LUFKIN, Texas – Christmas came early for Strike King pro Phil Marks. Yesterday, the tenured Texas angler said he needed cloudy weather to tap the full potential of his offshore spots and, after three days of mostly sunny conditions, he got the skies he needed to turn in a crushing performance that topped the Walmart FLW Tour Open on Sam Rayburn Reservoir.
Now, you know how it is when you get a new car – before taking your buddies for a spin, it's kinda cool just to step back and admire the sweet points. Let's do that with Marks' victory. Consider these sweet stats:
- Marks' four-day weight of 82 pounds gave him a winning margin of 16-5 (third largest in FLW Tour history).
- That margin alone was more than the final day weights caught by the third- through 10th-place pros.
- And here's one that doesn't show up on the stat sheets – the Dallas, Texas, pro was the only competitor requiring two weigh-in bags to carry his enormous catch to the scale.
"I've had a couple days like this in the past, but never in an event of this magnitude," Marks said. "I was really just hoping to get a couple (big ones) today. I knew they were there because I could see all that activity on the Lowrance Downscan. After about the third one, I knew I had about 20 pounds and I thought 'That'll probably do it,' and I felt like I might have relaxed just a little bit. But then I said, 'No, stay focused and get five.' So, I caught the fourth one, let the spot rest for about an hour and came back and caught the fifth one."
Marks entered the tournament fully intending to fish offshore. His practice told him that he could fish shallow and swing 2 ½-pounders all day, but he came to town looking for those Rayburn footballs, so he was committed to the deep stuff.
His prime area comprised a handful of offshore sites within a mile circle. The best was a high spot in the middle of a ditch with hard bottom structure – probably shell beds, Marks said. Each day, this spot produced at least one of his weight fish, including a 5- and a 7-pounder on back-to-back day-three casts. The plan generally worked, but shifting weather forced a couple of adjustments.
Anglers saw rain preceding a cold front the weekend before the tournament. The early part of the week offered good practice action in the warming weather, but the clear, hot and still conditions of days one and two made the offshore bite tough. On day two, Marks had to run shallow and catch a couple of keepers on a Strike King KVD 1.0 squarebill crankbait.
The deep bite improved on day three as the second half brought clouds, wind and the promise of a final-round barn burner. Today, the deep fish bit so well that Marks had the deal sewn up early enough to joke about ordering a pizza for lunch.
"We had a pretty good thunderstorm hit this morning and it was raining and windy and I had waves coming over the bow," Marks said. "That fired them up and they were biting pretty good."
Offshore, Marks caught fish on a Texas-rigged Strike King Rage Recon Worm, a 1-ounce Strike King Tour Grade Football Head Jig with a Rage Craw trailer, a Strike King 6XD crankbait and a new Strike King Prototype crankbait – the hulking 10XD, which is made to reach as deep as 25 feet. This new bait and the football jig produced his final-round fish.
As Marks noted, Rayburn's performance this week was indicative of how a true largemouth powerhouse delivers even when it's not in top shape. Following a lengthy Texas drought, this Angelina River impoundment remains about 3 feet below full pool (164.40 feet). Recent rains raised the lake level and scattered bass in all directions. This, in conjunction with the fall transitional period made finding concentrations of fish a tall order. Nevertheless, when you're good, you're good and Sam Rayburn Reservoir is very good at producing quantity and quality.
"It's a gem in Texas," he said. "I promise you there's no other lake that gets the kind of pressure that Rayburn does that continuously spits out that kind of fish."
Combs nabs best bag, finishes second
A longtime resident of Del Rio, Texas, Combs moved to Huntington, just west of Rayburn, so he could fish the lake more often. The practice paid off this week, as the Strike King pro turned in a solid performance that included bags of 16-12, 16-11, 14-15 and 17-5. Combs placed fourth on day one, moved up to first on day two, slipped a notch on day three and ended in second with a total weight of 65-11.
Combs fished offshore spots with wood and brush in 12-25 feet throughout the tournament, with the deeper end of that range producing his final-round fish. He caught his fish on a Strike King 6XD crankbait and a Texas-rigged 10-inch Strike King Rage Recon Worm (plum).
"One of the keys was that I spent some time out here this summer between events, just trying to graph around," he said. "A lot of my fish came on spots with brush or ridges with a lot of stumps and I used my Humminbird Side Imaging for that."
Although he did not find that the final-round weather had much impact on his fish, Combs still enjoyed a nice round of morning action. "I pulled up to my spot and got a little flurry going. I was looking for a kicker and I got one in 24 feet of water."
Wheeler winds up third
Fatheadz pro Jacob Wheeler, of Indianapolis, Ind., sacked up a 14-pound, 14-ounce limit on day four and moved up three spots to finish third with 53-13. The reigning Forrest Wood Cup champion got off to a rocky start with a 42nd-place effort on day one. Wheeler stormed back on day two with 19-15 – the event's second largest sack – and improved to seventh. He stumbled a bit on day three with a small limit of 9-3 but secured his final-round berth in sixth place.
Wheeler started out fishing a chatterbait, but by day two, he had switched to flipping a Trigger X Goo Bug with a heavy weight. The beaver-style bait is a new design introduced at ICAST and produced several key bites for Wheeler at the Cup.
"I was flipping a lot of fish out of the grass mats," he said. "It's something I picked up just recently and it's something I just love to do. Sam Rayburn is an awesome lake. There are giant bass here and it's an unbelievable fishery."
Ware finishes fourth
For most of the week, Jewett, Texas pro Landan Ware has started his day looking for topwater bites around grass and then moving deeper to crank key bottom structure. He turned in steady productivity that put him 11th place the first two days and moved him up to fourth on day three. He concluded in the No. 4 position with a total weight of 52-14.
"I had a good topwater bite this morning," Ware said. "I caught a limit pretty quickly. Everything was working good this morning. They were hitting my bait good and they weren't coming off. I had some trouble with them coming off the first and second days."
Ware found his morning action around grass in the backs of drains, but he said the deep cranking delivered the big chunks he needed: "The chartreuse and blue Norman DD22 got me here. I caught a 6-pounder on it on the first day, a 5 ½ on the second day. That bait really got me here."
Grigsby stays shallow, takes fifth
Chad Grigsby, of Maple Grove, Minn. spent his entire tournament flipping beaver style baits in heavy grass and caught 13-7, 12-11, 11-7 and 14-15 for a tournament total of 52-8. Coming into the final round in ninth place, he gained four spots to finish fifth.
"I was catching them deep for grass; it was anywhere from seven to 10 feet," he said. "If it got any shallower than that I wouldn't catch them. I was just following the river channel way in the backs of these pockets. There were these deep drains that have been washed away and the grass would grow right up to the edge of them. I could flip over to one side and it would only go down to two feet, but I could flip over to the other side and it would go down seven and that was the stretch I was keying on."
Best of the rest
Rounding out the top-10 pro leaders at the FLW Tour Open event on Sam Rayburn Reservoir:
6th: Matt Herren, of Trussville, Ala., 50-9
7th: Jason Wells, of Center, Texas, 48-4
8th: Randall Tharp, of Gardendale, Ala., 47-9
9th: Darrel Davis, of Dover, Fla., 46-15
10th: Ray Hanselman, of Del Rio, Texas, 46-5