CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – When the 150 Walmart FLW Tour pros blasted off Thursday morning, nearly every single one of them took a left out of Chester Frost Park. When Clifford Pirch took a lonesome right, he knew he either made a really bad decision, or a really good one. With Lake Chickamuaga’s fluctuating water levels, Pirch’s stable, protected marina areas turned out to be very good decisions.
Pirch came into the fourth qualifier of the year prepared to sight-fish for spawning bass with over 75 waypoints in his GPS. But when the water dropped nearly 3 feet, many of those bass were left high and dry. Pirch caught what he could the first two days off beds until torrential downpours Friday afternoon muddied up his water. But relative to others, he was still in good shape with approximately a foot of clarity.
When he couldn’t sight-fish, Pirch turned to a pitching a jig under and around boat docks, to riprap and to lay-downs. The bite slowed a little each day, but the Payson, Ariz., pro was still able to scrounge up more than enough for his first Tour-level win.
“I chose that area because its stable and it has a lot of vertical structure for fish to go up and down with as the water fluctuates,” said the two-time U.S. Open champion. “If I could find a population of fish in those places, I really felt like I could keep up with them. These bays were steeper and covered in riprap and some were dredged out, which meant they did not have a natural drain. All of those things contributed to keeping the water cleaner. The last two days it was all about putting my bait in front of as many ambush points as possible. The wood-rock mix was especially good.”
On day four, Pirch got his first keeper bite at 9 a.m. and second at 10. It was nerve-wracking for much of the day, but at 1:30 p.m. his fourth keeper bit and it was his 6-pound kicker fish. Soon after No. 5 was in the livewell as well. Those last two fish came from a bay he hadn’t previously touched. With the sun slowly warming the water Sunday, Pirch found two fresh fish that were just pulling up to spawn.
“It was really slow, just an absolute grind. It was one of the most excruciatingly grinding days I’ve ever had. There were times where I went hours without a bite. But after I caught that big fish I knew that things were looking good. I had one hour left to explore this pocket and get a fifth fish. Ten more yards and I caught a 2-pounder and that was it. I got five bites and I caught all five of them. Any time that happens that’s just a blessing. I don’t know how else to explain it. I got exactly what I needed, and man, I’m thankful. Things have to go perfect to win a Tour event and they did this week.”
Those five keepers weighed 16 pounds, 10 ounces, bringing his total weight to 77 pounds, 3 ounces. After taking the lead on day two, Pirch won with a 6-pound, 11-ounce margin. All of his 20 weigh fish were largemouths and they all came from areas south of Chester Frost Park to the dam on the lower end of the lake.
Pirch’s main sight-fishing bait was a bright-colored Roboworm creature bait, but he caught some the first two days on a jighead worm as well. He credited much of his sight-fishing success to his Polarized Typhoon Optics. During the latter half of the tournament, his go-to bait was a 1/2-ounce Pepper Jig with a Strike King Rage Craw trailer.
Pirch earned $125,000 for the win and now has accumulated over $645,000 in FLW Outdoors competition.
“I’m pretty spent. It’s one of those deals where you leave it all out on the lake. I’m worn, but I’m excited. It’s been a fun time.”
Fukae finishes second
Each of the last two days, Shinchi Fukae pulled a rabbit out of his hat in the afternoon. Although he caught a limit Sunday, there was no magic. Fukae’s final-day stringer weighed 10 pounds, 15 ounces, giving him a total weight of 70 pounds, 8 ounces.
“I stayed close this week, fishing on the other side of the park (Chester Frost),” said the 2004 Angler of the Year. “I was fishing for bedding fish in shallow water the first two days. That was before the water was high. So I went back there this afternoon and I couldn’t get any bites there, so I wanted to try the boat docks. But I couldn’t skip the bait under the docks because of the high water. Even Bryan Thrift cannot do that.”
In addition to skipping docks, Fukae targeted shallow-water brush piles, drains and seawalls. Early in the week he found several largemouths spawning next to the seawalls over gravel. To catch these fish, he would drop his Power-Pole down and make repeated casts to the same area.
