By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
The 2019 tour-level season is set to get under way this week on a body of water that's sprawling under any conditions, but absolutely massive in its present state. Sam Rayburn Reservoir in Texas is more than 8 feet above the full-pool mark due to heavy rain in the region over the past month, and fish will be caught from many places normally occupied by only terrestrial critters when the FLW Tour kicks off its 24th campaign.
The Tour roster is dotted with Texas-bred anglers who've made a proverbial ton of money in derbies at "Big Sam" and guys like Todd Castledine, Russell Cecil, Chris McCall, Dicky Newberry and Jason Reyes were anticipated to have a significant advantage this week. The super-high water may take away some of that edge, though, as the fish are scattered across all depth ranges and big groups of them are few and far between.
It's a new era for the Tour as anglers will compete for the first time without sharing their fish with co-anglers. Also, there are many new faces among the field due to the shake-up brought on by the formation of the MLF Bass Pro Tour.
Longtime FLW stalwarts Andy Morgan (a three-time Angler of the Year) and Mark Rose (the 2018 AOY) have joined the BPT and Clark Wendlandt (three AOYs) and Jay Yelas (two AOYs) have moved to the revamped Bassmaster Elite Series along with last year's FLW Cup champion, Clent Davis. There's still some star power among the ranks, however, with that list headed up by Bryan Thrift, Scott Martin and David Dudley.
Here's a look at the venue that will host that trio and 167 other anglers this week.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Sam Rayburn Reservoir
> Type of Water: Lowland impoundment on the Angelina River
> Surface Acres: 114,500, at full pool, but much more at present
> Primary structure/cover: Standing timber, brushy shoreline, creek channels, humps, laydowns, pads, grass beds
> Average depth: 15 feet
> Species: Largemouths
> Length limit: 14 inches
> Reputation: Long considered one of the best big-bass lakes in the country
> Weather: A mix of clouds and sun and perhaps a bit of rain with air temperatures in the 50s and 60s and light to moderate winds
> Water temperature: Mid to high 50s
> Water visibility: Varies depending on location
> Water level: About 8 feet above normal pool
> Fish in: 1 to 30 feet
> Fish phase: Winter
> Primary patterns: Rattlebaits, Carolina rigs, bladed jigs, swimjigs, crankbaits, spinnerbaits, flipping, plastics
> Winning weight: 72 pounds (4 days)
> Cut weight (Top 30 after 2 days): 31 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for Rayburn
> Biggest decision: Whether to fish deep, shallow or in between
> Wildcard: A giant bite – it's a possibility on any cast at Rayburn
Here's a view of how Rayburn lays out, courtesy of Navionics:
Gotta Find 'Em
Corey Stanley is a triple A-level angler who owns a house at Rayburn and fishes many tournaments on the impoundment. He said that a lot of Rayburn's largemouths are ready to begin staging for the spawn, but the extra water seems to be throwing them for a loop.
They're scattered all over place right now and can be found in just about any depth range, and they can also be caught on a variety of baits. However, finding quality fish bunched up anywhere is a difficult task, as is developing a pattern that will repeatedly produce quality bites.
David Dudley said anglers can fish pretty much any way they please this week, but shouldn't expect to get a lot of bites regardless of what they do.
"What this does is take away some of the home-field advantage that some guys would've had," Stanley said. "It's usually common at this time of year to find a deep spot where you can catch them ever cast, but they don't seem near as wadded up right now.
"It'll also bring in some areas that aren't normally in play or that tend to get overlooked because they're not typical spots for this time of year and there's a lot of current on stuff that normally doesn't have any."
He said the conditions should favor anglers who can ply a variety of tactics. A typical bag might consist of two fish pulled from an offshore locale and three others enticed by two or more additional methods.
"You'll see some bags in the mid to upper 20s (pounds) – it's still Rayburn in January and somebody's going to be on the right pattern. But 15 pounds will be a pretty good sack with the water like it is."
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll compete this week.
Ramie Colson Jr.
"I was really looking forward to the water being up, but not this high. It seems like it's pretty stingy right now and it's hard to repeat anything. You're liable to catch one from 25 feet on the outer grass line and then catch your next one from 4 feet or 12 feet. You might have to have two or three patterns to pick from just to get bit.
