MANY, La. – After this week's Evan Williams Bourbon Toledo Bend tournament, the Bassmaster Elite Series will have reached the halfway point. Just like with Major League Baseball's All-Star break, it will be too early to draw definite conclusions on the season, but some trends are coming into focus.
One of those is the history-making run of success by Mark Davis. He has now finished in the top three in four straight regular-season events, dating back to last year. It's the best Top 3 run in Elite Series history. In the three tournaments this season, Davis has amassed 295 Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year points. His closest competitors are Jared Lintner and Aaron Martens, 35 and 39 points back, respectively.
Davis seems prepped for another strong showing.
"I've had a real good practice," said Davis. "I've caught good fish every day."
There's plenty of drama at the bottom of the AOY standings as well, where some accomplished anglers currently reside in 70th place or below. That list includes: Rick Clunn (70th), Tommy Biffle (71st), Ish Monroe (80th), Jonathon VanDam (97th), Boyd Duckett (99th), Chris Zaldain (101st) and Greg Vinson (103rd).
Dennis Tietje is in 91st place in the AOY standings. This is an especially big week for him. Tietje lives in Roanoke, La., but has been coming here since he was a baby. Tietje, 49, has owned a "fishing camp" on Toledo Bend for the past 24 years. He's happy to be physically 100 percent for this tournament. In 2011, when Dean Rojas won, Tietje was in so much back pain he was barely able to cast. In 2012, when Brent Chapman won, Tietje was out of action on a medical hardship while he recovered from surgery.
No one has more history on this lake than Tietje. He needs all that experience to propel him into a possible Bassmaster Classic qualifying position. So what happens this year? Toledo Bend is fishing different than Tietje has ever seen it in late April.
"It's definitely fishing different than I've ever seen it at this time of year," Tietje said. "Fish are on the move. They're not ganged up anywhere. It's wide open. They're shallow, they're roaming, they're on beds, they're suspended. Just a little bit of everything.
"You'll be able to fish to your strengths."
Toledo Bend, a long-time favorite stop on the B.A.S.S. circuit, is the perfect place for a crucial event like this one. The 185,000-acre lake on the Texas-Louisiana border is reportedly in excellent condition for bass fishing, better than it has been in recent years, and that's saying something.
The Toledo Bend Lake Association provides a replica mount for anyone catching and releasing a bass that weighs at least 10 pounds. The annual records start on May 15 and end the following year on May 14. Last year set a record with 58 double-digit bass. That record has already been broken this year: The 59th of 2013-2014 was caught and released Saturday.
This should be a show. Here are five things to watch as the four-day event proceeds:
1. Mark Davis — The Mt. Ida, Ark., native turned 50 years old last October. His accomplishments include three B.A.S.S. AOY titles and a Bassmaster Classic crown. But it's been awhile for Davis. His last AOY title came in 2001. He won the Classic in 1995. It seems one of the ultimate nice guys on tour has discovered the fountain of youth. And it appears Davis has found the right fish again this week.
"I caught one close to 10 pounds today," Davis said Wednesday. "It's a shame I caught that fish today instead of tomorrow."
He agreed with Tietje's lake assessment on two counts: 1) Toledo Bend is in "prime shape," and 2) Anglers will be able to fish to their strengths.
"It's wide open," Davis said. "One way is about as good as another. You can catch 'em sight-fishing, jerking, cranking, whatever. It's all working."
Chapman won here in 2012 with 83 pounds, 9 ounces. Davis thinks that's a good benchmark for this tournament.
"Twenty pounds a day, give or take a pound or two either way, that's about right," Davis said.
2. The Lunker Watch — It's tournament fishing's oldest cliché: You've got to catch a big one to win. Well, yeah, even when a "big one" is closer to 5 pounds than 10, like at Table Rock Lake in the last event. Whatever it takes to separate you from the norm is a big one.
There are so many 8- to 10-pounders in this lake that the odds are better than usual for catching a true lunker. Sure, you can get to 80 pounds over four days of 5-fish limits with 20 four-pounders. That's one way to look at it. It's harder to quantify, but catching one of those 8- or 10-pounders may provide a psychological boost greater than the weight of the fish.
Aaron Martens could have used a mental bump-up during Wednesday's final hours of practice.
"Keepers are easy to catch," he said. "I just haven't found any quality fish. A lot of fish are scattered. The ones I've found in schools weigh 1 ½ to 2 pounds."
To riff off the old cliché, there's nothing like a 10-pounder in the livewell to improve your outlook on life. And you can get happy in a hurry on Toledo Bend.
3. The AOY standings — As mentioned previously, even though we haven't reached the halfway point of the season, this has to feel like crunch-time for many of these guys, especially the ones off to a slow start. It has to be encouraging that Martens' AOY championship last year began with an 85th place finish at the Sabine River. But we're three tournaments into an eight-event season; there's no more room for mediocrity.
4. Sight-fishing — Not many imagined that a bass tournament on Toledo Bend during the first weekend in May could be a sight-fishing event. Sure, there would be a few stragglers still on spawning beds, but not enough to make a difference, especially in a four-day tournament with these guys. But like everywhere else this year, the extra-long winter has produced some unusual fishing conditions.
This week's cold front didn't help in terms of bass fishing catching up with the calendar.
"When I put my boat in the water Monday, (the water temperature) was 77 degrees," Martens said. "Today it was 70."
Tietje said the north end of the lake tends to warm quicker than south end, which is deeper and clearer.
"There's a wide range of water temperatures in the lake right now," he said. "It's in the upper 70s some places to the north and mid 60s to the south."
Tietje believes sight-fishing will definitely be a factor in determining the standings Day One and Day Two, and possibly longer.
"If someone finds an isolated pocket that hasn't been messed with in a few days, yeah, it could happen," he said.
The spawning beds aren't limited to the cooler water south.
"I think fish are still spawning all over this lake," said Mark Davis. "Everything is running late."
5. Of course, the weather — You could put "weather" in this list for every tournament. But the practice period has put it at the forefront in the minds of most. They've taken some licks in rough water.
When asked if, specifically, the wind will be a factor this week, Aaron Martens said, "It already has been."
Toledo Bend is 65 miles long with a maximum width of about 10 miles. It runs pretty much north to south. Double-digit winds directly from the north or south create some misery. Martens noted how tough it has been to find a strong pattern in practice, because the wind has limited the places he could effectively fish.
Thursday is supposed to begin a warming trend with winds in single digits through Sunday. But no one is counting on calm conditions.
"The weathermen tend to be wrong more than they're right around here," Tietje said. "And the wind can happen fast."
If that happens during the tournament?
"It's a matter of how bad a beating you want to take," Tietje said.