Top 10 baits from season-opening shootout on Sam Rayburn - Major League Fishing
Top 10 baits from season-opening shootout on Sam Rayburn
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Top 10 baits from season-opening shootout on Sam Rayburn

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While forward-facing sonar and suspended-fish baits produced a lot of success at Sam Rayburn, a few Texas prespawn staples shone, too. Photo by Rob Matsuura.
February 13, 2024 • Mitchell Forde, Rob Matsuura • Invitationals

BROOKELAND, Texas — Forward-facing sonar continued its domination of the tournament-fishing world during a thrilling Tackle Warehouse Invitationals season opener. Stop 1 Presented by Power-Pole MOVE saw big, prespawn bass hit the scales in bunches, with Sam Rayburn Reservoir producing 29 limits over 20 pounds and one truly epic bag — Marshall Hughes’ 38-pound, 7-ounce Day 2 stringer.  

That said, while most of the top performers caught their fish ‘Scoping, including winner Drew Gill, it wasn’t a total takeover. A few Sam Rayburn staples — jigs, vibrating jigs, deep crankbaits, lipless baits — helped account for Top-10 finishes, showing that there’s still a time and a place for “old-school,” power tactics alongside the finesse offerings typically paired with forward-facing sonar.  

Here’s how the best caught ‘em on Rayburn.

1. Gill ‘Scopes shallow for the win

Drew Gill got his first national win on two of his go-to techniques.

Despite a challenging practice, Gill broke through for his first national win by doing what he does best — targeting individual fish using Garmin LiveScope. He started competition on the main lake, searching the mouths of pockets and drains while throwing a 4-inch minnow-style plastic on a 3/16-ounce jighead.

As the event progressed, the bass moved shallower, and so did Gill. He focused on short, main-lake pockets, fishing about halfway back in them. He also found that the fish were more apt to bite a bait on the bottom, so he switched to a Neko rig, which he made with a Big Bite Baits Shaking Squirrel Worm, a 1/8-ounce Jig Shack tungsten nail weight and a No. 1 Roboworm Rebarb hook.

“In the tournament, they started following (the jighead minnow) up and they wouldn’t eat it,” Gill said. “If I dropped it to the bottom — just dropped it, like, didn’t do anything — they didn’t care about it. But if I shook it, got them following it up and then let it drop to the bottom, they’d follow it to the bottom and eat it off the bottom. I was like, OK, if they’re wanting to follow it up and eat it off the bottom, I’m going to switch to a Neko worm. And as soon as I did that, every single fish I went to catch over 3 pounds for the last two days of the tournament, every single one of them, I caught.”

Gill threw both his jighead minnow and Neko rigs on a 7-foot-6, medium-light Ark Invoker Tour spinning rod paired with an Ark Gravity Series GS5 reel.

2. Lawrence starts rookie season on the right foot

Jake Lawrence narrowly missed starting his rookie season on the Invitationals with a victory.

After winning three events in 2023, Jake Lawrence came dangerously close to lifting another trophy. About 15 minutes prior to check-in on Day 3, he stumbled upon a drain loaded with big ones. He caught an 8-pounder off one spot and a 7-pounder off another and believes he could have boated the winning bass with just a few more minutes — especially since he finished the day with two fish under 3 pounds in his livewell.

Lawrence started the event fishing a drain that was full of standing timber, which topped out 4 to 6 feet beneath the surface. When the bait left the area midway through Day 2, the bass followed, so Lawrence ran other drains, finding that better quality fish seemed to position around some form of isolated cover, whether it be grass, wood or a dropoff. His final two fish came off a grass patch in the back end of a drain.

“From where my boat was positioned, I could pan anywhere from 10 to 1 o’clock and see two to 15 (fish) on my screen dotted up on this patch of grass,” Lawrence said. “First cast, I caught that 7, which gave me 24 (pounds), and I had enough time to make three more casts. And my next cast, I had another big one come up on it, didn’t eat it. Next two casts, I had them probably big enough to win but not great big — 3- to 4-pound class fish — come up, and just ran out of time.”

Regardless of the area, Lawrence stuck to his strengths all tournament, finding his fish on forward-facing sonar and catching them by mid-strolling various soft-plastic minnows. He caught the majority of his keepers on a 4-inch Tremor Shad from Jenko Fishing in the Joker color. He also mixed in a larger, prototype minnow bait from Jenko. The 7-inch offering excelled under low-light conditions. He rigged both on a prototype jighead from Jenko, switching between 1/8- and 1/4-ounce sizes. Lawrence said Jenko is hoping to unveil both the jighead and new bait at ICAST this summer.

