and pads), and current chutes off of the main river.
After catching nearly 16 pounds on day 1, he planned to practice in new water and gain a better understanding of what the fish were doing. The day was mired by clouds and heavy rain.
Friday was much slower as the water slicked off and the skies were high. He settled down and began to thoroughly dissect areas after Power-Poling down in those places. His bag was a pound lighter than the day before, but he still committed to seeking out new water.
As the tournament continued, fishing pressure from himself and other anglers in the area began to take its toll. Like the rest of the top 12, he fished areas that were not previously accessible.
“As vast as the Mississippi River is, there is so much cover it is overwhelming,” he noted. “If you are flipping everything, you will not have a very good day.”
Wheeler elected to fish high-percentage areas with a frog and a buzzbait, which allowed him to efficiently dissect cover, but cover water quickly as well.
“I feel really good,” Wheeler said when reflecting on the final outcome. “It was a slugfest.”
> Frog gear: 7'3" heavy-action Okuma Helios casting rod, Okuma Helios TCS casting reel (8:1 gear ratio), 50-pound Sufix 832 Advanced superline, Terminator Walking Frog Jr. (black), other hollow-body frogs.
> Dropping to 50-pound from 65-pound braid afforded him greater casting distance and it was easier to skip.
> Buzzbait gear: 7'3" medium-heavy action or 7’6 Okuma TCS ARC Model, same reel, 17-pound Sufix Invisiline 100% fluorocarbon line, Accent Jacob Wheeler Original Buzzbait (gold blade, green-pumpkin skirt), Gene Larew Jacob Wheeler Hammer Craw trailer (green-pumpkin)
> Main factor in his success – “Keeping an open mind and trying new areas each day.”
> Performance edge – “My Evinrude G2 and Bob’s Hydraulic jack plate gave me access in and out of those backwater areas and a few of them were a little hairy!”
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