The pain that’s tortured Keith Combs since November, when he fell one spot short of qualifying for another home state Bassmaster Classic, this one at Lake Ray Roberts, came with a fresh dose of adrenaline.
When B.A.S.S., spurred by concerns related to COVID-19, pushed the tournament from March to June, it felt as if someone twisted the knife as they removed it from his back.
“If I could fish a tournament in Texas every day in May and June, I’d never leave home,” said the Bassmaster Elite Series angler from Huntington, Texas.
Combs won the Toyota Texas Bass Classic three times, including at Lake Fork in May 2014, when he averaged more than 7 pounds per fish for three days. He’s also won an Elite Series event at Falcon and a Professional Anglers Association tournament at Lake Tawakoni. Texas has been very, very good to Combs, and he feels that his advantage is amplified as the weather gets hotter.
“If you gave me a choice, June would probably be better than March,” he said of the move for the upcoming Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk.
"Ray Roberts has some really big fish,” he said, and some of them would no doubt have been brought to the scales in March under any conditions. With a warm week, there likely would have been some fish bedding, but adverse weather like cold rain could’ve shut that down and made it unlikely that the entire field would excel. In June, however, the bite is more consistent every day.
One thing the June bite cannot be called, however, is one-dimensional. Combs lives for the offshore game, and that’s what he’d look for first. He expects that there will also be shallow and midrange bites, and they could be the best options, either individually or in concert. Classic qualifier Matt Herren won the 2016 Toyota Texas Bass Classic on Ray Roberts primarily by fishing a jig on visible cover in the 6- to 10-foot depth range.
“If it was me, I would spend a lot of time learning offshore structure,” said Combs. “There is now good mapping of the lake. It’s not like it used to be. But there is still a lot to learn.”
Combs noted that in 2016 he did not know of anyone who stayed entirely offshore. He certainly did not. At the same time, the leaders’ weights did not demonstrate the lake’s full potential. Herren won with just under 52 pounds for three days. How this year’s Classic plays out may depend extensively on weather conditions in the preceding months and the lake’s water level.
“When we were there for the TTBC it had been low, then it filled up and there was a lot of cover like button willows and shore grass,” said Combs. “That kept a lot of fish wanting to stay shallow.”
While he knows that the field is full of incredible sticks from top to bottom, Combs picked out a few he’d like to have on his Rapala Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing team. The first is Clark Wendlandt, who has not only a ton of experience fishing in Texas, but he also has a tremendous amount of momentum coming off his Bassmaster Angler of the Year season in 2020. Another is Georgia pro Buddy Gross, last season’s champion at Lake Eufaula.
“From fishing around him this year, I know that he doesn’t mind sitting in the seat and graphing,” said Combs. “He’ll do well if they’re out offshore.”
His third early favorite, for a variety of reasons, is Texan Cody Bird, who qualified by winning the Basspro.com Bassmaster Central Open on Alabama’s Neely Henry Lake. Not only does Bird live just a short drive away in Granbury and have extensive fishing experience on the varied lakes of North Texas, but by not hitting the road to fish the Elite Series, he’ll have more opportunities than many others in the field to learn the lake’s intricacies and get his gear ready for the event.
Indeed, while the change in dates may make the fishing more consistent, it might also make practice strategies, practice opportunities and tournament preparation less equal. Starting in March, there is an unrelenting slate of events that’ll keep most of the Elites and wannabe Elites on the road or in a mindset related to other fisheries.
Combs believes that just about all of the fishing-related preparation the Classic field undertook before the original off-limits date “goes out the window,” except for one factor: learning to run the lake.
“Some of those guys are going to get there and wonder, ‘How the heck do I run this place?’ It’s full of big timber and doesn’t have boat lanes,” he said.
If Combs had qualified, he’d start practice with three lures on the deck: A Strike King 6XD crankbait, his bread-and-butter tool for offshore bass; Strike King’s Magnum 4.0 squarebill, a 4-inch beast that weighs 7/8th of an ounce; and the KVD Mega Dawg, a massive 2-ounce topwater that pushes the measuring tape to 6 inches.
That tells you all you need to know about the big fish potential at Ray Roberts, and how much it hurts the certified East Texas giant killer to have to work the Bassmaster Classic Expo.