Daily Limit: Tasty win ices Combs’ year

Winning the weight derby on Mille Lacs put icing on Keith Combs’ 2017, yet it was a season in which he had hoped for chocolate but got more vanilla.

“It ended better than it started,” the pro from Huntington, Texas, said. “It was a good season all the way around, but it just wasn’t … I had been accustomed to making two, or three, or four Top 12s, but this year I didn’t have any.”

Not being in the hunt for one of the blue trophies even made him question his tactics, especially at places where he has excelled and was among the favorites to win.

“I told somebody before I went to Mille Lacs, it’s been a good season, but a boring season,” he said. “I had decent points, just never really had a shot to compete in an individual event.”

Combs cashed checks in seven of nine regular season Elite events, and he climbed to 13th in the point standings before his victory Sept. 17 in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship. That gave him the $25,000 winner-take-all prize from the $1 million in AOY payouts, plus $27,000 for finishing the year ninth in points, a $4,000 bump from 13th.

While it might have been a little vanilla for him, a top 10 in AOY equates to a successful season, which he continues to compile in B.A.S.S. In his 78 Bassmaster events, Combs has 21 finishes in the top 10, including a win on Falcon Lake. He’s missed only the 2013 Classic since fishing full-time at B.A.S.S.

This year, he had several stellar practices that led him to believe he had a shot to win. But he ended up struggling on Day 1, going half the day before he actually landed a fish that measured.

A major lament was not doing as well on his home ground. The biggest letdown was on Lake Conroe, site of the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods. Combs was a heavy favorite on the lake where he twice won the Toyota Texas Bass Classic. There was no magic this time. He started in 41st with only three fish then missed the cut to finish a disappointing 35th. It stung.

“It did, from a performance standpoint,” Combs said. “You ask anybody on that trail who has won a bunch of times what it takes to win, and it takes risking a really bad performance. I feel like I’ve only got so many chances to fish on fisheries that set up really good for me. That was the mentality I had at Conroe and Rayburn, and even Toledo.

“On the those big fish lakes, and places like Guntersville, it’s never won one fish at a time, it’s won in a flurry. That means you were in the right place at the right time. After a few days on a lake, you can get that timing down.”

He doesn’t really want to use “swinging for the fences” as an excuse, but he said when you pursue big bites to win and don’t get five, that can put you in a bind. Combs fished the same pattern as the winners but just didn’t get the bites at both Conroe and Sam Rayburn, where he finished 27th. He was 43rd at Toledo Bend.

At Mille Lacs, the magic hit from the get-go. Taking a hint after the 2016 AOY Championship, when fellow Texan Takahiro Omori took 13th fishing a jig, Combs found a number of productive spots where the football jig enticed the big fish.

On his first casts in practice, he landed a pair in the 5-pound class. On Day 1, Combs was boat No. 12 and thought surely someone had found his school. He reached his spot on the east side of Mille Lacs, found nobody there, and whacked them.

“In five casts, I had about 23 pounds. It was crazy,” he said. “I was throwing a football jig. My bait wouldn’t even get to the bottom. There were so many there the first day.

“It was a rare, rare occurrence when nobody else finds them. It doesn’t happen, but it did there.”

When no one else showed up, he relaxed, and then left when a 4-12 didn’t cull. He had six other spots across lake he wanted to lay claim to, but he thought others had certainly found them. Again, no one else was there when he reached the first. He caught a 5-1 that gave him his first bag of 24-15.

Rinse and repeat on Day 2, as five casts netted him more than 20, then he left after landing a 5-5. Combs finished off the week with 22-7 for a three-day win total of 72-5.

If only he had done that last year. At the 2016 AOY Championship on Mille Lacs, Combs went in trailing eventual winner Gerald Swindle by an almost insurmountable 43 points. Yet Swindle struggled, leaving the door open by starting 49th. However, Combs couldn’t walk through, starting 41st before climbing to 30th. Swindle took 46th and won his second AOY by 27 points.

“It would have been great to have done this last year, but I just could not wrap my hands around the fish in Mille Lacs,” he said. “The area I won the tournament from this year, I tried to fish last year, but wind blew it out.”

Combs had a great start to 2017, finishing just outside Championship Sunday at Cherokee in 13th, but then he was 81st on Lake Okeechobee before his substandard run on his home lakes.

“It is a little bit hard on your confidence when I didn’t finish like I wanted to at Rayburn, Conroe and Toledo. I got paid, but it wasn’t what I was after,” said Combs, who added he doubted himself on the 20-hour drive to Mille Lacs. “I was thinking, ‘Am I doing things right?’

“I’m not the type who likes to fish very aggressively. It was good to win at Mille Lacs, and it’s good to know the way you fished still works.”

Yummmm. Chocolate icing.