Where Scott Wiley grew up near Bay Minette, Ala., the only shell beds he ever dragged a worm across belonged to oysters, and a Snagless Sally in-line spinnerbait was his fallback choice when all else failed. Even today, depending on the delta tide, the bass hold in water less than 6 feet deep, and a grinnel or redfish is just as likely to grab a lure as a largemouth. The current moves the Tensaw River at a languid pace toward Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, curling and eddying past flooded cypress and tupelo gum, under vast mats of lily pads and through forests of eel grass, and past the sleepy fish camps scattered along its banks: Upper Bryant Landing, Cliff’s Landing, Hubbard’s, Hurricane Landing and Cloverleaf among them.
The Mobile-Tensaw River Delta is no place for a tournament fisherman to cut his teeth, and it didn’t exactly offer Wiley a lot of variety in the way it fished when, as a boy, he was first introduced to it by his grandfather. At least it taught him how to fish tidewater, however, and that’s what got him in the 2015 Forrest Wood Cup.
Wiley settled all doubt about that at the last Walmart FLW Tour event of the year on the Potomac River, where he finished 12th in the tournament and 27th in the yearly standings. It was his best finish in the three years he’s fished the Tour, and provided him his first shot at winning the Cup and its top prize of $500,000. The Potomac locked him in. Had it not been for muddy water sweeping through his area on day three, the Alabama pro might have made it into the championship round.
“The Delta is a very tough fishery, but I think it prepared me pretty good for the Potomac,” observes Wiley, 44. “In fact, I found one place that looked just like the Delta – minus the Spanish moss. There were flooded trees, lots of different kinds of grass and bass that reacted in a predictable way depending on where the tide was at the time. My best fishing came on the last hour of the low tide, the first hour of the high tide and then at the top of the high tide.”
Of course, all that goes out the proverbial window at Lake Ouachita, site of the 2015 Cup, where most fish are going to be caught very deep or very shallow, and the winner is likely to put together an approach that combines elements of both patterns. Wiley is okay with that, but his strong suit is fishing shoreline cover and he doesn’t plan to change now.
“I’m kind of like John Cox when it comes to fishing shallow, though I do have a fish finder in my boat [and Cox doesn’t],” says Wiley. “It’s what I know and what I feel comfortable doing. I don’t have a thing against fishing deep; it’s just that I haven’t been exposed to it that much.”
There are advantages to being a bank-runner like Wiley. He doesn’t have to worry about other anglers beating him to his best offshore spots, nor about the fish developing lockjaw because there’s no current. The downside is that, typically, there aren’t as many fish roaming the shoreline in August. That’s a gamble Wiley is willing to make, however.
“There are always shallow fish. You have to find them and figure out what to catch them on, but they’re always there,” thinks Wiley, who has a heating and air-conditioning business in Bay Minette. “You’re probably not going to get as many bites as you would offshore in a lake like Ouachita, but what you get might be five good ones that will hold up. The biggest problem to that is doing it four days in a row. I was fifth going into the third day at Smith Lake, and just ran out of fish. You’ve got to have something to go to once you make the cut.”
Fish management has been the weakest part of Wiley’s game in the past, but he’s made a lot of progress in that regard this year and is more conservative when he thinks he needs to be. Wiley recalls that the defending Forrest Wood Cup champion Anthony Gagliardi told him at the start of the year that job one in a Tour event is being able to fish on Saturday (in the semi-final round), no matter how many fish he has to go through to get there.
However, Wiley has learned that there are times when he needs to be judicious about how many fish he catches, and other times when going through as many bass as possible just to get a decent limit is necessary. Knowing when to let up, or bear down, on a spot is more an art than a science for a shallow-water specialist.
“I’ve never been to Ouachita, but I understand it fishes a lot like Beaver Lake, which I like. I’m going to pre-practice there, see what I can find and then hopefully go back in practice and put together a good plan,” he says. “Figuring out where you need to start the day and where you need to finish it are the two most important decisions.”
How his run-and-gun approach plays out on Lake Ouachita remains to be seen, but Wiley thinks that given the right ingredients, he’ll do okay for a river fisherman from the Alabama Gulf Coast. His favorite lures for summer fishing are a frog and a buzzbait, though he expects to forego the latter for a stick bait of some sort.
In practice at Ouachita, Wiley will go hunting for his favorite type of shoreline. It’s a stretch of bank that tapers down quickly to deeper water, and is lined with some sort of aquatic weed that extends out about 5 to 7 feet. If there’s a distinct edge to the grass line, even better, because generally that’s where he finds bass.
“Ideally, I’d like to find four or five places where I can catch a few fish off of each one without beating them up,” says Wiley, whose sponsors include Captain Gary’s Marine Care Products, Ranger Boats, Mercury, Power-Pole, Lowrance and Duckett Fishing. “Bank fish don’t replenish a spot as fast as offshore fish do. Having said that, in the Cup I’m going to go out every day and catch the five biggest fish I can. It’s not about earning points anymore; it’s about money. This one tournament can make your whole season for next year. So I’m going to go do what I know how to do and let the chips fall where they may.”