Life tests us in many ways – some tests being more significant than others.
Bass fishing, for instance, is a test of concentration, strategy and an understanding of Mother Nature’s ways.
Professional tournament fishing in the kind of extreme conditions we saw this week at the FLW Tour presented by General Tire at Beaver Lake, which included a lake-level rise of more than 12 feet, more than 9 inches of rain on Saturday alone, flash floods and thunderstorms, might be the toughest kind of bass fishing test.
For Johnny McCombs, the result at Beaver Lake was a passing score and a $100,000 paycheck. McCombs won the tournament with a four-day catch of 47 pounds, 1 ounce.
Still, the challenges of this week were minor compared to the ways that life has tested McCombs off the water. His success is significant not because of how he caught his fish, but because of what he’s managed to overcome to have this opportunity.
“I was hooked on drugs for 12 years,” McCombs admits. “I’ll be clean a year come Mother’s Day. It’s just awesome to be able to be out here again doing what I love and fishing for a living.”
McCombs spoke about his past and his tournament this week in short, direct statements. He doesn’t elaborate much on either. But reading between the lines, it’s obvious that the veteran angler from Morris, Ala., isn’t out here on Tour to continue the career he started almost two decades ago. He’s here to begin again.
When asked how long he’d been a professional angler, McCombs said, “about six months.” A look at the FLW Tour record books shows that he actually fished the Tour from 1999 to 2003 and logged three consecutive top-20 finishes in the AOY race in his first three seasons. After that, he fell off in the standings and disappeared from the Tour ranks after 2003.
His “new” FLW career began in the fall of 2016 at the Norris Lake FLW Tour Invitational, where McCombs finished 13th. This week he pieced together his first top-20 finish of 2017 and took a step toward securing a place on Tour in 2018.
“I still can’t believe it,” he says. “It probably won’t sink in for a while. This is the most money I’ve ever had at one time. All I want is enough money to fish next year. That’s all.”
On stage, McCombs thanked his parents, who joined him in Rogers, and his friends back home in Alabama for supporting him emotionally and financially in his return to bass fishing. His financial situation is sketchy these days, and without their backing, he says he wouldn’t have had the chance to be on stage on day four at a Tour event.
Of course, he wouldn’t have been there without an impressive fishing performance, too.
McCombs spent his week fishing in the mid-lake section of Beaver Lake. He never ran down near the dam to the lake’s clearest, steepest sections, and he only passed under the Highway 12 bridge to fish up the White River twice, but neither of those trips produced significant results for him.
As the water rose throughout the event, McCombs didn’t change areas or approaches, but instead ran a simple pattern of targeting open areas within the flooded shoreline cover where he could cover water quickly with a buzzbait. He often worked behind bushes and other types of woody cover on waterfront lawns, behind boat docks and along roadways – any clearing or area of lighter cover. He says he could fish these areas much faster than the sawdust/debris mats and logjams that were intermixed in his areas.
“I just kept trying to find my way back to the bank any way I could,” he says. “They like to get behind the bushes when the water comes up. All the good ones I caught were on a buzzbait except one that I caught on a jig the third day.”
McCombs tweaked his buzzbait – a white War Eagle model fitted with a Zoom Horny Toad – by swapping the blade for one that spins in the opposite direction than what comes stock. He wanted the bait to track toward the bank so that if he made a bad cast, he could more easily steer it in the right direction. He fished it on 25-pound-test Seaguar fluorocarbon line.
Steering the buzzbait past shallow targets was a key part of his strategy. All week long, McCombs frothed the water aggressively, mixing short backhanded pitches with targeted roll-casts and the occasional medium-length overhand cast down the bank. He fired at bushes, isolated clumps of floating debris, dock structures, “troughs” and other subtle variations in the bottom, and pretty much anything else that a bass might set up next to. Then during the retrieve he used a 7-foot, 2-inch Shimano rod to redirect the buzzbait alongside each piece of cover, sometimes steering left then right on one retrieve, so he could keep the bait in the strike zone the maximum amount of time. After each cast, McCombs quickly flipped the bait to the next target so that there was very little downtime between presentations.
Occasionally, McCombs popped the rod tip to softly rip the buzzbait. When a bass missed the lure, he pitched back with a jig. Not hooking up was a problem on the final day, when McCombs landed only two keepers for 5 pounds, 4 ounces despite several other fish busting the bait at the surface.
“I had two areas I could have blown it out in if I’d have caught them all,” he says. “There were two pockets I kept going back to.
“I should have had 14 to 16 pounds,” he adds. “I guess I was just too jacked up and was jerking it away too fast.”
McCombs also reports catching several of his best bass this week around carp that were rolling and muddying up the water in the shallows. While other anglers tended to stay away from the carp, McCombs threw his buzzbait right by them. He says that as a kid in Alabama, when the bass weren’t biting, he’d try to catch carp. Often, he also caught bass. McCombs isn’t sure why the two run together, but it became a secondary story line that intrigued reporters on Beaver Lake this week.
By tournament’s end, McCombs had worked his buzzbait pattern for catches of 14-3, 8-11, 18-15 and 5-4. While other anglers changed up baits and tactics as the lake level rose, McCombs stuck to his game plan and got himself back on track as a successful Tour-level performer.
Top 10 Pros
1. Johnny McCombs – Morris, Ala. – 47-1 (17) – $100,400
2. Jason Reyes – Huffman, Texas – 44-11 (18) – $30,000
3. Bryan Thrift – Shelby, N.C. – 43-3 (20) – $25,100
4. Keith Bryan – Novato, Calif. – 42-14 (20) – $20,000
5. Cody Meyer – Auburn, Calif. – 40-10 (18) – $19,000
6. Scott Canterbury – Springville, Ala. – 39-8 (18) – $18,000
7. John Cox – DeBary, Fla. – 38-7 (16) – $17,000
8. Christopher Brasher – Longview, Texas – 37-8 (18) – $16,000
9. Brandon McMillan – Clewiston, Fla. – 36-0 (16) – $15,000
10. Dean Alexander – Georgetown, Texas – 34-5 (16) – $14,000