We are kicking off the 2024 Bassmaster Elite Series in the typical fashion, on a famed big bass factory. But this time instead of starting in Florida, we are heading west to the great state of Louisiana. Toledo Bend is not new to Bassmaster competition. In fact, we have been to this body of water five times since 2011, the last time being in 2017. The best results yielded nearly 100-pounds. In 2016, KVD took it down with a staggering 96-pounds. The lightest winning weight between those events still boasted an impressive 77-pounds. However, it will be relatively unfamiliar to many in the field.
Toledo has been out of the limelight for some time now. After the 2016 tournament, Bassmaster magazine named Toledo Bend the #1 Bass Fishing Lake in the Country. This sparked a huge migration of anglers to the lake to see what all the hype was about causing increased fishing pressure. Shortly after that, the lake experienced devastating floods which wiped out a vast majority of the grass. Louisiana’s liberal creel limits also led to an over-harvesting of trophy fish. Ultimately all these factors caused a substantial downswing in the overall fishing on the once-famed fishery.
But have no fear! Toledo Bend is back and as strong as ever! Reports of healthy numbers of 4-pound fish are high. In 2023, many large-field local tournaments saw shootouts for the top spot pushing 30-pounds with multiple fish over 10-pounds. The grass has gotten a good foothold again and we are sure to see some giant fish cross the scales in a few weeks.
I’m targeting big bass specialists who are snipers on their electronics. This will be a pre-spawn slugfest so expect to see a lot of guys with jerkbaits, dropshots and small swimbaits utilizing their forward facing sonars. Mix of rock and grass will likely be a recipe for success.
One major difference you will see between a Florida start and a Louisiana/Texas start is the water temperature. You might have 65-degree water in Florida, but we here in Texas are still in full blown winter. Weather can certainly be unpredictable this time of year too. Air temperatures may be 60-degrees, but the water may only be 50-degrees because three days ago there was a cold front where it snowed. So regardless of who you pick now, watch the weather leading up to the event and adjust accordingly. If we’ve had a warming trend, you might be surprised how shallow the fish get.
BUCKET A: CIFUENTES
Let’s kick it off right with the guy that posted not one, but two wins in 2023. If you took the opportunity to watch the “2023 Winning Ways” video on the Bassmaster YouTube page, at Lake Seminole, a lake that fishes similarly to Toledo Bend, you got to watch Joey Cifuentes III masterfully target bass that were coming and going from major spawning areas. He is deadly with a dropshot, which is why I’m giving him the nod here.
Don’t Forget About: Jordan Lee
Sticking to a theme in Bucket A, I am suggesting the two-time Bassmaster Classic Champion, Jordan Lee. Jordan used his Legends status to make his way back home to the Elites. Both of his Classic victories were fishing for pre-spawn fish offshore. He could be dangerous at Toledo Bend.
BUCKET B: MILLIKEN
Among the list of hammers in Bucket B is an angler who is brand new to the Elites but is certainly familiar to most. Ben Milliken cut his teeth fishing for all different species of fish in canals and ditches. He quickly found himself with a large social media and YouTube following. Over the years, he discovered a love for bass fishing, leading to tournament fishing and eventually leading to him fishing the St. Croix Bassmaster Opens. He undoubtably has more 10+ pound bass to his name than just about any other Elite angler. His ability to find and catch giant bass is undeniable. He won the 2023 St. Croix Bassmaster Open on Toledo Bend with a whopping 77-pounds for a three-day event, targeting big fish with swimbaits and Carolina rigs. He may just have to tweak his bait selection a little, but the same concepts should apply. The major factor for Milliken is that he is a “Big Fish or Bust” fisherman. If he can catch an early limit, he’ll have all day to make some fireworks.
Don’t Forget About: Brandon Palaniuk
Toledo Bend has a neighbor to the north in Sam Rayburn. In 2017, Brandon Palaniuk captured four days worth of mega-bags to win. Toledo Bend and Big Sam have a lot in common. Palaniuk is also one of the best anglers at breaking down areas quickly. He is a human Swiss Army knife, so if can get around them, he’ll catch them.
BUCKET C: GUSTAFSON
Classic Champ Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson had better be on your short list for this one. There is a high likelihood he will be moping around, picking off big fish one at a time. Right now, he is a huge value pick at just 2% as I’m writing this. I have to imagine it’ll go up, but for now, he’s a steal.
Don’t Forget About: Brandon Lester
Brandon Lester almost always comes out swinging, especially in the early season cold-water events. This one will suit him well. He’s not afraid to beef up a drop shot, which will be helpful when he’s scooping up a 10-pounder. You can also expect him to be chunking and winding a bit around grass edges with lipless crankbaits or bladed jigs. His results in past events here have been less than stellar, but this will be his first time fishing it in February.
BUCKET D: ZALDAIN
Big bait specialist Chris Zaldain will absolutely have a handful of oversized swimbaits on his front deck. The best thing about Zaldain, though, is he can also change it up and go super finesse if the bite gets tough. He has spent a fair bit of time in the offseason dialing in his electronics. He has two solid finishes on Toledo (eighth and 12th), so he clearly has figured out how to find them a few times.
Don’t Forget About: David Mullins
David Mullinsis another one of those anglers who tends to do better when he can catch them offshore. He also prefers to do his own thing and not get caught up fishing around other anglers. Toledo Bend is a massive fishery and there are certainly still secret fishing holes to be discovered.
BUCKET E: GORE
Wesley Gore is someone to watch out for this season. He bested over 220 anglers in the 2020 Open on Toledo Bend and ultimately finished 11th. His resume is impressive coming into the Elite series with several Top 10s in Opens on grassy, southern lakes. There is much to be learned about this young angler, but my gut says he’ll be one to keep an eye on.
Don’t Forget About: Buddy Gross
It’s no secret that Buddy Gross thrives in the early spring tournaments. Gross should be able to catch them similarly to the way he did at the Harris Chain of Lakes in 2022. He found a highway where fresh fish were coming to him and hammered on them for four days with Texas rigged worms, lipless crankbaits and swimbaits.
Falcon Rods Bassmaster Drain the Lake Challenge
• Matt Arey
• Todd Auten
• Joey Cifuentes III
• Buddy Gross
• Jeff Gustafson
• Derek Hudnall
• Ben Milliken
• Brandon Lester