His two key baits this week were the shallow-running Lucky Craft RC 2 and the Yamamoto Flappin’ Hog. He Texas-rigged the creature bait with a 3/8-ounce weight. Fukae was most productive on day four when he fished new water. Like Pirch, he benefited from protected coves. But his water didn’t stay quite as clean as Pirch’s. Two of his four prime stretches were ruined after Friday night’s rain.
For his first FLW Tour top 10 since the 2009 season opener, Fukae earned $35,000.
“I’m happy with second.”
While most of the pros struggled with up and down water levels, Tom Monsoor felt right at home. The Mississippi River rat is used to dynamic fisheries and his two-pronged approach clearly demonstrated that.
When the water was low, Monsoor moved off the bank and fished emerging hydrilla. By mid-April, the grass had grown 6 to 8 inches in some areas and Monsoor would swim and hop his bait over it.
When the water was high, the La Crosse, Wis., native fished bulrushes. Under both scenarios, he used his Tom Monsoor swimming jig with a Yamamoto grub trailer. And both patterns worked in the dirtier water up the river.
“We have all kinds of bulrushes back home and the fish just love them,” he said. “I won the first EverStart Northern event they ever had doing the exact same thing.”
Monsoor said the water was actually too high on day four. The bulrushes produced 15 pounds, 2 ounces, but overall the fish were scattered, not concentrated. He finished the tournament in third place with 69 pounds, 5 ounces, earning $30,000. And his day-two largemouth weighing 9 pounds, 11 ounces stands as the biggest bass of the entire tournament.
Canterbury climbs to fourth
Straight Talk pro Scott Canterbury started the day in ninth place and rose to fourth via a 19-pound, 9-ounce limit, the heaviest stringer of the final day. Canterbury finished the tournament with 67 pounds, 8 ounces, earning $25,000.
“With the water fluctuating, I changed areas every day,” said the Springville, Ala., native. “I fished upriver the first day. The second and third days I fished down lake. I started today down lake and decided at 11:30 a.m. to make a 40-mile run up the river.
“During the spawn especially, I look for that clear water because they really don’t like to chase a bait.”
Canterbury caught the lion’s share of his fish this week flipping a Jackall Sasuteki craw. His best color was June bug, but he ran out of that and fished with green pumpkin Sunday. When he saw the water temperature dropped to 52 degrees this morning, he switched to a ChatterBait with a Zoom Speed Craw and caught two keepers. When it warmed back up, he went back to flipping. His best flipping success came in the thick formations of wood.
“I wanted to look (sight-fish) this week, but I had to move out to transition banks. I did catch a 7-pounder on bed on day two. That day you couldn’t really see the beds, but I could see the stumps and then I’d just fish them.”
National Guard pro Brett Hite steadily climbed the leaderboard each of the four tournament days. He started in 32nd place with 16 pounds, 1 ounce, and then improved to 14th on day two after catching 17-3. On day three he caught 14-8 and made the top-10 cut in the last spot. On Sunday he caught 14-13 to finish fifth with a total weight of 62 pounds 9 ounces, earning $20,000.
Hite fished most of his tournament down lake, but also had one productive spot up the river above the town of Dayton. On day four, he fished down lake exclusively – sampling three pockets just north of Chester Frost Park.
“I used the same bait all week,” said the Phoenix, Ariz., native. “It’s a new bait called the Brett Hite Signature Series Phenix Vibe jig. I used two colors – GP (green pumpkin) Shad and Brett Hite Delight (dark green/chartreuse). I tipped the GP Shad with a white Yamamoto swimming Senko and the Delight with a green pumpkin swimming Senko.”
Hite would cast the Vibe jig to the bank over isolated stumps, shoreline bushes and grass. The bushes and grass were most effective when the water was up.
“It was just chucking and winding all day.”
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the FLW Tour event on Lake Chickamauga:
6th: Robbie Dodson of Harrison, Ark., 58-15, $17,000
7th: Scott Martin of Clewiston, Fla., 57-11, $16,000
8th: Jay Keith of Camden, S.C., 57-0, $15,000
9th: Randy McAbee Jr. of Bakersfield, Calif., 54-4, $14,000
10th: JT Kenney of Palm Bay, Fla., 51-13, $13,000
The next FLW Tour event is slated for Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., May 5-8, the fourth of six Majors.