The Abu Garcia College Fishing presented by YETI National Championship presented by Lowrance on Grand Lake turned into a shootout on the lower end. With clearer water off the main lake from Duck Creek and Drowning Creek on down, most of the teams that caught fish did their work there.
The winning team of Cole Breeden and Cameron Smith from Drury University caught most of their fish in and around Ketchum Creek on jerkbaits, and a lot of the other top finishes followed suit. Certain key stretches came in handy for some, and the patterns weren’t entirely the same throughout, but those who did best found small ways to differentiate themselves.
Totaling up 40 pounds, 5 ounces on the week, the Murray State University duo of Harbor Lovin and Zachary Martin caught keepers with ease, but couldn’t quite match the quality of Drury. Despite catching numbers, the two estimate that they only caught 10 percent of the fish they saw, and Lovin says that some of those looked like the bigger ones.
Their key baits were a jerkbait and a crappie jig. On the normal, jerkbait side of things, the pair used a Jenko Persues 110 in Table Rock and pro blue. For the crappie jig, they used a ¼-ounce head and a Jenko Big T Fry Daddy.
“It’s been a pretty even mix,” Lovin says of their tackle combo. “[Martin] fishes for fish you should catch, and I like to fish for ones you shouldn’t. So, we throw the jerkbait until we see one, and then sit down and try and catch it with the crappie jig.”
“Seeing them” on LiveScope, Lovin would use forward-facing sonar to put the crappie jig right on the nose of bass.
“It’s not much smaller than a typical Damiki rig, just a little bit,” says Lovin of the crappie jig they used. “It’s not loud, it’s a pretty quiet bait, but they’ll still run away from it and that’s pretty frustrating. There’s maybe an inch behind the hook, and you’ll still watch them eat it on LiveScope, and feel them eat it, and they don’t have it. But, it is a really cool way to catch them, and some of them had it back to the crushers. On a week like this, every bite is really, really special.”
Fishing down the lake the entire time, mostly in one small creek, the pair found the area on the second day of practice.
“Monday, we fished a full 12 hours and neither of us a had bite fishing north of the bridge,” says Lovin. “Tuesday, we put in at the dam – the first place we stopped I caught one out of the top of a tree on a crappie jig. The next pocket over is where we ended up.”
The team focused on a few small areas in their prime creek. With the boat in perhaps 25 to 30 feet of water, they made short casts to a handful of points. There was a lot of brush in the area, along with a few rockpiles as well.
“We had one place that was pretty much a small rock outcropping that was pretty much good for a keeper on the first drop every time if you really needed a keeper,” says Lovin. “Luckily, we didn’t struggle with that much. We were catching 10 to 15 keepers a day, and as tough as this week was, that’s unbelievable.”
Rolling solo, Josh Kelly ended up in the back of Ketchum Creek fishing a jerkbait on brush. Running a Tracker, it took Kelly about an hour to get to his fish each day, but he still hung with the other teams with faster boats and more anglers.
Primarily catching his fish on LiveScope, Kelly’s best jerkbait was the Megabass Vision 110 in the Ito clear laker color. On the final day, he caught almost all of his fish on an umbrella rig. Using LiveScope to dial the bite in allowed Kelly to be very specific with how he targeted each piece of brush.
“There were a couple piles that had certain angles I needed to be on to get a bite,” says Kelly. “So, sometimes it mattered a lot, but on other piles not so much. But, I changed up the angle every time I fished them.”
Kelly caught most of his fish in the back of the creek, where the water wasn’t much deeper than 8 feet. It certainly didn’t feel right considering that the lake was iced over a few weeks ago, but the fish were obviously there.
“I really don’t care about water temperature this time of year, it’s more time of year for me,” says Kelly. “It is March, these fish spawn starting in two or three weeks around here, from what I know. It led me to start looking shallower. I looked pretty shallow all week. I love to catch them out deep, but it didn’t look right, and with the water clarity it didn’t pan out catching them deep.”
“All three days, all we’ve done is adjusted,” says Browning. “We were adjusting literally by the hour out there. The first day, we caught ‘em on an A-rig early, and then caught a big one on a jerkbait and laid off our fish. The second day, the A-rig stuff we laid off of didn’t work, so we moved totally to a different area and started throwing a jerkbait.
