The 2023 Bassmaster Opens tournament season is at the midway point with five tournaments completed and four tournaments remaining. Results this year have been exceptional for me as I have managed a fourth-place finish at Lake Eufaula in Alabama, fourth place at Toledo Bend in Louisiana, 18th place at Buggs Island in Virginia, 23rd at Wheeler Lake in Alabama and 30th place at Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma.
I have been in first place in the Bassmaster Opens EQ points totals since we completed the Buggs Island event, but now after five events my points lead is very slim with only five points separating Trey McKinney and myself. Trey and several other Elite Qualifiers have been catching bass consistently and getting closer and closer to my points totals.
Upcoming Opens events are the St. Lawrence River at Waddington, N.Y.; Watts Bar Lake at Kingston, Tenn.; Lake of the Ozarks at Osage, Mo.; and the Harris Chain at Leesburg, Fla. I have some past tournament experience on all of these upcoming tournament sites, so my expectations are high that I can continue to do well and have enough points to qualify for the Elites in 2024.
On paper it looks like I’ve had an easy path so far this year, but honestly, it has been a roller coaster of ups and downs. For instance, at the first event at Lake Eufaula in Alabama, I had a decent limit of bass on the first day, but I had to scramble to fill out my limit before the end of the day. The second day of the tournament was canceled due to severe weather warnings, and that changed the lake conditions. On the third and final day, I had to just start over. I was able to locate some big bass feeding on flats in 10 to 15 feet of water with my Humminbird electronics. I used an array of Strike King 6XD in shad colors and a Strike King 5XD crankbait on shallower sections to catch the biggest limit of the tournament at 27 pounds, 6 ounces.
That was a very exciting day of fishing with my largest bass weighing 7 pounds even. I had to manage the areas as bites were slow, so I would catch a nice bass, back off the area for a while, then move back in to work it again, focusing on the sweet spots on the flats.
At the Toledo Bend event, I focused on offshore areas the first two tournament days and used a 1-ounce Strike King Bottom Dweller spinnerbait, a glide bait that I added strip weights to so it would go deeper and a Strike King 10XD crankbait. I had to change strategies on the third and final day and go shallow for spawning bass using Strike King soft plastic baits, pitching them into shallow cover. Even though I ended up in fourth place, I was 26 pounds behind the winner, Ben Milliken, and almost 16 pounds behind Trey McKinney in second place. Toledo Bend really showed out for this event.
Buggs Island provided a lot of spawning related opportunities with prespawn, spawning and postspawn patterns that changed daily. During the practice days, the lake level rose to more than 3 feet over normal pool. So dirty rising water and cold temperatures at night made for changing conditions. I had a limit weighing 13-14 for the first day weigh-in under very windy conditions and was in 15th place. The second day was much calmer, but I struggled — along with a lot of other anglers — to catch a limit with any size. I finished the day with a small limit weighing 11-15 for a two day total of 25 pounds, 13 ounces and in 18th place, but less than a pound of weight separated 11th and 18th places. Close, but no cigar for this event, but I did end the event in first place for the EQ points total.
Wheeler Lake in north Alabama was the next event. I do love to fish ledges on the Tennessee River lakes, and Wheeler Lake has a lot of ledges. On the first tournament day, I found a large school on some ledges and was able to catch more than 30 bass that day, and my final five-bass limit weighed 18-8 and put me in 11th place. I had to share the area with some other competing anglers all day, but I still managed to have a great day. During the second day, the school of bass had moved and the action was much slower. I managed a limit weighing 11-1 and ended the second day in 23rd place. I was disappointed in my less than stellar performance on the second day, but was still very pleased to remain in first place in the point totals.
Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma was the next event, and I had never visited this lake, nor had my grandfather, fishing coach and traveling companions. We drove out early to practice, and the results were not very promising. I did catch a 5-pound bass the first place we fished on the first practice day, but that was the highlight of my practice. During the first tournament day, I located a small area with a lot of bass around it using my forward-facing sonar. I patiently worked the area and ended with a limit weighing 18-10, and I was tied for second place in the tournament.
Heavy thunderstorms moved through the area during the night and early the next morning, and on the second day, I struggled to catch two bass. I actually watched the bass drift up and leave the specific area I had been fishing on my forward-facing sonar. They just disappeared, and I was forced to scramble without a good backup plan. At the end of the day, I had two bass for 6-9 and dropped from a tie for second to 30th place. As disappointing as that was, I still held onto first place in the points by a very slim margin, but it made for a long drive home thinking about what might have been.
I have spent most of the last several weeks regrouping, planning and preparing my tackle. I am focused on catching some huge smallmouth bass in upper New York on the St. Lawrence River in late July, our sixth event this year. I am looking forward to it along with most of the Opens anglers. This fishery was just rated as the second best bass fishing lake in the country in Bassmaster Magazine so this will be an exciting event.
However, I have a much more exciting event coming up as my wife, Morgan, is scheduled to give birth to our daughter in early August. Morgan is 36 weeks along in her pregnancy, and we are so excited for our first child to arrive and bless our lives.
This sort of makes bass fishing for a living move to the background. I have been very preoccupied these days with painting and getting our nursery room ready with lots of little pink dangling things in place to entertain and amuse our daughter after she arrives.