“I feel like I’m fishing at St. Clair.”
That’s not something one would expect to hear Michael Neal say on Day 1 of the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit presented by Fuel Me on Sam Rayburn. Big tackle, giant fish and mega bags – that’s what anglers expect at Sam Rayburn.
Yet, there was Neal with a deck full of spinning rods and finesse techniques, plucking suspended fish from deep water. And he wasn’t alone. Because this week, it seems anglers should expect the unexpected at Guaranteed Rate Stop 1 Presented by Ark Fishing. That includes the leaders.
While 2021 Angler of the Year Neal is in the top five, the top three is comprised of sophomore Josh Butler and a pair of rookies, Jeff Bridges and Keith Carson. All three cracked more than 19 pounds, with Butler’s 19 pounds, 15 ounces setting the pace.
While solid weights for most fisheries, they’re quite modest for Rayburn, and all three admitted their results today were unexpected. Granted, for different reasons.
Neither Butler nor Carson had any tournament experience on Rayburn prior to this week, and their practices reflected that they said.
“I figured I could catch 12-13 pounds,” said Butler, who is fishing offshore. “I just so happened to catch two over 6. I knew I could catch a lot of 2-pounders. So, I’m not going to say I got lucky and caught those two big ones. I hope it’s not luck. I hope I can duplicate it, but I don’t know.”
And Carson went an entire day of practice without a bite. Then again, the water temperature never cracked 50 degrees and he’s fishing super shallow like good friend John Cox. Not exactly ideal shallow-fishing conditions. But, in Cox-esque fashion, somehow it worked out today.
“I just got lucky,” Carson said. “My first two fish were a 5-pounder and 6-pounder. And then I caught two more 3-pounders in the last hour. I only caught seven keepers.”
Now, Bridges is a completely different story.
While he may be a rookie, he’s grown up fishing this lake. So, when he had a banner practice, he expected it. What he didn’t expect was all of his big fish to turn into 2-pounders today. Actually, correction, not all. A slight change of his pattern resulted in the biggest fish of the day – a 10-6 – that buoyed his total.
“Without that fish, I would’ve had 11 or 12 pounds like everyone else,” Bridges said.
The unexpected certainly didn’t stop there.
Rayburn’s hydrilla and lipless-crankbait bite are legendary … and barely players this week because there’s barely any hydrilla. Dicky Newberry estimates 75 percent of the hydrilla is gone thanks to prolonged high water in 2021.
With less vegetation, anglers are having to fish on top of one another in the limited prespawn areas. And if that wasn’t hard enough, the water is low and its temperature is 20 degrees colder than it was two weeks ago.
“This might be the toughest I’ve seen the lake fish in my entire history on it,” said Newberry, who has as much history on Rayburn as anyone.
Most anglers would agree. Bridges, however, is not one of them.
“No disrespect to Dicky, but the conditions are actually going to make it easy for guys when they figure out the pattern,” Bridges surmised. “They just haven’t figured out the key pattern yet, but when they do, you’ll see the weights start going up. I think you’ll see the weights really start going up every day as guys figure out what these fish are doing.”
1. Josh Butler – 19 – 15 (5)
2. Jeff Bridges – 19 – 10 (5)
2. Keith Carson – 19 – 10 (5)
4. Matt Becker – 18 – 08 (5)
5. Michael Neal – 18 – 07 (5)
6. Barron Adams – 17 – 12 (5)
7. Dakota Ebare – 17 – 10 (5)
8. Laramy Strickland – 16 – 10 (5)
9. Jacob Wall – 16 – 05 (5)
10. Dylan Hays – 16 – 02 (5)