Every successful pro angler has a niche: a specific technique or time of year when conditions land right in their wheelhouse and as a result, their confidence swells. For some it’s prespawn reaction baits or maybe sight-fishing stubborn females off beds; for others it’s the sweltering hot ledge bite in 20 feet of water or punching matted vegetation.
In recent years, pro angler James Watson of Nixa, Mo., has carved out his fishing niche in the fall of the year. His career resume includes two fall wins in a PAA event and a B.A.S.S. Open, both on his home lake, Table Rock.
Today, Watson furthered his claim as the ‘Fall Guy’ with a Walmart FLW Tour Invitational victory on Norris Lake in Tenn., proving that the seasonal change of autumn is certainly his time to shine. In three days Watson checked in daily limits of 13-10, 13-4 and 9-12 to amass a winning total of 36-10 worth $95,400.
“I love fishing in the fall,” Watson says. “I have more confidence from August to December than any other time of year. The only problem is there simply are not that many big money tournaments during that time frame. Everyone wants to go deer hunting in October, November and December so there’s nothing to fish. I’m so thankful FLW made this opportunity available to us at this time of year.”
Watson relishes fall fishing because in many lakes across the country, lake managers begin to pull the water down to “winter pool” levels, shrinking the playing field and exposing a lot of previously submerged habitat. That draw down usually coincides with the first cold fronts that break up the doldrums of summer. The simultaneous drop in water level and water temperature seems to hit the refresh button on a fishery, opening up new areas and new patterns. And when that happens, Watson is ready to strike.
“This lake looks exactly like Table Rock to me,” Watson says. “From the moment I put my boat in here, I felt like I was right at home. The way the banks and rock look with the water down is so similar to home.”
Watson actually began his practice cranking mid-range crankbaits around the banks. But after several biteless hours, he moved up shallower, fired a topwater out across a rock-lined mud flat and instantly got blasted.
“I knew right then exactly how I was going to fish this tournament,” he continues. “I put my rods away and spent the next day doing nothing but riding the lake looking for exactly the kind of stuff that works back home.”
The specifics of that “kind of stuff” include mud flats laced with rock.
“What I wanted to find was flat pockets of mud and silt that meet some kind of rock vein or boulders,” he details. “Some of the places were silty flat banks with small scattered rock. Some of them were mud banks with big boulders up on the bank. But the best stuff was anywhere a rock vein traversed through mud and ran out into the water. The more isolated the rock on the mud, the better. The more defined the transition from mud to rock, the better.”
Watson found the best stuff that fit his pattern in the Loyston Sea area.
“I had about a 12-mile run in there that offered a lot of those features,” he explains. “I liked that area, too, because no matter which way the wind blew, I could find those rock transitions that were receiving just a little bit of wind ripple. Chasing the right kind of wind on those areas was key, too.”
Watson’s topwater arsenal included a 1/2-ounce War Eagle Buzz Toad with a Luck E Strike Frantic Frog on the back (all black), a River2Sea Whopper Plopper (130, in the loon color), and a River2Sea Bubble Walker. He rotated through these baits, firing them to the shallowest parts of the rock veins and transitions in as little as 6 inches of water. The Buzz Toad and the Whopper Plopper were his primary players with the Bubble Walker producing two of his keepers during the week. He committed to topwaters for a majority of his days, mixing in a little dock flipping with a ½-ounce custom finesse jig, which produced four weigh fish for him during the week.
Watson strung together two strong 13-pound plus days, but left the door open on the final day with 9 pounds, 12 ounces. His slower day was the result of not knowing the lake very well.
“Every day I ran new water,” Watson says. “It’s part of running this pattern – I didn’t want to repeat water too much. At home on Table Rock, I can run the right kind of new water for several days. But here I kind of ran out of new water that looked right and it nearly cost me.”
In the end, Watson fended off a hard charge from FLW Tour pro Jason Lambert, holding him off by just a scant 3 ounces.
“I can’t believe this,” Watson said moments after winning. “I’m absolutely floored right now. I thought Jason had me. This is unreal. I made a couple of small 2-ounce culls at the end of the day and those tiny upgrades made the difference.”
Top 10 pros
1. James Watson – Nixa, Mo. – 36-10 (15) – $95,400
2. Jason Lambert – Pickwick Dam, Tenn. 36-7 (15) – $23,720
3. Tracy Adams – Wilkesboro, N.C. – 35-10 (15) – $19,600
4. Derrick Blake – Rockwood, Tenn. – 33-14 (15) – $15,680
5. Wesley Strader – Spring City, Tenn. – 32-15 (15) – $11,760
6. Michael Neal – Dayton, Tenn. – 29-1 (15) – $10,192
7. Matt Arey – Shelby, N.C. – 27-9 (13) – $9,900
8. Ken Vicchio – Bluff City, Tenn. – 26-12 (10) – $9,408
9. Will Campbell – Middlesboro, Ky. – 24-2 (12) – $9,016
10. Scott Canterbury – Springville, Ala. – 24-0 (13) – $8,624