Lawrence threw his mid-strolling minnows on a 7-6, medium-light DCVR High Roller spinning rod from Jenko. The rod, which also has not yet hit the market, is designed to fish jighead minnows and hair jigs. He also noted that a major key to his success were the Performance Fishing brakes installed on his Phoenix. Having those allowed him to cover water quickly — key to finding the bigger bass that were mixed in among endless 1- and 2-pounders — but still make a stealthy presentation when he came across a big one.

3. Hughes shines with local knowledge

Marshall Hughes power-fished his way to a third-place finish thanks in large part to his spectacular Day 2.

Making his Invitationals debut on his home lake, Hughes may not have won the tournament, but he etched his name into Sam Rayburn lore by dropping 38-7 on the scales — the fourth-largest five-fish limit in the long history of MLF competition on the fishery. He caught the mega bag, which featured an 11-pound kicker, on the same tandem of baits he relied on throughout the event. Hughes wielded a Bill Lewis Scope-Stik jerkbait in the cajun neon color as well as a 5/8-ounce Buckeye Mop Jig in PB&J. He paired the jig with a green pumpkin Yamamoto Flappin’ Hog trailer. 

Hughes threw the jerkbait on a Speciality Series Jerk rod from Pride Rods — a 6-7, medium-heavy model — with 12-pound fluorocarbon line. For his jig, he used the 7-3, extra-heavy Ribbit model with 20-pound line. 

4. Lane goes old-school with morning beatdowns

Cal Lane proved that deep-diving plugs can still catch big ones.

One of three anglers in the field to eclipse 20 pounds all three days, Cal Lane caught just about all of that weight off the same spot each morning. He described the area as a hard-bottom bar with scattered brush that spanned about 50 yards.

Lane triggered the bass that were using the spot to feed by dredging a Strike King 10XD in chartreuse perch. While the deep-diving plug can reach depths of more than 25 feet, Lane only fished it in 10, so he upsized his line to 17-pound fluorocarbon to keep it shallower and prevent break-offs. He also used a Damiki rig and drop-shot as follow-up baits, but just about every bass he weighed ate the crankbait.

5. Poche goes ‘Scoping

Uncharacteristically, Keith Poche joined the LiveScope crowd on Sam Rayburn — and out-fished most of them.

Usually one to run away from the beamers in search of the most hard-to-reach backwaters, Keith Poche mixed it up this week, using Garmin LiveScope to target fish suspended in drains like much of the rest of the field. However, in typical Poche fashion, he added his own flair to the technique. Instead of using a jighead minnow or other finesse bait, Poche pitched a 5-inch Berkley PowerBait MaxScent The General in green pumpkin on a 5/16-ounce shaky head to the roaming bass.

Poche hadn’t tried the technique prior to the event, but it worked, producing multiple fish over 7 pounds.

“I just was experimenting and wasn’t catching anything shallow, so I just went fishing,” Poche said.

He threw the shaky head on a 7-3 heavy Fenwick Elite casting rod and with an 8:1 gear ratio reel Abu Garcia Zenon reel spooled with 15-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon.

6. Minnows and ‘Scope work for Hatfield as well

While not quite as prominent as on Toledo Bend, the jighead minnow accounted for several Top-10 finishes at Sam Rayburn, including Nick Hatfield’s sixth-place showing.

The last angler to get a spot in the field, Nick Hatfield made the most of his week on Rayburn by finishing sixth. He employed a similar approach from his Bass Pro Tour debut on Toledo Bend the week prior, using Garmin LiveScope to find fish chasing bait and targeting them with a jighead minnow. He focused on channel swings in main-lake pockets or major creek arms. 

“Anywhere the creek channel in the creek or the pocket itself had a swing in it, there seemed to be a little bit more bait and a decent population of bass swimming around,” Hatfield said. “Each day I just had to check a few different places, and some days they would be there, some days they would be somewhere else, and just kind of had to rotate through some stuff each day to run into them.” 

