MONROE, La. — When it counts, Paul Mueller knows how to catch a big limit of fish.
That’s what he did on the final day of the 2014 Old Milwaukee B.A.S.S. Nation Championship on the Ouachita River, when his 14-pound, 9-ounce sack earned him the top spot and the Bryan V. Kerchal Memorial Trophy.
Mueller, of Naugatuck, Conn., has a track record of catching the big ones when he needs them.
He did it earlier this year at the 2014 GEICO Bassmaster Classic when, after a dismal first day that threatened to eliminate him from competition, he went and caught 32 pounds, 3 ounces — the biggest five-bass limit in Bassmaster Classic history — to show that he was still in the game.
Mueller’s final three-day weight on the Ouachita was only a little more than his one-day record-busting bag in the Classic at 32 pounds, 15 ounces.
But for the Ouachita River during this tournament, that was enough to secure the top crown — and a second shot at the Bassmaster Classic.
“This is incredible,” said Mueller after his win. “I’ve been thinking about the Bassmaster Classic all year. Anytime you get a chance to fish against the best in the sport, it’s amazing.”
Mueller bested the rest of the field by a significant margin. In second place was Coby Carden of Alabama, who finished more than 7 pounds back with 25 pounds, 9 ounces. Behind Carden was Jeff Lugar of Virginia, who had 25-2.
Interestingly, all of the Top 3 went to the Classic last year together as rookies, and all three of them are returning with back-to-back berths.
Mueller’s victory came courtesy of just two lures: a 4-inch soft plastic Reins craw tube in black blue fleck and a Zoom WEC E1 square bill crankbait in chartreuse shad.
“I fished in Horseshoe Creek all three days,” said Mueller. “It took an hour to get back in there. You have to go through Moon Lake and then a little canal that goes back. It’s really shallow.”
A water drop on Day 2 hurt many competitors who couldn’t get back to their areas because the low water made them unnavigable by a bass boat. For Mueller, it made it a little harder to get there, but it didn’t keep him out.
“Every day, I threw the crankbait in the morning before the sun came up,” he said. “The fish were off the trees in the roots. Then, when the sun came up, I’d go to areas that create shade, fishing deeper cypress trees, around 3 to 6 feet.”
On Days 1 and 2, the majority of his weight came in the later hours on the tube, but on the final day, the crankbait produced more for him.
His first two days, he brought in sacks around 9 pounds. On the final day, he had 13 1/2 pounds by 11 a.m. Then he felt comfortable with his lead and headed back, hoping to get in before any treacherous water or boat trouble — both problems that have plagued his competitors the last two days — could affect him getting in on time. He got back to the ramp 2 hours early.
“So I just hit a couple of boat docks not far from the check-in area — the corners of boat docks that had a little bit of brush on it — and I upgraded with a 3 3/4-pounder,” said Mueller. The late-in-the-day catch pushed him to nearly 15 pounds for the day. It was the biggest bag of the tournament.
What made the difference on Day 3 was that the changing water level drove dirty water into his area, which pushed the shad back. Bait was in the area, then, that hadn’t been there the previous two days.
That’s when he started experimenting with his Zoom crankbait, fan casting it into the roots of cypress trees, right onto a ledge that dropped 3 to 5 feet.
In a tournament in which the average fish only weighed 1 1/2 pounds, Mueller averaged 3 pounds per fish on Day 3, a huge difference in a small-fish tournament.
Along with Mueller, Carden and Lugar, three other anglers earned qualifications to compete in the 2015 GEICO Bassmaster Classic, and all three will be Classic rookies. Teb Jones of Mississippi, Steve Lund of Arizona and Troy Diede of South Dakota will join Mueller and company on the biggest stage in bass fishing.
“I always dreamed of making the Bassmaster Classic, but I never thought it would come true,” said Lund. It was a sentiment echoed by comrades Diede and Jones.
Mueller may have ended the tournament with the biggest bag, but Carden ended with the Carhartt Big Bass of the tournament for a 4-10 he caught on Day 1. He’ll earn a $500 from Carhartt for his efforts, in addition to the $250 he won with the Livingston Lures Leader Award for leading on Day 2.
Keep up with Mueller and the other five Classic contenders between now and the 2015 GEICO Bassmaster Classic, Feb. 20-22 on South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell, at Bassmaster.com.