DECATUR, Ala. – It's neither fair, nor respectful to other competitors to assume a tournament is "in the bag" just because a guy brings a huge lead into the final round. But Mark Rose, at least indirectly, justified any such murmurings with his dominant wire-to-wire win at the FLW Tour Open event on Wheeler Lake.
Ever the humble gentleman, Rose simply won't engage in that line of thinking. He'll thank God, his family and his sponsors and he'll let others draw their own conclusions. For him, it's simply a matter of being fortunate enough to fish his style of fishing during a period when Wheeler's bass were positioned well for it. Essentially, the fish are just starting to move into their fall transition of shallow migration, but the water's still on the warm side, so plenty of quality fish remain out deep. With a solid understanding of these seasonal patterns and significant experience at picking apart the deep bottoms of TVA impoundments, Rose was in his comfort zone and simply went to work methodically locating and engaging his finned opponents.
"I made a conscious effort about four of five years ago to get offshore. There's one of the best ledge fishermen in the country in the audience here – Randy Haynes (FLW competitor from Counce, Tenn.) – and I owe him a lot. He taught me a lot and spent a lot of time with me when I first started getting out, so I just have to thank him."
Now, here's where we justify that "dominant" statement. Day one, Rose weighs the event's biggest bag – a limit weighing 21-6 that gave him the lead he would never relinquish and a margin of 3-7. He followed on day two with 17-8 and expanded his advantage to 4-6. Day three yielded Rose's smallest bag of the tournament (15-10), but the way the other weights lined up, he found himself heading into the final day of competition with a big-time lead of 7-1.
Flash forward to the culmination of today's final weigh-in. After starting day four in third place, behind Blake Nick, Chevy pro Luke Clausen had moved up from third place to first with 58-12, while Nick slipped below Clausen with 57-2. Rose takes the stage with a three-day total of 54-8, so he's just 4-pounds, 8 ounces off the lead before yanking the first fish out of his bag.
Given his previous three averages, a single fish would've done it for him. But within this sincerely modest man beats the heart of a fierce competitor, so it came as no surprise when Mark Rose dropped 16-14 on the scales and blew this one out with a total weight of 71-6 and a massive winning margin of 12 pounds, 10 ounces.
Rose spent most of his time fishing about 15 miles from the tournament site and targeted fish in about 21-23 feet of water. Well familiar with the Tennessee River's extensive ledges, he knew he'd need to dial in the specific little sweet spots that would be most likely to attract quality fish. He found just such attraction over mussel beds – lively areas that typically hold baitfish. Rose said his Lowrance HDS-10 with StructureScan was essential to locating his quarry.
"That's my eyes and ears," he said. "I could not have done this without my electronics. Those mussel beds were the key, but every now and then, there were some stumps. I was trying to get around those stumps and if you touched a stump, a lot of times you'd get bit."
Rose had two main areas for most of the tournament, but a third spot opened up for him today when a fellow competitor who had been fishing there did not make the final-round cut. This spot produced a good flurry of early activity, but Rose rotated through all of his spots throughout the day.
"I just milked it for all it was worth today." He said. "I have to thank the people of this community. I had a lot of people out there watching me and they let me fish. I only had three little old spots and they left it alone and I appreciate that."
Rose used a variety of baits this week, but he caught most of his fish on a deep diving crankbait with a few stealth modifications for maximum depth. Today, the crankbait produced four of his keeper, with the fifth biting a Strike King football head jig with a Rage Craw trailer. Rose said he also caught fish on a Texas-rigged 10-inch worm and he also employed a Strike King jigging spoon to stimulate fish that played hard-to-get.
"The bigger fish wanted the crankbait more than anything else," he said. "For whatever reason, it takes time to figure out those bigger fish and I figured out that they wanted a crankbait."
Rose said that fishing his baits on 12-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon was essential for getting them to the target depth, while promoting longer casts and providing optimal durability.
Clausen climbs into second
Clausen had held steady at third place for the first three days of the event before overtaking Nick in the final round. His productivity had depended on two to three big bites each day, but in the final round, he had just one quality fish and end up with a limit weighing 11-13.
