DECATUR, Ala. – From the moment Lloyd Pickett Jr. laid 22 pounds, 12 ounces of bass into the scales on day one of the Stren Series Southeast event to take the early lead on Wheeler Lake, it was clear the Bartlett, Tenn., pro had dialed into something special on the TVA impoundment.
While much of the field struggled to get into the 10-pound range with their limits, Pickett made catching big bass on Wheeler look easy.
His tournament-opening salvo was followed by a 16-pound catch on day two to maintain his lead, and he followed that up Saturday with a 12-pound, 7-ounce limit to hold on for his first Stren Series victory. Pickett’s three-day total of 51 pounds, 3 ounces gave him a wire-to-wire win on Wheeler, complete with a check for $21,336 and a brand new Ranger Boat.
“I’ve probably led four or five of these Stren events going into the last day and then blown it, so it’s quite a relief to finally win one,” said Pickett, who has been competing in FLW Outdoors events since 1997. “I love fishing summer patterns when the fish are postspawn, and this lake is just full of those kinds of offshore places where fish stack up, so I was in my element this week.”
Simply put, Pickett’s winning ticket centered on mussel beds or shell bars. The interchangeable terms are often used to describe huge piles of freshwater clams and mussels, which accumulate by the millions on the bottom of TVA lakes.
The shell deposits are often located near the river channel, where the filter feeders can maximize the feed bag in current, and consequently they provide the best current-breaking cover for postspawn bass.
But Pickett took his shell game one step further to isolate the bigger bass this week: He discovered a few select shell beds that featured giant gizzard shad.
“Wheeler is loaded with mussel bars and a lot of them hold fish, but a vast majority of those fish are small,” Pickett explained. “What I found were a few shell beds where the skipjack – or great big shad – were spawning. And wherever I would find those big 5- to 6-inch shad, there were 4- and 5-pound bass eating them up.”
Pickett stayed in the Decatur Flats area near the river, grinding his mussel bars with Carolina rigs, jigs and spinnerbaits.
His jigs were both PJs and Strike King jigs in ¾-ounce sizes. He teamed the jigs with matching Rage-Tail trailers in green-pumpkin color. His Carolina rigs were tipped with Zoom Brush Hogs and 8-inch lizards. All were tied to Trilene 12-pound-test Big Game line.
“The spinnerbait actually worked the first day when it was so cloudy and windy,” Pickett said. “I could see those big skipjacks being chased by bass, so I went to a 1-ounce spinnerbait.”
Today a severe lack of current hurt Pickett’s overall bite, but he managed to catch enough to hang on to to his first Stren Series win.
Johnson threatened Pickett’s lead today with a final-day rally of 15 pounds, 11 ounces. But Johnson ran into battery trouble at the last minute, came in four minutes late and was docked 4 pounds for it, knocking his official day-three weight down to just 11 pounds, 11 ounces.
Fortunately for Johnson, the penalty did not cost him the win. Even with the additional 4 pounds, he still would have finished runner-up.
“Man, at least I can rest easy in knowing it was not the penalty that cost me the win,” said a relieved Johnson when the weigh-in ended.
Johnson, too, was dialed directly into the mussel-bed pattern where bigger shad were spawning near the river channel.
During the week, he mostly relied on a ¾-ounce Tightline jig teamed with a Zetabait trailer. Today he added a 10-inch Berkley Power worm to his arsenal. Both were fished on 17-pound fluorocarbon line.
“Today I had to let the jig and worm sit real still on those mussel beds,” Johnson said. “Sometimes I’d let it sit there two minutes before I got a bite. It was a really weird bite, but I once I figured out that’s the way they wanted it, I got more bites.”
Jay Kendrick of Grant, Ala., finished third with a three-day total of 39 pounds, 10 ounces and collected $6,828 for his efforts.
Similar to the other top finishers, Kendrick fished shell beds on the main river channel in the upper end of Wheeler, where big shad were spawning.
He used a homemade football-head jig teamed with a Zoom Superchunk trailer in green-pumpkin, tied to 15-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon line.
“One key I found today was to let the jig sit still,” Kendrick said. “I tie my own skirts with the old-style, big rubber skirt material, and that seems to make the jig flare out a little better when it’s just sitting still, wavering in the current.”
Scott Canterbury of Springville, Ala., finished fourth with a three-day total of 38 pounds, 3 ounces worth $5,974.
Canterbury, too, fished some shell bars, but he also fished up shallow as well, flipping grass as well as overhanging bushes and limbs near the bank.
His main weapons included a variety of jigs including a Berkley finesse jig and jigs from Dirty Jigs Tackle. His jig trailers were Berkley Chigger craws in green-pumpkin.
Watts fished shallow around bream beds early in the morning with a topwater toad and an Optimum Double-Diamond swimbait. In the afternoon he moved to docks to target shade with a ½-ounce Shooter jig.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros in the Stren Series Southeast Division event on Wheeler Lake:
6th: Robert Boyd of Russellville, Ala., three-day total, 35-15, $4,694
7th: Blake Nick of Bessemer, Ala., three-day total 35-4, $4,267
8th: Derek Hicks of Rocky Face, Ga., three-day total of 34-9, $3,841
9th: Mark Jones of Carriere, Miss., three-day total of 32-11, $3,414
10th: Clark Smith of Pell City, Ala., three-day total of 32-1, $2,987