Fall can be a tough time to fish most places in the country, and for the final Toyota Series Plains Division event of the season on Table Rock Lake, that certainly was the case. A cold front passed through the week prior, bringing cool rain that lowered water temperatures and raised the lake. Then, come tournament time, the forecast was more like spring than fall with plenty of sun and highs in the 70s.
Despite tough conditions, local pro and college fishing phenom Cody Huff fished more of a winter pattern, chasing suspended fish in the middle of creeks to sack up 46 pounds, 4 ounces to earn his second Toyota Series win of the season. The rest of the top 10 pros utilized the entire lake and caught fish from 1 foot out to 50-plus feet.
Here’s a look at how they got it done.
2. Lieblong runs the James, wins AOY
Jason Lieblong started the Plains Division season with a win on his home pond of Dardanelle, and he nearly ended the season on the same note. Weighing the largest limit of the tournament worth 17-2 on the final day, Lieblong not only slid up to second but also locked up his first Strike King Angler of the Year title in the process.
Paying attention to the forecast and knowing before he even splashed his boat in on Table Rock that he’d want to fish up a river, Lieblong stuck to his guns and capitalized on just a few bites a day up the James River.
“I fished a lot of points and pockets all the way up [the James],” he says. “With all that rain, I put my boat in up at Mill Creek and ran up and saw it was mud, and I liked that. I figured the mud would blow out after a few days and the river would still have some color and I wanted that. Plus, there were shad already popping in the dirty water.
“I came back up a couple days later, threw a ChatterBait up against a willow tree and boom, a 2 1/2-pounder. Then I caught another 2 1/2 and knew where I was fishing.”
While Lieblong had a few stretches of the river that produced better than others, he says that each day he’d have to “just go fishing” in order to get bites.
“The Whopper Plopper fish, I pulled up on a point the first day that was on a bend in the river and had some wind blowing on it, and there were herons up on the bank,” Lieblong explains. “It looked good to throw a Whopper Plopper; shad were popping, and on my second cast I caught a 3 1/2-pounder. I started on it on day two at the other end of it and caught a 3 1/2-pounder. It was only good for one fish a day, but it was right timing.”
Lieblong notes that the farther up the river he went, the smaller his fish got, so he tried to focus on mid-sized pockets where shad were packed in. Though he says his main areas “were running out of shad” as the week progressed, the area he caught his big limit in on the final day was full of bait.
“The shad were in there and popping, and it was only a pocket maybe 50 yards long, but I caught three keepers out of there in about 10 minutes,” he says. “They fired up. I was throwing that ChatterBait and they’d thump it.
“I did the same thing every day, but [Saturday] the big bites showed up. I told my co-angler that I wore my place out and boom, I caught that 5 1/2-pounder. Then I caught another one. I didn’t catch as many fish as some of those other guys did this week, but they were good size.”
3. Shuffield “scopes” out deep
Spencer Shuffield has made a living off catching bass from his electronics this season, and he kept that theme going on Table Rock for yet another top 10.
Focusing on a similar pattern as Huff, Shuffield ran pockets with his LiveScope, hunting down bass relating to wood. The only difference between him and Huff, however, is that Shuffield focused his efforts closer to the bank.
“I was catching them in the cedar trees, and I could cover so much water because I got that Power-Pole Charge; it’s a big game-changer in my opinion,” Shuffield says. “Every time I start my big motor, I’m charging my trolling motor batteries, so it’s like they never get low now, and I can keep that sucker on 100 percent all day.
“In practice, I’d go in a creek, put the trolling motor down at the mouth of it, go all the way around it and mark the trees I saw fish on as I worked my way to the other side of the mouth, and that’s where I came back to fish in the tournament. But for finding fish in 40 or 50 foot of water, that LiveScope is the deal.”
The numerous creeks lining the lake from the dam up to Kimberling City were Shuffield’s main stretch for the week, with a lot of his best stuff around the Cow Creek area.
As far as baits go, he kept it simple. A drop-shot with a 6-inch Roboworm Straight Tail Worm and an Ark drop-shot weight, which he threw on a Phenix 7-foot, 2-inch medium M1 rod with a Daiwa Ballistic LT spooled with 15-pound-test Yo-Zuri SuperBraid with and 8-pound-test Yo-Zuri TopKnot fluorocarbon leader were the main player. For fish suspended higher in the water, Shuffield tossed a Duel Hardcore Minnow Flat SP110.
