The Southern Open presented by Oakley on Wheeler Lake, Ala., was marked by postspawn bass and lots of them. The fish were shallow and actively biting throughout the event despite the stormy weather. The top anglers culled limit after limit as they collected their winning weights.
Here's how the top finishers did it:
(1st Place — 45 pounds, 8 ounces)
Chris Payne didn't know much about Wheeler when he started practicing, so when he found a large creek early in practice he stayed there and milked it for everything it had to offer.
"This was my first tournament on Wheeler. I didn't have any idea what to do. I launched my boat, found a fairly large creek that had everything I thought I'd need and fished it every day."
Part of everything was a small hump off a spawning flat.
"That was a great spot. It had deep water around it and a little grass right on top. I threw a 5/8-ounce Chatterbait out over the top and brought it back real fast, just under the water. I had to keep it moving to prevent it from fouling in the grass. It seemed like the better bass wanted something moving along fairly fast."
When that bite slowed down — especially during the first day — he fished the edges of the same hump with a Heddon Zara Spook, Jr. (Puppy) with solid results.
"They hit the Spook real good, but I owe that pattern to Bassmaster Magazine and Boyd Duckett. Just before I left for the tournament, I read something by Duckett that said if you put a clip on your Spook you'll get more action out of it. I was actually sitting in my boat when I remembered reading that and decided to give it a try. It made a huge difference."
Payne also caught a few of his fish with the same Chatterbait along grassy shorelines in 1-3 feet of water.
"All my bass were postspawn. Most of them had just come off the beds, or that's what I think, anyway. Their tails were all beat to death and bloody. Finding those postspawn bass was a real help.
"But I have to say that the thing that made finding them possible was my inexperience on the lake. I found that creek with shallow grass, wood, deep water, humps and laydowns in the lower section of the lake. I didn't have anywhere else to go, so I stayed there and got everything I could out of it. If I'd known the lake better I might have run too much."
Tackle: His Chatterbait (chartreuse and white with a gold blade) was fished on a Powell 7-foot, 3-inch rod (heavy action), a Shimano Curado reel (7:1 gear ratio) and 50-pound-test PowerPro line.
His Zara Spook, Jr. (Puppy) — bone colored — was thrown with a Powell 6-foot, 8-inch topwater rod (heavy action).
(2nd Place — 41 pounds, 6 ounces)
Mark Menendez used his knowledge from a prior tournament, fished deeper than most of the other competitors and darn near won the event.
"I was there two or three weeks ago for the Elite Series when the fish were moving towards the beds. I figured they'd be moving off them for this tournament.
"I started fishing gravel points and drops in the entrances to spawning bays. I caught a lot of fish, but at the end of the first day I switched from a Carolina rig to a Strike King Pro Model Series 6 crankbait in Sexy Shad and caught a good one deeper than I'd been fishing. I realized then that the winning weights were behind me.
"On the second day I moved out to the main lake, into 7-9 feet of water. I whacked them fishing the same bait on the same type of structure."
For most anglers that type of adjustment would have been reward enough. Menendez doesn't see it that way, however. He always looks to get better.
"I have no complaints about my performance. Second place isn't a disgrace. At the same time, I'm a little frustrated. If I'd started fishing out there on the first day, or if I hadn't lost three good bass in the last 30 minutes on Sunday, the result might have been very interesting — and very different."
Tackle: Menendez fished his Carolina rig on a 7-foot Power Tackle rod (medium-heavy action) with a Pflueger President reel (6.4:1 gear ratio) and 12-pound-test Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line.
He used a 1/2-ounce sinker to weight his 2 1/2-foot leader and Strike King Game Hawg (Bama Bug).
He threw his crankbait on a Power Tackle Crankbait Rod with a Pflueger Trion reel (5.2:1 gear ratio) and 10-pound-test Berkley Big Game line.
(3rd Place — 40 pounds, 12 ounces)
A keen eye and careful observations made the difference for Mark McCaig.
"I've never caught so many bass in a tournament, and I don't know if I even caught that many on any of my fishing trips. I was catching 50 bass a day, except for Friday when it dropped to 25. They weren't all keepers, but they were bass, and I was able to cull good limits from the numbers.
"Every morning I'd get a quick limit with a chartreuse and white Chatterbait from a shallow shoreline grass edge. Then I'd start fishing for bigger fish in the hope of culling a heavy limit.
"I caught most of those skipping a Sweet Beaver under and behind flooded, shallow bushes. I found the fish in practice around bushes in water about a foot deep. But every time I tried to get close enough to flip or pitch to them I'd run them off. I finally developed a pattern of skipping my bait to them from deep water.
"That's an example of being versatile. I don't claim to be the best skipper in the business, but I can do it well enough to get by. That skill let me catch bass that a lot of the other guys couldn't get to. Physical skills matter."
Tackle: A 6-10 Kevlar H & H rod (heavy action), a Shimano Curado reel (7:1 gear ratio) and 20-pound-test Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line.
McCaig's Sweet Beaver was black and red, weighted with a 1/2-ounce Tru-Tungsten weight and armed with a 4/0 Gamakatsu Round Bend Hook.
For his ChatterBait fishing he used a 7-foot H & H rod (medium-heavy action), the same model reel and 17-pound-test Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line.
(4th Place — 40 pounds, 12 ounces)
Peter T's tournament was all about finding bass.
"I threw an ordinary Carolina rig and a Rapala DTF09 Flat Series crankbait to bass on a shell ledge off a main river channel in 8-10 feet of water. I can't say one lure was better than another. I alternated between the two and caught about an equal number of bass with each one.
"My result was based on finding bass. I think that's something we all need to keep in mind. You can't catch bass that aren't there."
Tackle: His Carolina rig was thrown with an American Rodsmiths 7-6 H3 Titanium Cranking Series rod with a high-quality casting reel (6.3:1 gear ratio) and 17-pound-test fluorocarbon line. His rig was built with a 5/8-ounce Tru-Tungsten weight, a Fish Harder Peter T Force Bead and a 3/0 off-set round bend hook along with a Zoom Fluke (watermelon).
For his Rapala Flat Series crankbait he switched to an American Rodsmiths Mag Strike Predator Series rod, a low speed high-quality reel (5:1 gear ratio) and 12-pound-test fluorocarbon line.