By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor

Reigning BFL All-American champion Nick LeBrun, the 4th-place finisher in last year's FLW Cup, nearly won his professional regular-season debut. Bryan Thrift, as expected, started the new campaign with yet another single-digit placement. Chad Warren posted his second straight top-4 Tour finish although those derbies were 19 months apart, as he sat out last season. Jim Tutt, a semi-local, had his best Tour outing in 20 years and logged his first top-10 showing on the circuit at a venue other than Lake Okeechobee.

The backstories of the 2nd- through 5th-place finishers contributed to a rousing start to the 2019 FLW Tour season at flooded Sam Rayburn Reservoir in Texas. Giant fish and bulging bags were brought to the weigh-in stage as Terry Bolton captured his initial Tour win in his 23rd season.

Here are some details about how Bolton's closest pursuers attacked the massive and legendary venue that, due to heavy recent rains in the region over the previous month, was considerably larger than most had ever seen it.

2nd: Nick LeBrun

> Day 1: 5, 29-02
> Day 2: 5, 19-02
> Day 3: 5, 20-13
> Day 4: 5, 21-06
> Total = 20, 90-07

LeBrun set the tone for the derby by catching the top bag in the opening round and got some great exposure for a new signature series spinnerbait that's about to hit the market. He would've collected the trophy and the six-figure paycheck if Bolton hadn't made three late culls on the final day, which was postponed from Sunday until Monday due to powerful winds.

He discovered quite a few places that were holding quality fish on a pre-practice trip to "Big Sam" in December, but only a few of them held up under the huge influx of water that occurred during the interim. His key locale was a small drain a few miles north of the Highway 147 bridge, where big ones were holding on the inside edge of the grass line in about 15 feet of water.

He began the tournament cranking, but the bite evolved toward the big prototype spinnerbait that he designed for V&M Baits. The 3/4-ounce offering with a single Colorado blade will be called the LeBoom and will hit retail racks soon.

"The key to it was the vibration and I was able to reel it real slow," he said. "When I started the event with the crankbait I was reeling it as slow as I could, but the spinnerbait allowed me to slow down even more."

> Spinnerbait gear: 7'2" medium-heavy Bryan Thrift Signature Series Frog rod, Fitzgerald Stunner casting reel (6.3:1 ratio), 17-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon line, 3/4-ounce V&M Baits LeBoom spinnerbait (black or white/chartreuse).

> Cranking gear: 7' medium-heavy Fitzgerald Bryan Thrift Signature Series Squarebill rod, same reel and line, Strike King 5XD (red).

> He swapped out the stock hooks on the crankbait in favor of size 2 Hayabuse trebles with NRB (non-reflective black) coating.

Main factor in his success – "Just sticking to the hard spots on the inside edge of the grass and fishing really slow."

Performance edge – "The Lowrance HDS-12 Carbon (electronics). It's what I used to find those places with the good grass lines."

FLW/Kyle Wood
Photo: FLW/Kyle Wood

Bryan Thrift made a good run at winning at Rayburn for the second time.

3rd: Bryan Thrift

> Day 1: 5, 20-15
> Day 2: 5, 23-00
> Day 3: 5, 24-15
> Day 4: 5, 19-15
> Total = 20, 88-13

Thrift, the winner the previous time the Tour visited Rayburn in 2014, came within a single ounce on the final day of weighing four consecutive 20-plus-pound bags. No one was surprised to see that his unreal level of consistency had not vanished during the offseason.

"I'm not going to call it luck, but I was at least somewhat fortunate because I didn't find anything the first two days of practice," he said. "I was trying to idle around and look at stuff and I fished bushes and some grass. I finally found a little wad of fish on a point, so I started fishing those.

"The better points seemed to have scattered or defined grass – whether it was the inside or outside edge didn't matter. The fish seemed like they were really grouped up because I could get several bites on the same cast."

He had four or five of those places with water in the 12- to 13-foot depth range. He employed several different tactics to catch his fish, switching from one to another whenever the action slowed.

> Carolina-rig gear: 7'3" medium-heavy Fitzgerald Stunner rod, Abu Garcia Revo STX casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon (20-pound main line and 15-pound leader), unnamed 3/4-ounce weight, glass beat, 5/0 Berkley Fusion 19 EWG hook, 5.5" Damiki Stinger or Zoom Brush Hog trailer (green-pumpkin).

> Jig gear: Same rod and reel, 15-pound P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon, unnamed 3/8-ounce football-head jig, 5.5" Damiki Stinger (green-pumpking with tail dyed chartreuse).

> Swimbait gear: 7'2" medium-heavy Fitzgerald Bryan Thrift Signature Series Frog rod, same reel, 12-pound P-Line Tactical flurocarbon, unnamed 1/2-ounce swimbait head, unnamed 5" swimbait (white).

