2017 Bassmaster Northern Open
1st Place | 15 fish, 50-03
After the Elite Series event on St. Clair ended I flew to Springfield, Missouri, for the Tracker dealer meeting and then on Wednesday I flew home to Tennessee. I had a week to prepare for the Northern Open on my home waters. I didn’t plan to spend a whole lot of time on the water before the tournament started, but I needed to get my tunnel hull Tracker ready to safely venture up the rivers where few others would be able to fish. I knew it would work, but I had yet to run it across shoals and I needed to make sure it was prepped for the abuse.
I’d started the work before I left for Michigan, installing a cranking battery and my depthfinders, so I spent most of the day on Thursday working on the boat and loading up my fishing gear. When I put it on the water on Friday it was leaking like crazy from a funny spot – not in the far back of the boat, but rather in the compartment just in front of that. It wasn’t that big a deal because I knew that I could keep it bilged out, but I wanted to fix it and eventually I figured out that when I’d mounted the battery tray I’d put a screw through the hull. I moved it over, sealed the hole with silicone and it was good to run across the shallow stuff.
It had rained on Thursday but the water was still in good condition in the rivers on Friday. Then it rained again the Tuesday before the tournament, so I went back out on Wednesday. I headed up the French Broad River to where the Pigeon River enters and it was rolling mud. I’d never seen it that dirty, but the French Broad was still clean. I checked and saw that there was more water coming from North Carolina, so I knew that every day would be different. That turned out to be the case as both rivers changed quickly. On Wednesday the Pigeon had 4 inches of visibility and the next day it had two feet. The French Broad went from 18 inches to 3 inches. Even though I never made a cast on Wednesday I was glad I had gone and looked around.
On the first day of the tournament I started off jumping a few shoals and fishing a chartreuse and white bladed jig in places where I usually get bit this time of year. I watched as my co-angler caught one about 2 ¼ pounds on a black and blue bladed jig. When he caught another, I switched colors and five casts later I was hooked up. Then a 3 ½ pounder smoked it and he came off. I ended up catching another over 4 pounds there, but I also missed a few.
I headed to another good stretch of bank and caught keeper number three on a Terminator Pro’s Jig. After that I went back to the bladed jig and caught a few more, and ended up culling. When I got to the next good log I pitched the jig in again and pulled one around 3 ¼ pounds out. Now I had a pretty good bag, at least 15 pounds, maybe even 16.
At that point I went into the Pigeon. Drew Benton’s lower unit had gone out that morning but he’d gotten up and running again and he was on the far lower end of a mile long good bank. I went to the top end and quickly caught two or three more that didn’t help.
I went further up the Pigeon to places where the most effective way to fish was going backwards. My co-angler had his limit, and while I certainly wouldn’t ask him not to fish, he was very kind to give me the first shot at some of the key places. I culled out a 2 ¼ pound fish with a 3 pounder and that was my last cull. The fishing had been really good but then around 1 o’clock it got tough and I still had another 2 ¼ pound fish in my livewell that I really would’ve liked to get rid of, but it wasn’t meant to be. When I got back to the ramp I weighed in 17-05, which gave me a slim lead over Mike Watson, the guy who does all of my custom boat work. I was glad to see him do well but I was even more glad to be in the lead.
I started off Day Two with the bladed jig but couldn’t get any bites on my first stop. I moved across the lake and caught a keeper on a spinnerbait, then headed back to where I started and finally landed one on the bladed jig and keeper number three on the spinnerbait again. After that I bounced back and forth trying to figure out the best bite of the day.
Picking up the flipping stick I hung a 3 pounder in a tree on my first flip with a BPS Bull Hog and the fish managed to shake free. Then I missed another one before catching a 2 pounder. At that point I had four fish, but the biggest was only 2 pounds so I needed to start upgrading. I ran up the river to a laydown where I’ve caught piles of fish and flipped my jig into the heart of it. My line was draped over a limb and I hopped it there five or six times before one thumped it and I jacked a 3 pounder into the boat. I figured maybe I was onto something with the presentation and filed that information away.
