By Todd Ceisner
When it comes to championship events in bass fishing, much like in the majors of professional golf or tennis, there’s just a different feel to the whole experience.
It’s typically a smaller field featuring the best of the best at a unique venue that poses a distinct mix of challenges. Lake Hamilton certainly fits that bill this week for the FLW Cup, formerly known as the Forrest Wood Cup. A $300,000 top prize certainly adds to the prestige.
The 7,500-acre, heavily-developed lake situated on the Ouachita River just south of the city of Hot Springs, Ark., is a stark contrast from its sprawling, undeveloped neighbor to the northwest, Lake Ouachita (40,000-plus acres), which has hosted three Cups since 2011, including last year’s edition won by Clent Davis. It’s littered with docks, sea walls and other hard targets. Its only similarity to Ouachita is it’s slam-full of brush piles, which typically hold fish all summer long.
The 52-angler field endured a four-day practice period this week at Hamilton and it’s unlikely any secrets went unfound. The initial lowdown on the lake seems to be consistent with most southern reservoirs in the dog days of summer: The fishing is going to be tough. Add some stifling August heat to the equation and terms like “brutal” and “arduous” seem appropriate.
Not only will this be a high-stakes fishing tournament, it’ll also have the feel of a survival of the fittest competition with the conditions expected to be unforgiving.
The National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for Hot Springs today as the heat index value climbed to 105 degrees. It’s expected to cool off slightly Friday for day 1 of competition as some clouds move in. After a chance of thunderstorms Saturday morning, the mercury level is expected to rise into the upper 90s on Sunday when the 10 finalists will be sparring over the $300,000 top prize.
Fishing-wise, the bite has been better than expected. BassFans will see a lot of smaller fish caught, but there are plenty of 2 1/2- to 4-pound bass in Hamilton right now. There’s a shallow bite and an offshore bite around brush piles along with some schooling action, but much of anyone’s success this week will be tied to timing, execution and navigating around recreational boat traffic and other competitors.
There are four anglers in the field – John Cox, David Dudley, Brad Knight and Scott Martin – with a chance to become the first two-time Cup winner. Dudley and Cox finished 1-2 in points this season, Martin finished 4th and Knight enjoyed his best season (21st) since 2014, so it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see any or all of them in contention come Sunday.
In mid-July 2005, when Hot Springs resident George Cochran won the Cup at Hamilton, only five stringers of 10 pounds or more were caught and there were several five-bass limits that weighed less than 6 pounds. There’s reason to believe the lake will produce better weights this week, with some expecting to see at least a few bags in the 15-pound range.
“It’s a great fishery and it’s slam-packed full of 3- to 6-pounders,” said former FLW Tour angler Spencer Shuffield, who has lived on Lake Hamilton for the past eight years. “Before this year, the previous three to four years is the best I’ve ever seen it, even in the summer months.”
Still, most expect a three-day grind similar to last year’s Cup at Ouachita, where it took 36-13 to win.
“It’s one of those deals where somebody is just going to stick with something knowing they’re going to get their shot if they stay at it,” Shuffield added.
Before getting more specific, here's some details on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Hamilton
> Type of Water: River-run reservoir
> Surface Acres: 7,200
> Primary structure/cover: Steep banks, rocks, points, docks, brush piles
> Primary forage: Threadfin and gizzard shad
> Average depth: 18 feet
> Species: Largemouth, spotted bass and a few smallmouth
> Length limit: 12 inches
> Reputation: Decent number of fish, but the summer daytime bite can be scattered; lots of boat traffic
> Weather: It’s been in the 90s all week and besides the chance of a stray thunderstorm Friday and Saturday, it’s going to remain stifling
> Water temp: Upper 80s to low 90s in the main lake; much cooler up river toward dam
> Water visibility/color: Water has a greenish hue to it, but is mostly clear; gets dirtier with boat traffic
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: 1 to 20 feet
> Fish phase: Summer
> Primary patterns: Topwater, jigs, dropshots, Carolina rigs, crankbaits, shaky-heads
> Winning weight: 35 pounds
> Cut weight: 18 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Hamilton
> Biggest factors: Decision-making. Where to start and how productive the first couple areas are will set the tone for a lot of anglers.