> Cranking gear: 7'4" heavy-action Fitzgerald Bryan Thrift Signature Series Cranking rod, Abu Garcia Revo Winch casting reel (5.4:1 ratio), 12-pound P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon, Strike King 6XD (blueback herring).

Main factor in his success – "I'd say it was actually having a late boat draw (No. 145) on the first day. I didn't think the place where I ended up catching all my fish was all that good and I wouldn't have stopped there if I'd had an earlier number. I had a place or two that I thought were better, but it ended up that those fish were gone, so it worked out all the way around."

Performance edge – "The combination of the Fitzgerald rods, the Revo reels and the P-Line. I was making long casts and dragging fish through grass and that was the perfect setup."

FLW/Kyle Wood
Photo: FLW/Kyle Wood

Chad Warren caught massive bags on the first and last days of the event.

4th: Chad Warren

> Day 1: 5, 25-07
> Day 2: 5, 18-15
> Day 3: 5, 16-05
> Day 4: 5, 23-02
> Total = 20, 83-13

Warren bookended the derby with big bags on days 1 and 4 in his return to the Tour after sitting out the '18 campaign. He seems to have figured things out after starting his pro career two years ago with five finishes of 98th or lower in his first six outings.

He concentrated on three places. Two were channel swings that nearly butted up against flooded bushes, where fish were sitting on the inside edge of the hydrilla line. The other was small ledge created by erosion from waves that had some bushes, but was devoid of grass. All of his fish came from water that was 10 to 13 feet deep.

He was among the top 5 throughout the event but never climbed higher than 3rd place. He gained one position in the final round with his day-best stringer.

"I found the (other channel-swing location) on Friday afternoon," he said. "The fish were sitting in the ditch and then pulling up on little areas to feed. There was an unbelievable amount of fish and I had to work through a few different techniques to figure out how to catch them."

He threw a crankbait for most of the first two days and primarily relied on a Neko rig on Saturday and Monday.

> Cranking gear: 7'2" medium-heavy Falcon rod, Abu Garcia Revo Winch casting reel (5.4:1 ratio), 12-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon fluorocarbon line, Strike King 5XD (chartreuse sexy shad).

> He changed out the stock hooks on the crankbait for Mustad KVD Triple Grip trebles.

> Neko-rig gear: 7' medium-heavy Falcon spinning rod, Abu Garcia Revo MGX spinning reel, 20-pound Berkley X5 braid (main line), Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon (10' leader), size 1 Berkley Fusion 19 EWG hook, nail-weighted Berkley PowerBait MaxScent The General (green-pumpkin or brown with chartreuse-dyed tail).

Main factor in his success – "Everything kind of clicked on Friday afternoon when I found that other spot."

Performance edge – "The Garmin electronics. I did a lot of homework trying to find channel swings and ditches and things like that and seeing it laid out on the graphs helped me understand it all."

FLW/Kyle Wood
Photo: FLW/Kyle Wood

Patience and local knowledge played big roles in Jim Tutt's strong finish.

5th: Jim Tutt

> Day 1: 5, 23-09
> Day 2: 5, 21-11
> Day 3: 5, 17-09
> Day 4: 5, 15-10
> Total = 20, 78-07

Tutt's program didn't vary much from one day to the next. He caught all of his weigh-in fish on a 2 3/4-inch Berkley Bad Shad 7 crankbait, which is similar to a Rapala Shad Rap. He chose it because he recalled Ron Shuffield doing extremely well with a Shad Rap in a high-water tournament in the 1990s.

He retrieved it extremely slowly, mostly on clay bluffs and the inside edges of the grass line on points, and enticed a ton of bites. He had his marshals keep track of his fish totals each day and the final tallies were 62, 39, 15 and 70.

"My local knowledge paid off big in a couple of places – I had one piece of concrete that I knew about that if I could hit it, I'd catch one almost every time."

When fishing grass, he kept his boat in 12 feet of water and threw into the 7- to 11-foot range.

"Sometimes that bait had to hit something to be effective, but most of the time it didn't. I'd throw out and get bit sometimes and if I didn't hook up I'd keep making the same cast seven to 10 more times and most of the time I'd catch one. I don't know if they were the same fish or just a group of them."

> Cranking gear: 6'6" medium-action Kistler rod, Abu Garcia Revo STX casting reel (6.3:1 ratio), 10-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, Berkley Bad Shad (autumn craw).

Main factor in his success – "It was one of the most patient tournaments I've ever fished and it really paid off for me."

Performance edge – "The Spot-Lock (on his Minn Kota trolling motor) was critical. I could hold the boat right on the same spot without having to fight it."

Much of the tackle referenced above is available at the BassFan Store. To browse the selection, click here..