Tournament champion Brent Butler ran different patterns nearly every day in the Costa FLW Series Southeastern Division event on Lake Chickamauga last week. The tournament, presented by T-H Marine, wasn’t quite the slugfest many expected it to be, but Butler’s 68-pound, 8-ounce three-day total was still an impressive showing.
The rest of the top 10 got on a handful of patterns – some the same all three days and some changing from day to day – but all worked well enough to earn a top 10 and a paycheck.
Here’s a look at how the top 10 found and caught their fish on Chick.
2. Thrift covers as much water as possible
It’s almost laughable how ordinary it seems when Bryan Thrift comes within shouting distance of winning a tournament. The best bass angler on the planet just makes it look easy.
While Thrift didn’t quite find enough fish to overcome Butler’s day-two mega-bag of 37-5, he did have an incredibly consistent final two days. With bags of 23-13 and 22-15, Thrift gave it his best shot.
Thrift wasn’t on any particular pattern. Instead, he covered as much water as possible with only a couple baits. In any place he caught a fish, he hunkered down for a bit to see if he had found a school.
“Prespawn, these fish are coming up and wanting to be shallow,” he explains. “Usually, if you got in an area and you got a bite pretty quick, you could catch a couple more. I just kept trying to hit enough stuff that whenever I caught one I could settle down in that area.”
Thrift caught a couple good fish per day on an ER Lures umbrella rig with 3/16-ounce homemade jigheads and Damiki Armor Shad swimbaits. He threw that on a heavy, 7-foot, 3-inch Fitzgerald Stunner rod with 20-pound-test P-Line fluorocarbon and an Abu Garcia Revo STX reel. His other bait of choice was a Damiki Tremor 65 (red craw), which he threw on a medium-heavy Fitzgerald Stunner rod paired with an Abu Garcia Revo STX reel spooled with 15-pound-test P-Line fluorocarbon.
3. Hicks scraps pattern, runs new stuff on day three
Derek Hicks, who remained in the top five from start to finish, targeted the backside of sand bars looking for prespawners sheltering from the current on days one and two. But with the current slowing down each day and fish concentrating less in many of those areas, he decided to go with a new game plan on day three.
“I went this morning [Saturday] to my starting spot, stayed about 30 minutes, and it wasn’t going on, so I made a scientific wild guess and went to some history stuff for about an hour and a half,” he explains. “I caught a 3-pounder and a 6-pounder and a keeper and went way up the river in the back of a flat about two miles off the river and ended up catching four more in there and culled some. I just didn’t have enough time.”
Part of that new pattern included fishing docks.
“I ran a couple boat docks that had some brush on them out in front and a couple rock banks,” Hicks adds. “Most everything came off boat docks.”
Hicks used more baits than perhaps anyone else this week. He caught many of his fish on day three with a homemade 5/8-ounce brown and orange jig with a Zoom Super Chunk trailer. He also used an XCalibur Xr50, a green pumpkin Z-Man/Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer, a Zoom W.E.C. crankbait, and an umbrella rig with four blades and Zoom Swimmin Super Fluke Jr. swimbaits.
4. Nichols camps on current breaks all three days
While most anglers struggled to find consistency with their best stuff all three days, Cody Nichols was one of the few who hit the same spots with mostly the same success.
Nichols sat on a current break on the backside of a shallow bar where two points came together all three days of the tournament.
“It was kind of on a back channel that was still on the main river,” he explains. “Two points came together, and water was just rolling in there, and fish were on that deeper hole. I caught one fish each day that wasn’t on that spot.”
When Nichols wasn’t sitting in that one spot, he was looking for other current breaks behind shallow bars.
He caught almost all of his fish on just a handful of baits: a Rayburn red XCalibur One Knocker, a gold with black back BOOYAH One Knocker and a white Z-Man/Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer with a Reaction Innovations Skinny Dipper trailer.
5. Gaston runs ultra-shallow water
David Gaston spent most of his time in Mud Creek running an ultra-shallow-water pattern. With the water level low, he stuck to channel swings and narrowed down the amount of water he had to wade through to find his fish.
When not in Mud Creek, Gaston replicated that same pattern in other areas north of takeoff.
“I stayed in the channel swings and fished the main channel swings going out of Mud Creek,” he says. “I caught a few key fish in Grasshopper Creek the second day and caught a 4-pounder in there today [Saturday] that really helped. I was just kind of looking for the same stuff and trying to run the same pattern on the whole lake.”
Gaston used just one bait the entire tournament: a SPRO Little John in clear chartreuse, which he threw on an Enigma 7-foot, medium-heavy rod and a Shimano Curado reel spooled with 15-pound-test P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon.
6. White runs out of quality spots
After weighing in 28-11 on day one, Rusty White was in great position to put pressure on the rest of the field. Unfortunately, his best spots started to dry up as fish began to move shallower.
