Keith Combs, the once and future King of Texas

With his start-to-finish win at this past weekend’s Toyota Texas Bass Classic — bringing his total of TTBC trophies to three — Keith Combs may have established himself as the greatest tour level pro in Texas…ever.

Notice that I did not say “the greatest Texan tour level pro.” He’ll have to catch a few thousand more fish and win at least a few more trophies, perhaps a Classic or four, to get anywhere near some guy named Clunn. But at 38 years old, entering what should be the prime of his career, there’s nothing that says that Combs can’t do that. At tour level events within the boundaries of Texas, though, he’s already built a track record that may be unparalleled.

In addition to the three TTBC wins, Combs won the Elite Series event on Falcon Lake last year. In 2010, he won a PAA tournament on Tawakoni. In the only FLW Tour event he fished in his home state, the October 2011 FLW Tour Open on Sam Rayburn, he finished 2nd, although he did hold the lead after Day 2. In much longer careers, here’s how many B.A.S.S. and FLW wins a few pretty good Texas sticks (both natives and past and present transplants) have taken within the Lone Star State:

  • Rick Clunn, one
  • Todd Faircloth, two (one Elite Series, one FLW Rayovac)
  • Alton Jones, zero
  • Kelly Jordon, zero
  • Gary Klein, one
  • Tommy Martin, two
  • Larry Nixon, one
  • Takahiro Omori, one
  • Zell Rowland, zero
  • Jay Yelas, zero

Out of staters?

  • Tommy Biffle, zero
  • Denny Brauer, three (two B.A.S.S. events on Sam Rayburn and an FLW Rayovac on Toledo Bend)
  • George Cochran, one
  • Mark Davis, zero
  • Bill Dance, two (both on Sam Rayburn)
  • Edwin Evers, one
  • David Fritts, zero
  • Shaw Grigsby, three (all on Sam Rayburn)
  • Guido Hibdon, zero
  • Mike Iaconelli, zero
  • Aaron Martens, zero
  • Roland Martin, one (he won the 1981 Louisiana Invitational on Toledo Bend, which should count)
  • Hank Parker, one
  • Skeet Reese, zero
  • Kevin VanDam, two

Of course, there’s a little bit of imprecision in this analysis. Some of these pros haven’t fished as many tournaments as the others, and there haven’t been all that many FLW Tour events in Texas. Additionally, it doesn’t take into account average finish, or now-defunct-but-once-highly-competitive circuits like Golden Blend. At the same time, if you look into the overall record that Combs has established, it seems to strengthen his case.

In seven B.A.S.S. events in his home state, Combs has four Top 12s and has only finished below 32nd once, with an average finish of 24th. Take out an 89th place clunker in this year’s Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open on Amistad, and the average shoots to 13th. In three Elite Series efforts, he has the Falcon win plus two other money finishes, with an average finish of slightly better than 18th. With the PAA, he has been utterly dominant with not only the three TTBC wins but also the 2010 win at Tawakoni.

On the FLW side of things, Combs has been every bit as impressive – with a greater overall sample size. Although he lacks a win, he has amassed the following finishes:

  • Eight Top 10s in Rayovac competition, five of which were Top 5s, including two runner-up finishes (Rayburn in 2012 and Falcon in 2010).
  • 10 Top 10s in Texas Tournament Trail competition, four of which were Top 5s, including a runner up finish at Conroe in 2006.

Now he has two major wins at Conroe, one at Fork and one at Falcon. There are runner-up finishes at Falcon, Rayburn and Conroe, plus Top 10s at Texoma (both major circuits), Amistad, Stillhouse, Lewisville and Richland Chambers. It’s not like he keeps going back to the same trough to feed – those waters are all very different fisheries.

When he wins, he most often wins big, too. At Tawakoni, he led wire-to-wire and won by 14 pounds. At the 2013 TTBC on Conroe, he likewise led wire-to-wire and beat runner-up John Murray by 12-08. Last year at Falcon, he beat runner-up Rick Clunn by 6 pounds. The only time it’s been close was at the 2011 TTBC, where he led the first two days but had to go to overtime to beat Mike Iaconelli, although those two crushed the next best angler by a double-digit margin. This year he won by a “mere” 7 pounds, but if they’d scheduled a fourth day and he’d managed just a subpar 23 pounds, he would’ve beaten the four-day record set by Paul Elias at Falcon in 2008.

You could say he’s a one-state wonder but he didn’t qualify for three Classics solely on fishing Texas tournaments, and his 19 Top 20 finishes in 40 B.A.S.S. events – including a two 4th place results at the Red River, 8th at the St. Johns, 11th at Ross Barnett, 3rd at the St. Johns – tell a different story. So do his FLW Tour finishes, which include a 10th on Lake Norman, 5th on Lake Guntersville, 5th on Beaver Lake and 9th on the Detroit River. What do all of those bodies of water (with the possible exceptions of Beaver and Norman) have in common? They all produce monster bags of fish, if not necessarily Texas-sized then not far off.

Of course, in addition to the numerous top national touring pros that Texas has produced, there are a number of stellar regional sticks who could probably compete at the national level. They choose to stay home for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it’s possible to fish for five figures every weekend. I remember the late David Wharton telling me about his high school friend Stan Burgay, who worked as a policeman in Timpson, Texas, but probably netted more from fishing tournaments in the average year than the vast majority of national pros. There are other names – guys like Dicky Newberry and Russell Cecil and Todd Castledine – that could likely get it done, too, but “could likely get it done” and “are banking the cash” are two very different things.

Multiple states have claims to being the “greatest” or “most important” in the bass fishing world. You could make a reasonable case for Florida, Alabama or Arkansas claiming those titles and be justified in doing so. But for my money, Texas is where it’s at. Not only does it have a ton of water, and a surprisingly diverse set of fisheries, but the bass simply grow to ridiculous sizes there. If you’re going to be the king of something, would you rather dominate the Ohio River, where a 9-pound bag may put you in the money, or Lake Fork, where 30 pounds might barely have you in the Top 10? Until he’s dethroned, Keith Combs is the King of Texas.