> Wildcard: A storm system that moves the fish, or somebody finding a school of breakers with some large fish mixed in.
Here's a good look at Hamilton (depth contours included), courtesy of the folks at Navionics:
Shuffield, who competed in eight Cups (six as a co-angler and two as a pro), won a two-day BFL at Hamilton back in the fall of 2017. While his favorite time to fish the lake is during the pre-spawn winter months, he’s expecting to see some decent stringers and individual fish caught this week.
“Over the last three or four years, so many people have been taught about the shallow cruising fish and they’ll throw frogs and props baits,” he said. “Those fish are educated. I’d devote some time to them, but I’d spend all my time deep.”
Shuffield’s view is that the winning fish will come out of brush piles on the lower end, but he’s not discounting the potential that lives shallow on the lake. There will be some who commit to fishing shallow all day long and those who start deep and never leave. Others will combine the two.
“Key fish every day will be caught shallow, but I think deep will prevail,” he said.
Shuffield believes it’s a misnomer to think that the first 90 minutes of each day will swing the outcome of the Cup.
With a shallow bite in play at Lake Hamilton, expect John Cox to be a factor this week as he pursues a second Cup title in the last four years.
“The shallow bite gets good around 9:30 or 10 a.m.,” he said. “The beauty of Hamilton is all of the docks. There’s some shallow grass and overhanging trees and those are shade creators. When the sun gets high, they suck to that shade. It’s almost like they come out of dormancy.
“I don’t catch a lot of fish off docks this time of year. It’s more so in between them.”
Outside the Box
Sheffield thinks a sleeper pattern could be pockets in the river in the area below the Blakely Mountain Dam, where the water comes out of Lake Ouachita.
“There are a lot of 4- to 8-pounders up there and Friday would be someone’s best chance because that’s when they run water through the dam,” he said.
The water flowing out of Ouachita is much cooler and Shuffield says when it mixes with the warm water already in the Ouachita River, “it’s almost like it shocks them,” he said.
“The water will go from 80 degrees down to 64 and they’ll move into the pockets up there to escape the cold water. They’ll school up under a dock. On Saturday or Sunday, when the water isn’t running, those fish are like ghosts. They just disappear. I’ve lived here my entire life and I’ve never put it together good up there.”
Shuffield also noted that there seems to be more grass in the stretch of lake between the Highway 70 bridge and the Highway 7 bridge.
“There are a lot of humps, points and drops with grass on them,” he said. “A big worm could do well on those drops with grass on them.”
How do some competitors feel after four days of practice? It's been hard work. Here are some of their impressions of Hamilton.
"I've got one area that seems to be holding the kind of quality you need to make a run at this, but it'll take a little bit of good fortune and things lining up right to get on it and have it even relatively too myself. Beyond that, it's kind of hard to separate yourself as far as techniques or locations. A lot of it seems pretty random.
"I think everybody's going to fish shallow at some point and a lot of guys are going to fish deep at some point. It's going to be mostly about brush piles and shallow fishing.
"The one area I've got definitely has 12 pounds a day on it, but I don't know how many other people will also be on it. It's a fairly large area, but the good stretch is very small. It's not something that's a huge secret – I've seen plenty of guys fish it, but I've seen guys fishing everywhere on the lake."
"Practice was awful all day until right before dark, when they'd start biting really good. We've had some really bluebird days, but today it's cloudy and we might get a slight drizzle on Friday. I'm excited because it should be better than it was in practice, anyway.
"I didn't hook anything in practice, but some of the fish looked pretty decent – 2 1/2 (pounds), 2 3/4 and occasionally a bigger one. I've never been here before, but if this place is like Ouachita you'll have days with no fish and days when you catch 20 or more. I don't know if this place has that kind of potential, but with the right weather anything can happen.
"The way the fish act, it's almost like a herring lake, but they don't have herring in here. It's like (the bass) don't necessarily live anywhere in particular, or maybe it's the time of year that has them just swimming. It's like they want to get out of the lake."
"Overall, practice wasn't too terrible – I'd say it was mediocre. I've got a little confidence, but more of a feeling that I don't know what to expect.