“I’ve been fishing shallow shell beds that had deep water close by,” he says. “Those shell beds were 3 to 5 feet with deep water close by on points leading into spawning coves, and they were just transition places where the fish were moving through. I had to run a bunch of them until I found one that had a school of fish. If there was a school of fish there you could sit there hammering on them.”
By day three, White’s five best spots dwindled to about two spots he had confidence in, and one had a boat already sitting on it by the time he arrived on Saturday.
“A full moon does have a tendency to scatter those schools of fish, but really, I think a lot of those fish just moved up,” he adds.
White caught all his fish on one bait: a generic 1 1/3-ounce lipless crankbait blank that he painted in a gizzard shad color and rigged with Mustad KVD Elite Series treble hooks. He threw that bait on 20-pound-test Berkley Trilene Big Game monofilament line, which he says helped control the bait’s depth.
7. Evans picks one slough and covers water
Dustin Evans sought shallow, muddy water to target prespawn bass at Chickamauga, finding one slough that he stuck to despite all the boat pressure in the area.
“I had a big slough upriver that one of the other top 10 guys was in, and 50 other people were in the last two days,” he says. “I stayed on that. That was my main hole.”
Evans did his damage with a 1/2-ounce 6th Sense Quake Thud lipless crankbait in a bright orange color, which he says was perfect for the muddy water. He also used a Rapala Original Floater in areas in which he had to cast to a foot of water or less and wanted to match the shad in the area.
There wasn’t anything specific Evans was targeting in his slough. It was all about covering as much water as possible.
“It’s a big shallow flat with a small channel,” he adds. “I stayed in the channel and fished weed lines and made real long casts and moved it [the Quake Thud] really, really fast. It was 100 percent all reaction bites.”
8. Stanley tries something new on day three
After two days of catching quality and quantity on steep drop-offs on rocky shorelines, Brandon Stanley’s pattern fizzled on day three. He simply couldn’t find the bites he needed.
While fishing wood on those drop-offs produced most of his big fish throughout the week, it was finding grass in a pocket up the river that kept Stanley in the game on day three. He simply ran out of time.
“I did everything I’ve done the last few days,” he says of his day-three effort. “I even fished some better-looking stuff I hadn’t fished before that even had birds around it – the recipe for success – but they weren’t having it.
“We got in a pocket that had the best grass I’ve found since I’ve been down here. We went in that pocket and got bit on the red trap. I knew that’s where we needed to be.”
Stanley primarily relied on a craw-colored 1/2-ounce BOOYAH One Knocker lipless crankbait to catch his fish on day three, but a white Z-Man Project Z Weedless ChatterBait with a Strike King Shadalicious trailer produced most of his big fish throughout the event.
9. Gross’ fish move back out
Buddy Gross knows Chickamauga perhaps as well as anyone, but even he had a hard time patterning fish in strange conditions that seemed to be pushing prespawners back out away from the grass he was targeting.
“I actually found fish on hard spots staged up getting ready to go back in shallower water,” Gross explains. “It kind of went away on me, and when the water came up about a foot, some of that shallow grass got back in the water and the fish started setting up on the shallow grass. But they moved again on me today [Saturday], and they moved back farther out. I really don’t know why.”
In addition to some odd behavior for this time of year, fish simply weren’t getting all of the business end of Gross’ hooks. Paired with boat numbers that limited his fishing time in the afternoon bite window, it just wasn’t quite enough for the FLW Tour pro.
“I had a late boat number the first day, and I started catching them at about 3 o’clock,” he adds. “My best bite was after I had to weigh in the last two days, so it kind of hurt me. I started there yesterday [Friday], and I had a bunch of short-strike fish. I think I had some opportunities, but I don’t think I executed real good this week.”
Gross employed a number of baits to catch his fish, including a Z-Man ChatterBait with a Zoom Fluke trailer, a shaky head with a Zoom Magnum Trick Worm, an Azuma Shaker Z lipless crankbait and old faithful – a Scottsboro Tackle Co. Swimbait on an Owner Beast Flashy Swimmer hook.
10. Stanfill finds some grass
Steve Stanfill found an area with a healthy section of hydrilla and spent his tournament there. He also had some extremely amiable company in that area.
“JT Kenney and I were sharing a lot of water,” he says. “He was phenomenal yesterday [Friday]. He found out that I had a good bag on the first day, and we were sharing the water. I pulled in on him yesterday, and he actually got off the fish and let me catch my limit.”
Water level and temperature played a big part in how good the bite was for Stanfill, who was in a backwater slough with shallow water that was only a couple feet deep in some spots.
“Hydrilla was kind of the real key,” he adds.
Despite a healthy concentration of fishable grass on Chick, low water levels simply made it hard to find and fish a lot of it this week, and Stanfill found that out firsthand.