BROOKELAND, Texas – One big bag or even one big bite – that’s all it took to separate yourself on Sam Rayburn last week.
Between the low water, frigid water temperatures, lack of grass and tons of fishing pressure, “Big Sam” definitely didn’t showcase much of what it can offer during the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit Presented by Fuel Me event.
Yet, winner Michael Neal did provide a glimmer of the potential the east Texas fishery can offer on the final day of Guaranteed Rate Stop 1 Presented by Ark Fishing when he cracked 26-pounds, 5-ounces with an 8-9 kicker (and he lost some fish that could’ve pushed him over 30 pounds). Though Neal was able to adapt to the conditions to stay on moving fish, the rest of the Top 10 mostly hunkered down in their productive water in order to start the season on a high note.
The new final-day format certainly provided some fireworks courtesy of Neal’s big bag. Yet, Josh Bragg might’ve made the most of his opportunity more than anyone else.
Making the Top 10 by a mere 4 ounces, Bragg was able to use his clean slate on Day 4 to jump to the runner-up position thanks to three hard spots in Harvey Creek.
“I wasn’t doing anything special,” said Bragg. “I was fortunate to find three hard sports on a creek channel. They were very specific; probably the size of a boat. But I could look down with my Lowrance ActiveTarget and see wads of fish down there.”
The first day he caught his fish on “the old ball and chain” rigged with either a Zoom Brush Hog or Zoom Super Fluke, and a drop-shot with a Roboworm Straight Tail Worm (morning dawn) pinned on a No. 1 Trokar Light Wire Finesse Hook. By the final two days, though, he’d started cranking a Rapala DT 20 (Caribbean shad or disco shad), which set up one of the more remarkable fish catches you’ll ever see on a kicker first thing on Day 4.
While going to land a 6-pounder, his net broke and the fish came unpinned at the same time. However, the fish was still in the net as it broke, and as his crankbait came out, it snagged on the net, allowing him to basically reel in his net with the fish still in it.
Yeah, it was that kind of week for him.
Sam Rayburn is known for so many things, it’s drains being one of them. The lake is simply loaded with them, and the fish use them so much in the late winter and early spring to go to and from spawning areas.
Hence, Randy Despino didn’t overthink it.
“I just ran four ditches all day,” said Despino.
His drains were in 10-12 feet in Veach Creek, and what he said was key was the fact that they had wood, isolated stumps and some hay grass in or around them.
While focusing on the mouths of the drains, Despino never really got many bites each day, but he tended to get the right ones, especially as the event went on.
“On Day 1 I got eight bites and they were all bucks and one female,” Despino said. “On Day 3, though, I got seven bites and they were all females (which ended up being the biggest bag of the day and the only other 20-pound bag of the event).”
The quality dwindled a bit on the final day, but he still found plenty of solid takers. To catch his fish, Despino threw a Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap (Rayburn red), a Z-Man ChatterBait Jack Hammer (orange and red) with a 3.3-inch Keitech Swing Impact FAT for a trailer and a V&M jig.
Sam Rayburn and Lake Ouachita may not seem all that similar, but they sure are to Spencer Shuffield.
“I jive with Rayburn,” said Shuffield. “It fishes just like Ouachita, just without the big ones.”
With that being the case – plus him being one of the best at the technique – it’s little surprise his pattern centered around Garmin LiveScope.
Focusing on deep brush off windblown points, Shuffield bounced around “LiveScoping” fish and making it look rather easy.
“I wrecked them every day, but I just couldn’t catch many good ones,” added Shuffield. “Just a crap ton of 2-pounders.”
The plan was simple once he saw a fish. If it was on the bottom, it’d get a drop shot. He had two rigged up, both with Roboworm Straight Tail Worms (margarita mutilator in the morning and then morning dawn when the sun came out), but one had a 3/8-ounce Ark Fishing No Chip Tungsten Tear Drop Weight and the other a 5/16-ounce weight. He used the 3/8-ounce when the fish was under the boat so he could drop down on them real quick, and the 5/16-ounce got the nod when casting to them.
However, if he saw a fish suspended up off the bottom high enough, he’d throw a Yo-Zuri 3DB Series 110 Deep jerkbait (gizzard shad).
“My bigger bites came on the jerkbait,” said Shuffield. “The fish wouldn’t come up in the water column more than 3-4 feet for it. If you could get the jerkbait close enough to them to get their attention, though, they’d come for days. They’d follow the jerkbait all the way to the trolling motor.”
As big as Sam Rayburn is, it can fish remarkably small at times. That was especially true this week with 75 percent less grass than in years past.
With that in mind, when Evan Barnes started formulating a game plan, he had one thing at the top of it.
“I went and fished areas where I knew big fish lived, and tried to pick them apart,” said Barnes. “But they had to be areas with hardly any boats; the least amount of pressure. I felt if I can just get in there and have it mostly to myself there’d be enough fish in there to hold up.”
Turns out, he was right, as he focused his attention right around the corner from takeoff. Then again, with what was there, it’s easy to understand why others passed it over, as there really wasn’t much of anything to take notice … at first.
“The areas were shallow with some ditches,” Barnes said. “There was a little bit of rock. Some wood. But it was things most people weren’t going to key on, but anything I felt the fish might be holding.”
They clearly were, as he’d see them with his Garmin LiveScope. When he did, he’d alternate between a drop-shot, a 63-millimeter Ark Z-Series Lipless Crankbait (red), a Megabass Magdraft and a KR Custom glide bait.
