Mother Nature can fool most of the anglers most of the time, but she can't fool all of them all of the time. So proved Mark Davis at the recent Ft. Loudoun–Tellico FLW Tour in Tennessee.
A freak weather pattern brought sunny, still days with temperatures near 90 a full month ahead of schedule. That system sat right on top of Loudoun–Tellico for more than a week, and shot the water temperatures well into the 70s.
At the same time, the full moon was due to arrive just as competition ended.
While practice wound down, significant schools of bass crashed the bank. Pretty much everyone in the field crashed the bank too, and the overall prediction was that sight-fishing would rule the day.
Davis did explore the sight-bite, but he knew it was chancy – especially with 200 boats, plus the tremendous local pressure the lakes receive.
So he stuck with something else. He shunned the crowded pockets and worked suspended, main-lake fish with a nearly forgotten technique.
It was his first victory since 2005, and his first on the FLW Tour. Here's how he did it.
Davis practiced 5 days for the event. He spent his first 2 days in Tellico (a Little Tennessee River impoundment), and his last three in Loudoun (a Tennessee River impoundment).
"The two lakes are very different," he noted. "I settled on Loudoun because it seemed to me to be a more fertile lake. It had a little more water color, and seemed easier to fish."
He tried a variety of techniques and kept up a search for fish, but he noticed something odd.
"A lot of things were strange about what the fish were doing. Normally, when the fish are getting ready to go on beds, you see fish sunning themselves – sitting around docks, brush, stumps. They're actually sitting in warm water when they do that, getting ready to go on the bed.
"I didn't see any of that until the very end of practice, when I started to see just a few.
"My point is this," he added. "I didn't see fish sunning, so I disregarded sight-fishing. Then all of a sudden, the last couple of days, the fish just showed up all over beds on both lakes – out of nowhere."
He wasn't prepared for that, which was actually a good thing. Yes, the smallmouths were "easy to catch on beds," but the largemouths were "really difficult." So once again, he chose to disregard the sight-fishing pattern.
"It seems like the whole field does it now," he noted. "I didn't really want to have to be up there in the crowds fighting for all the bed-fish that are hard to catch."
He started to think of ways to catch pre-spawn fish instead. "I thought if I could just find something adjacent to that and a little different – on the sidelines and out of the way – maybe I could do pretty well."
He moved outside the Loudoun pockets, to the main lake, and started catching fish on two lures – a balsa-wood Strike King King Shad, and a vintage, out-of-production Bomber Long A.
With some special modification, he was able to wake and twitch both of them on top of the water.
"Once I got that going, I started to notice I was catching good fish – keeper (18-plus-inch) smallmouths, and 2 1/2-pound largemouths," he noted.
The pattern did have one hang-up though – it only worked when conditions were right. Low light and still conditions were key. High sun and wind were poison. Naturally, that meant morning was his prime window of opportunity.
Knowing he was vulnerable to wind, he put together a fallback pattern, which involved throwing a wacky-worm in the bedding areas. He also knew he could catch a few sight-fish here and there.
Days 1 & 2
> Day 1: 5, 16-05
> Day 2: 5, 13-15
> Total = 10, 30-04 (3rd)
On the morning of day 1, Davis started with his wakebait pattern and caught an "easy" limit. He primarily focused on a 4-mile stretch of Loudoun.
"That day, you could just fish the bank, but points and little humps and bars were the best," he said. "I caught a lot fishing down the bank in the main lake, while everyone else was in the creeks and pockets."
Davis was happy he didn't fall into the "sight trap" – he stayed to the sidelines, and it worked.
He added a 5-pound sight-smallmouth later in the day. "What made it nice was once the sun was bright, I had a good, solid limit and I could go into the crowd and kind of relax and look for big fish," he noted.
On day 2, he did basically the same thing, but he struggled a little bit with the wakebait. He caught two nice fish early with it, but it took all day to catch his limit. He caught all his day-2 fish on the wakebait, despite the sunny conditions.
"I did find several of those 5-pound largemouths sight-fishing, and wasted a lot time trying to catch them," he added. "I didn't catch them, but that's just a gamble you take."
He comfortably made the cut in 3rd.
Days 3 & 4
> Day 3: 5, 19-13
> Day 4: 3, 7-14
> Total = 8, 27-11
Weights were zeroed after the cut and day 3 was arguably the day when Davis won the tournament. He stuck nearly 20 pounds, which gave him an 8-pound lead with 1 day left to fish.
