Fishing Hits New Hites - Major League Fishing

Fishing Hits New Hites

October 31, 1998 • Steve Bowman • Archives

In the annals of bass fishing, enter Davy Hite and Tommy Biffle in the Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship on the Mississippi River at Moline, Illinios. Hite won this one. He edged past Biffle on the final day by 12 ounces to take home bass fishing history’s largest prize -$250,000.

From the start, it was an outcome both anglers said would come down to one or the other, while the rest of the field wasn’t as certain. The classic showdown between two of the sports biggest names, included an all-star cast that could only occur at the Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship. It included such icons as Rick Clunn, Denny Brauer, George Cochran, and Gary Klein. Boiling the contest down to two men provided a great deal of drama. Here’s a day-by-day look at how the tournament played out.

Day One. Hite almost doesn’t make it.

Hite literally rode his thumb into the first-day lead. Hite weighed four bass weighing 11 pounds. But he almost recorded a zero after his boat broke down miles from the launch site, forcing him to hitchhike with one of the other pros. Luckily, Hite made it back in time.

“It was pretty hair-raising there for a little while,” Hite said. “Now if I can keep my boat running and the fish biting for another day, things should go pretty well.”

Hite’s stringer and last-minute luck capped a day where the remainder of the field struggled to catch keeper bass. Of the 50 professionals, only two caught five fish limits, while the rest of the field averaged only two fish each. Anglers in the tournament were limited to largemouth and smallmouth bass measuring at least 14 inches. Following Hite was Tommy Biffle of Wagoner, Oklahoma, in second with four fish weighing 10-1. Denny Brauer of Camdenton, Missouri, recognized as the hottest angler in the country with recent wins in the BASS Masters Classic, the B.A.S.S. Top 150 tournament on the Potomac River, and the Wal-Mart FLW Tour angler of the year title, was third with five fish totaling 9-7. Charlie Reed of Broken Bow, Oklahoma, was fourth with 9-0. And George Cochran of Hot Springs, Arkansas, was fifth with 7-9.

While the weights were low, all of the contenders from top to bottom considered themselves in a position to move into the top 10. The optimism of the field lay with the potential of the Mississippi River in areas far away from where most of the anglers fished the first day and changes in the fishing that occurred after heavy rains fell over the area during the prior weekend.

“We had about a 3- to 4-inch rain that really muddied up the water; it changed the way the fish bit,” Jerry Williams of Conway, Arkansas, who zeroed on the first day, said during the first-day weigh in. “That, and the fact that the better fish are more than 100 miles away. During practice you could catch good fish, 12- to 15-pound stringers with no problem.

“But we didn’t know until the tournament started that the Corps of Engineers was giving us priority locking status. I’d already made up my mind to stay close, because I practiced there the last few days thinking I didn’t have enough time to go a long distance. I know better now. I’ve got to go and if they are there I can catch them.”

Part of the initial discomfort laid with how many anglers reported catching their fish. Most reported fishing thick submerged grass beds prevalent throughout this section of the Mississippi River. Many of the anglers were fishing topwater lures like scum frogs and rats, that skid across matted grass and force fish to bite through the vegetation to get hooked.

“You miss a lot of fish, doing what I’m doing,” Hite said. “But it’s exciting, because you get a lot of blow-ups.” Rob Kilby of Hot Springs, Arkansas, was one of the trailing anglers who felt good about his chances. The area he was fishing was full of fish, he said. “But it’s so thick, the trolling motor is useless.” Kilby carried two push poles in his boat to move his boat through the thick grass.

“If I can get a hook in them, it can get insane,” Kilby said. “They would just blow up on it today. But I think it could be different the second day.”

Day Two. A day of surprises and no surprises.

In the no surprises category, Hite kept the lead and Brauer was right behind him.

Hite weighed in a limit of fish totaling 10 pounds, 6 ounces for a 21-6 total. Brauer’s 11-0 stringer moved him to 20-7. Biffle was third with 19-1. The big surprises, though, were huge jumps made by Williams and Rick Clunn of Glorietta, New Mexico. Those anglers were part of the top 10 cut, that included: Gary Klein, Weatherford, Texas (4th, with 16-7); Billy Schroeder of Paducah, Ky. (5th with 15-15); George Cochran of Hot Springs, Ark. (6th with 15-8); Clark Wendlandt of Cedar Park, Texas (7th with 14-12); Clunn (8th with 14-6); Mike McClelland of Springdale, Ark. (9th with 14-4); and Williams of Conway, Ark. (10th with 13-3).

The day’s drama was provided by Williams who, in last place going into the day, caught a five fish stringer totaling 13 pounds, 3 ounces, to slip into the 10th position. Williams’ stringer was anchored by a 3-8 largemouth and two 3-pound class smallmouths, the only two smallmouth bass weighed in the tournament.

