Alabama's Lewis Smith Lake is challenging under ideal conditions. When torrential rain makes this clear, highland reservoir rise and fall quickly, as happened prior to the BASS Southern Open, it can be maddening.
Andy Montgomery of Blacksburg, S.C., was the only pro to bring in a five-bass limit all three days. Montgomery's consistency earned him a first place trophy and a $46,000 payday.
By mid-May, Smith Lake is usually lower and clearer that it was during the Southern Open. The bank cover is typically high and dry, and spotted bass and stripers are schooling over deep water in the mouths of creeks. That's when a dog-walking stickbait and a deep diving crankbait can have you culling Smith Lake's spotted bass before the sun gets high.
However, the water was slightly stained, and it was high enough to reach windfalls and some of the bushes along the shoreline. This caused the bass to scatter rather than feed in schools. It also made the lake's less abundant largemouth bass a bigger factor than normal.
A definite early morning topwater bite happened on main lake points, but it was short-lived. You were doing well to catch two bass before they shut down.
First place: Andy Montgomery
This was Montgomery's second trip to Smith Lake. The South Carolinian fished a major tournament here three years ago and relied mainly on a shaky head worm. That experience landed him well out of the money and soured him on the finesse approach.
The stained water this time allowed Montgomery to power fish docks, which is his strong suit. He concentrated on docks in the upper ends of major creeks. There, the water visibility was 5 feet, as opposed to 10 feet or more down the lake.
The steep banks at Smith Lake dictate floating docks. In the upriver section Montgomery fished, docks near the main channel floated over 50 to 60 feet of water and yielded spotted bass. Docks in the backs of the pockets sat over 15 to 20 feet of water and produced largemouth bass.
The same baits and presentations duped both species. A 1/2-ounce jig tipped with a Zoom Super Chunk did most of the damage. Montgomery alternated between a white and a brown jig and fished the baits on 20-pound fluorocarbon line. Most bites came by casting or skipping the jig into shaded boat slips and swimming it a foot under the water while pumping the rod.
"I was swimming the jig fast because I didn't want the bass to get a good look at the bait," Montgomery said.
A hot retrieve with a 1/2-ounce, three-bladed spinnerbait also caught some dock fish for Montgomery, as did a pearl Zoom Swimmin' Super Fluke Texas-rigged on a 3/16-ounce swimbait hook.
Montgomery fished at a blistering pace. He claims that he hit around 150 docks each day and made only two or three casts to each one. His 36-volt trolling motor threatened to suck his batteries dry as it ran constantly on maximum speed.
On Day 1, Montgomery caught around 50 bass and culled 11-5 from the dozen fish that made the 15-inch minimum length limit. He caught another 50 dock bass the second day, but only six measured 15 inches or more. The best five weighed 12-2.
The dock bite died the third day, and Montgomery had only two small keepers in his live-well with little more than two hours before the weigh-in. This is when he made a major adjustment that clinched the victory.
"I cast a buzzbait to a little shady pocket between two docks," he said. "I caught two largemouth and that clued me into what I needed to do."
That's when Montgomery's electric motor suddenly died. He found that a battery connector had melted, due to running on high speed and, possibly, from being loose. He fixed the problem and was soon back in business. He spent the remainder of his time slinging the buzzbait into the shade of overhanging trees.
"I caught about a dozen keeper bass in the last hour or so, including every bass I weighed in," Montgomery said.
His final catch, 11-4, brought his total winning weight to 34-9.
Second place: Gerald Swindle
Gerald Swindle of Warrior, Ala., was arm weary when he got to Smith Lake. He had just fished back-to-back Elite Series events at lakes Pickwick and Guntersville. Both tournaments were slugfests where Swindle was catching 50 to 100 bass a day.
Since Swindle grew up fishing Smith Lake, he knew he needed to lower his expectations. The bites would be hard to come by, the weights would be low, and no pattern would be set in stone.
"You always need to change what you're doing here," Swindle said. "That's why I've become the junk fisherman I am."
Swindle doesn't fool with a shaky head worm at Smith Lake. He claims it catches so many short bass
that it "draws you in" to thinking you'll eventually hook a limit of keepers. That usually doesn't happen.
On the first practice day, Swindle found that the high, stained water had killed the schooling bite he had anticipated. He went into junk fishing mode. A buzzbait bite near a flooded willow in a small creek put him on his pattern.
"That let me know what the fish were setting up to do," he said.
With the falling water, Swindle knew from past experience that the bass would relate to subtle points and flats in small pockets. Any cover on these places was a major plus. He would have to work for his bites, but most of them would be good fish.
Swindle caught seven keepers on a 1/2-ounce white buzzbait and a 3/8-ounce Lucky Craft G-Splash 80 the first day and culled a limit that weighed over 14 pounds. That put him in the lead. The same baits produced a 10- to 15-fish limit the second day, which was good enough to keep him on top.
