The late-August conditions for the season-opening $300,000 CITGO Bassmaster Mississippi Central Open presented by Busch Beer could hardly have been worse for the 200 pro competitors and their amateur partners.
Not only was the air stifling hot, but the largemouth and spotted bass living in the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway didn't have much relief, either.
Water temperatures in some of the oxbows approached 100 degrees, while the river was in the high 80s/low 90s. Add bright sunny skies, mostly muddy water from recent rains, little wind and even less water movement, and you have the makings of a tough time.
Yet, Kevin Short licked his chops at the prospects of fishing under those conditions.
That is because the 41-year-old Arkansas pro had located two spots on Lake Aliceville that he believed set up perfectly for the weather and water scenario that had presented itself.
"When I saw the backwaters with cypress trees, my eyes lit up because I knew all the conditions were right for that area," Short says. "I live on a Game and Fish lake (Conway) in Arkansas that is very similar to this. I know how fish relate to cypress trees."
Short's enthusiasm proved valid as he put together five bass limits weighing 8 pounds, 9 ounces, 13-11 and 17 pounds to claim his first BASS victory, with a total of 39-4. Veteran pro Doug Garrett, also from Arkansas, finished second with 34-10, followed by Edwin Evers of Oklahoma (32-15), another Oklahoman, Tim Carroll (30 ½ pounds), and Mississippi's Jeff Magee (26-14).
"I had a lot of confidence in my areas," Short notes. "I knew the areas had the potential from the amount of bait that was there. There was just a ton of bait (as well as) everything you needed — like both shallow water and a little deeper water.
"I think the pattern was totally bait-oriented. Wherever the bait was, that's where the bass seemed to be. One day the water had really cleared up, and I saw some big gizzard shad in there. And I think that was important because (the final day) I threw a big bait and just went looking for big fish."
Short scored with a simple strategy that involved cranking cypress trees in two oxbows covered by 2 to 8 feet of water. He refined his pattern enough to determine that the bass were most reactive to the diving baits during the heat of the day (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.). That was the time he was sure to be fishing his best spot — a clump of about 20 trees situated in a 30-yard stretch of water.
"The fish in the deeper water were suspended around the trees and you just had to be there at the right time," Short says. "I did my best to be as quiet as I could. I ran the trolling motor only when I had to, which I think was important."
The key to Short's success involved making numerous casts to each tree from every possible angle. He utilized two Bagley crankbaits and a pair of Norman baits (including a flat-sided prototype diver) to fully exploit the cypress trees. On the final day, Short stayed exclusively with the two largest crankbaits (Norman Big N and Bagley Balsa B3) to catch the largest stringer of the tournament.
The crankbaits were worked quickly, to cover water and eventually trigger a reaction strike.
"The key was being persistent," said Short, whose previous best BASS finish was eighth last year in a Central Open event on Louisiana's Red River.
Doug Garrett's runner-up approach involved negotiating some treacherous water to reach select channel bends in Tibbee Creek. He targeted numerous stumps and the corners of cutbanks in 3 to 8 feet of water that were adjacent to a channel that dropped down to 20 feet.
Garrett's success came on two lures: a black-neon (and a second, unidentified color) Yum Garrett MegaTube Texas rigged with an unpegged 1/4-ounce Excalibur TG weight, 4/0 wide gap hook and 20-pound-test Big Game line; and a chartreuse-and-white 3/8-ounce Booyah spinnerbait with tandem gold willowleaf blades.
"I was fishing the tube on the topside of every stump," Garrett explains. "I didn't mess with the bottom side. I'd pitch it on the topside to take advantage of any little bit of current there was, and I'd pop the tube up off of the bottom pretty erratically. And they would hit it on the way back down.
"The unpegged sinker was important. What happens is, when the sinker is not pegged it will separate and the tube will actually spin for just a split-second, and then the sinker will jerk (the tube) back down. And you really get an erratic action that you cannot get with a pegged bait."
About midway through the tournament, he discovered that waking the spinnerbait seemed to produce better quality largemouth. "What happened was, a little current had started generating up there and the fish moved up higher in the water column," he adds. "Flipping wasn't going to catch them. And they were pretty active. They ate the spinnerbait pretty well."
Edwin Evers only burned a few gallons of gas en route to finishing third. He spent the entire tournament in the Columbus pool, where the boats were launched.
Shallow main lake grassbeds and a nearby creek surrendered bass daily to Evers. He flipped the vegetation with a black-neon 4-inch Texas rigged Bass Pro Shops Stud Tube (with a 5/16-ounce weight, 4/0 hook and 60-pound braided line). In the creek, he flipped the tube and cranked a square-billed (white with a black back) Awesome diver around shoreline wood.
Fellow Oklahoman Tim Carroll finished fourth by concentrating his efforts in a creek in the Aberdeen pool, where he had found some 14-foot-deep water. He alternated a 5/16-ounce camo-colored Red River Tackle jig and black-neon 4-inch Reaction Lures Sweet Beaver creature bait to post his best career BASS showing.
Fifth place performer Jeff Magee put together the most daring pattern of the top finishers. Using an aluminum Triton boat with a Yamaha jetdrive outboard, he skirted rapids and dodged floating timber to reach some grassy areas well up into the Buttahatchee River.
Magee used white ¼- and 3/8-ounce spinnerbaits to catch mostly spotted bass. He waked the spinnerbait through current-laden grassbeds in 2 to 4 feet of water near the channel.
In the amateur division, his 15th appearance was a charm for Scott Darragh of Texas. Fishing with Homer Humphreys Jr., Harold Allen and Dave McCormick, the 33-year-old real estate salesman took top honors with 17-7.
No. 1 Kevin Short
Lures: Three crankbaits with custom paint jobs: blue-gray shad prototype flat-sided Norman plug; bluish-gray Norman Big N; chartreuse-purple/silver back Bagley Balsa B3. Also, a chartreuse/black back Bagley Kil'R B.
Tackle: 15- and 20-pound-test Cabela's fluorocarbon line;
7-foot St. Croix fiberglass rod; Shimano Chronarch Superfree reel.
Technique: Making repeated casts from various angles to flooded cypress trees in 2 to 8 feet of water.