“I knew I could catch them, if I could get to them and get back,” Williams, who boated over 100 miles and through three lock and dams, said. “I pulled out of the lock at 8:10 and by 9:05, I had my limit.”

Williams said that for the first 20 minutes of the tournament, he caught a fish on every cast. “They were absolutely wadded up,” he said. The move, coming from last to make the top 10 on the strength of one day fishing, was a first for Wal-Mart FLW Tour history.

“I had nothing to lose today, either I caught them or I was going home,” Williams said.

While Williams was charging, providing an interesting sidelight to the tournament, Hite and Biffle were beginning to shed light on their head-to-head battle in the same area, shaping the tournament into a one-on-one showdown. They were first and second, respectively on the first day, and each said if they had the fishing area to themselves they could walk away with the tournament.

“There’s absolutely no question about that,” Biffle said. The two even made a pact for the third day, that after each caught his limit they would leave. The area was so good that both believed they wouldn’t have any problem making the final five. On Saturday, they said, all bets are off. “Then, I think it will come down to who gets the big bite,” Hite said.

Day Three. The final 5 and Cochran adds to the excitement.

Cochran threw a momentary kink into the plans of Hite and Biffle by finishing at the top of the standings with an 11 pound, 15 ounce stringer. While Williams continued to tempt fate by staying at the bottom of the standings every day of the tournament. He anchored the five-man group with a 9-1 stringer.

In between were Hite, whose lead became vulnerable for the first time in three days. He was in second with 11-12. Biffle was third with 11-3 and Klein was fourth with 9-12. Conspicuously missing from the final five was Denny Brauer. After three days of being in the top three in the tournament, Brauer fell to 8th with 4-2. While most of the eyes were watching Hite and Biffle, Cochran’s strong third-day performance, coupled with the number of fish in Hite and Biffle’s area, began to form questions on the expected outcome. Hite and Biffle’s area had produced seven stringers in the 10-pound or better range, including a 12 pound, 14 ounce, limit caught by amateur Todd Lee of Jasper, Alabama, Lee’s weight allowed him to win his second co-angler title in three years.

His heavyweight stringer, the second largest weighed in the tournament, prompted other anglers to question whether or not the area was running out of fish. In a tournament that had seen few five-fish limits, some felt the good fishing of one small area had to slow at some time.

“It’s not going to run out of fish,” Biffle said. “It’s just full of quality fish, and they will bite.”

Each of the anglers were throwing topwater lures, like buzzbaits, Gambler Super Tubes, Rats, and Luck E Strike tube baits over matted grass to initiate strikes from the bass. The biggest problem, Hite said, was getting a hook into the bass under the thick grass.

While the two continued to butt heads in the same area, Cochran believed the tournament was playing to his strategy. He was catching fish shallow and on a one-quarter- ounce Strike King buzzbait around lily pads.

“That’s my favorite way to fish,” Cochran said. “You can see the fish coming. You can see those pads moving and you know he’s fixing to blow up on it.” Even though Cochran weighed in the heaviest stringer of the day, he said his pattern would get better for the final.

“If I have any clouds, rain or just sprinkles, I think I can win it. No! There’s no doubt I will win it,” Cochran said. Cochran’s confidence came from forecasts that called for clouds and scattered showers in the area for the final.

While most of the top five were concentrating on backwater areas of the river, Klein had caught stringers of 5-12, 10-11, and 9-12, fishing a black Lunker Lure buzzbait around main river grass.

“I’m not getting a lot of bites, but the ones that hit are quality fish,” Klein said. His weights seemed to verify the quality. In the three days of fishing, Klein had yet to weigh in a full five-fish limit.

Williams traveled through three lock and dams and 172 miles round trip to catch his fish on a variety of lures including a Gambler Super Tube, a Norman Deep Little N and a War Eagle spinnerbait. All of the fish were in the main-river current and coming off of rock walls and jetties. His third day weight fell off the pace after the pool he was fishing dropped over one foot.

With Cochran, an expert at figuring out the shallow water bite, getting stronger, Williams, who had already proved he could make last-minute charges, and Klein catching the big fish, it looked as if Hite and Biffle’s prediction of one being the winner was in jeopardy.

Day Four. A down-to-the-wire final round.

In every Wal-Mart FLW Tour tournament, the drama is heightened by the last-day shootout among the final five. None of the anglers know what the other has, and the weights start with one fish. The next angler has to beat the weight or sit down.

