LAGRANGE, Ga. — The most impressive aspect of Sunday's final day was the big crowd that showed up in the mud at Pyne Road Park. For the first time in four days, the sun was shining during the Bassmaster Elite Series West Point Lake Battle.
But when yet another downpour erupted during the weigh-in, no one moved. And when Skeet Reese brought 15 pounds, 4 ounces to the scales, then took his place on the "hot seat" as the tournament's leader, he didn't hesitate to assume that spot on an uncovered section of the stage.
"If these people are going to stick around in this (weather), I don't mind," said Reese, and instantly became the crowd favorite.
Six of the final 12 remained backstage, and all had come into the day with a higher three-day total that Reese. The pouring rain just added to the drama.
When the popular 43-year-old Reese withstood those final challenges and was awarded the trophy, it seemed he'd doubly paid his dues, for both sitting in the rain and enduring a three-year wait between Elite Series victories.
Fittingly, the sun came out again before Reese was handed the trophy. He finished with a four-day total of 44 pounds, 6 ounces, exactly 2 pounds more than second-place Aaron Martens.
"It feels real good," Reese said. "I honestly didn't know if I could catch a fish out here – every day."
And that's just it – nobody figured out any kind of consistent fish-catching pattern on this 26,000-acre Chattahoochie River impoundment located on the Georgia-Alabama border.
"My best advice is, if you catch 'em in one spot one day, don't go back there the next," said Todd Faircloth, who finished fifth with 39-1. Faircloth weighed 15-9 Saturday to make the Top 12 cut, then managed only four bass weighing 7-0 Sunday.
That's why Reese felt no confidence at any time last week. But he adapted, survived and finally thrived. If Jason Christie hadn't set an Elite Series record with his 11th place comeback at Bull Shoals, Reese would have topped the long-standing previous mark of sixth-to-first, set by Kevin Short in 2009.
"I thought I'd have a chance to win this tournament on a swimbait," Reese said. "But I couldn't get a bite on a swimbait. I just kept an open mind and went fishing."
It was the sunshine that prevailed during competition Sunday that finally gave Reese an advantage to exploit. The area past Highland Marina in Perch Creek had been full of big bass on spawning beds when the water temperature was 70 degrees during practice.
When the rain started, the lake level rose and water temperatures cooled into the mid 60s, those spawning fish became practically invisible for the first three days of the tournament. And all the anglers who had been concentrating in this area left frustrated.
Sunday Reese had Perch Creek to himself. But he didn't start there.
"I mainly wanted to just put the trolling motor down and fish, because it was the first time we've had sun since Tuesday," Reese said. "I was hoping the sun would position the fish like it did on Tuesday. Fortunately, it did.
"My first two fish in the morning I caught on a Lucky Craft LV 100 (lipless crankbait), just fishing little shallow flats in the back of ditches."
He was trying to take advantage of the shad spawn. The LV100 matched the hatch of the small shad that bass were feeding on.
"It's my confidence bait," Reese said. "Then I picked up a drop shot and a 4-inch smoke/purple Havoc Bottom Hopper, and I caught some keepers. Then I went quite awhile without a bite."
It was in a two-hour window – from about 1 to 3 p.m. – when Reese started fishing shallow pockets under overhanging trees, where bass were guarding recently-hatched fry. That's where he caught several 3-pounders that would end up comprising his five-bass bag of 3-pounders in his 15-4 total.
Reese was using his signature 6-foot, 8-inch shaky head/Senko rod and a prototype carbon fiber spinning reel (not on the market yet) spooled with 12-pound test Berkley Nanofil line attached to a 2-foot Berkley fluorocarbon leader. The key lure was "a weightless worm," in other words, a Senko-type bait. Green-pumpkin was his color of choice, but anything in a bluegill color pattern would have worked, Reese said.
The word got out that Reese was catching them, and he attracted quite a crowd of boating observers in the back of Perch Creek before he finished the day there. He never did entice the 5-pounder that had toyed with him all week in this spot, but he didn't need to, as it turned out.
The second-biggest bag Sunday was Martens' 11-12, and only four of the Final 12 had double-digit weights.
With the victory and the $100,000 check that goes with it, Reese is now qualified for the 2014 Classic at Alabama's Lake Guntersville. That was the site of his last Elite Series win in May 2010.
But Reese has his sights set on another goal. He won the Classic in 2009. Reese won the Toyota Angler of the Year title in 2007, and earned but didn't receive another AOY title when the method for determining the champion was tinkered with one year. It's AOY that drives Reese.
"I fish for one title and that's Angler of the Year," he said on stage Sunday. "To get the (AOY) points out of this, that was the most important thing."
Reese is now third in the AOY standings, only 14 points behind leader Edwin Evers. Most importantly, it appears Reese has earned his way back to being one of the superstars of the bass fishing world.