DENISON, Texas – Ronnie Hopkins Jr. – the pro leader for three days at the Stren Series event on Lake Texoma – didn’t just seal the deal Saturday, he slammed the door, nailed it shut and wrapped it in duct tape.
Needing just 3 pounds and 13 ounces to unseat Douglas Jones of Fort Gibson, Okla., who had just bumped Denison, Texas, pro Ryan Lovelace from the hot seat, Hopkins took the stage, heaving a bag that wiggled way too much to be bluffing with water. Reaching the victory mark after just three fish, Hopkins yanked out a pair of chunky largemouths that completed a limit of 13-11 (55-15 total) and delivered a winning margin of nearly 10 pounds along with $25,000.
Throughout the tournament, Hopkins’ strategy hinged on later bites along rocky shorelines where stiff winds had congregated baitfish. That said, his daily weights track clearly with the week’s meteorological record. Day one saw lots of wind, and Hopkins bagged a 17-pound, 14-ounce limit. Day two was more of the same, and Hopkins weighed a 15-8 limit. Day three saw the wind fall flat, and Hopkins caught four fish at 8-14.
“Fishing shallow rocks in the wind was the key,” he said. “They bit late and I had to stay with it. A lot of days I’d only get one bite by 11, and then between 11 and 3, I’d catch a lot of fish. The first day I had a late flight, and I caught my two biggest fish in the last hour.”
Hopkins did most of his damage with a square-bill crankbait. On day one, he lost his bait of choice to a trotline, and fellow angler Toby Hartsell of Livingston, Texas, gave him a replacement. The new lure was handmade by Hartsell’s road partner and FLW pro Kenta Kimura, also of Livingston.
Each day, Hopkins started out fishing in the Washita River and started working his way southwest back to Hiport Marina by 11 a.m. He picked up many of his fish within two miles of the marina.
“I was surprised that I did so well,” Hopkins said. “I only prefished one day for about six hours. I figured it would be like it is in the spring where you catch (bass) around boat docks, but I couldn’t get bit around boat docks. I had to change up, and it was a day-to-day deal.”
The winning pattern became apparent during Hopkins’ lone practice day: “I pulled up on this one stretch of bank and got five bites in 45 minutes, and they were all 3-pounders. So I went with that the rest of the week.”
Jones hides out, holds on for second
While the majority of the field spent a lot of time running from spot to spot, second-place pro Doug Jones of Fort Gibson, Okla., bucked the trend and fished the entire tournament tucked way back in the cozy confines of Briar Creek. There he boated a limit weighing 8 pounds, 12 ounces for a four-day total of 46 even.
“Very rarely do you practice and have a plan come together like it did this week” Jones said. “I went up the creek ditch about as far as you could float a boat.”
Fishing green-pumpkin jigs and Brush Hogs around submerged structure in 2 to 5 feet, Jones stuck with familiar tactics and maximized a pattern that he confirmed during practice.
“I went to my strengths. I like to flip and fish in creeks with shallow wood and lay-downs and things like that, so when I came down to practice, that’s what I looked for. When I went up there and found the fish, I felt at home, so I pretty much stayed at them the entire tournament.”
While many others struggled to hold their position and make effective presentations in blustery conditions, Jones gave only cursory consideration to daily weather reports: “The only thing I looked at was how rough the ride was going to be getting there. Other than that, I really didn’t care.”
Jones landed in a three-way tie for first on day one with 13-5, moved into second on day two with nearly a mirror effort of 13-3 and held on to the No. 2 spot on day three with 10-12.
Lovelace takes third despite culling error
Local pro Ryan Lovelace of Denison, Texas, fished in Little Mineral Arm and threw shallow-diving crankbaits around chunk rock. Aggressively bouncing his bait off the rocks produced a limit of 11 pounds, 3 ounces. His final total was 42-5.
“The fish were moving up to feed, and if you could get a windy bank, you could catch them.” Lovelace said. “Also, the fish were grouped up. If you could find the fish and stay with them, you could give them 15 minutes (between catches) to settle down and then go back and catch some more.”
Lovelace said the final-round weather favored his game plan: “The wind didn’t blow yesterday, but I knew it was going to blow today, and that’s what I needed for my fish to bite. Once the wind started blowing, I got back on my pattern and they were there.”
Sadly, Lovelace inadvertently liberated a couple of fish that may have enabled him to close the gap of 3 pounds, 11 ounces between second and third.
“I had two cull rings on my two smallest fish,” he explained. “It was really rough, and evidently on the way across the lake, one of the cull rings came off. I pulled up on a spot and started catching fish really fast and got excited. I just didn’t see the other fish in there, and I threw three good fish back. I didn’t realize that I had one little fish in the well until we got back to the marina.”
Combs finishes ounces back in fourth
Keith Combs of Temple, Texas, entered the final round in fourth place and finished in the same spot with a limit catch of 9-1 that gave him a four-day total of 42-2. For Combs, consistency hinged on mobility and local knowledge.
“I covered a lot of water,” he said. “Fishing new water every day helped me a lot. The second thing is that I’ve seen this lake low a couple of times in the spring, so I knew where some key brush piles and lay-downs were.”
Combs fished crankbaits in the morning, and when that bite slowed, he turned to an 1/8-ounce shaky-head worm in green-pumpkin. The latter was an unfamiliar tactic for Combs, however; he said it gave him a viable option for when the crankbait bite diminished.
“This is the first time I’ve had a spinning rod on my deck, but I was able to scratch out a limit,” he said.
Hatchel’s heartbreak yields fifth
“I lost a 5-pounder right at the net today,” he said. “That hurt.”
Hatchel ran down the Red River and pitched Penetrator Jigs made by Weedless Lures around chunk-rock shorelines in depths “from 6 inches to 5 feet.” The day’s windy conditions created a situation that facilitated his tactics.
“The water was muddy, so the fish felt secure in the shallow water,” Hatchel noted. “When it’s clear, you can’t get them that shallow. It had to be windy. Wind and big chunk rock – that’s what I looked for.”
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pro leaders at the Stren Series event on Lake Texoma:
6th: Russell Cecil of Willis, Texas, 40-6
7th: Bradley Hallman of Norman, Okla., 39-13
8th: Lendell Martin Jr. of Nacagdoches, Texas, 39-12
9th: Ben Matsubu of Hemphill, Texas, 39-10
10th: Robert McFarlane of San Antonio, Texas, 35-1