At the next good laydown I let my jig soak once again and I caught a 4-13. I’d caught my fifth fish at 9:41, and they were all small. This was my first decent one and between 11 and 11:15 I culled up to 17 pounds, with a smallest fish of 2 ¾. At that point I was afraid that I’d burn a lot of good fish trying to cull in those key areas, so I devoted my day to catching a smallmouth. On Douglas you can only keep one, and they have to be over 18 inches, and I didn’t manage to hit that mark. Drew Benton had a really good day on Friday, but Mike Watson blanked, so my lead increased. More importantly, after sharing water with five aluminum boats in the area the first two days, there were only two of us left on Saturday. T
Heading into Day Three, the water had cleared in both the Pigeon and the French Broad. Both Drew and I started on the closest thing to a “community hole” up there but neither of us landed a keeper there. Then I went across the river and caught one about 2 ¼ pounds on the bladed jig. My co-angler threw about 12 times at the same spot before he hooked up with a 2 ½. At that point we went up to the best area from day One, but it produced nothing.
Heading back down, my co-angler caught a 3 pounder from a spot where between the two of us I’d bet we’d already made 50 casts. The fish were there, but they weren’t in a feeding mood. You had to beat them over the head with your lure. It wasn’t going to be easy. We made it back to the best bank and I lost a keeper before catching one about 1 ½ pounds. Then we went 90 minutes without a bite.
Knowing that it was tough, I leaned heavily on the Bull Hog and was rewarded with a 3 pound largemouth and then with a 19 inch smallmouth that probably weighed a little bit more. That brought me up to four fish with three hours left to get one bite, which really settled me down.
Remembering a bank that I’d fished quickly on Day One and knowing that it was settling out, I made the run over. I figured that if I got one bite there it would be the right one and after 10 minutes of flipping my Terminator Pro’s Jig I got the bite that I thought sealed the deal. It was a beautiful 4 ½ pounder and while it turned out that I didn’t need it, it sure felt good to drop her in the livewell. Making it even sweeter, my co-angler culled there later and ended up with three fish for almost 8 pounds, and he won as well. It was a really tough day as evidenced by the fact that Drew and his co-angler combined for three keepers. He also missed a turn and knocked off a lower unit, so I brought his co-angler and their fish back to the weigh-in.
Clearly my boat was the key piece of equipment that allowed this victory to happen. It’s a Tracker 1754 Grizzly customized by Mike Watson. He raised the transom, put a tunnel hull in it and then bolted two T-H Marine jackplates to the back. That means you can lower the 60 HP Mercury for speed on the lake, and then reset it when you get up the river to make it shallow water capable. It’s no speed demon – maybe 32 miles per hour in the lake and 22 miles per hour in the river, but it allowed me to maximize my time. It has many of the comforts of a bigger boat, including a rod box that holds 15 eight foot rods, a dry storage box for tackle and an aftermarket livewell that holds 25 gallons of water. That last day the livewells had my five fish, my co-angler’s three, and the three that Drew and his co-angler shifted over and they were still lively when we completed the run back. The boat also holds 18 gallons of gas, but after making the 45 minute run there and back, and moving around the river during the day, I’d only burned 9 gallons.
A 3/8 ounce black and blue bladed jig produced many key fish. I rigged it with a matching BPS Sassy Sally on the back and threw it on a 7’ medium-heavy CarbonLite Rod with a 7.5:1 CarbonLite reel spooled with 17 lb. test XPS fluorocarbon.
The Terminator Pro’s Jig also played an important role. It was in a color called “OD Craw” that’s not currently in production, but I hope that it will be soon…it’s black and blue with a little bit of chartreuse. I put a Green Pumpkin Blue Flake BPS Elite Chunk on the back and threw it on a 7’6” heavy action Johnny Morris Platinum rod paired with an 8.3:1 Platinum reel loaded with 20 lb. XPS fluorocarbon.
Like every victory, this one was extremely satisfying. It was my second professional win in front of a hometown crowd and while many people think it’s easy to win at home I can assure you that’s not the case. I’ve fished six or seven B.A.S.S. events on Douglas and one PAA tournament there and I’ve been blessed to make the top 10 in all of them. I’ve led a few other times and been unable to seal the deal. Of all of the tournaments I’ve fished there, this is the one that would’ve most disappointed me had I not been able to close it out. In April or May, anybody can win, but the lake is tough this time of year. That’s why I was excited when I saw it on the schedule. To have all of my family and local fans be there was important, and to weigh in at the Bass Pro Shops that has supported me since the beginning of my career was extra-special.