In seemingly any tournament that Bryan Thrift shows up to he is without a doubt one of the favorites to win. With two FLW Tour Angler of the Year titles, six Tour wins and five Costa FLW Series wins – including his most recent on Lake Champlain just a few weeks ago – it’s easy to understand why.
This week is no different as Thrift and 51 other pros meet on Lake Hamilton for the FLW Cup to earn the title of Cup Champion and the $300,000 payday that comes with it.
With one day of practice already under his belt, I decide to hop in the boat with Thrift for his second day on the water to see just how the Shelby, N.C., pro breaks down the Hot Springs reservoir.
Thrift, myself and about 10 other pros roll into the Andrew Hulsey Fish Hatchery ramp at 6:10. While they splash their boats, I get my camera gear ready and meet Thrift down at the dock. Once in their boats, everyone huddles in a group to await the official start of practice, which is at 6:26 today.
The mood is pretty relaxed despite what is on the line this week. The gang chats about everything from fishing tackle, to lakes and even some post-Cup plans. But when the clock ticks to 6:25, attention quickly turns to practice for the day. At 6:26, everyone starts taking off for the day and Thrift patiently waits for the chaos to settle before getting his Ranger on plane.
We make a short run to a little point where Thrift thought he saw some bass chasing bait on day one. He grabs a buzzbait and starts running bank, but constantly has his head on a swivel looking for any schooling activity.
A quick glance at his rod selection for the day and its apparent Thrift is ready for anything. He’s got roughly 27 rods on the deck and next to the passenger seat, with techniques to cover everything from top to bottom.
After 10 minutes of nothing, we fire up and head for greener pastures.
Thrift grabs the buzzbait and keeps burning shoreline.
While Thrift has been to nearby Lake Ouchita several times throughout his career, this is only Thrift’s second day ever on Hamilton, yet he doesn’t feel too uncomfortable on it.
“Hamilton is a lot like some of the lakes back home except for maybe Norman, Wylie and Wateree,” he says. “Even though I haven’t been here before I do feel a little familiar with it just because of how it sets up.”
A few casts into our second stop, Thrift has a feisty spotted bass hit his buzzbait and it quickly makes its way into the boat. There are plenty of fish this size in Hamilton and while it may not be a fish Thrift would like to weigh, it certainly is a sign of life.
I notice that all of his baits have their hooks on, so I ask about his theory on shaking fish off during practice.
“I have to be on something really good to shake a fish off,” he says. “My theory is that if I don’t want to catch ‘em, I won’t throw at ‘em.”
Soon after, he gets a Facetime call from his wife, Allison. She’s out in his shop looking for a few boxes of baits he wants her to bring with when she comes to Hot Springs in a few days. Allison and Bryan make quick work of deciphering where to look and get things all squared away and it's back to fishing.
Thrift runs to another little arm of the lake and keeps rolling down the bank.
“I already know this is how I’m going to start my morning,” Thrift says of fishing shallow during the Cup. “I just don’t know where I’m going to start yet.”
Around 8:30, Thrift notices some green, leafy branches floating in the water and it quickly peaks his interest.
“There’s a lot of limbs floating around, so there’s got to be some fresh brush nearby.”
He stows the trolling motor, cleans off his graphs and we get to idling around the pocket. Other than two older brush piles, Thrift doesn’t find any fresh brush, but he’s now in the idling mood.
It’s a little after 9 o’clock and its starting to get warm. The water temperature is in the upper 80s and its probably close to the same for the air temp. Luckily, idling helps air flow and offers a slight cooling effect, which Thrift and I are all about.
As we idle along, Thrift pulls a bag of fried fish out of his cooler. It's mangrove snapper that his roommate and Costa FLW Series Champion, Kyle Walters, brought from Florida.
“I might as well eat some fish if I’m not going to fish for fish.”
Then, out comes the Bluetooth speaker.
“You got to get pumped for idling,” says Thrift of having music in the boat.
Thrift is pretty much a fan of all genres of music – though he’s not much of a country guy – and the first artist on the playlist is none other than Prince.
“That’s how you get down right there, Kyle,” Thrift says while cranking the volume.
After about 30 minutes of idling, Thrift can’t take it anymore and has to make a cast on a brush pile that looked like it had a few fish in it.
He bombs a cast and connects almost instantly. As he expected, it’s a keeper spotted bass, but still not the size he hopes to haul back to Bank OZK Arena.
Idling along, Thrift laughs while looking at his graph and quickly zooms in to show off the boat he found on the bottom of the lake.
As we keep moving on, I can’t help but wonder how many bass his faded, old Damiki hat has seen.
“I’m a creature of habit. I’ve been wearing this hat since 2008, but now it’s my practice hat so I don’t get my other ones dirty and worn out as easily.”
Thrift stops to check another brush pile with no luck. So, he dives into his rod locker to add a few more rods to the deck. This brings the rod count to 32.
With the sun blistering down, Thrift wants to give the shallow bite another go. It’s nearing 11 o’clock and Thrift idles his way into a pocket passing one of the many giant homes on the shores of Lake Hamilton.
“They got more money in landscaping than I do in my whole house,” Thrift chuckles.
As Thrift cruises down the bank he seems confused as to why he’s not getting many bites.
“Back home you can catch fish under docks all summer long. It seems like there is always a few big, dumb ones that live up shallow when it’s hot, but I haven’t found any of them yet.”
As we start working our way back to the ramp to drop me off, Thrift idles over a few fish that seem catchable.
“I don’t think they’re very big, but I just want to catch something.”
First cast he connects with a little largemouth. Wanting to catch another, he bombs back to the brush pile and hooks into something heavier. Turns out, it's one of the many walleyes that call Hamilton home. Thrift loses his luster for the spot and we crank up to run to the ramp.
Getting bites doesn’t seem to be much of an issue on Hamilton, yet finding some 3- to 4-pound bites does. Thrift hasn’t dialed the better fish in yet, but he still has two and a half more days of practice, so there’s more than enough time.
Thrift has nearly every trophy in his case that an angler could ask for. And while he’s never missed an FLW Cup in his 13 years as a pro, he hasn’t yet closed the deal on the biggest title in bass fishing – though he’s been close several times.
While most people already know that Thrift is one of the best anglers out there, a Cup win this week would be the icing on top to help solidify him as one of the greats in the game today.
Good luck, Bryan.