By Todd Ceisner
In the storybook version, Mark Daniels, Jr.’s first Elite Series victory probably consists of catching an 8-pounder late on the final day to overcome a big deficit at the California Delta.
The real-life version, which transpired earlier this week on a massive reservoir in a remote part of South Dakota, was just as enjoyable, minus all the final-day dramatics.
Daniels carried a 6-plus pound lead into the final day by catching consistent stringers of smallmouth over the first 3 days at a sometimes stingy Lake Oahe. He clinched the win with a modest 13-03 effort that left him more than 3 pounds clear of the nearest challenger. The triumph, while unexpected, validated all of the tough decisions he and his family had made several years ago with a focus on Daniels pursuing a career as a professional angler.
“It feels awesome,” he said. “It’s a lifetime of work wrapped up in one blue trophy. You never could have told me that I’d win in South Dakota on a smallmouth lake, but things just worked out this week, from the areas I fished and what I found to not losing any fish that would cost me.”
After winning the TBF National Championship in 2013, Daniels was granted an all-expenses paid exemption to the FLW Tour for the 2014 season. After getting a taste of the sport at the highest level, he opted to leave his job as an agricultural biologist with Solano County near San Francisco and relocate to Tuskegee, Ala., to be closer to his wife’s family and minimize travel expenses for future tournament seasons.
It was a leap of faith in many ways and a major commitment knowing there were no guarantees of a payoff. After two more seasons on the FLW Tour, Daniels qualified for the 2017 Elite Series and acquitted himself nicely, earning a Bassmaster Classic berth in his rookie year. He hopes this win serves as a quantum leap in his career.
“I’m still taking it in. It hasn’t hit me yet, but it’s a damn great feeling,” said Daniels, who has two children and will turn 37 later this month. “One hundred percent, I feel like I made the right decisions. It would’ve been so easy for me to just keep working as an ag biologist. I had a good job and a family to support. Those decisions are hard to make, but I followed my heart and this is where we are.”
He was 40th in points heading to Oahe after a disappointing 88th-place finish at the Mississippi River the week prior. He was anxious to get back on the water, regardless if it was at a venue he’d never seen before.
“I didn’t know they had bass there, let alone 5-pound smallmouth and everything else they have running around,” he said. “After the Mississippi, I wanted to hurry up and fish again to get over that bad one, but I didn’t let it get me down. I love fishing that way – frogging and flipping. It’s how I grew up. I had a good day 1, but choked on day 2.
“I came to South Dakota and it was a new week. I put the Mississippi behind me and said, ‘I’m gonna start over’ and pulled out my spinning rods.”
What follows is a recap of how he put those spinning rods to work on the smallmouth of South Dakota.
Two key factors emerged during practice for Daniels. One was that the shallow-water bite was quickly fading away, prompting him to rely more on his electronics in his search of offshore holding spots.
“I did fish shallow quite a bit and caught a lot, but they were small,” he said. “That told me the females had already dropped eggs and were going deep.”
The other was because Oahe is so big and the blast-off point was toward the south end of the lake, he wanted to make sure he was targeting water that had not been tapped into already. That meant running farther north than most were comfortable with given the conditions.
“The best decision I made took place in practice when I saw where we were leaving from, I knew guys would opt to stay close to the ramp,” he said. “I had no history there so immediately I knew I wanted to get away from people. That was the biggest key for my success. Granted, a few other guys had the same idea, but we got away from the bulk of guys.
“That’s bass fishing 101. These guys are too good. You can’t sit there on a place with three or four of these guys and share fish. You won’t make the top-50 cut.”
As he worked his way up the lake in practice, he ruled out a 25-mile stretch that seemed devoid of any meaningful smallmouth population.
“I tried to practice there, but couldn’t catch anything,” he said. “Other guys worked up the lake in practice and found it stunk and turned around. I ran even farther and found some fish.”
> Day 1: 5, 18-12
> Day 2: 5, 20-04
> Day 3: 5, 17-06
> Day 4: 5, 13-03
> Total = 20, 69-09
The opening day of the tournament saw stiff winds turn Oahe into a veritable Great Lake. It impacted Daniels’ day, but not until he had 18-12 in his boat.
