Rookie Rocking River

Rookie McCaghren takes Elite lead on Mississippi River

Billy McCaghren
Billy McCaghren

FORT MADISON, Iowa — As expected in a tough, grind-it-out Bassmaster Elite Series tournament, the top of the leaderboard is rife with BASS veterans with sterling credentials. Save for one.

Elite rookie Billy McCaghren of Mayflower, Ark., has capitalized on an area he has largely to himself to cobble together a three-day total of 36 pounds, 5 ounces, at the Genuity™ River Rumble on the Mississippi River and holds a near 3-pound advantage over four-time BASS winner Tommy Biffle of Wagoner, Okla., heading into the final day of competition.

Filled with shad and cover, McCaghren's area has remained productive through the tournament and showed little sign of stopping. Thursday, he landed 13 pounds, 1 ounce, but Friday he stumbled a bit with 10-10. He said feared his area might have succumbed to the pressure and began to think about backup plans, but rebounded Saturday with a 12-10 limit.

A key to McCaghren's success has been fish management. In a somewhat similar scenario to Bobby Lane's victory on Kentucky Lake last week, McCaghren has not fully exploited his area. Instead, he has worked it to land a five-fish limit and then defended the spot from other competitors.

Last week, the strategy worked to perfection for Lane.

"I feel better now about what I've been doing and the area than I did yesterday," said McCaghren, 35. "I'm really trying to soak it for all it's worth. I just have to lay off after I get to a point to where I'm comfortable. But that won't be an issue on Sunday. I just don't think my area is replenishing, but I'm confident that it is still holding fish."

While others in the field have struggled this week, McCaghren has used his extensive knowledge of river systems to his advantage on the Mighty Mississippi. At home in Arkansas, he frequently fishes the Arkansas River. He scored his lone BASS victory on the Red River in Louisiana.

A newcomer to the Elite Series, McCaghren earned his berth via his strong performance on the Bassmaster Central Open circuit, which included his Red River victory. So far, he has made the top-50 Elite cut four times.

With a big week already in hand here, McCaghren will improve on his Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year ranking and should be very close to the qualifying cutline for the 2010 Bassmaster Classic (Feb. 19-21; Lay Lake; Birmingham, Ala.). The top 36 in the AOY standings will advance to the Classic.

"I'm excited," McCaghren said. "I'm just going to go out and compete Sunday and let the chips fall where they may. I know I've done my best and that's all I can ask for."

Unlike McCaghren, Biffle — who scored a victory in April at the Elite event on Lake Wheeler — has been sharing an area with a number of other Elite competitors all week. He has had his success changing up his presentation and focusing on a key subtlety in the structure he is targeting. He didn't want to divulge specifics, but said the area was holding enough fish to yield a quality limit Sunday, the final day.

Biffle is committed. His trek to the area forces him to spend time locking through; thus, all backup plans are out the window.

"I'm going to dance with the one who brought me," said Biffle, who has earned more than $1 million in BASS career earnings.

Biffle is riding a wave of momentum. The victory at Wheeler and a few other top finishes put him in 22nd place in the AOY standings heading to the Mississippi event. With some solid points from this tournament, Biffle will move up the standings.

The top 12 will move on to the inaugural Bassmaster Elite Series Postseason. First though, the Elite Series regular season will wrap up on Oneida Lake, a place where Biffle won in 2007.

Scott Campbell of Springfield, Mo., stayed in third with 33-4. Moving up from seventh to fourth was Shaw Grigsby of Gainesville, Fla., with 32-12. Dropping from the lead to fifth was 2008 Bassmaster Classic champion Alton Jones of Waco, Texas, with 31-9.

The field was cut to the top 12 for Sunday and will include Kevin Short (sixth) of Mayflower, Ark., and Gerald Swindle (ninth) of Warrior, Ala.The outcome of the River Rumble will help Jones significantly in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. He was in third in the standings heading into this week, and the two anglers ahead of him, Kevin VanDam (28th) and Skeet Reese (29th) both faltered. 

Regardless of who prevails in the AOY race, the top three have established themselves as virtual lock-ins on places in the inaugural Bassmaster Elite Series postseason, the Toyota Trucks Championship Week.

The postseason, set for Sept. 10-18, will be played out on two productive Alabama fisheries. The first of the two postseason tournaments will take place on Lake Jordan out of Wetumpka; the finale, the Evan Williams Bourbon Trophy Triumph, is slated for the Alabama River from Montgomery.

During the 2008 season, the Elite Series had to cancel the River Rumble in Fort Madison because of flooding that affected nearly a dozen states. The river last was host to a Bassmaster Tour event in 2006, when former Elite angler Darrin Schwenkbeck won a Bassmaster Northern Tour competition with a three-day total of 42 pounds, 12 ounces.

Fans are encouraged to attend the Genuity River Rumble's daily launches (7 a.m. ET) and weigh-ins (5 p.m.) Sunday at Riverview Park, 902 Fourth St. in Fort Madison.