Several good bass blew up on his buzzbait on Day 3, but they refused to inhale it. The G-Splash 80 got the same reception. Swindle switched to the smaller 1/4-ounce G-Splash 65 and worked it with subtle pops and pauses. He soon had a 2 1/2-pound bass swimming in his livewell.
Then he hooked and lost a 4 1/2-pound bass, which, at Smith, is the equivalent of a 9-pounder at Guntersville. It was the first bass to come unbuttoned during the tournament, and it marked the beginning of a disastrous meltdown.
Swindle immediately hooked and lost a 4-pounder. Shortly thereafter, he lost two 3-pounders. He eventually limped to the weigh-in with four bass that weighed 7-14. Had he landed just one of the bass he lost, he would have won the tournament easily.
"My granddaddy used to call that buzzard luck," Swindle said.
Third place: Brian Morris
Brian Morris, a local angler from Cullman, Ala., couldn't resist the chance to fish a BASS Open tournament on his home water. However, his favorite mid May patterns didn't materialize. They include casting a Heddon Super Spook to spotted bass schooling in more than 100 to 200 feet of water and chunking a Norman DD22 to deep, main lake points.
Although the Spook played an important role in his third place finish, Morris had to mix things up.
"Fishing was tougher than it should have been," Morris said. "The water conditions really spread the bass out."
Several local hot sticks fared poorly in the tournament, claims Morris. Most of them dote on jigs and shaky head worms, baits that didn't play well this time around.
Morris was thrilled to draw out in the first flight on Day 1. It gave him a chance to catch bass schooling on main lake points. On all three days of the tournament, there was a short window of schooling activity. He landed two keeper spots on a Spook before the bite died.
His next bass bit a shaky head worm on a bank near the point where the bass had been schooling. After a long dry stretch, Morris caught another shaky-head bass from a bluff wall. His final keeper came at 1 p.m. by walking the Spook over a riprap bank. All five bass were spots.
The second day was a junk fishing extravaganza. Morris started by catching a bass from a point with a jerkbait. Some time later, he nailed another bass by skipping a wacky worm to a dock. He sweated bullets through the midday hours when good bass were sharking under his Spook without striking.
Morris finally got three bass to commit to his Spook by working it over laydowns on bluff walls. One of these was a 4 1/2-pound largemouth. His 12-1 limit consisted of three largemouth and two spotted bass.
An insurance glitch the last day cost Morris an opportunity to cash in on the early morning feeding spree and possibly the winning catch. Every pro who fishes the Bass Opens is required to have a minimum of $300,000 liability insurance on their boat. You may be checked at random for insurance, but the first five boats are always checked prior to takeoff every morning.
Since Morris was second going into the final round, and the boats go out in order on day three, Morris was certain to be checked for his insurance. Although he had his insurance card in his wallet, it didn't stipulate that he had the mandatory $300,000 in liability. When he got his paperwork to tournament director Chris Bowes, the morning bite was history.
At noon, Morris' livewell was empty. He finally nabbed two keeper spots on a 3/16-ounce finesse jig tipped with a craw. The bass grabbed the jig as it dropped down the face of a bluff wall. Then Morris switched to the Spook and landed a 4-pound largemouth. In 10 minutes, he had gone from 0 to 7-5. Those were the only keepers he caught that day.
Co-angler winner: Robert Dice
Robert Dice of Perry, Fla., credits his mother for his fishing addiction. When he was a toddler, she would drive Dice and his brother to canals in an old Ford Falcon with cane poles sticking out the backseat window. They'd fish from the bank for bream, catfish and whatever else would bite.
Since Dice has little experience fishing deep water, he credits his three partners for putting him within
casting distance of the bank where he feels right at home. After fishing a point, Dice's Day 1 partner ran to a little creek that had flooded willows and stained water.
Dice started with a Bagley Bang-O-Lure. After hanging the bait in bushes twice, he cut it off and tied on a buzzbait that he had bought at a local bait shop.
"I always check out the local bait shops when I go somewhere new," Dice said. "They usually carry the baits that people are catching fish on."
The buzzbait rack had lures in various colors, but there was only one 3/8-ounce Boogerman left that had a black and blue skirt with a shiny aluminum blade. Dice figured it must be good if the local anglers were snapping it up. Besides, it was a good bluegill color. He dressed the buzzbait with a black and blue Reaction Innovation's Skinny Dipper that he dipped in JJ's Magic blue dye with garlic scent.
Dice stuck with the buzzbait all day and landed a three-fish limit that weighed 5-3.
"They were hitting the buzzbait like they were dropping out of an airplane," Dice said.
Over the next two days, Dice's partners kept him near flooded bushes. He chunked the buzzbait both days and managed three more bass that gave him a total of 12-15. It was enough to earn him a rigged Triton boat with a Mercury outboard.
No one is more proud of Dice's win than his mother.
"I've got one of the best mommas you could ever have," he said.