The Toyota Trucks Diamond Drive Elite Series event on Lake Dardanelle was a study in contrasts. The winner, Mark Menendez, followed a radical approach that put him in virgin water. The second and third place finishers followed a more traditional approach. They all caught fish.
Here's how they did it:
(1st Place — 55 pounds, 7 ounces)
Mark Menendez went the extra mile in securing his victory. In a borrowed aluminum boat he traversed a narrow culvert to gain access to a 200-acre slough that provided him with heavy catches all three days.
"I found the area through research on the Internet and from aerial views of the water. I knew Dardanelle would fish small with everyone on top of each other banging rub rails. I wanted something different, someplace I could fish without the pressure of a dozen other boats around me."
After an arduous crawl through a rock-laden culvert — and a painful decision to leave his big Skeeter boat behind — Menendez had the slough all to himself. On Thursday he caught his bass winding a junebug-colored, 6-inch Strike King Rage Tail Lizard armed with a 4/0 Gamakatsu Worm Hook and weighted with a 1/4-ounce weight through the backwaters.
"I was flipping it to wood cover, and I made a bad cast. I started winding it back towards the boat when a big one inhaled it. I repeated that crankbait style retrieve around wood cover in no more than 3 feet of water the rest of the day and ended up with a bag that weighed 17 pounds, 12 ounces.
"Friday I started out doing the same thing but couldn't get bit. I think it was because the water was up about 10 inches. That moved the bass tighter to the cover and messed up my pattern.
"Eventually I switched to a 4 1/2-inch Strike King Coffee Tube and a 5/0 Sure-Grip Shiner Hook made by Ohio Pro Lure Company. I put a big, heavy rattle in the tube, but used the same 1/4-ounce sinker.
"I flipped it against the shallow wood and worked it slow for a really good bag that weighed 21-8. I was targeting the females that had moved up to go on the beds."
On Sunday, after Saturday's cancellation, things got interesting for the Paducah, Ky., pro. The water level dropped at least a foot and the water temperature fell 14 degrees — from 65 to 51.
"I really tore up the boat getting through the culvert Sunday morning. I had to move rocks out of the way by hand to get where I wanted to be. When I finally got through it I was faced with low, cold water. I really thought it was over for me at that point.
"But when I tied on a slightly smaller Strike King KVD Pro-Model Tube — again with a rattle inserted in it and the same hook and sinker — I was pleasantly surprised to find they were biting it. The KVD Tube is 3 1/2 inches long. I think that reduction in size made a big difference to the bass. It was just enough to keep them interested."
"The real lesson here is to study the water you're fishing. My spot was the thing. If I hadn't spent time studying every inch of Dardanelle, I would never have found that place. Of course, high-quality Strike King baits didn't hurt me any."
Tackle: A 7-foot, 6-inch Power Tackle Flipping Stick (heavy action), a Pflueger Patriarch reel (7.1:1 gear ratio) and 20-pound-test Berkley Trilene 100 % Fluorocarbon line.
(2nd Place — 53 pounds, 4 ounces)
Kevin VanDam, falling just short of victory with a final day charge, says he learned his lesson at the 2009 Bassmaster Classic on the Red River and didn't forget it at Dardanelle.
"I made a mistake in Shreveport when I failed to make quick adjustments, and it cost me — big time. That didn't happen here. I was in the wrong spot on the first day, and I made an immediate adjustment to a more productive area. I ended up with a 15-6 bag, but it still put me in the hole.
"Friday was better. I caught 18-6. But when Saturday was cancelled because of the weather, I had to make it all up in one day. I had motor troubles on Sunday and simply couldn't fish the way I wanted. I caught a good bag — 19-8 — flipping isolated stumps with a Rage Tail Rodent but it just wasn't enough to catch up.
"My hat goes off to Mark (Menendez). He had a plan and executed it. That's how you win. Besides, it's pretty cool to have my Strike King teammate win one."
Tackle: A 7-foot, 4-inch Quantum Tour Edition PT Flipping Stick (heavy action), a Quantum Tour Edition PT Burner reel (7:1 gear ratio) and 20-pound-test Bass Pro Shops XPS Fluorocarbon line.
(3rd Place — 48 pounds, 1 ounce)
With Day 3 water temperatures falling 10 degrees below those of Friday, Chris Lane knew he had to do something different on Sunday or face disaster at the scales.
"I remembered back home in Florida some of the guys did real well on lipless crankbaits right after the water temperature dropped, so I decided to try one. I threw an Azuma Shaker Z finished in White Tiger. I was casting it along a ditch that crossed a spawning flat. It was about 6 feet deep, and the fish were positioned right on the edge of it.
"The thing that helped me was the fact that the Shaker Z has good action whether it's being retrieved slow or fast. I was able to pull it slow — which I needed to do because of the dropping water temperatures — but still get a lot of reaction bites because of its wiggle. Without it, I wouldn't have finished where I did."
Tackle: A 6-foot, 10-inch Quantum Kevin VanDam Tour Edition PT rod, Quantum Tour Edition PT Burner reel (7:1 gear ratio) and 15-pound-test Berkley Trilene 100 % Fluorocarbon line.