Running submerged cedar trees and brush off points in each pocket, Shuffield would still fish his way around, keeping a close eye on his electronics.
“When I was going down stretches in between trees or random trees here and there, there’d be a random fish swimming around and I’d throw out there and get them to chase [his drop-shot] down to the bottom and eat it,” Suffield says. “That’s how a lot of my big smallmouths came. They wouldn’t necessarily be on a tree; they’d just be aimlessly swimming around, and I just assumed they were out hunting.”
4. Hibdon grinds docks for another top 10
Improving his catches each day, Lawson Hibdon stuck to one program all week to sack up 39-1 total and notch another Ozark top 10.
With Ozark water running through his veins, Hibdon kept things very simple and fished how he would back home – pitching a jig to docks.
“I was just pitching a homemade 3/4-ounce football jig,” Hibdon says. “My fishing partner back home, his name is Dirk Slider, we sit around tinkering with stuff all the time. We came up with a little hook for the jig – a heavy wire O’Shaughnessy deal that stabs them. I just put a Strike King Baby Rage Craw on the back and that was it. I had a lot of rods laid out, but I ended up not using them.”
While most pros in the top 10 were honing their efforts around areas with shad, that wasn’t the case for Hibdon.
“All my fish were spitting out crawdads,” he says. “It didn’t seem to matter where I went, if you had docks with deep wells, there seemed to be some fish around.”
During the first two days, Hibdon ran up to the Baxter Marina area and worked his way back down, but each day he dialed things in a bit more and wound up not having to go that far up by the final day. He says the best docks were in anywhere from 20 to 48 feet of water.
“I can’t say I would have done anything different,” Hibdon says of his week. “I can’t say that I like throwing a spoon or a drop-shot. I would rather catch them with 30-pound braided line and a 20-pound leader on it and jack on ‘em. It worked out.
“I lost a few, but that’s going to happen. You’re pitching it sometimes 40 yards back in a well and it’s going 40 feet straight down and your odds aren’t good.”
5. Cook nearly goes back-to-back
Missing the season opener on Dardanelle left cook wondering what could have been this season, as he won a month ago on his home pond of Lake of the Ozarks, and nearly won here. Running out of fish by the third day and only mustering two quality fish worth 5-14 slid him from second to fifth, but he’s still not complaining.
Cook’s win back on Lake of the Ozarks came from a similar pattern to what he ran this week, and having some local knowledge of the lake helped him key in on certain areas of the lake from Kimberling City to Baxter.
“I was just flipping boat docks, and boat wells in 15 to 25 foot seemed to be the prime depths,” he says. “Brush helped but wasn’t key.
“I’ve fished down here for a few years, so I kind of know the better areas, but having bait around docks definitely helped. I probably fished 200 slips today.”
6. Breeden banks first Series top 10
A junior in college at nearby Drury University, Cole Breeden has spent his fair share of time on Table Rock. Though he’ll admit he’s not the biggest fan of the lake, he knows putting his time in on the water will pay off, and it certainly did this week.
Weighing in 12-2 and 12-9 each of the first two days, Breeden would start his day close to the dam looking for suspended fish over open water. From there, he’d haul up to Mill Creek where he’d usually catch his bigger fish. On the final day, he spent the bulk of his time up by Mill but just never got the big bites he did earlier in the week.
“I caught all my bigger fish this week suspended around docks,” Breeden says. “They’re not very deep sometimes, maybe 5 to 10 foot over anywhere from 15 to 50 foot. But there were bigger schools under the docks the deeper you got. Getting them to bite was really tricky.
To entice bites from fish he could see on his electronics, Breeden used several open-water staples: A 7/8-ounce War Eagle spoon, Rapala Jigging Rap and Jackall Deracoup Tail Spinner saw action when he needed to drop to fish quickly. However, most of his fish came on a Strike King Baby Z Too put on either VMC Moon Eye or 1/8-ounce Owner jig, which he would skip around docks and reel back.
“I would have liked to have spent more time out deep chasing schools around like a lot of the guys did, but I felt like if I put myself around those specific schools, there was good ones in there. I just didn’t catch as many fish as I thought I’d be able to.
