Imagine a tournament where you start off with back-to-back 6-pounders. Where, despite a lengthy fog delay, you bring to the scales a five bass limit weighing 19 pounds, 2 ounces and take a 3-pound-plus opening-round lead. Where you find that not one, but four patterns are working. And where you enter the final round with a 7 1/2-pound cushion and your closest competitors struggling.That was the enviable situation that Pete Ponds found himself in entering the final round of the Alabama CITGO Bassmaster Open presented by Busch Beer on Lake Eufaula in mid-October.
Yet as the final day unfolded, the 44-year-old Mississippi pro found himself battling old demons.
"I had been in this position at Ross Barnett where I led for two days and I zeroed the last day," he admits. "And then at the Alabama River in a Tour event two years ago, I was in third and fell down the list when we changed to the Shootout format for the finals.I've been in the lead before, but to be able to push on through you've got to know how to win, and I'm not sure that I've quite got that figured out yet."
Such fears melted away by midmorning, when Ponds finished off a four bass bag weighing 9 pounds, 15 ounces. Coupled with the disappearance of his closest pursuer, reigning CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year Gerald Swindle, he posted a 4-pound-plus victory with a total of 41-7 — his first in eight seasons in the BASS wars.
"It's been a long time coming," Ponds says. "I've been after this a long time. I had made the (CITGO Bassmaster) Classic, and winning one of these things was my goal.When I caught my last big fish at 9:30, I felt like someone was going to have to have 17 pounds to beat me — and in this tournament 17 pounds is a big stringer. So, I really started relaxing. I felt comfortable and tried to enjoy the day, because it's rare that this happens. I've been doing this a long time and I wanted it real bad. It's just rare to win one." In this tournament, it seemed that Ponds could do no wrong. "When I first started this tournament I had two 6-pounders almost back-to-back. When you start off like that, you've got to figure it's your time to win."
Lures: Shad-colored Bandit Flat Maxx crankbait; Carolina rigged 6-inch watermelon-candy V&M lizard; 3/16-ounce white jig; white Scum Frog.
Tackle: Crankbait: 12-pound fluorocarbon, 6-10 American Rodsmith Peter T Carolina rig rod. Lizard: 14-pound-test monofilament, 6-10 American Rodsmith Pete T Carolina rig rod. Jig: 50-pound-test Power Pro braided line, 7-foot American Rodsmith flipping stick. Frog: 50-pound-test Power Pro and 7-foot American Rodsmith flipping stick. All were fished with Shimano Chronarch reels.
Technique: The jig-and-frog was worked slowly through supershallow vegetation. The crankbait and lizard were used to target slow tapering points in an outside river bend. The lizard was methodically dragged along the bottom, while the crankbait was jerked erratically and stopped off the various ridges on the point.
Ironically, Ponds' prime tournament-winning area was not his first choice. After waiting out an incredibly dense fog bank until after 10 a.m. the first morning, he raced to his best spot, only to find another competitor there. After a brief bout of frustration, he adjusted his attitude and headed for a backup area.
And he never left.
Ponds didn't have any reason to leave. Understanding the area more each day, he was able to refine his approach to four different fish-producing patterns.
"That's why I say everything worked in my favor," he says, smiling. "Because if that other pro had not have been on my primary spot that first morning, I would have stopped there. He had like 12-8 the first day, and that's about what I would have had. And I would have been happy with 12-8."
His winning stretch of water was an outside channel swing that forms a point on both sides. On the outside is the river channel; inside it is a shallow, grassy slough that also held fish. The points taper down from 3 to 5 to 8 and 16 feet of water, with distinct ridges at each level. These breaks possess no cover, except for some gravel at the ends.
"I was fishing outside bends of the river where the current blows out and forms little lakes on the shelf," he adds. "It had a lot of fish, but (the final round) I was worried that I had worn out my fish, and I couldn't get a limit. I couldn't afford to leave the spot the first two days and check some other spots because that would have let somebody else move on it."
"So, I just tried to milk it for all it was worth."
Early each morning, Ponds worked the shallower portions with a shad-colored Bandit Flat Maxx crankbait tied to 12-pound-test fluorocarbon line (a strategy that produced the two 6-pounders in the opening round). He also caught some fish early by working a white Scum Frog (on 50-pound-test Power Pro braid) across the lily pads.
As the day progressed, his strategy called for moving deeper on the points and dragging a Carolina rigged 6-inch (watermelon-candy) V&M Super Lizard teamed with a 3/4-ounce weight and 3-foot leader of 14-pound-test mono. He also scored by briskly swimming a locally made white 3/16-ounce jig on 50-pound braid through supershallow grass.
"When I was cranking, I knew that anybody watching me had to wonder why it looked like I kept setting the hook," Ponds adds. "I would feel the crankbait coming over the ridge and as it came over the ridge and dropped to the deep side, I would snatch it one time. I think a lot of times that triggers a strike. Every strike I had on that crankbait was after I snatched it and stopped it."
Despite all of the strategy involved, Pete Ponds' wire-to-wire victory probably came down to his four hours of fishing time in the opening round. After stomaching the frustration of waiting for Mother Nature to cooperate and then surrendering his No. 1 spot to another competitor, he made the most of his time with nearly 20 pounds of bass. After that, he never looked back.