LUFKIN, Texas – In a week that has seen Sam Rayburn Reservoir off its game, Strike King pro Phil Marks has had to diversify his. Doing so, he's pushed himself to the top of the field heading into the final round of the FLW Tour Open on this East Texas powerhouse.
When practice showed him that he could fill his boat with 2-pounders on the bank, Marks firmly committed himself to fishing offshore and earned a third-place spot on day one with 17-1. Yesterday, his offshore spots got weird on him, so he headed to the bank, sought out the fattest fish he could find and held his position with a smaller limit of 14-2. Day three saw Marks needing his shallow and deep patterns, but he successfully balanced the equation and sacked up his biggest bag of the event, 18-1, and moved into the lead with 49-4.
With the bass in this Angelina River impoundment making their transition to fall patterns, no one has found the fish just stacked up in any one scenario. Earlier in the week, warm practice days following a weekend cold front saw steady action, but the hot, still conditions of days one and two proved challenging. Today brought cloudy skies and stronger winds.
"It was a little of both today," Marks said of his depth mix. "I caught my two (biggest) ones out deep early because we had some clouds and wind and that had them fired up. I caught four offshore but two of them were pretty little so I decided to make the big run up to the bank and try to catch some of those fat 2 ½-pounders."
Marks caught his offshore on a 1-ounce Strike King Tour Grade football head jig with a Rage Craw trailer. On the bank, he threw a Strike King KVD 1.0 squarebill crankbait in summer sexy shad. With Rayburn in a rather fickle mood this week, having two viable options is a benefit Marks isn't taking lightly. He's also not taking anything for granted.
"It does make me feel good, but both (options) have their challenges," Marks said. "Yesterday, I couldn't catch them deep and I caught them shallow. Today, I caught a couple of good ones deep, but I didn't catch them particularly good shallow.
"The wind and the weather – it's cool one night, it's warm one night – these fish are just in flux; they're not staying put, " Marks said. "We're two perpendicular lines and we have to intersect. If you intersect, you can catch a couple of big ones and I caught my two big ones on back-to-back casts. I saw them on my Lowrance DownScan, swung around and threw a jig out there. It hit the bottom and the big one had it. I reeled him in, netted him and turned around and threw back out there and as soon as it hit the bottom a 4-pounder had it."
Marks said he also experienced the quick-hit potential of his offshore spots on day one when he nabbed a big fish early and then had a flurry that yielded another big bite on his next spot. He said he's counting on a couple good bites each day and he knows that with day-one leader Keith Combs just 14 ounces behind him, he has to connect with something heavy tomorrow.
"I'll probably do the same thing tomorrow, just buzz around early and when I feel like that bite's over, if I've got 14-15 pounds, I'll stay deep all day because that's where they're at and I'll just try to talk one into biting. If I don't have (sufficient weight) I'll run up shallow and try to scrounge them up. It's the game plan I've been using and hopefully, it will work one more day."
Combs drops a notch to second
Combs has also worked to develop a shallow and a deep game for this tournament, but despite a blazing shoreline bite in practice, he has had to get his tournament work done in the deep water. He weighed in remarkably consistent bags of 16-12 and 16-11 on the first two days, but dipped a little in productivity today with 14-15. His 48-6 total put him in second place.
Working offshore spots with wood and brush in 12-22 feet, Combs caught his fish on a Strike King 6XD crankbait and a Texas-rigged Strike King Rage Recon Worm. Like the previous two days, he moved around a lot and tried to put his baits in front of as many fish as possible, in hopes that the right ones would take interest. Good thing, Combs said, is that his spots are replenishing.
"I can catch them tomorrow – they come to me," he said. "It's a timing deal, though. It's weird; I can hit a spot at 10 o'clock and not catch them, come back at noon and not catch them, come back at 2 and catch them on every cast.
"It's kind of guesswork, to be honest. So, if I make the right guesses tomorrow, I'm gonna bust 'em. If I don't, it could be bad."
Combs said he's confident that Rayburn has yet to show its true potential. He's still expecting someone to bust a 20-pound bag and that kind of day could really shake up the standings.
"It's going to be an exciting day tomorrow," Combs said. "Phil brought it big today, but you never know. This is Texas and this is Sam Rayburn so anything's possible and somebody in 10th place could still win this thing."
Wells cranks his way to third
Jason Wells, of Center, Texas was pretty happy with a pattern he had nailed down in practice, but then last weekend's cold front took a big eraser to that chalk board. Fortunately, he was able to regroup and find a way to catch fish on day one. His tactics have held up and with weights of 12-0, 17-2 and 11-2, Wells has followed a path of improvement that has taken him from 23rd place, to eighth and now to third with a total of 40-4.
"I had found a totally different pattern before the tournament, but I had to adjust on day one and I've followed that pattern ever since," he said. "I'm cranking deep ledges with brush tops that I put out in May and June. To prepare for this event, I put out 30 new tops and I've had very high success rates on them."
With his boat sitting in about 19 feet, Wells fished a Norman DD22 crankbait and used 12-pound IsorLine monofilament on a Lew's MG reel to make long casts. Wells said he's done best by targeting spots with irregularities like drains, ditches and fingers on the ledges.
"That's what has been key for me – finding those special little places that you might not have found 10 years ago without (modern electronics)," he said.
Wind wearies Ware
"I think the wind did hurt me because I've been catching a lot of fish on topwaters," said the Jewett, Texas pro. "When the waves are crashing in on your spots that makes it a lot harder."
Ware's throwing a walking type topwater shallow for the first couple of hours and then he's heading out deep to crank deep structure. Consistency has been elusive, he said.
"It's just a mix it up deal," Ware said. "I wish I could say 'Go here, go there.' But the lake is changing and the fish are moving so you're really just going to areas where you've caught them before and hoping that they're there."
Ware caught a third-day limit of 11-10 and improved his position from 11th to fourth with 39-8.
Davis rises to fifth
"I practiced deep, but I had to abandon that," he said. "All my fish went up to the hill, so I went to the grass right after them. Luckily, I'm getting a good topwater bite and that seems to be the key and then I'm going flipping after that."
Power-Poles proved invaluable to his game plan, as the ability to instantly stop and hold his position enabled him to thoroughly work key areas. In spots that were too deep for the Power-Pole shafts to reach bottom, the new Drift Paddles help control his progression in the wind.
Best of the rest
6th: Jacob Wheeler, of Indianapolis, Ind., 38-15
7th: Randall Tharp, of Gardendale, Ala., 38-12
8th: Matt Herren, of Trussville, Ala., 38-7
9th: Chad Grigsby, of Maple Grove, Minn., 37-9
10th: Ray Hanselman, of Del Rio, Texas, 37-7