"I found a couple places that if I can get on them pretty early I might be able to get a few bites in the first 2 or 3 hours. If I could catch a limit, then I'd try to put something else together after that.
"It may fool me pretty badly, but from what I'm hearing, a lot go guys are going to struggle to catch a limit."
"I came from pre-practice in early December and I was thinking back that that it'd be great if the water would drop about 2 feet, but instead it's up about 6 feet from then and it's created some interesting circumstances. It'll be neat to see how many different patterns emerge and who rises to the top with the local advantage somewhat out of the way.
"There's some fish around the bushes, some in front of the trees and some out deep. I think the few guys who find big groups of fish will do really well and it'll be tougher from guys trying to pick off one here and one there."
"I've found a few areas where I think I can get some bites, but I don't have that one-cast, 10-bite scenario. I do feel that the morning bite will be critical – the majority of the fish will be caught in the first 3 hours of the day."
"I think you can pick your poison and go at it – if you want to beat the bushes, you can do that, or you can fish in the mid-range or go out deep. You can also pick your lure because there's probably not going to be one that's dominant.
"Whoever you are as a fisherman, you can find that going on, but you're probably not going to get many bites whatever your choice is. It's not like everybody's going to go out there and crack them.
"I kind of know what I want to do – I'm going to stay around the flooded grass most of the time. I'm talking about the grass that's flooded that isn't normally under water."
"I've been here four times and it doesn't even look like the same lake I've seen before. I go into some of the pockets and say, 'Wow, I don't remember it looking like this.'
Chad Grigsby hopes that the pattern he got onto late in practice will hold up for the tournament.
"The first 2 days of practice I got a couple bites doing different things, but I didn't think I could catch a limit. The late in the afternoon of the second day I kind of figured out what I needed to be looking for and I rolled with that yesterday and got quite a few bites. I did catch one big one on the second day, a 7-pounder, but those bites show up randomly on this lake.
"I'd be tickled with 14 pounds a day. I only set the hook on one fish yesterday and it was a 3-pounder, but I'm not banking on them all being that size."
A Few to Keep an Eye On
Here are a handful of anglers who might fare well considering the way that Rayburn is set up this week.
> Bryan Thrift – He won the 2014 event here when the water was about 3 feet low. This isn't even close to the same scenario, but adaptability is his trademark. He'll cover enough water to run into some quality bites.
> Dicky Newberry – You have to figure that at least a couple of the locals will show out and Newberry, who's caught some gargantuan sacks at Rayburn to win lower-level events, would love to begin his tour-level career in style.
> John Cox – A lot of the shallowest water is presently inaccessible due to impenetrable vegetation, but with his tin boat, he can get to more if it than most and he darn sure knows what to do when he arrives. He may have a few brush scratches on his face to accompany his big smile when he arrives at the weigh-in stage.
> James Niggemeyer – The longtime Texas resident is coming off a good year in 2018 and has a lot of experience dealing with flood conditions in his home state. His savvy and his confidence could prove to be a winning combo.
> Scott Martin – Fishing the pro circuit that has by far the biggest fields, he's posted just one finish lower than 33rd dating back to the summer of 2017. His game is extremely well-rounded and that'll be a big factor this week.
Anglers will take off at 7 a.m. CST each day from the Umphrey Family Pavilion, located at 5438 Sam Rayburn Parkway in Brookeland. Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will be held at the pavilion beginning at 3 p.m. Weekend weigh-ins will also be held at the pavilion, but will begin at 4 p.m.
The FLW Live on-the-water program will air on from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on days 3 and 4. The broadcasts will be live-streamed on FLWFishing.com, the FLW YouTube channel and the FLW Facebook page.
> Thurs., Jan. 10 – Partly Cloudy - 57°/38°
- Wind: From the NE at 4 mph
> Fri., Jan. 11 – Cloudy - 62°/49°
- Wind: From the SE at 6 mph
> Sat., Jan. 12 – A.M. Rain - 60°/38°
- Wind: From the W at 9 mph
> Sun., Jan. 13 – Partly Cloudy - 53°/37°
- Wind: From the N at 7 mph