“[Friday], we had to really slow down with our jerkbaits, almost fishing slower than you thought you needed to be fishing,” says Browning. “And, we were throwing a crankbait, casting it out and reeling it to the bottom and almost pulling it like a Carolina rig.”
For baits, the pair used a YUM YUMbrella Flash Mob Jr. with 3.8-inch Jackall Rhythm Wave swimbaits, a red Jackall DD Cherry and a handful of jerkbaits. Their best jerkbaits were a Jackall Rerange 110, a Jackall Squad Minnow 115 and a Megabass Vision 110 in pro blue, blue pearl shad and PM twilight chartreuse back.
Fishing down the lake, the pair fished around Ketchum and in the back of Drowning. On day one, the umbrella rig over brush was key, but after that, many of their fish came on rock targets like boat ramps or points.
“The typical key was clear water,” says Harris. “Half this lake is muddy as can be; it’s cold, it’s not where you want to be fishing. Where we were at was all about clear water, warmer water and some structure that’s going to hold fish.”
“Fishing is the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” says Johnson. “On the one hand, if you had told me we’d be here at all after practice, I would have said you were crazy. But, after leading it, and knowing you let it slip, it’s hard. But, overall, it’s been an incredible experience, and it just slipped away from us today.”
Fishing in the back of Drowning, the pair did most of their damage on a Megabass Vision 110 in elegy bone along a ¼-mile stretch of bank with small points and brush.
“On day one we caught a lot of fish out in the open on the rock,” says Johnson. “On day two, they started to show themselves deeper and deeper into the brush piles. Today, all three of them came right smack in the middle of the brush piles.”
“That creek has a lot of history in it, and we went back there in practice and got two bites there,” says Albertson, who previously won the National Championship on the Potomac River. “Those were the only two bites we got in practice, so we went back there and turned it into a Top-10 finish.”
Unlike Kelly, who targeted specific piles and fish, the Murray team didn’t have forward-facing sonar and had to actually fish around. Overall, they reckon about 50 percent of their fish came off brush.
“There were a couple key spots on a flat they got on the first two days,” says Ripple. “The third day, they were off the flat, just roaming more without that sun.”
Making Duck Creek their home base and occasionally dipping down into Ketchum, Tyler Christy and Trey Schroeder of McKendree University didn’t catch a limit on day two, but would have had a shot at the win if they had.
“Pretty much everything we were fishing was either a transition bank or a staging area,” says Schroeder. “It was pretty much all 45-degree banks with busted rock or some brush piles on it. A lot of the field was fishing relatively the same stuff.”
Though the duo wasn’t exclusively targeting brush, they figure about half their fish came out of brush, and most of their fish were definitely relating to it.
“Basically, they all came off this one dock,” says Josh. “That’s where most of our weight came the first two days.”
“It was a dock that was right on a transition,” says Justin. “It was right where it went from a bluff wall to pea gravel.”
On the final day, which was cloudy, the fish weren’t on the dock anymore. Resorting to fishing the bank, the brothers could only tally four keepers.
“We started in Elk [Friday morning]; we had some really good bites there in practice,” says Pfundt. “It’s Championship Friday, you’ve gotta swing for the fences. We caught one keeper and got three more bites that didn’t get it. So, we ran down the river, tried all the stuff we caught our fish on the rest of the week, and caught one fish.”
“We would sit at the mouth and fan cast a jerkbait around,” says Pfundt.
“We had to fish them very slow, like 3-second pauses,” says Morris. “They would normally get it while you were paused, and when you jerked again they’d be on.”
Zach Manneback and Gunner Wilson tallied yet another impressive finish for Adrian College. Running down the lake like everyone else, they fished jerkbaits on a few stretches near the back of Drowning and Duck.
“We had like three stretches, deep gravel banks, and we targeted the indentions in the bank,” says Wilson. “The whole bank would be 10- to 12-feet deep. We were casting at little curves in the bank, maybe just 2 feet back.”
“We had our Panoptix going, and we could see them below us,” says Manneback. “We couldn’t get them to bite in front of us, we would wait for them to pull up to the bank to feed. We would just go back and forth, and when they were pulled up, we could get them to bite.”