HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — Think of the Toyota Bassmaster Weekend Series National Championship as the bass fishing equivalent of the hit TV series “American Idol.”
The storylines are similar. Wannabe stars of tomorrow come from all over America to be the last one standing on stage when the final winner is announced. The bass fishing version could be envisioned as tougher, less the singing.
Local tournaments across the country seed an elimination-style divisional to vet out the top anglers for the championship. Only 100 of them from 25 states make the final cut and everyone has one thing in mind.
The trophy comes with an invitation to the Bassmaster Classic. Enough said.
After the Nov. 6-9 championship the last man standing was Adam Wagner. He took home the trophy, $100,000 and the Classic invitation after cranking his way to victory on Old Hickory Lake.
Wagner, 43, is a supervisor with a natural gas pipeline contractor. He stands a chance of changing careers at the Classic set for Feb. 21-23, 2014. Wagner won an FLW Bass Fishing League (BFL) tournament last February held on Lake Guntersville, the Classic fishery. He’s fished competitively on the lake for the past 15 years.
“When Old Hickory Lake came up on the schedule for the championship I thought it would be my best shot ever to qualifying for the Classic,” he said. “Old Hickory suits my style of fishing very well in the fall.”
It did indeed. Wagner posted a four-day total of 48.59 pounds to edge runner-up Marshall Thompson Jr. by a slim margin of 1/2 pound. The win wasn’t nearly as close as the tight finish indicated on the scoreboard.
Wagner, who lives 80 miles from Old Hickory, led the tournament from start to finish. His Day One limit weighing 17.34 pounds ranked as the heaviest catch of the tournament. He followed up with an impressive 15.09 limit on Day Two. The next day he was plagued by a nearly three-hour fog delay that produced a catch weighing 7.09 pounds.
“The fog really hurt but so did the change in weather,” he said. “Wind was a critical factor in my pattern and I didn’t get it.”
What else was critical was the presence of shad, isolated cover and a sharp change in the bottom contour. He found all of that in Bledsoe Creek, some 25 miles up lake from the weigh-in site on Old Hickory, a 22,500-acre riverine fishery on the Cumberland River.
Wagner relied on a single lure for the victory. It was a Bandit Lures Series 100 crankbait. The square-bill model accounted for all of his strikes and is a trusted lure for him on Old Hickory.
Wagner targeted bass staging on breaklines dropping from 2 to 3 feet and then sharply into a 15- to 20-foot channel. Isolated stumps, submerged logs and boulders lined the shallow side of the dropoffs. Strikes occurred as the bait careened off the cover and entered the open water.
“Knowing the sweet spots along the dropoffs really mattered,” he emphasized. “The channels run close to the shoreline, and there are very specific spots where the fish staged on the cover.”
What also mattered was anticipating the strike as the lure transitioned from the shallow to deep area of the strike zone. That feeling was aided by Wagner’s choice of tackle. He used a 7-foot All-Pro Rods cranking model with medium action for the give-and-take required with the square-bill crankbait.
Wagner spooled Shimano Curado reels with Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon. He used 15-pound test for the 3- to 6-foot depth range. Alternatively, he switched to 20-pound test for fishing in heavy cover and shallower water.
“The fish were suspended just off the edge,” he added. “It was easy on Wednesday but then I had to resort to covering a lot of water on the next three days because of the change in weather.”
Success slowed following a frontal passage that delivered blue bird skies, calm winds and more pressure to perform. Wagner made a key adjustment to his crankbait that proved beneficial for short strikes.
The Series 100 comes rigged with No. 6 treble hooks. Wagner upgraded to No. 4 Gamakatsu hooks for added connecting power.
“Bandit makes one of the few square bill crankbaits that you can upgrade hooks and still use it in heavy cover without hanging up,” he said. “It’s a great bait for this situation because the bait might shoot 2 or 3 feet to one side when it strikes cover.”
It’s unknown whether or not the winning bait has enough sentimental value to be retired from Wagner’s tacklebox. Either way, it’s a safe bet he’ll pack more of them for the trip to Guntersville.