"Although the lake is really small, it fishes fairly big and we've been able to spread out. With fish both deep and shallow, it opens up the entire lake.
"I've gotten a couple of decent bites, but overall it's mostly it's mostly small fish and you're just praying for a big one. I just hope that if I do get five bites, a couple of them are the right ones.
"I think the winner will have to do a combination of both (deep and shallow fishing). This lake changes considerably based on the weather – when it's real cloudy the shallow bite will be better and if it's sunny and calm the deep bite will shine a little more. Every day will be different for everybody."
"It's pretty cool to come somewhere like this in Arkansas and find green grass that's growing. I didn't plan on seeing that and there's a lot of it and it's holding quality fish. It's kind of crazy.
"This time of year, with the heat and everything, you'll need to have multiple things going on. I've done everything possible this week and what I'm going to do in the tournament is 100-percent dependent on the conditions that day.
"I think 12 to 13 pounds will be a very strong bag, but there's definitely 16-pound bags swimming out there. If you catch that you might as well play the Lotto as well, but it is possible."
"It's going to be a grind – it's the usual Cup in August. There's going to be guys who catch good bags, but whether they can do it three days in a row is another thing. I think if a guy can muster up 12 pounds a day he's going to be right there near the top.
"I had two good practice days and two terrible days. That's the fear I have – you can have a good day and then get one bite all day the next.
"You don't have to mix it up, but I think with winner will do a little of both (bank-beating and fishing offshore brush piles). You could have somebody fishing primarily shallow who cracks them the first day, then catches nothing up there the second day but salvages the day out deep. Then maybe he can go back shallow on the third day.
Noted grass expert Bryan Schmitt has been pleased to find some vegetation at Hamilton this week – and it's holding bass.
"I don't think there's a lot of consistency anywhere, whether it's shallow or deep. I did find two fish spawning up the Ouachita (River) and if I'd spent more time on that, maybe it would be a viable option. It wouldn't surprise me if somebody caught a decent bag of spawning fish with the water coming out of (Lake) Ouachita at 50-something degrees, but I don't think anybody can do it for three days."
“The fishing’s actually fairly good and bites are easy to come by, but getting those right bites will be key. Four days was a lot of time here to practice because it’s pretty small, but I looked mostly for deep brush and spent about 25 percent of my time shallow. It’s been a toss-up in my mind about what to do. Potentially, I’ll fish both, but that will be a matter of timing. I’ve seen some good stuff shallow. Some fish are schooling shallow and roaming the bank.
“Being from the West Coast, I fish a lot of pressured, clear water bodies of water, so they couldn’t have picked a better one for the Cup. It feels very familiar with all the deep, offshore stuff and little spots instead of areas. It’ll be about timing, like getting to the right brush pile before someone else. A lot of guys will be sharing the same stuff, so it’ll be a right place at the right time situation until the last day when it’ll open up a lot of stuff.
“The biggest challenge will be staying focused and not getting down if you pull up on your first three spots and people are on them. Heat will be a factor, too, along with that much pressure on a body of water.”
“I feel pretty good. I had a couple days where I could’ve just figured out how to catch a limit, then had one really nice day. You know how it is with no points on line: If you have a nice day you’re going to catch ‘em or you’re going to do poorly because you’re going to push it. I like this kind of tournament. It will not be a slugfest where everybody will blast ‘em. It’ll be possible to weigh a limit that’s under 4 pounds here.
“It’s not that hard to get a bite. There are ways to get a bite, but a couple good bites a day will go a long way. You can’t write off catching some filler fish because you’re going to need some fish you might not be real proud of elsewhere.
“It’s going to be a struggle. This lake is so small and after four days of practice, I’m sure a bunch of easy ones just got caught. I’m comfortable with my practice. On my best day, I set the hook once in 20 bites.”
“I feel like I’m still figuring it out. Obviously, somebody will catch some nice ones first thing in the morning, but they won’t do it twice on the same bank, in my opinion. The angler who’s able to catch 12 to 14 pounds the first day and gets on a bank, the toughest thing will be not to go back. That’s the first mistake that gets made here. It’s a little random.
