BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – One of the biggest crowds in Wal-Mart FLW Tour history was in attendance for the coming-out party of 23-year-old fishing pro Michael Bennett. After catching 10 Smith Lake bass over the final two days that weighed 27 pounds, 8 ounces, Bennett became the latest Western pro to loot a six-figure payday from the state of Alabama.
In 2004, Chevy pro Luke Clausen won $500,000 at the Forrest Wood Cup on Logan Martin Lake. Two years later it was National Guard pro Brent Ehrler’s turn to cash a half-million-dollar check at the season-ending tournament. On Sunday, Bennett etched his name in the archives of bass-fishing history. Not only is the Roseville, Calif., native the third Western pro to win in Alabama, he’s also the second Western angler to win an FLW Tour event this season – the first going to Phoenix angler Brett Hite.
Bennett completed his first tour-level victory in convincing, if not dominating, fashion. While the rest of the anglers fought over the same spawning largemouths, the Duracell pro located several pods of spotted bass lying deep underneath docks.
Bennett did catch spawning bass during the tournament. In fact, he used them exclusively to make the top-10 cutoff. But he knew they wouldn’t hold up over four days. So he practiced with the intention of having a prespawn pattern for the final round.
His key bait was a Berkley Gulp Sinking Minnow in light green-pumpkin color. It was rigged weightless and wacky style with an O-ring on 8-pound Berkley 100% Trilene fluorocarbon. He would skip the bait under docks – but these aren’t your ordinary docks. Underneath them is water 60 feet deep.
“Yesterday they bit it at 8 to 12 feet, and today they hit as far down as 25 to 30 feet,” he said. “It varied every day, so I just let it sink for 20 to 30 seconds.”
Bennett fished roughly 20 docks that were located in the main lake anywhere from the dam to the Duncan Bridge. He said he never had a single dock that he could rely on, but two of his best keepers did come from the same dock on day four.
“In practice they were on the very front of the dock, but the last two days they were further back. The best docks seemed to be on a point. The fish would go to the point to feed, but I think they lived under the dock.”
“This is unbelievable. I’m speechless. The money is great, but the win is what I was after.
“I grew up spotted bass fishing in California. In fact, the lakes I fish close to home were actually stocked from Smith Lake. It’s the exact same species. I couldn’t have asked for a better setup for a tournament.”
For eliminating 199 of the best bass anglers in the world, Bennett earned a $125,000 first-place purse.
Canterbury limits, falls short
Scott Canterbury fished to win on day four, but the big bites never came. Throwing a buzzbait and simultaneously looking for bedding bass, Canterbury caught a limit weighing 11 pounds, 14 ounces. Like Bennett, the Odenville, Ala., native never culled. His five keepers came from Rock Creek, the same area he fished throughout the week.
“I have absolutely no regrets,” said the local angler, who calls Logan Martin and the Coosa River home. “I caught only five keepers three of the days and six one day, so I wasn’t getting very many bites.”
As Canterbury paralleled the bank, he continuously threw the buzzbait. However, he did not watch the buzzbait as he retrieved it. Instead, he listened for blowups while keeping his eyes focused in a search for spawning bass. Once he located a bed fish, he pitched a green-pumpkin tube and a Net Bait Paca Craw.
“Every day I caught my biggest fish on the buzzbait, and I never missed a single sight-fish.”
For placing second, the FLW Tour rookie earned $50,000.
“This week has been phenomenal, I mean just outstanding. I don’t have the words to express how good it’s been. I said all year long if I could have a choice of what tournament to make the top 10 in, it would be Smith Lake just so I could weigh in Birmingham.”
Kreiger maintains third, takes AOY lead
Like many others, Prilosec pro Koby Kreiger hedged his bets on spawning largemouths. The Okeechobee, Fla., native had a similar plan to Canterbury. Instead of throwing a buzzbait, he used a Bomber Long-A as a search bait for bedding bass. Instead of fishing Rock Creek, he fished Ryan Creek. Occasionally the spawners would eat the Long-A, but they were mainly just showing themselves.