The round started with Cochran weighing one fish at 2 pounds, 5 ounces. Next up was Hite, who had to beat it, with two fish totaling 3-11. Biffle followed suit with two keepers totaling 4-2. Klein had to up the ante with three fish that totaled 4-4. Williams could only manage two fish during the final, and was knocked out with 3-9.

Next up was Cochran, with a weight to beat of 4-4, he weighed his last fish, a 1-11 keeper to take his weight to 4-0. He too was out, leaving Hite, Biffle, and Klein. Hite added to his 3-11, a 1-15 keeper for a weight to beat of 5-10. As before, Biffle answered with a 1-12 keeper and a 3-7 keeper, taking his total to 7-9. Klein, who had already weighed his total, had to sit out. That left Hite, who had two fish remaining, and Biffle, who had one.

Hite needed to beat Biffle’s mark of 7-9. He did it with a 2-6 pound largemouth to take the total to 8-0. The tension mounted as Biffle went to his livewell, with most thinking he still had a lunker, like the 3-7, weighed in the last hour. He didn’t have it, but his 2-12 pound largemouth shot him up to 10-1, leaving Hite needing a 2 pound, 1 ounce keeper to take the lead.

From the stands, his last keeper was obviously close, too close to call. It would be ounces, either way you looked at it. But after a week of competing cast-for-cast, Hite’s victory boiled down to one 2 pound, 13 ounce keeper. The difference, 12 ounces, meant $250,000 for Hite, $25,000 for Biffle. And so the spoils to the victor.

Hite won the tournament, keeping half a prediction he and Biffle both made going into the final day. Each said that the tournament would come down to them, and between them it would be the angler who caught the single largest bass.

Hite’s winning stringer of five fish totaled 10 pounds, 13 ounces, anchored by that 2 pound, 13 ounce largemouth. His largest fish was almost a pound shorter than Biffle’s largest. But to Biffle’s misfortune, the remainder of his stringer couldn’t match the almost 2 pound average Hite set.

While the two top anglers battled within eyesight of each other, changing conditions proved to be too much for the other anglers who could only average about 3 hours of fishing time for the final day. All of the anglers were traveling long distances to fish, and falling water levels for Gary Klein (3rd, 4-4) and Jerry Williams (5th, 3-9) proved to be too much.

Hite and Biffle spent the duration of the tournament in Edick Lake, a small backwater area more than 57 river miles from the launch site. Each caught limits each day of the tournament, except the first day when they weighed in four bass apiece.

“I knew when I found this area that I could win it, if no more than one other angler found it,” Hite said. “I was surprised Tommy found it, but I’m glad it was him because we worked so well together all week.” Hite said the two anglers staked out their own 200-yard sections of the lake and stayed on their side of an imaginary line.

“I have to commend Tommy. With a quarter of a million on the line very few people could do that,” Hite said to Biffle and the weigh-in crowd. “I thank you for being such a professional.” Biffle’s second place finish was his second in the Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship. He was the runner-up at the 1997 tournament on the Mississippi River at Greenville, Mississippi.

It’s a position Biffle has grown accustomed to being in. He’s also finished second twice in the BASS Masters Classic, the first time to Rick Clunn in 1990 and then to Bryan Kerchal in 1994.

“I’m happy for Davy,” Biffle said. “But I wouldn’t be honest, if I didn’t say it makes me mad. I came here to win.”

Hite caught his winning stringers on a Gambler Super Tube, a plastic frog and a Bulldog buzzbait. Each of the lures were fished on top of grass beds or swam through thick layers of duck weed. Hite said the tube bait was most affective early in the tournament when cloudy weather had the fish pulled out to the edges. The bait he said initiated strikes as he swam it through the sparse duck weed. But on the final day, clear skies “tucked the fish under” heavier vegetation and he had to switch to the plastic frog to get the strikes.

Biffle’s pattern was similar, but he fished scum frogs, rats, and a Lunker Lure buzzbait over the weeds and grass to catch his fish. Klein, who opted to stay on the main river and catch fish from grass beds that had current flowing by, caught his fish on a Lunker Lure buzzbait and flipping a jig around wood cover. Cochran concentrated on backwater lily pads and laydowns with a 1/4-ounce Strike King buzzbait and Series 3 crankbait.

Williams, who jumped into the second-day 10-man cut from last place and secured himself as a crowd favorite, fished more than 172 miles from the launch site around main-river rock jetties and laydowns with a Gambler Super Tube, Norman Deep Little N, and War Eagle spinnerbait. His fifth place finish was his fourth top 10 finish in seven Wal-Mart FLW Tour tournaments, and the $10,000 pay day added to his season winnings ($99,800)-the highest of any angler on the Wal-Mart FLW Tour who hasn’t won a tournament.

Meanwhile, he had the dubious honor of occupying the last-place qualifying spot during every day of the tournament.