MUSKOGEE, Okla. — While the AutoZone Sooner Run was the official name of the Bassmaster Elite Series regular-season finale, it could, and perhaps should, have been titled the Tommy Biffle Invitational. The Wagoner, Okla., veteran dominated the event — not to mention the conversations surrounding it — with a four-day total of 73 pounds, 11 ounces.
Fishing Fort Gibson Lake, the waters he has honed his craft on for more than 40 years, Biffle's fingerprints were all over this week. His likeness was on a sign welcoming anglers to the city of Wagoner. To boot, Biffle's winning lure — on which he caught all of the 20 fish he toted to the scales this week — carried his name.
And that was the key piece of equipment this week. Made by Gene Larew lures, Biffle was fishing a modified Biffle Bug, which had been tweaked to feature a football-type head. He worked the lure, watermelon-colored with red flecks, over rock piles with a steady retrieve. Biffle, who tallied 18 pounds, 3 ounces on Sunday, said he was fishing it similar to a crankbait and the jointed body provided for loads of action.
Scored in wire-to-wire fashion, Biffle's fifth victory netted $100,000 and the maximum number of points towards his Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year ranking. In 17th in those standings heading into this week, Biffle used the homelake advantage to qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series Postseason for the second consecutive season, shooting up to seventh in the reconfigured standings.
With a heap of expectations, the 16-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier started to feel a twinge of pressure on Saturday, the penultimate day of competition, as he lost a 6-pounder at the last second.
"There wasn't anybody expecting me to win this tournament more than myself," said Biffle, 52. "I would have been ill if I didn't make it happen. It's just special to be able to do this in front of my family and friends."
Biffle played a risky game of chance all week, reserving his best spots for the weekend when he hoped to cash in and create some distance between himself and the rest of the field. But the barrage never came. Instead, Biffle's best spot was his first stop each morning, about 20 yards in total area located to the side of a point. He was able to put together a quick limit all four days and then move to fresh water to upgrade his weight.
Sunday, that area produced a 5-pound, 1-ounce, brute in the first 30 minutes of his competition day. Biffle, who often gets flak from his competitors about his inability to show emotion, let out a loud scream.
Still, he never reached his target of 20 pounds that he thought would bring home the victory. And he was plagued with the idea all day that he didn't close the deal. But in the end, the lure that carried his namesake produced just enough to take the victory.
A shallow-water specialist, Biffle said he caught bass in anywhere from two to 10 feet of water. Surprisingly, he said some of his best stuff on Fort Gibson is of the deeper variety but the fish were staged shallow and he was forced to fish the conditions.
"I was a little uncomfortable all day," said Biffle, who labeled this victory as one of the most special in his entire career. "I probably wanted to win here more than I should have. I'm just relieved to be able to get it done."
While Biffle dominated the headlines and the tournament, Skeet Reese of Auburn, Calif., quietly finished second with 70 pounds, 15 ounces. He worked a 1/2-oz. jig in green pumpkin paired with a Berkley chigger craw in shallow water. He mixed in a Lucky Craft crankbait in deeper water.
While Reese was happy with the finish — he had zero expectations heading into this week — he lamented over two lost 5-pounders he failed to boat on Sunday. Still, he will hold a healthy points lead in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings heading into the Postseason and will be a prohibitive favorite.
"No doubt, I'm satisfied with where I'm at but I could have made a difference," said Reese, the 2007 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year. "My focus, as it always is, will be on the Postseason. I can't wait to kick it off."
Pat Golden of High Point, N.C., slipped from second to third with 70-8. Golden notched his best finish in Elite competition and like Reese, missed a couple of plus-sized fish that would have significantly aided his total.
Moving up from sixth to fourth was Matt Herren of Trussville, Ala., with 69-1. Rounding out the top five was Rick Morris of Virginia Beach, Va., with 67-6. Kevin VanDam, the winner of the past two consecutive Angler of the Year titles, tied with Morris but slipped to sixth due to a tiebreaker.
Russ Lane of Prattville, Ala., finished eighth and secured a spot in the Postseason while two-time Angler of the Year Gary Klein of Weatherford, Texas, sewed up his second Postseason berth with a 10th-place finish.
The Sooner Run was initially set for the Arkansas River but due to unsafe conditions, BASS moved the event to Fort Gibson. The last time BASS visited Gibson was in October 2008 for the now-defunct 2008 BASS Club World Championship.