Some might think Jason Christie simply got lucky at the Bassmaster Elite Series Ramada Quest. No one else all week saw "5 acres" of bass slashing the surface over 50 foot depths, busting a school of shad on Bull Shoals Lake during the event.
Christie happened to be at the right place at the right time; he caught the biggest bag of the tournament — 18 pounds — and leaped from 11th place to the championship title on Day Four.
"It was a gift," Christie said. "It was like somebody said, 'Here, take these fish back to the weigh-in.'"
It seems that the 39-year-old Park Hill, Okla., angler has been in the right place at the right time two weeks in a row. It was at another White River lake, only about 150 miles west of Bull Shoals, where Christie collected a six-figure payday on April 14. In winning the Walmart FLW Beaver Lake title the previous weekend, Christie's check totaled $126,500. With the $101,500 at Bull Shoals, he has banked $228,000 in two weeks.
While working as a junior high school teacher and basketball coach, Christie couldn't afford to dream of paychecks like that.
"I just want to ride this train 'til it wrecks," Christie said on the weigh-in stage.
What Christie did at Bull Shoals marked an unprecedented comeback in the eight-year history of the Elite Series. Previously, Kevin Short made the biggest leap in the Day Four standings. He was in sixth place in 2009 on the Mississippi River at Fort Madison, Iowa, 4 pounds, 15 ounces behind the leader, when he rallied to edge Kelly Jordon by 10 ounces for the title.
In other words, these final day comebacks are rare, and Christie achieved the rarest of the rare at Bull Shoals.
He trailed Day Three leader Casey Scanlon by 5-6 on a lake where 3-pounders had been hard to find, 4-pounders were game-changers and a 5-6 by Bradley Roy on Day One took Carhartt Big Bass honors for the tournament.
This lake, which is full of bass, was in prespawn mode after a late arrival of spring. And it was tough to pattern after a cold front moved through and forced a postponement on Thursday. Over the next four days, the lake level rose over 4 feet.
Countless anglers walked across the weigh-in stage on one day saying they'd figured it out, then came back the next with a smaller bag and a sad expression.
As such, Bull Shoals became the ultimate bass tournament lake for this event. If you could hold a Bassmaster Classic in similar conditions every year, it truly would designate the best bass fisherman in the world.
"I really enjoy coming here," said 29-time Classic qualifier Gary Klein. "It's a fabulous tournament fishing lake."
Christie's week serves as an example of the daily adjustments necessary during the Ramada Quest. The only way he was catching them during practice was dragging a Carolina rig. But that wasn't working on Day One, so he started hitting the banks with a crawdad-colored Bomber 6A crankbait and "caught the fire out of them," he said. He was in fourth place with 14-15.
On Day Two, Christie was forced back to the Carolina rig, dragging a lizard. He weighed 11-8 and dropped back to 14th place.
On Day Three, Christie, like so many others before him, thought he'd finally found a winning pattern while flipping flooded bushes with a Yum Wooly Hawg. But he needed some good fortune to make the Top 12 cut.
"I pulled up with 5 minutes left to go and four fish," Christie recalled. "I told my Marshal, 'Last cast.'"
That's when he caught a fish that gave him a limit and put him in 11th place going into the final day of competition.
Christie might have figured out something that day, but he didn't imagine seeing, as he put it, "5 acres of bass" blowing up on shad after he started his day in the Highway 125 Marina area where he'd been fishing all week. Christie had chosen that area because the water color was in between the stained stuff farther up and the extremely clear water near the dam.
"I was going to flip from brush pocket to brush pocket, and then they came up," Christie said.
"I thought they were little (spotted bass), and I'd go catch me a limit."
To dismiss this sudden rise of schooling bass as luck ignores the level of skill it takes to compete at this level. What Jason Christie did on the final day was lucky only in the sense that Roman philosopher Seneca defined it: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."
The most striking example of Christie's preparation was the fact that he had a rod and reel tied to a Heddon One Knocker Spook topwater bait on his boat deck all week.
"In the White River lakes, you always keep a topwater tied on," Christie said.
Every second is precious when the fish are on top. The moments lost in tying on a topwater lure can make all the difference between fun and none.
And Christie was prepared to have a $100,000 worth of fun.
"I caught a limit in seven or eight casts," Christie said. "Then they kind of quit. They came back up, and I caught a 4-pounder, then a 5-pounder, then it was over."
Christie estimated the topwater action occurred over a two-hour period. When they weren't on the surface, he looked at his Lowrance sonar and realized the feeding frenzy hadn't slowed, it had just moved deeper. Again, he was in 50 feet of water.
"There were just streaks (on the screen) everywhere," he said. "There were thousands of fish feeding down there. It was like a swarm of hornets. Every once in a while, they'd push them to the top."
Christie knew what the baitfish were when he reeled in his Spook once and it had two 2-inch-long threadfin shad pinned on the treble hooks. The previous day, he'd seen 4- and 5-inch gizzard shad in the throats of bass he caught.
Obviously, there is plenty of bass forage in Bull Shoals. If this tournament had been held when the fish were locked on spawning beds or postspawn, the weights would have been historic.
Bull Shoals is on the upswing after high-water years in 2008, 2011 and 2012 that brought the 40-foot flood pool to its maximum capacity and forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to open the floodgates on the dam. What's bad for people — a flood — is great for fish, and those floods produced massive spawns.
But the conditions this year might have been better for testing the skills of the Elite Series anglers. And that's what this game is all about, the best example being Jason Christie.
Christie won the FLW event at Beaver Lake using an umbrella rig, also known as the Alabama Rig or simply A-Rig. He was asked Friday if he'd like to be using the A-Rig on Bull Shoals.
"I'm against it," Christie said. "I'm glad we can't use it on the Elite Series. It's just more challenging to fish without it, and more fun. Last week, I had one rod on the deck; this week (at the Elite), I'm using eight or nine."
Christie has his priorities in order. Now that he's no long coaching or teaching, winning bass tournaments is No. 1 on his list.
"This is my job," he said. "This is how I support my family. If you're allowed to fish the A-rig (in a tournament), you better use it or you're going to get your teeth kicked in."
Christie went to Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., on a basketball scholarship and attained a bachelor's in education. His coaching accomplishments included guiding both a boys and a girls team to Oklahoma state junior high championships in the same year.
Suddenly Jason Christie has a championship look about him in the bass fishing world.