Once he had the fish located on bed, he would pitch a 3/8-ounce Oldham’s jig with an 8-inch Zoom lizard. If the water was muddy like on day three, he used a Texas-rigged 4-inch white Gambler Bacon Rind.
On day four, three of his weigh fish committed to the Long-A. Throughout the week he was catching primarily largemouths, but four of his five keepers Sunday were spotted bass. In an attempt to coax a kicker, he also threw a black Spro frog for part of the day.
“I had two big fish boil up on my frog,” he said. “If I had caught both of them, I think I could have won. If I had caught one, I would have taken second.”
For placing third with a two-day total weight of 22 pounds, Kreiger earned $40,000. Combined with his 11th-place finish on Lake Toho, Kreiger has accumulated 388 points and leads the Land O’Lakes Angler of the Year race.
Clausen takes fourth as fish shrink
Anytime there is a spotted-bass tournament in Alabama, there is a good chance Clausen will be in contention to win. And this week’s FLW Tour event on Smith Lake was no exception. The Chevy pro caught a two-day total of 10 bass weighing 21 pounds, 6 ounces. His limit Sunday weighed 10 pounds, 10 ounces.
“I just love how this lake fishes,” he said. “I love using a shaky head, and I love catching Alabama spotted bass.”
Clausen said his only mistake was underestimating the size of his fish. In practice, he caught several 3-pounders and felt they were indicative of the overall size of fish he was around.
“Once the tournament started, they shrank. I didn’t anticipate catching so few 3-pounders.”
Clausen estimates he caught 30 spotted bass on day four – 12 of which were keepers. He, too, fished Rock Creek, but Canterbury was much farther down the creek.
“My hands are sore from catching all these fish. In hindsight, I probably would have prefished a little different and looked deeper for bigger spots.”
The former Forrest Wood Cup and Bassmaster Classic champion used mainly a Fat Dover crawler on a homemade 1/8-ounce finesse jig. Under cloudy conditions, he chose green-pumpkin color, and under sunny skies, he used watermelon-candy. He rigged the bait on Spiderwire Extreme fluorocarbon, a prototype line that will be available to the public in June.
For finishing fourth, Clausen earned $30,000.
Pugh limits, claims fifth
Climbing from sixth to fifth on day four was Cullman, Ala., native and pretournament favorite Greg Pugh. The Snickers pro caught a limit of bass weighing 10 pounds, 5 ounces today to push his final-round total to 20 pounds even, good for $20,000.
On day two, Pugh dropped jaws as he put a 17-pound, 11-ounce stringer on the scale. That went down as the heaviest single-day catch of the tournament. Those fish were spawners from Ryan’s and Simpson’s creeks.
On day four, he stayed fairly close to the ramp and quickly picked up a limit of spotted bass. He then returned Ryan’s and Simpson’s to upgrade. Although he did cull all five of his initial keepers, he never got any giants. To catch the spawners, Pugh used a 5/16-ounce PJ’s jig with a green-pumpkin Zoom Skinny Chunk trailer.
“When I’m sight-fishing, that’s my go-to bait,” Pugh said. “The big ones were setting around this afternoon. If we would have had sun yesterday, I could have had an explosive bag. I’m talking 25 pounds or more.”
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pro finishers in FLW Tour competition at Smith Lake:
6th: Darrel Robertson of Jay, Okla., 17-1, $19,000
7th: Jason Christie of Park Hill, Okla., 16-4, $18,000
8th: Brandon Coulter of Knoxville, Tenn., 13-15, $17,000
9th: Glenn Browne of Ocala, Fla., 11-14, $16,000
10th: Danny Pierce of Greenbrier, Ark., 7-10, $15,000
The next FLW Tour qualifying event, the National Guard Open, is scheduled for Lake Norman in Charlotte, N.C., April 24-27.