Hatfield’s plastic of choice was a 5.25-inch Scottsboro Tackle Pro Series Sniper Shad. He attached it to a 3/16-ounce Hellfire Swimbait Head from Scottsboro, preferring the model with a 3/0 hook. He threw the bait on a 7-3, medium J-D.A.M. spinning rod from Doomsday Tackle. Hatfield also caught a few fish on a jerkbait, swapping the treble hooks for No. 5 Hayabusa TBL930s with the NBR coating.

7. Final-day adjustment rockets Condron up the leaderboard

Mark Condron surged into the Top 10 by catching the biggest bag on Championship Day.

After sneaking into the Top 30, Mark Condron rocketed all the way to a seventh-place finish by sacking up 26-13 on Championship Day — the biggest bag in the field. The key, he said, was an area change. Instead of targeting individual fish roaming in drains as he had early in the event, he returned to a few spots that he had found in practice, which featured brushpiles in the mouths of spawning areas.  

Condron fished above the brushpiles using the same baits he employed throughout the event. He threw a 3-inch paddletail swimbait as well as a 4.25-inch Whip, both made by Driftwood Custom Baits. He leaned on the GTO color of the Whip, a forked-tail, minnow-style soft plastic. He affixed them to either 1/8-ounce or 1/4-ounce ball heads that he pours himself, varying the size based on the depth of the fish he saw on his Lowrance ActiveTarget. For his setup, he used a Lew’s Custom Lite spinning rod and matching Custom Lite reel spooled with 10-pound PowerPro Super8Slick V2 braided line tied to a 10-pound Seaguar InvizX leader. 

8. No school like the old school for LeBrun

Nick LeBrun proved that there’s still a place for chunking and winding.

Nick LeBrun showed that traditional prespawn tactics could still compete on Sam Rayburn. The Louisiana native spent the tournament “chunking and winding” around submerged grass with a lipless crankbait and ChatterBait. The ChatterBait — a 1/2-ounce Z-Man Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer in the fire craw color — elicited most of his big bites. For a trailer, he used a 4-inch Yamamoto Zako. LeBrun threw the bladed jig on a 7-4, medium-heavy, moderate-fast TFO Taction Bass Series casting rod spooled with 16-pound Sunline Sniper

9. Rayburn kind to Morrison once again

Alec Morrison’s special relationship with Sam Rayburn continued with a Top-10 finish.

While he lives in New York and has only competed on the fishery twice, there might not be anyone who loves Sam Rayburn more than Alec Morrison. After winning a Toyota Series event on Big Sam in record fashion last May, Morrison caught a nearly 14-pound ShareLunker in practice last week, then weighed an 11-pounder on Day 2. He wound up finishing ninth in his Invitationals debut.

Morrison employed a pretty standard approach, using forward-facing sonar to find fish around transition areas — points and channel swings in 15 to 25 feet of water. He targeted them with a jighead minnow, using a Z-Man bait on a variety of jigheads, the average size being 1/4-ounce, as well as a drop-shot. His drop-shot bait of choice was a 7-inch Reins Bubbling Shaker worm in green pumpkin. He threw the baits on Millerods spinning rods, using either the FinesseFreak — a 7-5, medium-light, moderate model — or the BassFreak — a 7-7, medium-light, fast stick.

10. Grass and winding baits produce for Colson Jr.

Ramie Colson Jr. stuck with a classic prespawn 1-2 punch.

Ramie Colson Jr. leaned on his Garmin LiveScope, but not like most of the other anglers in the Top 10. Colson ran north of the TX-147 bridge to target dirtier water on the upper end of the lake. There, he fished grass lines along points that led into spawning pockets. He found his best stretches about midway back in the pockets in 4 to 8 feet of water.

While he didn’t target individual fish that he could see on forward-facing sonar, he used it to pinpoint high-percentage spots along the grass edges.

“I was actually using the Garmin forward-facing sonar to find these grass lines, where they end and where they started, and then the back sides of them, too,” Colson said. “So that was just as big a key to catching them.”

As for his baits, Colson stuck with a pair of tried-and-true Texas staples. On Day 1, he caught most of his fish on a 3/4-ounce Strike King Red Eyed Shad Tungsten 2 Tap in the chili craw color. On the latter two days, the fish preferred a 1/2-ounce Z-Man Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer in fire craw. He used the new Zoom Shimmer Shad in the hot zamales color as a trailer. He threw both baits on a 7-3 medium-heavy rod from Jenko Fishing and a 7.3:1 gear ratio Daiwa Tatula reel spooled with 18-pound Sunline Sniper fluorocarbon.