The 2024 Tackle Warehouse Invitationals season is upon us, and with it comes another chance to play Phoenix Boats Fantasy Fishing and give yourself a shot at winning a prize package from Tackle Warehouse. Stop 1 Presented by Power-Pole MOVE will take the field to Texas’ Sam Rayburn Reservoir, which needs no introduction. Rayburn has become one of the most popular tournament fisheries in the country, and for good reason — it always seems to deliver big bass and dramatic events.
Given the conditions, we could be in for a heaping portion of both this week. Mother Nature has thrown the field a curveball, with heavy rains causing the lake level to rise more than 5 feet in the past month and muddying the upper end of the reservoir. Add in a warming trend, and we should see some big females show up — but the changing conditions could also make it difficult to find a pattern that produces across all three days of the event.
With 150 anglers to choose from and local knowledge perhaps less important than usual given the unique conditions and the fact that just about everyone has experience on Rayburn, picking your roster might feel like a dart throw. That’s where we come in. Here’s everything you need to know to select a winning lineup.
Despite Rayburn’s extensive tournament history, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about how this week’s derby will play out. Some anglers think it will be won around submerged grass, especially given the higher water level. In recent years, however, fishing hard cover offshore has produced more success. Local anglers don’t seem to think anyone will be able to solely target suspended, bait-chasing bass using forward-facing sonar, but these days, there’s always a chance — especially after we saw that strategy dominate at nearby Toledo Bend during last week’s Bass Pro Tour event. Lastly, there’s a possibility that the warm, rising water pushes some fish to the banks. What seems most likely is that a combination of the above tactics will be represented in the Top 10, and it won’t be a surprise to see anglers weigh in a bag in the upper 20s one day and the mid teens the next.
Dakota Ebare — There are a bunch of anglers worthy of consideration in an absolutely loaded Flight 1, but it would be difficult to build a roster without Ebare. Not only has he been one of the hottest anglers in the country in recent years, he happens to live right by this week’s launch ramp in Brookeland, Texas, and he won a Toyota Series event on the lake around this time last year.
John Cox — Among Cox’s long list of accomplishments is a win on Sam Rayburn when the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit visited the lake in late January of 2020. He also finished fifth there in 2014. Cox has some boom-bust potential this week, as he doesn’t have forward-facing sonar on his boat and has already said he plans to stick shallow. If the big ones move toward the banks and Cox is at the leading edge of that bite, he could blow everyone away. If the fish stay offshore, like we saw at Toledo Bend, he might bomb. But in an event where volatility will probably be the norm, his combination of talent and history is hard to bet against.
Alec Morrison — The New York native has only competed on Rayburn once, yet he seems to have a special connection with the lake. Morrison blew away the field at the Toyota Series event on Rayburn last May. He sacked up 73-5 across three days and set a record with his 24-pound margin of victory. Then, this week, he caught a 13.82-pound ShareLunker during practice.
Nick LeBrun — LeBrun finished second during the 2019 Pro Circuit stop on Rayburn. He’s also notched a pair of Top-10 finishes in Toyota Series competition on the lake and won a BFL there in 2019. Plus, he should be looking for a little redemption after missing the cut at Toledo Bend last week.
A sizable portion of the field for Stop 1 lives within a few hours’ drive of Sam Rayburn, so we narrowed this list to anglers who should have local knowledge plus have experienced recent tournament success on the fishery.
Randy Despino (Blanchard, Louisiana) — The last time the Pro Circuit visited Rayburn (2022), Despino finished third.
Marshall Hughes (Hemphill, Texas) — Hughes lives right next to the lake and hasn’t finished worse than 11th in four Toyota Series events on Rayburn over the past two years.
Colby Miller (Elmer, Louisiana) — Miller is off to a hot start to the 2024 season, having finished 9th in the Jan. 6 BFL on Rayburn and then won at Lake of the Pines on Jan. 27.
Jaden Parrish (Liberty, Texas) — Parrish has logged Top 10 finishes in his past two events on Rayburn, including the Jan. 6 BFL.
Matt Reed (Madisonville, Texas) — Reed may guide on Falcon Lake, but he’s no slouch on Rayburn. He finished sixth in the Toyota Series event that Morrison won and has three top-40 finishes in Pro Circuit competition on the fishery.
Tommy Dickerson (Orange, Texas) — Dickerson has had more misses than hits on Rayburn in recent years, but he has three Top 10s on the lake, including a second-place finish in the 2020 Pro Circuit event, which was held around this time of year.
Cameron Mattison (Benton, Louisiana) — Since 2021, Mattison has two top-five finishes in BFLs and one in a Toyota Series event on Sam Rayburn.
If there’s one person in the field who has experienced the conditions anglers will face this week and knows what to do, it’s Dicky Newberry. A Texas legend, Newberry has racked up an astounding seven wins and 30 Top-10 finishes on Rayburn across Phoenix Bass Fishing League and Toyota Series competition.
Same goes for Scotty Villines. He has a ton of tournament experience on Rayburn, including three Top 10s in Toyota Series competition through the years. He also showed that he can compete at this level when he finished 17th in the points as a rookie on the Invitationals in 2023.
Lastly, there are several current Bass Pro Tour anglers in this group who I’ll be tempted to include on my roster. Matt Becker has a Top 10 at Rayburn on his résumé and is on fire right now. Drew Gill just showed everyone how good he is with a third-place finish at Toledo Bend. Bobby Lane is one of the most accomplished anglers in any field. But if I had to choose one, I’m going with Spencer Shuffield. Shuffield finished second at Toledo Bend, yet he still has to be a bit fired up, as it looked like he was on the fish to win before they moved on the final day. Plus, according to his Instagram account, he caught an 11-pounder during practice this week, so he must have something figured out.
In a group that doesn’t have nearly as many local hammers, give me the most talented angler. That might just be Martin Villa. After finishing fifth in the points last year and qualifying for the Bass Pro Tour, Villa kicked off his rookie season with a sixth-place showing at Toledo Bend. He has experience on Rayburn, having competed there in 2022, so the lake won’t be new to him. I think he keeps the momentum rolling.
Along those same lines, I picked Kyle Hall to win Angler of the Year in the Invitationals, plus he’s from Texas and surely put some time in on Rayburn during the winter. Even though his past results on Big Sam aren’t great, I’ll be including him on my roster.
Finally, Travis Harriman jumped in the BFL on Rayburn last month and finished 11th, and I’m guessing he spent some time familiarizing himself with the lake while down there. Harriman had a strong year in 2023, winning a Toyota Series event, placing second in the Invitationals visit to Clarks Hill and finishing among the Top 20 at both the All-American and Toyota Series Championship. I think even bigger things could be in store in 2024, and this weekend might be the start.