By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Bryan Thrift has a great deal of experience fishing on Lake Norman and a long track record of winning high-level events. That proved to be an unbeatable combination at REDCREST 2023 at Lake Norman in his home state of North Carolina.
In the first REDCREST contested under the Bass Pro Tour's newly reformatted scoring system of counting only an angler's heaviest five fish each day, Thrift averaged a little more than 14 pounds over the five-round event. He barely made the day-2 cut, but dominated the final 3 days after weights had been re-zeroed to capture the $300,000 prize.
It was his eighth tour-level victory and his first since he claimed the FLW Cup at Arkansas' Lake Hamilton in the summer of 2019.
"It's amazing," he said. "I'd been on a dry spell as far as winning and for by first Bass Pro Tour win to be REDCREST is special.
"The last 3 years haven't been terrible, but I haven't been able to seal the deal and I've missed a couple of good opportunities. It was nice for everything to finally come together and work out."
Norman is one of two lakes (Wylie is the other) on which Thrift laid the foundation for his stellar career. Did his local knowledge play a big role in this one?
"It definitely did," he said. "I had a lot of stuff that I didn't fish; I checked a lot of it in practice and that freed up my mind to focus on what the fish were doing last week instead of running history.
"I used the first day of practice to get history out of my mind and the second day to figure out what was happening right now."
The 43-year-old Thrift's strategy for the tournament was to quickly catch an 11- to 12-pound limit of the lake's abundant spotted bass each morning, then spend the rest of the day pursuing one or two kickers. It proved to be a sound game plan, although the bigger bites never materialized on day 2 and left him in 19th place when the field was reduced to 20 competitors following the Qualifying Round.
His best numbers area was a 300- to 400-yard stretch in a small creek arm where prespawn spots were roaming in 25 to 28 feet of water. He caught them on a Damiki Underspin tipped with a 3-inch.Damiki Armor Shad swimbait.
For kickers, he had a milk run of banks, shallow docks and woody places that he fished with a 5-inch swimbait. On the final 2 days, he exploited a couple of rockpiles that he'd been saving and caught eight of the 10 fish he weighed on a ChatterBait. Those fish were holding at depths ranging from 7 to 10 feet.
"I'd been hoping to save that place for the final day, but I went there on the fourth day to keep myself in contention because I wasn't getting the bites on the swimbait," he said.
He arrived there in the seminal round with 9 1/2 pounds to his credit and culled up to 13 before pulling up. He bolstered his haul with a 4 1/2-pound spot from some docks on the swimbait and entered the final day with a 9-ounce lead over Alton Jones Jr.
He figured he needed at least 13 pounds Sunday in order to win. He went to the rockpiles midway through the second period and caught two 3-pounders and a couple of 2 1/2s on his way to a 13-10 bag. That was for more than he needed as his three-day total of 46-12 left him 4 1/2 pounds clear of Jones.
"The biggest thing for me was I got clued in during practice on how to get some of those bigger bites," he said. "If I could catch that decent 10- to 12-pound limit fairly quick every day in the first hour and a half, that freed up 6 hours to look for two bies.
"If I could make both of those things happen over 5 days, I figured I'd be pretty hard to beat."
> Underspin gear: 7' medium-heavy Fitzgerald Fishing Stunner rod, Fitzgerald Fishing VLD10 casting reel (6.5:1 ratio), 12-pound P-Line fluorocarbon line, 1/4-ounce Damiki Underspin (pearl white), 3" Damiki Armor Shad trailer (pearl white).
> Swimbait gear: 7'2" medium-heavy Fitzgerald Fishing Bryan Thrift Signature Series Frog rod, same reel (7.2:1 ratio), 20-pound P-Line fluorocarbon, unnamed 5" swimbait (Tennessee shad).
> Bladed jig gear: 6'9" medium-heavy Fitzgerald Fishing Bryan Thrift Signature Series ChatterBait rod, same reel (7.2:1 ratio), 15-pound P-Line fluorocarbon, 1/2-ounce Z-Man ChatterBait Jack Hammer (spot remover).
> His Humminbird MegaLive forward-facing sonar played a role, but not for finding individual fish. "I used it to locate bait and things like that," he said. "I could recognize if an area had actively feeding fish."