Noting that he never identified any particular patterns during the tournament, Clausen essentially junk fished his way into the final round. Today, he located a productive stretch of bank with trees that still had sufficient water for bass to hold beneath. The TVA had been pulling water during the tournament, so shoreline depths kept declining.
"The water dropped about two feet so it was hard to fish anything that I had been fishing," he said. "All week, I had been driving around and fishing new stuff. I found some water on a little wood so I went flipping for a little while."
Clausen caught one on Zara Spook, three on a shaky head with a Z-Man finesse worm and one on a Z-Man flipping bait. His biggest fish hit while Clausen was flipping an overhanging tree and nearly gave him the slip.
"It was actually kind of a surprise – I was going around a trip and flipped up there and as I was reeling the bait back up he grabbed it," Clausen recounted. "Luckily, I was able to catch up to it and sling it in the boat really quick. With the kind of weights we're catching – except for Mark Rose – you catch one 4-pounder and that really changes your day."
Nick struggles, slips to third
Alabama pro Blake Nick brought a lot of Wheeler experience into the tournament and had no trouble determining where he needed to fish. His only regret was not maximizing the potential in the early goings.
"I knew there were two places with good, healthy populations of fish – one's at the Guntersville Dam and the other one's at the Wheeler Dam," he said. "I had one place (at the Wheeler Dam) and I pulled in there and made 10 casts and caught 18 pounds. I thought I'd be smart and leave because I didn’t think anyone was going to catch 18 and there comes Mark with 21 pounds. In hindsight, I wish I would have stayed there and whacked on them."
Fishing mostly football heads, Nick spent increasingly longer periods on his key spot each day and caught a couple more competitive limits on days two and three. Today, he managed only a limit of 9-11.
"It was a little different day," Nick said. "I don't know if it was affected by the water being down, because it was a deep bite. I have a feeling (the TVA) pulled water all night and the fish probably fed for a long time last night. But everybody has to face the same conditions to go out there and catch them. So there are no excuses."
Long settles at fourth
For Missouri pro Shane Long, the event's highlight was the 7-pound, 4-ounce largemouth that took Big Bass honors on day two and propelled him up from 17th place to fifth. Bagging one nearly 5 pounds on day three helped move him into fourth and a solid final-round limit of 12-7 kept him there with a tournament total of 55-0.
Fishing far up the river near the Guntersville dam, Long found the bass unwilling to eat his jig, so he decided to try something different – a dropshot. Fitted with Luck "E" Strike finesse worms in green pumpkin and pink, the rig proved just the ticket.
"There were several boats in that area and everybody's throwing a jig, Carolina rig, Alabama rig and all that big stuff," Long said. "I was just trying to catch five – it was pretty tough. So I pulled out a dropshot, dropped it down there and caught a 4-pounder, so I stuck with it. I caught that 7-4 on the second day and I had (another big fish) yesterday and I jumped off one today that was about 4 ½. I mean, they'll bite it."
Hite rises to fifth
Brett Hite, of Phoenix, Ariz., tied for 10th place on day one, rose to sixth on day two, gave up three notches on day three and regained some ground today to finish fifth with 51-6. Hite's final-round weight of 13-3 was the day's second largest, behind Rose.
The National Guard pro said he had minimal success in practice but located a key area that showed him a couple of quality bass. He decided to camp out there and relentlessly work his signature bait – a Phenix vibrating jig. Hite also recognized his boat and motor sponsors, Ranger and Evinrude, for providing an effective fishing rig.
"For the last three seasons, I have not been to a service trailer with a motor issue," Hite said. "Also, if it wasn't for (Ranger Boats founder) Forrest Wood, we wouldn't be here today, so my hat's off to them."
Best of the rest
Rounding out the top-10 pro leaders at the FLW Tour Open event on Wheeler Lake:
6th: Randall Tharp, of Gardendale, Ala., 50-13
7th: Michael Williamson, of Fort Smith, Ark., 49-9
8th: Larry Nixon, of Bee Branch, Ark., 47-6
9th: Scott Suggs, Bryant, Ark., 45-10
10th: Jerry Lawler, of Athens, Ala., 36-4