Thrift's First Morning of Practice - Major League Fishing

Thrift’s First Morning of Practice

Kicking things off on the Mississippi with the AOY leader
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May 15, 2017 • Jody White • Archives

Bryan Thrift is the hottest angler in the world right now. Leading the FLW Tour Angler of the Year race, the Carolina pro has finished outside of the top 10 just once in Tour competition in 2017 and is on pace to set a new record for best average finish. That said, the final two events on the Mississippi River at La Crosse, Wis., and the Potomac River back east offer the biggest challenges yet for Thrift. The Potomac is where he gave up the AOY lead to Scott Martin in 2015 – the Mississippi is one of the few bodies of water in the country that Thrift has never fished. He was kind enough to let me hop in the boat for a look at the start of his practice for the FLW Tour presented by Evinrude on the Mississippi River.


Thrift starts bright and early at 5:15 a.m. at a ramp on Pool 8, and he and his longtime co-angler practice companion Bryan New quickly ready the boat and launch into the rising sun. For all his success, Thrift has remarkably few detractors, and his work ethic probably has at least a little to do with that. Today only Mike Surman and Clark Wendlandt have launched before him, and he rarely quits a day of practice before dark.

After getting in the water, Thrift beaches the boat and starts pulling out his rods for the day. Somewhat slowly, he meticulously loads 22 perfectly rigged rods on the deck of his Ranger, and thinks about adding a few more before buckling the whole lot down and heading out.


Starting out fairly close to the ramp, Thrift drops the trolling motor at the mouth of a little cut off the main channel and picks up a topwater. After working the current at the mouth a little, he slides into the backwater shallows and gets stuck in the mud. Jacking up his trolling motor, he continues on.

“If this place is as good as they say it is we oughta catch one right here,” says Thrift.

After a few minutes of fishing, the signs seem promising – battling through a few small pike has quickly produced a solid largemouth. Thrift fishes as far back as he can before the pocket runs out and then turns around and fishes back out and down the river a little, drifting along with the current and covering water at a breakneck pace (even for him) with a buzzbait. About 100 yards later it’s time to roll.


Running down the river, Thrift stops where he thinks he sees a wing dam on the map. In a jiffy, he discovers that it is indeed a wing dam and that he’s drifting over it at high speed. After trying to back up to avoid it, he surrenders to the current and glides over the top.

“I hate current, I hate rivers, and I can’t even drive straight,” he says as he tries to maneuver around the end of the wing dam. After idling along it and looking things over with his sonar for a bit, Thrift cranks up again and stops at the mouth of a substantial looking backwater where a narrow channel is funneling current in from the main river.


Slipping through the channel at about the same speed as the current, Thrift fishes one side with a flatter bank and marshy grass while New slings a crankbait on the opposite side. Besides some carp, neither angler gets a sniff, but we do see the first signs of other anglers, as a pair of boats run south and Jamie Horton peels off and sets down across the river from where Thrift is fishing.

His arrival brings to mind the fact that the upper Mississippi is hardly new to tournament fishing. The oddly named Great Lakes Division of the T-H Marine Bass Fishing League (BFL) has been fishing the various pools in northern Iowa and Wisconsin for quite some time. The Mississippi isn’t new to high level competition either, having hosted a Costa FLW Series event and several B.A.S.S. Elite Series events in recent years. While many Tour pros haven’t been here before, there’s plenty of history on what the fish could be doing.


After continuing along the marshy bank with little success, Thrift swaps over to the mainland side and begins working along a line of docks, slinging a crankbait and a buzzbait while New follows up with a ChatterBait and a jig. Though Thrift strikes out, New wrangles the second significant bass into the boat skipping up and under the floats from the back of the boat.


After running through the docks, Thrift is faced with a decision – to cut out and try a new area or finish off the back of the backwater.

“I’m gonna go up in this pond,” he says as he trolls along the weedline. “The only other good bite we’ve had was in a pond.”

Sliding along at a decent but hardly quick pace, I can’t help but think how different this is from when I joined Thrift for a morning of practice on Lake Norman. On his home lake, the Shelby, N.C., product ran all over the lower end at a breakneck pace, hitting spot after spot and catching bass after bass.

