Open Analysis: Final thoughts from Sam Rayburn

It has been two seasons since Keith Combs has crossed the Bassmaster Classic stage. When the 2022 Elite Series season wrapped up in August, Combs was 56th in points after an up and down season, unfortunately outside the cut for the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic at Knoxville March 24-26. 

But with a win at the St. Croix Bassmaster Central Opens presented by Mossy Oak Fishing at his home lake of Sam Rayburn, a fishery he has mastered and loves, Combs secured a berth in the Super Bowl of bass fishing for the ninth time in his career. 

“I’m just happy I don’t have to work the Expo,” Combs said. “But I am relieved. I’ve had some high points this season. I thought I could win on the Mississippi River and I didn’t get it done there. I thought I blew my chance. It is just so hard to win in the Elite Series. I’ve had some seconds the last few years, and that just stings.”

On a fishery that is 6 feet low and generally fishing pretty tough, Combs was one of the few anglers this week who improved each day of the tournament. Starting with 14-4 on Day 1, he caught 15-6 on Day 2 before landing 16-11 on Championship Saturday to claim the victory.

While history came into play at times, Combs explored areas he had never fished before and fished just about every cover that Rayburn has to offer before narrowing it down to his best spots during the tournament. 

“I like this time of year and have won tournaments this time of year here. But when I got out here to practice and they weren’t doing what I wanted them to be doing, I was lucky I had plenty of practice time to find some off the wall stuff,” Combs said. “I fished brush piles in 25 to 30 feet and caught fish. I fished hard spots, I fished isolated stumps, I fished grass, I fished a marina. I had to do it all and got bit on all of that stuff in practice.”

Random was the word of the week for Combs and other anglers. With water temperatures still in the 70s, the bass were all over the place and only one pattern wasn’t going to get the job done. Areas that anglers found quality bass around one day could be a ghost town the next day. 

Several anglers who fished on Championship Saturday had to completely scrap their original gameplans just to make it to the final day. 

As highlighted yesterday, Logan Latuso struggled in the grass on Day 1 before heading offshore Day 2 and catching his mammoth 31-4 bag. Tristan McCormick did the opposite on Day 2, leaving his offshore deal to throw a buzzbait and a whopper plopper. That yielded a 15-6 bag that lifted him into the Top 10. 

Several anglers saw their offshore game evaporate on the final day. Austin Cranford’s brush pile fish vanished, and he was forced to go flip grass the majority of the day.  

McCormick’s Fish Catching Day

Every time Bassmaster LIVE featured Tristan McCormick on Saturday, it seemed like he was hooked up. Unfortunately for the young Tennessee angler, they were not the size he needed to repeat his Day 1 performance of 19-0. 

Still, McCormick backed up his win at Lake Hartwell two weeks ago with another Top 10 finish, this time a fourth-place finish. Fishing is so volatile, but McCormick is hoping this momentum will carry through into next years’ Classic in his home state.

Riding the Waves

Sam Rayburn can get downright nasty when the wind picks up. Hayden Newberry can attest to that. During a run mid-afternoon, Newberry hit a couple of waves the wrong way and his engine shut down, which allowed several waves to crash over the back and swamp his boat. 

“My fish tried to swim out of the livewell,” he joked on stage. 

Luckily no one was hurt, but it is an important reminder that Mother Nature must be respected.

On the fishing side of things, the wind messed with a lot of areas that the offshore anglers were targeting, including Latuso, who only spent a short amount of time where he caught his first 9-pounder yesterday before running back to the dam. 

Even the shallow bite was affected by the wind. Cody Bird flipped grass all of Championship Saturday, but the wind compressed his mats, making it more difficult to punch through the thick hydrilla and more difficult to detect bites.

Latuso, Norsetter Claim Elite Spots

By finishing second and third respectively as Sam Rayburn, Logan Latuso and Kyle Norsetter claimed Elite Series berths via the Central Opens. Norsetter wrapped up the season with a second place finish in the Centrals points race with 544 points while Latuso finished third with 543 points. 

Unfortunately, James Niggemeyer could only watch as Latuso and Norsetter battled the conditions on Sam Rayburn and ended the season as the first man out.

No Dice for Shryock

One angler who isn’t a huge Keith Combs fan right now is Elite Series pro Hunter Shryock, who needed either McCormick or Tyler Rivet to pull out a victory so their double Classic qualification would drop to him. Things did not shake out that way and Shryock will experience the 2023 Classic from the sidelines.