BRANSON, Mo. – Fresh off a victory at the FLW Series Western Division opener on Lake Shasta, Brent Ehrler arrived to a chilly Table Rock Lake and didn’t initially like what he saw. For starters, the water was substantially cooler and clearer than last year’s FLW Tour event. His concerns became very real as he failed to boat more than two keepers in any of the three practice days.
He did, however, identify one spot with potential. Ehrler found this spot accidentally as he began to run to the back of a creek. He saw a point on his graph and decided it was worth investigating. This area, located up the White River just above the Highway 39 Bridge, had classic prespawn written all over it.
Ehrler saw it as the inside turn of a creek-channel bend that formed a point. And surrounding it was a bed of standing timber. While many pros fished similar areas, Ehrler’s was different in that the timber was completely submerged. In other words, it couldn’t be seen with the naked eye; he needed his Lowrance electronics to locate it.
“In the morning, those fish came up there to feed, and then they’d drop back down to the timber,” said the 2006 Forrest Wood Cup champion. “They’re staging in there, and in another two weeks, they will be up on the bank.”
Ehrler didn’t know what he had found until he fished it hard on day one. In practice he caught only one keeper there. Right after he got bit, Brandon Hunter, his practice partner, caught a quality largemouth. Not wanting to burn valuable weight, that was all he needed to know.
On day one he caught 16 pounds, 6 ounces. On day two he sacked 22-2, the heaviest limit of the entire tournament. Yesterday he calmly put 14-6 in the boat, and today he sealed the deal with 16-13.
“I’ve never found a spot like this before. It was just loaded, and it replenished each day. It wasn’t just big fish either. There were a ton of 12-inchers too. I even caught a walleye one day. I’ve never been so excited to go fishing each morning. I’ve never had a tournament like this.”
The lion’s share of Ehrler’s catch came on two baits – a 5-inch Yamamoto grub and a Yamamoto Swimming Senko (smoke and natural-shad colors). He fished both on a regular 1/4-ounce jighead. Tied to the baits was 12-pound braided line and a 7-foot, 8-pound fluorocarbon leader. Occasionally, he would mix in a regular Senko, a Lucky Craft 2.5 deep-diving crankbait and a Lucky Craft Pointer 100DD jerkbait. These baits were presented over the trees on the deep side of the drop-off. His boat was sitting in 30 to 35 feet of water, and the fish were positioned in 15 to 25.
“This was their first stop on the way back to the creek.”
For a total weight of 69 pounds, 11 ounces, Ehrler earned $100,000. He also earned $25,000 from the Ranger Cup program and $2,500 from the Cabela’s Angler Cash program. His 13-pound, 2-ounce margin of victory is the second larges in FLW Tour history only to Brett Hite. Coincidentally, Hite also won FLW Tour and FLW Series events back to back. Ehrler’s win was the fifth of his young career. And with each one, the 33-year-old begins to solidify his position as FLW Outdoors’ best professional angler.
“The Cup was obviously an awesome tournament to win, but this is a big deal because I’ve never won a regular-season Tour event. And with the way the economy and everything is these days, the timing is great too.”
His main goal was not to catch Ehrler, but to retain his fragile second-place standing. And Ron Shuffield accomplished just that. The Bismarck, Ark., pro put his third limit of the week in the boat Saturday. This one weighed 17 pounds, 10 ounces and pushed his total weight to 56 pounds, 9 ounces.
Shuffield was the only finalist who fished the James River and not the White. Fishing fans may remember the James was an extremely popular arm in 2009. More specifically, Shuffield was in Ants Creek, a branch of the James. Shuffield actually started his tournament on the main lake in extremely deep water. He caught three right away Wednesday morning, but never got bit again. He eventually changed his entire strategy and ran to the river. There he worked a variety of jerkbaits on 10-pound fluorocarbon.
“The key wasn’t brand or color,” he explained. “The key was being around a fish that wanted to bite. I really thought they’d move shallower, but the fish clearly suspended. And you really had to slow down to get bites.”