“As far as where to start, it’s like throwing a dart and I think guys throughout the field feel the same way. After that, it’ll be more offshore. I thought I’d be able to stay on the bank most of the day, if not all day, but it looks like that has died. The fish have changed. The weather is warmer and the water has dropped a couple inches, which is a big deal for this lake. Losing three to five inches off the shallow cover makes a big difference. Once I’ve depleted the bank opportunities, I’ll move out and try to catch schoolers and stay deep the rest of the day.
“I feel like I can catch some, but they could weigh 6 1/2 or 9 1/2 pounds depending on if I can catch a 3-pounder. There are a lot of wildcards. It’s standard August fishing.”
“It’s the dog days in Arkansas. There’s no grass and I like largemouth and grass and smallmouth and I have neither. It’s going to be a tough bite, but there are some decent ones in here. I’ve found there’s a little morning deal and then something in the afternoon, but we’ve had no wind and it’s been 95 degrees every day with few bites in between. You’re going to have to catch a big one.
Josh Douglas said the big decision for him this week will come once the morning bite tails off.
“I just need to follow my game plan and play the conditions and what it gives me. I’ll try to capitalize in the morning and get a limit in the first couple hours. The afternoon will boil down to decision-making and whether to go deep for brush or go skipping docks.”
“I have a little bit of confidence, but I didn’t find what I was looking for. I think I spent too much time shallow. I think it’ll be won with a mix of shallow and deep. I need to find either some good schoolers early and capitalize or get on a shallow topwater bite early. The key will be a good bite early. If I can catch two or three fish, then I can go after two big ones. Those big ones will most likely come out of brush because I fished hundreds of docks and can’t catch any.
The most challenging aspect will be the boat traffic and weather. Between that, it’s fishing pretty darn tough. Real tough. The biggest decision will be where I’m going to start. Should I start shallow and try to get a couple luck fish or run into the right school or stay out deep and stay all day?”
A Few to Keep an Eye On
Based on the above information and more, here are a few anglers who might fare well in this event.
> Bryan Thrift – His trophy case is already nicely appointed, but the Cup is one piece of hardware that’s eluded him over the years. His 15th-place finish at Lake Ouachita last year ended a run of six straight top-10s in the Cup. Time to start a new streak.
> Zack Birge – This will be the first leg of Birge’s championship chase in August (he also qualified for the Bass Pro Tour Redcrest) and while he’d much rather be fishing at Ouachita, where he has two top-10s in the Cup (2015 and ’18), the 28-year-old Oklahoman has the game to unlock Hamilton in the stifling heat.
> Billy McCaghren – One of two Arkansas anglers in the field, McCaghren has plugged along for a number of years on multiple tours and he finally gets a shot to compete for a championship in his backyard (his hometown of Mayflower, Ark., is an hour down the road). Started the season with four top-30s, but had two bombs down the stretch. Don’t expect him to swing and miss this week.
> Larry Nixon – The only competitor in this year’s field who competed at Hamilton in the 2005 Cup. Fishing’s version of the Energizer Bunny, Nixon has the right mix of experience and patience to wring five good bites a day out of Hamilton.
> Casey Scanlon – No longer an under-the-radar pick coming off his win at Lake Champlain in June, Scanlon is well-versed in how to find fish in the dead of summer from his Ozark roots. His talents will be tested this week, but his confidence has likely never been higher.
> Anglers launch from the Andrew Hulsey Fish Hatchery (350 Fish Hatchery Road, Hot Springs, Ark.) at 6:30 a.m. CT each day, and daily weigh-ins will be held at 5 p.m. in Bank OZK Arena (134 Convention Blvd., Hot Springs).
> The FLW Expo runs 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. all three days at the Hot Springs Convention Center, adjacent to Bank OZK Arena.
> Fri., Aug. 9 – Isolated thunderstorms – 93°/76°
- Wind: From the SW at 5 to 10 mph
> Sat., Aug. 10 – Scattered thunderstorms in morning, then clearing – 91°/74°
- Wind: From the WSW at 5 to 10 mph
> Sun., Aug. 11 – Mostly Sunny – 96°/76°
- Wind: From the N at 5 to 10 mph