"The day went awesome," he said. "I went to a place where I caught a fish or two – I just had a feeling about it that morning. I pulled up and caught one on my first cast – a 4-pound smallmouth – then I lost another one.
"I lost a second one after that, then had another couple of big bites. So I left, went to another spot, settled down, lost another 4-pounder and came back to that (first) spot and my partner and I doubled. We got simultaneous hits and both were 4 1/2-pound smallmouths. That was exciting."
At his next stop, he caught a 6-pound largemouth on the wakebait, which was his third fish, then he went 3 more hours without a bite.
"They got completely off the (wake)bait, but I kept trying to make it work," he said. "Finally, I decided I needed to go catch a couple of fish. The crowds were gone, so I went into the pockets. I could run around and fish any way I wanted to.
"I caught three keepers on a little wacky worm, then found a 4-pounder on a bed and caught that."
With it, he culled out one of his wacky-worm fish and ended the day with four good fish and one small keeper.
Day 4 brought big changes. The temperature dropped 10 degrees, the skies clouded over, and the wind blew 15 to 20 mph.
"I didn't catch one for an hour, and that really worried me," he said of the final morning. "The wind started blowing really hard, and I was out on the main lake, which is affected the most.
"Then, for some reason, the wind laid down for about an hour and I caught two good keepers. Thank God I caught those. Then I lost a third one."
The wind picked back up, and that was it for the wakebait.
He made the decision to stay with it and struck out. He eventually caught his third and final keeper on a wacky worm.
"I thank the Good Lord I had that big stringer (on day 3)," he said. "After that, I just held on. I was trying hard to catch another big stringer, wanting to blow it out. As it turned out, it was a bad decision, but I caught enough to win."
Winning Pattern Notes
About his main-lake areas, Davis said: "They were real flat sloping bars, underwater humps and underwater points right on the main river channel. They had a lot of shad flipping around, and those pre-spawn largemouth and smallmouth were feeding on those shad.
Mark Davis put lightwire hooks and lighter split rings on both his King Shad (shown) and Long A, and also used a loop knot instead of a split ring up front.
"I really believe a lot of them were suspended," he added. "I'd catch them over 20 feet of water, although it seems like earlier, they'd be a little shallower. They were acting a lot like post-spawn fish, but these weren't post-spawn."
He has a theory about why the fish were suspended.
"My theory is that the lake warmed up so fast that a lot of the fish moved vertically up in the water column. They don't all necessarily move horizontally to the shoreline or creeks. They just come up vertically from where they've been all winter.
"That's the best way I could describe my pattern."
Winning Gear Notes
> King Shad gear: 7' medium-action All Star Platinum Series 845MC rod, Pflueger President casting reel, 15-pound Cajun Advantage line, Strike King King Shad hard swimbait (Tennessee shad).
> Long A gear: 6'6" light-action All Star Team 783 topwater rod, Pflueger Medalist spinning reel, 8-pound Cajun Advantage, out-of-production Bomber Long A (bone).
> He noted he fished the vintage Long A because it's "made with the old-style plastic, which is more buoyant."
> For each bait, he swapped out the stock hooks for lightwire trebles, and added lighter-duty split rings, to increase buoyancy and keep the baits up top. He also removed the front split-ring on each and tied a loop knot.
> Wacky-worm gear: Same rod and reel and line as Long A, 3/0 straight-shank lightwire hook (blue), no weight, Strike King Zero (green-pumpkin) and 4" Yum Dinger (green-pumpkin).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "Finding this pattern where I could fish the sidelines – just out of the crowd. And doing something probably a little different from the other guys. I didn't get caught in the sight trap. I didn't think sight-fishing would be an easy way to win. (Sight-fishing) worried me when the tournament started, but in the end, it didn't hold up."
> Performance edge – "My All Star rods and Pflueger reels. It was very, very important to make real long casts with the Long A and King Shad. A lot of guys may have been fishing the same way I was, but they probably weren't keeping their boat deep enough and making long enough casts."
> Davis is president of the Professional Anglers Association (PAA), and he left Tennessee after the weigh-in and headed straight for Lake Fork in Texas for the upcoming PAA-sanctioned Texas Bass Classic. "I'm really looking forward to Fork," he said. "I'll tell you what, all the guys are talking about this event. It's just different. There's no pressure, and we're going to have a lot of fun."
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