“But, hey, three limits is still pretty good for doing that, so I’m still happy with it.”
7. Hodge’s first time is a charm
Having never fished a Toyota Series event, local Aaron Hodge decided to give it a whirl and wound up banking his first top 10.
Like Huff, Hodge spent his time staring at his electronics to catch his fish.
“I was just chasing bait on LiveScope,” he says. “I’d follow them and follow the fish and every once in a while one would bite.”
“I always fish the lower end of the lake. I know it. I grew up here. I ran from Kimberling to Cricket Creek because that’s what I know.”
A 7/8-ounce War Eagle spoon was all Hodge needed to sack up 35-3 on the week.
Even though he ran his open-water pattern well, Hodge was still a little surprised that the bite even developed for this time of year.
“It hit early,” Hodge says of his bite. “And it was kind of better before the last few warm days, for me. But this bite is a least a few weeks, maybe a month early.”
8. Parsons pitches docks up the James
Another guy leaning heavy on the James River this week was West Fork, Ark., pro Nicky Parsons. For Parsons, the river was the only place he had confidence in, and really, he only had one area to try and carry him throughout the event.
“I was just pitching around docks in 5 to 10 foot of water,” Parsons says. “I couldn’t catch them deeper, and I couldn’t catch them shallower. I had one area holding fish, and it had a little bit of color to it and when it’d start getting a little ripple in there in the morning, I’d catch a few, but it kept getting later every day. [Saturday] I didn’t have enough time and I figure I ran out of fish.”
9. Edwards cranks shallow in the James
Growing up in Alabama and now residing in nearby Springfield, Mo., Blake Edwards made one of the longest runs of the week, heading up the James River past Cape Fair every day for his first top 10 at the Toyota Series level.
“I was up the river every day in practice and catching 12 to 13 pounds a day,” Edwards says. “The lack of wind is the only thing I can think of, and maybe the warmer weather, that hurt me.
“Towards the end of practice, I was fishing down a bank and I saw shad flicker in the back of a cove, and when I got back there I saw bass running through thousands and thousands of shad. I threw everything I had at ‘em and they wouldn’t bite, so I tied on a rattle bait and a caught a 2-pounder, a 2 1/2- and a 3-pounder in three casts.”
Though the shad were still thick in his areas, Edwards believes he simply ran out of fish as his weights and catches decreased as the week went on.
Edwards relied on two different crankbaits to get the job done. One was an old Bomber crankbait and the other was a discontinued XCalibur lipless crankbait.
“The shad tried to stay out in the middle of the pockets in 5 to 7 foot of water,” he says. “But anytime they’d push the shad to the bank, you could catch them then slow rolling that rattle bait.”
10. Strong finish puts Casada in the championship
Coming into Table Rock, Mike Casada wasn’t worried about trying to win the event. He had his sights set on Lake Cumberland and making the Toyota Series Championship this December, and he knew he needed a good finish to make that happen.
Catching limits of 11-13 and 10-7 over the first two days was all Casada needed to make the top 10 and slide up to 21st in the AOY standings to punch his ticket back to Cumberland. Despite not weighing a fish on the final day, Casada is more than pleased with how things turned out.
“I came in 35th or 36th in the points and knew I needed a really good finish to get to fish at home in the championship,” says Casada. “I’m just blessed. I’m going to get to fish for $200,000 on my home lake, and whether I do any good or not, I’m just going to be happy to be there.”
Spending most of his time up the White River, Casada would run at least to the Shell Knob bridge before starting his way back. Pitching a jig to docks, wood and rock is how he’s comfortable fishing, so he locked a 3/4-ounce Cumberland Pro Lures football jig with a wire brush guard paired with either a Yamamoto or Bass Pro Shops double tail grub in his hand. He’d throw it on a 7-foot, 3-inch Dixie Custom Rod, which he says is important to his jig system.
“The first two days I did not lay it down,” he says of the jig. “What happened [Saturday]? If I did know I’d win a lot more money fishing.”
“I think these fish are so pressured, I’d drag through a little cover or rock and I’d shake it loose and dead stick my jig. I got a lot of my bites just letting the jig sit there after I popped it loose.”