A glutton’s take on Toledo Bend

MANY, La. — I fished the co-angler side of Bassmaster Tour events on Toledo Bend in 2001 and 2003, and I managed to cash a modest check in each one, so I certainly remember what a great fishery the big border lake can be. In fact, in the 2003 event, I had the good fortune to practice with eventual winner David Wharton, and he was in such a zone that at times I had to pinch myself to make sure what I was seeing was really happening.

Because I’m a glutton, though, I also remember the meals. The tournament may be based out of Louisiana, but the town of Many is more typically East Texas than New Orleans (which is nearly 300 miles away).

Nevertheless, I managed to weasel my way in to a crawfish boil at Dennis Tietje’s camp on the lake. Although Tietje now fishes the Elites, at the time he was still a farmer with aspirations of going pro who knew everybody. I remember watching Peter Thliveros boiling the crawfish, listening to Kevin VanDam and Kelly Jordon talking about peacock bass fishing, and seeing Kenyon Hill put a hurting on Tietje’s yearly crop.

At that same event, I met up with a former member of my bass club, Randy Reehm, at a restaurant called Bryce’s on the Texas side of the lake (its motto should’ve been “all fried, all the time”). Randy brought his son, Clark. Like Tietje, Clark Reehm was then an aspiring pro. Reehm subsequently fished the Elite Series for six years before leaving to open a guide service, with many of his trips on Toledo Bend.

Because those two pros have a long and continuous history on the lake, I figured they’d be good sources of info for choosing my Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing team. Tietje took his first boat ride on Toledo Bend at 6 months old and has fished there every year since. Reehm might not have started that young, but because he guides there and won’t be competing, I felt he might give up a little more dirt than Tietje would. The bottom line, both agreed, is that while there may be some memorable meals this time around for the competitors, it’s the bass that will truly be gorging themselves.

“If you look at the tournament results, the lake is probably in the best shape it’s been in the last 10 years,” Tietje said. “It’s really healthy with a lot of big fish being weighed. There have already been at least 50 heavier than 10 pounds. The lake is on fire, from north to south, and you’ll be able to fish your strengths.”

Reehm, who took second place in a Rayovac event on Toledo Bend last month, agreed: “It’s wide open to do anything you want to do. The lake is healthy, but the fish were behind, so instead of trickling up little by little in February, there was a bum rush in late March. It’s taking 30-plus to win some tournaments.

“It could be the best Elite event of the year,” said Reehm.

With their guidance, and some of my own hunches, here are my picks for the upcoming tournament.

Bucket A: Faircloth

As usual this is the toughest bucket, because any of these guys can win any event on the schedule. How do you pick against Jason Christie or Randall Tharp, two great big-fish anglers who excel in the grass? How do you go against Mark Davis, who is on fire, has tons of experience at Toledo Bend, and is one of the handful of best postspawn fishermen in history?

Keith Combs is another one who always seems to show up in the Top 12 any time the tours travel to Texas, whether it is Falcon or Texoma or anywhere in between.

I’m half-tempted to pick Takahiro Omori, simply because I believe it was at Toledo Bend that he produced one of the greatest Bassmaster TV moments of all time, hooking the butt area of his rain pants with a crankbait and then spinning in circles trying to figure out what happened and to free himself.

My gut pick, though, is Todd Faircloth. He may be quiet, but he excels not only in East Texas, but also early in the season.

Faircloth finished 15th on Toledo Bend in 2012, 17th in 2011, 18th in the 2009 Central Open, 17th in the 2002 Central Open, and 17th in the 2001 Top 150, along with checks in both 2003 events. He’s like a blue chip stock here; he might not win, but he’s going to get you good points no matter what variables are thrown at him.

Bucket B: Rojas

In this bucket you have Kevin VanDam, always a safe bet, as well as Brent Chapman, who won on Toledo Bend in 2012. There’s also Brett Hite, who can do all sorts of things but might be particularly dangerous if he can get in that ChatterBait groove. I’d love to see Jeff Kriet win here, too.

Normally, I don’t favor non-locals just because they’ve won in a particular location before, but this time I’m going to go against that tendency and pick Dean Rojas.

Yes, Rojas’ wins here in 2001 and 2011 demonstrate a good track record, but it’s the latter one that really sells me. Both Reehm and Tietje stressed that to win, an angler will have to do multiple things well, including chasing some late spawners that others can’t see. Topwaters may play a role, as could frogging. Reehm said he doesn’t think it will take 100 pounds to win, but 21 pounds a day should do it. Rojas won last time doing a variety of things and he can produce big bags with all of the techniques that will come into play. I’m riding a winning horse here.

Bucket C: Evers

As Ronnie Moore pointed out, Marty Robinson has the best average finish in the past two Elite Series events on Toledo Bend. It’s also hard not to pick Mike Kernan here because he’s fished about every major Texas circuit for years and done well all over the state. If he does well, you’ll likely have a commodity that few others own. If he was in Bucket E, he’d be an easy choice.

My pick, though, is Edwin Evers, usually a resident of Bucket A, currently out of his element because of a tough first tournament this year. He’s too much of a bargain to pass up, and he has a great history on the Bend. Throwing out a poor finish in a 2001 Top 150, he was 12th in the 2003 Tour event, third in the 2003 Open Championship, sixth in the 2009 Central Open, 49th in the 2011 Elite and 17th in the 2012 Elite. I often group him in the same caliber as Faircloth because they’re both so rock steady and both do a lot of things well.

No guarantees, but it’s a pretty safe bet that Faircloth will give you some good points.

Bucket D: Monroe

This is another bucket with some “A” class talent. Tough to bet against Clunn or Grigsby or a Texan like Matt Reed here, but it seems to me that the most upside resides in Tommy Biffle and Ish Monroe. I always have trouble picking both of these guys because they seem to be up-and-down anglers — not afraid to finish 90th if it means shooting for a win.

From what I remember, Toledo Bend doesn’t seem like frog country to me, but both Tietje and Reehm mentioned it. That weighs in favor of Monroe as does the potential for sight fishing. Neither Monroe nor Biffle had particularly strong showings in 2012, but Monroe made the 12 cut in 2011. That pushes me to pick him. That hurts because I have a sneaking suspicion that Biffle will go up in the dirty water and have acres of beautiful cover to pick apart all to himself.

Bucket E: Tietje

Chris Zaldain made the 12 cut here in 2012, had a great season last year and has been spending a lot of time in Texas, but he’s had trouble gaining any momentum yet this year, so even though he seems like a bargain, I’m a little gun shy.

Same with Yusuke Miyazaki, who seems overall to have found his groove and finished 10th here last time around.

If either of those guys gets his bearings at Toledo Bend, I may regret not picking them. Boyd Duckett likewise looks like a bargain in Bucket E, but he’s struggling.

It may show my cautious financial nature, but I’m going with Tietje. Yes, he’s slumping like Zaldain, Miyazaki and Duckett, but I feel like he’s not going to disappointment me. He missed the 2011 Elite event due to a medical hardship, and he was 41st in 2012. But he was also seventh in the 2009 Open and 18th in the 2002 Open.

Tietje admitted to me that he may be hindered by the fact that he has too much history on the lake, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take for likely points. He showed last year at the Sabine that he can manage hometown expectations; he made the Top 12 despite essentially losing the whole first day to mechanical problems.

After a shaky start to my Fantasy Fishing season, I know I should take some chances on anglers less likely to be picked by large numbers of other players, but right now I’m feeling risk averse.

Besides, maybe if I pick him, Tietje will FedEx me a cooler of those great Louisiana crawfish with his big winnings.

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