Ten minutes – that’s about all the time Josh Butler had every morning with his morning bite, but man did he make the most of it.
“I had a cranking deal on a hard spot on the edge of a creek channel in Sandy Creek,” said Butler, who was tossing a Rapala DT 10 (Caribbean shad). “I literally maybe had 10 minutes. I’d catch them every cast and even got a double on Day 3, but once they were done, they were done. The fish were still there, but they just shut off.
“After that, I just had to grind it out.”
Grinding it out meant playing “Russian roulette” with ultra-finesse tactics around 50-60 brush piles he ran each day. By ultra-finesse, the Day 1 leader means a Roboworm Straight Tail Worm (morning dawn) on 7-pound-test Sunline fluorocarbon.
“The fish were ultra-pressured,” said Butler. “I felt the only way I could get bit was to go ultra-finesse, because you’ve got to get bit first. If I lose a fish or it breaks off, it’s the nature of the beast.
“It was a quick deal. If they were there, I’d get bit quick. If not, I’d pick up and go.”
The lush fields of hydrilla that Sam Rayburn has become known for were definitely not there this year, as high water throughout last summer killed a lot of it. Thus, while normally the biggest player, grass was almost a nonfactor this week.
That is, for everyone but Pete Ponds.
Every morning he’d start out Yo-Yoing a Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap (Rayburn red) around isolated grass patches in super shallow water.
“I was basically throwing at the bank,” said Ponds. “I had a couple places that had little grass patches with sweet spots around them.”
Once the sun got up, though, he’d switch to using Lowrance ActiveTarget to find grass patches on an 8-foot flat. When he did, he’d toss a wacky-rigged Yamamoto Senko on a Hayabusa WRM202 hook.
Unfortunately, with such limited grass, he had limited fish, too, and he said he “burned all his stuff down” on Day 3 to make it to the final day. With little to go on for the final day, he ultimately switched to fishing the face of the dam with a jerkbait.
It was pretty obvious the Canyons just north of the 147 bridge is one of the best spots on the lake. The nearly 40 boats who fished it each morning kind of gave it away.
However, Dylan Hays found a way to capitalize on the infamous spawning flat and get away from the crowds by fishing the backside of the area.
“There’s a long offshore point on the backside that was my main area,” said Hays. “I caught almost all my biggest ones there cranking various crankbaits, including a Rapala DT 10 (red crawdad) with No. 4 Mustad Triple Grip Round Bend hooks thrown on 10-pound-test TUF-LINE XS Fluorocarbon. Then I caught a few key fish on a Carolina rig with a Zoom Super Fluke with 20-pound test TUF-LINE XS Fluorocarbon to a 15-pound-test leader.”
While that spot produced the majority of his weight, it was far from his only staging point.
“I had a few different points, but there didn’t have to be on any kind of cover on them or anything,” Hays described. “Sometimes they were just sitting there on the point with nothing up there. That’s the power of Garmin Livescope.”
Once he saw them on his electronics, he usually had to pull out a drop-shot tipped with a Zoom Finesse Worm on a 1/0 Mustad hook tied to 10-pound-test TUF-LINE XS Fluorocarbon with a 10-pound-test TUF-LINE Domin8 braid leader.
“I weighed more than half my fish on the drop-shot,” said Hays. “You had to be real accurate and put it on their heads. They didn’t want to eat it good. Sometimes you had to hold it there for a while before they’d bite it.”
Sam Rayburn is loaded with fish over 10 pounds, making them the ultimate game changers for anyone fortunate enough to catch one.
Jeff Bridges was the only angler to do that, as he brought in the biggest fish of the event, a 10-6, on Day 1. That was enough for him to make the Top 10. Though, it’s not like he didn’t have more opportunities thanks to a unique pattern.
Bridges was dialed in on hard points coming back into shallow hydrilla patches. He’d cast a Carolina-rigged Big Bite Baits Pro Lizard and 6th Sense Hogwalla up to the hard stuff and slowly drag it until it met the grass.
“On Day 1, everything I caught was on the hard stuff,” said Bridges. “[Saturday], it was right as it got to the hydrilla.”
Unfortunately, the high-pressure system that hit during the event had his fish on the move in the wrong direction, and he admits he didn’t adjust on the final day.
Matt Becker seems to have a connection with Sam Rayburn and it could be because he keeps things simple.
“Every time I come [to Sam Rayburn], I just fish Veach Creek,” said Becker. “There’s always fish to be caught there, and you always get a check out of Veach.”
Well, the 2018 Rookie of the Year was proved right again this event thanks to two patterns he had going in the creek.
He’d start every day milking brush piles to get a limit with a drop-shot, opting for a Googan Baits Drag n Drop (brown and purple) on a 2/0 Trokar TK180 Light Wire Finesse Worm hook with either a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce Epic Baits Tear Drop Shot weight. He threw it on a 7- foot, 2-inch medium-heavy Favorite Fishing Hex spinning rod rigged with 12-pound Seaguar Gold Label fluorocarbon to 20-pound Seaguar Smackdown braid. He also mixed in a Neko rig, Ned rig and underspin.
Unfortunately, the bite was tough, as the fish would scatter often, especially once the sun got up. When that happened, he’d switch over to the limited grass left in Sam Rayburn. He had three key patches that were slightly deeper that produced some kickers that ate either a Z-Man ChatterBait Jack Hammer with a Lake Fork Tackle Live Magic Shad trailer or a jerkbait.