Before the 2023 St. Croix Bassmaster Opens season started, my travel partner, Jamie Bruce, had me on his podcast called “Get the Net.” He asked me at the end of the podcast, if I were to win an event this year, which one would it be?
My first answer was the St. Lawrence River, because I am a smallmouth fisherman. My second answer was Wheeler Lake. It turns out Wheeler Lake was the one, and that is pretty cool. I have spent a fair amount of time on Lake Guntersville the last couple of years, and I like the Tennessee River. I have felt like I have a knack for figuring it out and catching some better fish. It seems like it comes more naturally.
I had a 12-hour drive home where I got to let everything from the victory set in. This will be a life-changing deal. I am going to the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota in Tulsa, Okla., which is awesome.
I have only fished Grand Lake once back in 2021. I was traveling with Jay Przekurat at the time, and that was the tournament he qualified for the Elites. I like the lake, and I think I will like it even better in March than I did in September when we were there. I have been dreaming of going to the Classic since I was a little kid. I’m super pumped to get there next March.
I had three primary presentations at Wheeler Lake. When I was around a shad spawn, I used a Z-Man JackHammer with a Freeloader trailer. Once I went to the ledges, I got my bigger fish with a VMC Rugby Jig paired with a Cleanup Craw, which is a new plastic that will be launched at ICAST. If it really slowed down, I picked up a drop shot with a Roboworm rigged on a 1/0 VMC Redline hook with a VMC tungsten drop-shot weight.
I’ll never forget this moment on Day 3. It was 8:09 a.m., and I put a 5 3/4-pounder in my livewell. I gave my Marshall a fist bump and said to him, “I think I just won a Bassmaster Open.” That was the bass that did it. I walked up on the bow of the boat, backlashed my next two casts and got a little watery-eyed.
I’ve won quite a few other tournaments, and usually if you are going to win, you get a feeling that it is going to happen, and you know what fish did it for you. So that was pretty awesome it panned out that way. When I woke up that morning, I knew I had to get to 22 pounds to win, and I ended up with 21-12. Coming into the day, I thought there was a chance that could happen, but not a very good one.
When I woke up it was kind of muggy and overcast. I had a shad spawn deal I wanted to go to, and I caught them all on a Z-Man JackHammer.
My practice was not very good. I caught one 3-pound fish during practice, but I spent a lot of time idling and graphing with my Humminbird units. I thought they might be heading out to their summertime stuff. So on Day 1, I started on a shad spawn and caught a 3 1/2-pounder to start the day. From there, I fished a bunch of grass and filled my limit with some 1-pounders and knew I needed to find some better fish.
I ran down the lake and started fishing some ledges. I had one in particular that had a hard spot that was about the size of my boat and topped off in 7 feet of water. I pulled up there and caught a 6-3. I ran four ledges the rest of the day and kept cycling through them. If I let them rest for a half hour, they would reload and I could catch more until they quit pulling water.
I ended with 19-2 the first day. On the second day, I started on a shad spawn again, but that did not pay off. At 9:30 I only had one fish. We had a lot of wind that day, and the water was getting muddy, so I ran to the bottom end of the lake and fished grass and only caught one bass. I made my way back to the ledge I caught most of my fish on Day 1 and made eight casts and caught eight bass. I ended up with a little over 14 pounds.
The whole weekend was a timing deal. Everything you did had to be at the right time. I fished the conditions and fished what felt right, and it worked out, which is a huge eye-opener for me. I fished two divisions of the Opens in 2021 and all three last year, and it has been a struggle. You have to learn how to prefish and fish differently with 225 boats out there. There are a lot of great anglers, and the good stuff gets picked out pretty quickly.
This year has been a little better. I bombed at Eufaula but had a good finish at Toledo Bend and a decent finish at Buggs Island. I feel like I understand these southern fisheries a lot better and have more confidence when I go to them now.
I am 28th in the Bassmaster Opens Elite Qualifier points rights now, and we have a lot of interesting fisheries coming up on the schedule. A lot of things are going to change in the points race. Pretty much every lake we’ve been to this year has been set up for guys to go fish offshore. The guys in the top nine right now are very good at fishing offshore. Some of that will change. I am obviously super excited for the St. Lawrence River.
I haven’t done too much research for any fishery this year. Last year, I researched everything and had the worst season of my life. This year, I am going to do what I am good at and let the fish tell me what they want to do and go from there.