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BASS Southern Open Smith Lake Recap

I had a lot to gain and a lot to lose coming into the final BASS Southern Open event on Smith Lake sitting in 2nd place in the points—a 2013 Elite Series berth. I needed to stay among the top five in points to guarantee a berth, so I put extra pressure on myself (not always a bad thing) to do well. Fortunately, Smith Lake is a short drive from my house in Guntersville, Alabama so I had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time practicing leading up to the tournament. Before I began practice, I decided to spend the majority of my time pursuing spotted bass fishing my strengths—a dropshot and topwater—rather than hunting shallow largemouth in the upper creek arms.

I intentionally left all my rods and tackle at home on my first few trips to Smith Lake so I wouldn’t be tempted to fish. I spent several days covering each of the three major fingers and the main lake body to look for bait, because I knew the bass would be close by. I found the largest concentrations of threadfin shad in Ryan Creek. Ryan Creek impressed me. Not only was it full of bait, but it had bluff walls, points and humps—all reliable places where spotted bass can be found gorging themselves on bait during the fall. I noticed most of the schooling activity occurred on or close to points—especially points along the main river channel. I idled over and graphed each point to find the sweet spot where schooling fish would relate to when they weren’t chasing bait. The most productive points either had a brush pile or sharp break in 15 to 30 feet of water. The best points had both—a brush pile on a sharp break.

Finally, after deciding to spend my tournament in Ryan Creek, I threw my rods and tackle back in my boat. I started with ten different rods (I have hard time starting practice with any less) rigged on my front deck allowing me to cover the entire water column, but quickly condensed my arsenal down to the two baits I was getting bit on the most—a topwater and dropshot. I fished hundreds of points (ok, this may be a slight exaggeration) to find 30-40 holding bigger than average sized spots I would fish in the tournament.

Confident I had a solid pattern, I decided to spend the three official practice days before the tournament fishing shallow for largemouth. I did catch a few quality largemouth around brush and laydowns, but didn’t find any reason to stray from my spotted bass pattern.

On Day one I was relieved no one was on an obscure point in a small bay near the mouth of Ryan Creek I planned on starting on. I pulled up and immediately saw schooling fish working bait over the point. I fired my Sammy and it landed in the middle of the boils. I barely had time to engage my reel before my Sammy disappeared under water. After I landed a small keeper, I spent the next twenty minutes trying to catch schooling fish around the point without success, so I eased on top of the point where it broke from 27 to 32 foot and saw a few arches on the screen. I dropped my dropshot rigged with a Natural Shad Yamamoto Shad Shape Worm (the perfect shad imitator) and caught my biggest spot of the tournament. It weighed nearly four pounds.

Long casts were crucial for me in the tournament. Photo by James Overstreet, courtesy of Bassmaster.com

I continued my milk run up Ryan Creek fishing as fast and efficient as possible. I approached each point from the main river channel side (the deepest water) and made one, two, maybe three casts with my Sammy while sitting over 60-80 feet of water. I wanted to stay as far back as possible and make a long cast, because spotted bass often suspend on top and in front of the cover or break they are relating too. As I worked my way toward each point I kept a close eye on my graph. If I saw any fish I’d make a few drops with my dropshot, but if I didn’t get bit in the first few drops I moved on looking for active fish. I fished as many points as possible to give myself more opportunities to catch more and bigger spots.

Fishing off the graph with my dropshot. Photo by James Overstreet, courtesy of Bassmaster.com

Around 10 o’clock I had two good fish and one small one in the boat and stopped on a rounded, less obvious point that butted against the main river channel. As I came off pad, I almost tripped over myself while jumping on the front deck in an effort to grab my topwater rod as fast as I could, because there were big spots busting all over the point. The next ten minutes were intense. I had several big spots blow up on my Sammy, but failed to hook any so I started reeling in my bait as fast as I could without working it in the typical walk the dog motion and I started hooking up. I put three spots over three pounds in the boat finishing my limit and culling my smallest one. It’s always special experiencing a flurry like that on the water, but it’s even more special when it happens during a tournament. My day one bag weighed 16.7 pounds and led the event going into day two.

My two biggest spots from day one. Photo by James Overstreet, courtesy of Bassmaster.com

Days two and three proved more difficult for me than the first. I think the fishing pressure and boat traffic started to affect my topwater pattern, because the spots started short striking my Sammy or would “river dolphin” over it (when a bass jumps completely out of the water missing the bait entirely). Instead of pulling my hair out, I focused more with my dropshot to help me secure my limit each of the final two days. However, I didn’t completely abandon my topwater pattern. On day three a low pressure system moved in bringing clouds, wind and rain enabling me to catch a few more quality spots on top.

I finished the event in 4th place with 37-13, exactly one pound behind winner Hank Cherry. I’ve thought about what I could’ve done differently to get one more quality bite, but realized topwater isn’t the highest percentage pattern. Sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t. All you can do is keep your hooks sharp.

A strong finish at Smith Lake allowed me to clinch the BASS Southern Opens points title. Now I have an opportunity to fish the 2013 Elites if I choose to do so. I’m going to take some time to make my decision, but my instincts are pushing me toward the Elites. As an angler I can’t help but rely on my instincts.