In the backwater pond, Thrift scores a pike and a pair of dinker bass and New adds another solid keeper, but it’s hardly the motherlode of largemouths he’s looking for.


Working back out along a marshy bank, Thrift begins to slow down even more. Both anglers are convinced that they’ve been fishing through lots of bass. The water looks good enough, and the Mississippi has a reputation for such that it’s hard not to believe it.

Slowly working a topwater next to a prime-looking laydown, Thrift strikes with a keeper largemouth. Unfortunately, it’s the only fish on this stretch and not the beginning of a trend. After talking to Justin Atkins for a moment, Thrift cranks up and runs back out into the main river.


Stopping at the up-river point of an island, Thrift fishes across the face of it and then starts to slide down the other side, looking to fish down the inside bank. Then he hits a snag, or rather, some sand. It’s 8:05 in the morning and we’re stuck. The Mississippi is annoyingly shallow and difficult to navigate if you don’t know exactly where you’re going, and even prospective Anglers of the Year can fall victim to it. As both New and I are wearing shorts, it falls to us to hop out and push, with Thrift pointing us toward the deeper water.


After whisking down with the current for a while, unsuccessfully tossing a jig at the bank, Thrift pauses to re-rig before tackling a more spread-out, offshore current seam. It’s still shallow, but it looks promising, and has some rocks interspersed with the sand and occasional laydowns that make up so much of the bottom.


Fishing out, New scrapes up another bass and a drum and Thrift brings a turtle to the boat.

“I can make Champlain suck,” jokes Thrift. “That’s how bad I am in practice.”

Oftentimes Thrift’s bad practices can be explained by his unwillingness to hit places that have been productive in the past – he’s got a few failsafe hot spots nearly everywhere. With no personal experience on the Big Muddy, there might be a little more pressure than usual to actually catch some in practice.


Laying his rod down, Thrift decides to idle down around the next sandbar and up into a little stretch of current between it and the island. Fishing the current for a bit, he and New both get bites and fail to land them, then he slips back into a grassy pocket adjacent to the seam. Tossing his frog, Thrift misses another fish that he deems to be a pike and then simply continues on down the bank. Thrift pauses his fishing for a minute to talk with Jeff Sprague, who warns us that a boat with three people in it will definitely not get where he just came from. Then, he cranks up to make a move.


Our next spot is a big grassy bay behind an island, and it’s some of the prettiest water we’ve seen so far. When you think of catching hundreds on a frog in the Mississippi, this is the kind of stuff you might imagine.

Pretty quickly, Thrift starts to see some positive signs, and shakes off and misses a couple quality-looking blowups on a frog before setting the hook on a pike. 


Behind him, New fishes a different bait and strikes again, landing a keeper with an extra hitchhiker attached.


There’s a lot of grass where Thrift has stopped, and he takes his time fishing through it. Eventually however, he works out toward the edge of an island and the grass begins to thin out some. Quickly, he spies a smallmouth, and then a largemouth that he’s sure is on a bed. He drops waypoints on them, and then continues fishing and looking at the fringes of the grass. Out here there’s a selection of big stumps, which would be perfect to hit with a boat or hold a bedding bass. Though he and New both get a few small bites, he doesn’t see anything else worth a waypoint and decides to make a change.


Idling away from his grass, Thrift decides to make two more quick stops. His first is on an offshore grass bed where he marks a little drop. It’s worth a few casts, but it only produces one short strike and a largemouth that wouldn’t measure.

“You sure are good at finding suck holes,” says New.

“I am,” replies Thrift. “Hey, this is years of hard work. Years.”

With that, the AOY leader moves again, to a patch of offshore grass with current rolling through it. A few dozen fruitless casts later with a ChatterBait and he’s ready to go. After some detailed study of the graph, Thrift idles a bit and then jumps on plane, winding an interesting path back to the ramp and thankfully around –  and not into –  one of the many sandbars.


Around noon I head back to town and Thrift and New roll back out on the Mississippi. Though he intends to spend the rest of practice in Pool 8, there’s a whole lot of exploring left to do. He hasn’t tapped the smallmouth bite at all, and there are still miles and miles of backwaters and grass beds left to sift through.