“It was rough getting up there and getting back,” he said. “I caught my weight pretty quick and I gave myself 3 hours to get back.”
As the day wore on, he experienced fish-care issues and he checked in 2 hours early on day 1, but still found himself in 2nd after the scales closed.
“I was making a 100-mile round-trip run and there’s so much that can go wrong doing that,” he said. “You have to have the best equipment to get there and get back and have the right stuff to have things go your way.”
His tactics were two-fold – the Ned Rig, a finesse presentation that has gained more and more momentum in the past couple of years, along with a dropshot – and both had his eyes glued to the screen of his Garmin electronics.
“It was similar to Mille Lacs and similar to Lake Martin earlier this year since I was catching spots in the same manner,” he said. “I’ve gotten more and more familiar with my electronics and they’ve made my life so much easier. Those Garmins are extremely user-friendly. I grew up without electronics so if I can use them and understand them, anybody can. They’re that good.”
Day 2 didn’t get started until after a 90-minute delay due to wind in the wake of a nasty band of storms that passed through Pierre after day 1. It put a little bit of pressure on those heading north to catch their weight quickly, Daniels included.
Turns out the delay caused him no issues as he produced his best bag of the event with 20-04 that helped him take over the lead. He started to get more dialed in on where the fish were coming to after they departed their spawning grounds.
“The points I fished in the tournament were an intersection and a rest stop for them to feed up and slide off the points,” he said. “I think I intercepted them perfectly.”
He relied on four particular spots throughout the tournament, all in the 13- to 18-foot range with scattered boulders, chunk rock and some isolated brush.
“Those smallmouth are weird,” he said. “There will be four to six of them holding on one rock. I don’t know why, but they seem to be very conscious of the shade that rock creates.”
A 17-06 effort on day 3 extended his advantage to 6-05 entering the final day. What many saw as a foregone conclusion, Daniels didn’t even acknowledge. He said he treated day 4 as though he was in 12th place and tried to climb as high as he could in the standings.
“I never backed off,” he said unflinchingly. “I fished for big ones all day. I caught three good ones and two small ones. (Clifford) Pirch was on the fish to win, but he had a bad day 1. I knew that potential was out there so if you slip up and lay up for 10 or 11 pounds, that won’t work. It was a struggle on day 4.”
As the tournament wore on, he sensed the fishing was getting tougher as other competitors were also in the same general area of the lake.
“It was the same each day, but it just got tougher because the pressure increased as the tournament wore on,” he said. “It gradually got tougher from getting bit to a limit to everything. (On day 4), the pressure started to set in. Every day, we were snatching five out of there so I knew that was going to wear on a few spots.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Ned rig gear: 7’1” medium-heavy Favorite Fishing Sick Stick spinning rod, Cabela’s Verano 2500 spinning reel, 15-pound Seaguar Smackdown braided line, 8-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon line (leader), 1/5-oz. Z-Man Finesse Shroomz jighead, 2.75” Z-Man Finesse TRD (green-pumpkin goby, mudbug).
> He stayed with the Finesse TRD after having success with it in practice. “Even when they started nipping it, it’s so small you’d still get them on it,” he said.
> Dropshot gear: 7’2” medium-heavy Favorite Fishing Jack Hammer spinning rod, same reel, same line, #1 Owner Cover Shot hook, Z-Man Finesse WormZ (green-pumpkin), 3/8-oz. unnamed dropshot weight.
> Daniels Texas-rigged the Finesse WormZ when fishing around brush. “It was scattered, but it was out there,” he said. “And there were some fish around it.”
> He also had a dropshot rig with a Finesse TRD on it.
> He estimated nearly half of the 20 fish he weighed in were caught by vertically dropping down on the fish versus casting to them, which was the dominant theme on the final day.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Getting away from the crowd and being able to rely on my electronics and stay off the fish and not be on to top of them when they were finicky.”
> Performance edge – “My Ranger Z520L and Mercury 250 along with my Bob’s Machine Shop jack plate were flawless all week. They got me there and back safely each day.”
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