Short of a Bassmaster Classic, last week's Lake Dardanelle Elite Series tournament was as much of a nail-biting, down-to-the-wire thriller as you'll ever witness in this sport.
Maybe we should have known this was going to be an unusual week when Chris Lane's boat was destroyed by a still-unexplained fire at 2 a.m. Thursday, hours before the Day 1 take-off.
When the tournament ended Sunday, there were some human casualties.
"I'm an emotional wreck," Greg Hackney told Davy Hite during a "First Look" interview before the weigh-in.
Facing a 3 p.m. check-in time, Hackney caught a 4-pound bass at 2:45, which gave him a chance to hold on to the lead that he had held the previous two days. Hackney won the second-ever Elite Series event, held at Sam Rayburn Reservoir in March 2006, and hasn't won since. He badly wanted this one.
Gerald Swindle's Sunday on the water ended with, "the craziest 50 minutes of bass fishing I've ever endured," he said. Swindle left the lake thinking, "I was destined to win."
The master of all bass fishing masters, Rick Clunn, began the day trailing Hackney by only 13 ounces. Though he has 14 B.A.S.S. tournament victories, including four Bassmaster Classic titles, and 107 Top 10 finishes, Clunn hasn't won since 2002. He hoped to do so in front of his wife, Melissa, and particularly his two young sons, who hadn't witnessed their father accept a championship trophy.
Then there was Jason Christie, who won an Elite Series event at Bull Shoals last year, plus two FLW major titles. No bass angler had a better season than Christie in 2013. He started the day in fourth place, 3 pounds, 7 ounces behind Hackney. Christie said he didn't have any thoughts of winning until Hackney – the last angler to weigh in – came to the stage with a bag that hit the scales at 15-3 – 8 ounces less than he needed to match Christie's winning total of 72-3. Swindle had finished 4 ounces shy.
The weather during the tournament had been as crazy as Sunday's finish. When the tournament began, Hackney noticed the water temperature where he was fishing had dropped 13 degrees from Tuesday's practice session.
"That doesn't happen around here in May," said Hackney, an experienced Arkansas River angler who lived in Star City, Ark., until he was 27 years old. "It reduced the strike zone. You could throw it within 5 feet of them (when the water was warmer), now you've got to him them on the head."
Hackney, with a flippin' stick in hand, was doing just that – hitting them in the head – on Thursday when he weighed 21-13. Even though he took the lead on Friday with 18-1, it was the beginning of a steady downward trend.
Hackney didn't burn a lot of gas running around Lake Dardanelle. But he burned a lot more than Christie. Hackney had key areas in Illinois Bayou, Mill Creek and just off the main river channel.
"I had four or five areas I was fishing, and I was kind of micro-managing them because they weren't replenishing," said Hackney, who daily totals told that tale as well.
Christie had one area primarily, between two bridges on Illinois Bayou.
"I didn't burn 20 gallons of gas all week," he said.
Christie got some help from the weather when a big thunderstorm dumped rain over the watershed Thursday night. Dirty water and heavy current were Christie's keys to success.
"After the first day, the water was getting pretty clear," Christie said. "Then we got that rain, and it dirtied up again. I think the combination of the dirtier water and the choked down current (between the bridges) was key. When you go from the channel to where it opens up, fish just tend to be there. They want to have flats to roam and feed on."
Hackney was mostly flipping a jig – either a 1/2-ounce Strike King Structure jig, or a 1/2-ounce Strike King Hack Attack flipping jig – but he caught a few key fish on a Strike King square-bill crankbait (chartreuse with a black back) as well.
"One deal I had was fishing rock with no cover," Hackney said. "I used that Structure jig because it comes through rocks so well. And I flipped the mats that were real shallow (with the Hack Attack jig), mats in maybe a foot of water.
"I think the dirty water was what was holding these fish in there – big, postspawn fish."
Christie, who lives in Park Hill, Okla., is experienced on another Arkansas River pool – Kerr Reservoir, in his home state. Rather than flipping a jig, he was swimming it.
"The pool I live on, that's just what we do," he said. "After the spawn, you swim a jig. I had some really good teachers on swimming a jig.
"I tried to flip it, and let it go to the bottom, but they wouldn't eat it that way. (The jig) had to be up high (in the water column)."
Even in the muddy water, Christie said he saw every bass he caught bite the jig, just 3 or 4 inches under the surface. They were holding under shallow mats of aquatic vegetation. He was using a 1/2-ounce Booyah jig with a Yum Craw Chunk trailer, both in black-and-blue.
Although he moved up in the standings each day, from 26th to 10th to 4th, Christie thought he blown his chance to win before the final day. The second day his 16-10 bag included a 1 1/2-pounder, a small keeper he wasn't able to cull. The third day he tried to swing a 7-pounder in the boat, after not retying his jig recently to remove any abrasions.
"I just didn't think that fish was that big," Christie said. "I thought it was a 4- or 5-pounder. We swing those in all the time. Once she started coming out of the water, I knew I'd made a mistake."
Added Christie, "I felt like I was giving the tournament away."
Swindle, on the other hand, felt like destiny had suddenly swung in his favor during Sunday's final hours. Unlike most other anglers, Swindle found fish way off the bank.
"At 2:10, I had three good fish and two 14-inchers," he said. "They didn't weigh a pound-and-a-quarter. I wasn't getting any bites. I made an adjustment and moved outside the grass."
Swindle said he felt stupid at first, throwing a 3/8-ounce black-and-blue Original Chatterbait, trailed with a Zoom Z-Hog "as far as I could throw it" and slow rolling it back. There wasn't a target he was aiming for, hence the feeling of looking foolish.
"When you get a 5 1/2-pounder to choke it, you're like, 'This ain't so dumb after all,'" Swindle said.
It was when the wind picked up late Sunday afternoon that his flurry began.
"I think I caught 14 keepers in about 35 minutes," Swindle said.
With 20 minutes left before check-in time, Swindle ran out of Illinois Bayou to the Dardanelle State Park weigh-in site. He arrived with 12 minutes remaining.
"So I just pulled over and pitched to a piece of grass and caught a 4 1/2-pounder," Swindle said. "I culled. I didn't know what to do. I had eight minutes left, so I just made another cast and caught a 3 1/2-pounder."
Understandably, that's when Swindle began to think he was destined to win the tournament. As it turned out, destiny left him 5 ounces short of the title.