Shuffield would twitch the jerkbait twice and then pause it for five or six seconds before repeating the process. This successfully emulated a struggling shad. He focused on channel-swing banks and transition banks where one type of rock changes to another. Many of these banks had cedar trees and brush. While the other finalists targeted exclusively largemouths, Shuffield brought in mixed bags of all three Table Rock species.
“To finish second to Brent Ehrler, I have no problem with that whatsoever.”
His consolation prize was $40,000. As dominant as Ehrler’s tournament was, Shuffield actually would have won under the old zeroed-weight format.
After catching limits each of the first two days, pro Mike Wurm managed only three bass each of the last two days. His day-four catch weighed 8 pounds, 10 ounces and pushed his total weight to 46 pounds, 6 ounces. Two of the fish were largemouths – the other a spotted bass. For third place, Wurm earned $30,000.
“Overall, I’m pretty proud of myself,” said the Hot Springs, Ark., native. “I found a real good pattern, and I executed every day. The last two days I think they started moving – probably up the creek. I could have depleted the area too.”
Wurm dragged a small Eakins’ jig with a Zoom Critter Craw on the bottom of the White River. At times he worked the jig so slow he was barely moving it. This was the exact method he used to win the 1999 FLW Tour qualifier on Lake Murray. One of his keys this week was using 10-pound braid with a 10-pound fluorocarbon leader. It helped him pull fish out of the timber and improved his hook-set ratio.
“It was really important to barely move the jig. If you so much as lifted it, that means you were fishing it too fast. You’ve got to remember these fish are cold. And when they’re cold, they don’t want to move very much – just like us.”
Falling one place to fourth was Shelby, N.C., pro Bryan Thrift. After sacking 14-pound limits the first two days, Thrift caught four bass Friday. Today he managed only a single keeper, but it was a nice largemouth weighing 5 pounds, 3 ounces. Thrift finished the tournament with 44 pounds, 1 ounce – earning $20,000.
“I fished a deep (14 to 25 feet) point with timber,” said Thrift. “But on this lake there’s so much timber. The best one that I found had a sharp drop and a rock vein that ran through it. The vein is almost like a strip of rock. I found this honeyhole on the last day of practice at about 3 p.m.”
Thrift used a 3/8-ounce Damiki Mamba jig with a craw trailer on 15-pound fluorocarbon. Like Ehrler, he occasionally mixed in a crankbait – his preferred model a Damiki DC200. His lone keeper Saturday came on a jerkbait – his only jerkbait fish of the week.
Thrift’s primary area, located near Ehrler in the White, was phenomenal early in the week, especially in the morning. It got progressively worse though, and the young pro had nowhere else to turn.
“Everywhere else I went I didn’t catch squat, so I didn’t want to leave. I had a long, tough day today. I beat that area up for over two hours and only caught a couple shorts. I had to punt and scramble around just to get that one keeper.”
Pugh blanks for fifth
All week long pro Greg Pugh spoke about how gratifying it was to finally get some revenge on Table Rock, a lake he’s struggled at in years past. Today Table Rock returned the favor as Pugh failed to catch a keeper bass. Pugh’s four-day cumulative weight registered 38 pounds, 8 ounces, good enough for fifth place and $18,000.
“All week long I was having difficulty getting them out of the trees,” said the Cullman, Ala., native. “Today I had a bunch of white bass fishermen near me. I think all the boat traffic finally drove them out.”
While most fished deeper cedar trees, Pugh targeted oak trees over a flat in 9 to 14 feet of water. His best spot, located up the White River, was actually four overlapping oaks that have intertwined limbs. In those trees, Pugh used a black-and-blue 5/8-ounce Lunker Lures jig and Zoom Black Super Chunk Junior trailer.
“I’m happy to have finally done well on Table Rock, but the last few days were kind of aggravating.”
For daily video coverage of the Table Rock event check out the Reeltime Report.
The next FLW Tour event is slated for Lake Norman in Charlotte, N.C., March 24-27.