DANDRIDGE, Tenn. — Jeremy Starks confirmed for himself at least three things when he won the Douglas Lake Challenge on Sunday: 1) the shortest distance to a win on the deep Tennessee lake is a long line; 2) the best fish can come on the last few casts; and 3) victory happens one fish at a time.
Using an old, deep-cranking technique some pros call long-lining, Starks of Scott Depot, W.Va., was victorious at the Bassmaster Elite Series event with 81 pounds, 2 ounces. He came from second place to win by a margin of 2 pounds, 1 ounce over Britt Myers of Lake Wylie, S.C., thanks to three last-minute bass that allowed Starks to cull and improve his day’s weight.
It was Starks’ second Elite title, a long-awaited follow-up to his 2008 Elite win on Alabama’s Wheeler Lake. His Douglas Lake prize was $100,000 and a guaranteed berth in the 2013 Bassmaster Classic. The Classic qualification was a first for Starks.
“To make the Classic has been a lifelong goal of mine,” he said. “I’ve had an incredible year, and even Angler of the Year isn’t out of the question.”
Sunday’s win propelled Starks into 13th place in the points standings that determine the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year award.
Starks said that missing the 2011 season, which he sat out for medical reasons, might be helping him this year. Just to remind himself of his new goals, Starks begins each competition day by leaving a note to himself in waterproof marker on his left hand. Like many pros, he writes his check-in time. But Starks adds another line: “One at a time.”
“It’s made me fish completely different. Anytime I start to panic, I look down and see ‘one at a time.’ It’s a reminder that you don’t have to catch five fish in the first 10 minutes,” he said.
Perhaps the talisman worked. Starks excelled and did it on a lake he had not competed on before.
“I’d never even seen it,” he said. “But this lake fishes a lot like some of my home lakes [in West Virginia]. One — Summersville — is nearly identical to this. It’s smaller, but has the same deep structure with the same deep contours where the fish want to be.”
The similarities were enough to clue Starks in on the potential of a deep spot that held a huge school of bass. But he could also thank Myers for some inadvertent help.
On Day 1, Starks approached his first choice of spots and discovered that Myers had beat him to it. Starks left, went hunting and spotted some baitfish at the end of a deep point in Muddy Creek. His electronics showed him an enormous school of fish relating to a hump at the end of the point. He caught a limit from the spot, keying on the fish at the bottom, which seemed to bite readily.
To reach them, Starks employed the long-line (also called strolling) technique to drive his crankbait into the strike zone for a longer period of time than is possible with a traditional cast-and-retrieve technique. After a very long cast, he kept the reel in free-spool while moving the boat and letting out line. When most (or all) of the line was played out, the reel was engaged and the reeling-in began.
Starks said the crucial ingredient in the long-lining recipe was speed.
“You had to absolutely crank the fire out of that reel,” he said.
His first day started with a break, but a debilitating headache drove him to shore at about noon. He lost hours of competition time and ended the day with 16-1 and in 12th place.
Recovered by Friday morning, he returned to his spot. The fish were still there, and no one else seemed to have discovered how to catch the deep bass; Starks had it to himself the rest of the competition. He took 23-1 from the spot Friday and moved up to third place, then another 19-11 Saturday for the runner-up spot behind Myers. He trailed Myers by almost 6 pounds.
At that point, Starks feared that the lost hours of Thursday would come back to haunt him. “It never left my mind today. I thought it was going to cost me,” he said Sunday.
Things got dicey when he returned Sunday to his huge school of bass, but the school was scattered. What was left, he caught by 2 p.m. With an estimated 20 minutes left in the competition to fish another spot, he ran downlake toward the dam — and found another magic deal.
“I thought I’d stop at the mouth of a creek thinking that if they started running current, then they would all stack up there,” Starks said, referring to the bass. “I idled by, saw some bait and on the first cast caught a 5-pounder. Then I caught a 4, lost two, then caught another. I culled three times in the last minutes.”
He said he then had only 9 minutes to get to the check-in point. He made it.
Starks said he caught all his fish on a Strike King 6 XD. He chose the blue chartreuse color for morning light, then switched to the sexy blue back herring finish when the sun rose higher.
Myers’ four-day tournament total was 79 pounds, 1 ounce. He caught 21-1 of his total the first day to tie at third place. On Day 2, he moved up into the lead after building a 24-1 sack, which turned out to be the tournament’s Berkley Big Bag.
On Day 3 he held on easily at No. 1 by weighing 19-8. His margin over Starks, his nearest challenger going into the final round, was 5-13. But his final bag of 14-7 missed the mark, and he took second place for the second time in two weeks in an Elite event.
“If I could finish in second place the rest of the year, it’s all good for Britt Myers,” he said, referring to his second-place finish at Bull Shoals on April 22.
Myers went deep for his bass, but unlike most of the 99-angler field, his strategy didn’t hinge on schools of fish. He targeted big, single bass he could see on his electronics. He also used the long-lining technique with two deep-diving crankbaits, a Strike King Series 6XD and a Luhr Jensen Hot Lips. When the wind was blowing, he turned to the noisy rattling Hot Lips. When he wanted a silent presentation, he reached for the 6XD.
Finishing third was Day 1 leader Aaron Martens of Leeds, Ala., with 74-5. Dean Rojas of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., was fourth with 73-13. Rounding out the Top 5 was Randy Howell of Springville, Ala., with 72-12.
The Douglas Lake Challenge results shook up the leaderboard in the 2012 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. With his fifth-place finish Sunday, Howell earned enough points to take over. He now sits 26 points ahead of David Walker of Sevierville, Tenn., who moved up one tick into second place. Former points leader Brent Chapman slipped to third.
Rookie Brandon Card of Caryville, Tenn., continued his climb up the points ladder. He not only remained the clear leader in the Bassmaster Rookie of the Year contest, he shot from 11th into fourth place in the overall points race, a remarkable accomplishment for a first-year Elite pro.
Several anglers earned bonuses at the Douglas Lake Challenge included:
- Carhartt Big Bass of the tournament, which paid $750, plus another $750 if the angler was wearing Carhartt clothing: Byron Velvick for his 6-10 on Day 2
- Berkley Heavyweight Award of $500 for the best five-fish limit: Britt Myers’ 24-1 of Day 1.
- Power-Pole Captain’s Cash of $1,000 if the winner has Power-Poles installed on his boat: Jeremy Starks
- Toyota $1,000 bonus to the leader in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race: Randy Howell with 358 points
- Luck “E” Strike Comeback Award of $500 to the most-improved pro in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race: Andy Montgomery, from 62nd place to 36th place
The Douglas Lake Challenge will air on ESPN2 Sunday, May 13, at 8 a.m. ET, and again the same day at 10 a.m. ET, on ESPN Classic.
The Elite Series will travel next to Many, La., for the June 7-10 Toledo Bend Battle.