JEFFERSON COUNTY, Tenn. — When noon found him without a keeper, Matthew Robertson of Kuttawa, Ky., made a bold decision that propelled him to victory at the Basspro.com Bassmaster Eastern Open on Cherokee Lake with a three-day total of 40 pounds, 12 ounces.
Entering Championship Saturday with a mere 3-ounce lead over Denny Fiedler of Wabasha, Minn., Robertson added a five-bass limit of 12-4 to his first two days’ limits of 14-8 and 14-0. He won by a margin of 1-10 and earned a top prize of $35,000. Robertson also won the $500 Garmin Tournament Rewards prize.
He also earned an automatic berth into the 2021 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic, which is scheduled for March on Lake Ray Roberts in Texas.
“I’m usually out on the water saying, ‘Maybe I should go here, maybe I should go there,’ but the past two weeks, I’ve just had more faith in myself and I’ve just been rolling with it,” Robertson said. “I’m not second-guessing anything; I’m fishing more deliberately.”
Fresh off a second-place finish at the Basspro.com Bassmaster Central Open on Neely Henry Lake, Robertson had spent his first two days working a small stretch of boulder-laden bottom in 20 feet of water. Intercepting packs of smallmouth bass ravaging bait schools, he caught his fish on a Ned rig and a Neko rig.
With post-frontal conditions bringing bright skies and high pressure, Day 3 found the spot unproductive. Robertson said this prompted him to completely scrap his game plan and switch to something that was right in his wheelhouse.
“I told myself, ‘I’m going to stay there until noon and see what I have,’” he said. “All I caught was a striped bass, so I pulled the plug. I was so comfortable with that decision, it was no big deal.
“I pulled into a little pocket close to my deep spot and caught one on a topwater. I figured out what the pattern was and I went to war with it.”
Robertson said he found his best opportunities in pockets with docks, deeper cuts and flat points with scattered rock. Most of the bass he saw were hunting bait in small feeding groups known as “wolf packs.”
He caught his fish on a Strike King Sexy Dawg topwater in the sexy shad color. His co-angler, Jon Jezierski, gave him the bait, which had recently been given to him by Japanese pro Kenta Kimura.
“Kenta had modified the Sexy Dawg by replacing the stock hooks with (a Japanese brand of) round bend treble hooks,” Robertson said. “He also added SuspenDots (adhesive lead dots) to the belly of the bait to make it sit lower in the water.
“That made the bait more castable. Also, instead of those fish popping the bait out of the water, they’d pull it down.”
The win, Robertson said, was particularly meaningful, given his recent setbacks. While practicing for the Central Open on Sam Rayburn Reservoir (mid-September), his entire collection of fishing tackle and other gear was stolen from his truck.
“I’m pretty emotional right now,” he said. “I’ve been through the mud just to be here.”
Local stick Josh Roark of Bean Station, Tenn., finished second with 39-2. After placing 10th on Day 1 with 11-13, he added 15-2 — the tournament’s second-largest bag — on Day 2 and rose to third. He gained one spot Saturday with a final-round limit of 12-3.
“I did the same thing I’ve been doing all week; you just had to slow down and grind through them,” Roark said. “I was targeting isolated or scattered boulders. Most of my fish were in 30 to 40 feet deep.
“The majority of my fish came on a 2.8 Keitech swimbait on a homemade 3/8-ounce ball-head jig with a screw lock. I also caught a couple of fish on a Heddon Super Spook and a few fish on a drop shot with a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm.”
Day 1 leader Joshua Stracner finished third with 38-15. His daily weights were 14-12, 10-14 and 13-5. He caught his bass on a crankbait, a Damiki rig, a tube and a drop shot with a 4 1/2-inch Reaction Innovations Pocket Rocket.
“I had a really slow start; I only had two or three little fish at 10 o’clock,” Stracner said. “I caught one 3-pounder in the middle of the day.
“I’d been fishing 30 to 40 feet deep for smallmouth and I’d been saving a shallow place for today. I’d been catching some largemouth on that spot. I went to it today and caught two or three and gave myself a shot.”
Fiedler won the $750 Phoenix Boats Big Bass award with his 5-6.
Bobby Drinnon of Rogersville, Tenn., completed a wire-to-wire win in the co-angler division with a three-day total of 18-3. Taking the Day 1 lead with a three-fish limit of 8-5, he added another limit of 7-11 Friday. On Saturday, Drinnon found only one keeper that weighed 2-3.
“The first two days, I was using a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent General on a 5/16-ounce shaky head that (a friend) pours,” Drinnon said. “Today, I caught my keeper on a Damiki rig with a homemade head that I pour with a Damiki Armor Shad.”
Daniel Valois Gomez of Caracas, Venezuela, won the $250 Phoenix Boats Big Bass award for co-anglers with a 4-2.
Bassmaster Elite Series pro Patrick Walters of Summerville, S.C., leads the Eastern Open standings with 581 points, followed by Stracner with 580. Pat Schlapper is in third place with 550, while Scott Martin is fourth with 541 and Timmy Thompkins is fifth with 532.
Justin Atkins of Florence, Ala., leads the Falcon Rods Bassmaster Opens Angler of the Year Standings with 1,009 points.
The tournament was hosted by Visit Jefferson County.