Cooper eclipses 20 pounds on final day to top massive field at Smith Lake - Major League Fishing

Cooper eclipses 20 pounds on final day to top massive field at Smith Lake

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Rusty Cooper won with a three-day total of 14 bass weighing 50 pounds, 10 ounces. Photo by Rob Matsuura. Angler: Rusty Cooper.
April 6, 2024 • Justin Onslow • Toyota Series

CULLMAN, Ala. – A 20-plus-pound limit at Smith Lake isn’t unheard of, but it sure isn’t expected. And of all people, Rusty Cooper was the last who expected it to happen following a Day 2 in which he didn’t weigh in a full five-bass limit at the Toyota Series Presented by Phoenix Boats event.

Cooper, though, had the kind of Championship Saturday all bass anglers dream about, and it culminated in a $95,500 payday (including Phoenix and Berkley Big Bass bonuses) and his first MLF trophy – on his first time fishing Smith, against a field of 241 other anglers.

“Man, everything went perfect today,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for a better day. I had lots of stuff happen that will probably never go right again. I had fish that were tangled up in stuff and they stayed on until I got to them and could get them out. Everything just went right.”

That may be the understatement of the entire season. Outside of Cooper’s 20-pound, 14-ounce limit on Day 3, the largest bag caught at Smith across the three-day tournament was Jesse Wiggins’ (second place) 17-5 – the only other bag that eclipsed the 17-pound mark.

As good as Smith Lake is fishing, finding a bag that averages more than 4 pounds per fish is not ordinary. Throughout the week, the field leaned on spotted bass and some largemouth, but no one worked on either species as well as Cooper did on his largemouth Saturday. He didn’t even catch a single spotted bass in practice or during the event proper.

A big part of Cooper’s success came down to what he considered a terrible two days of practice. Not finding much outside of a couple good bites in a creek pocket, Cooper went to that pocket on Day 1 with the intention of staying there as long as he could. That proved to be the right call.

“Day 1 I was pretty blessed,” he said. “I kind of laid off it because I knew I had that area for three days and knew I was going to stay there and grind. The second day, I only had four fish. My co-angler had a 6-pounder. The fish were still there. I just couldn’t catch them for whatever reason, but I knew they were still coming, and I knew I had to stay in there and grind it out.”

Rusty Cooper’s Day 3 total of five bass weighing 20-14 gave him the win by a 6-pound margin over second place. Photo by Rob Matsuura

Cooper’s largemouth were moving in and out of his area in waves, and while they were undoubtedly using that pocket to spawn, he said he never visibly saw any of the fish he was catching on beds. Almost all of them came on a combination of moving baits that included a Scottsboro swim jig with a Reaction Innovations Skinny Dipper trailer, a 4- or 6-inch Scottsboro swimbait or a Scottsboro glide bait. Only a couple of the keepers he weighed in were caught on a finesse presentation – a wacky-rigged Xcite Baits stickbait.

The large baits approach, at least on Day 3, was by design. Having weighed in just four keepers for 13-5 on Day 2, Cooper knew he’d have to swing for the fences to have a shot at the win, which he never really expected to come to fruition in the first place.

“I thought there was no way,” he admitted. “I thought the second day was going to cost me. Not having that other keeper, that was at least 2 pounds I was behind. I thought there was no way I could pull it off with four fish on Day 2.

“I just put the big baits in my hand today and said I’m going to go for it. I need a big bag. I’m either going to catch them or I’m not.”

And catch them he did. The Huntsville firefighter, who couldn’t commit to a full season of Toyota Series events last year but who finished 79th at Guntersville to start the Central Division season in February this year, now has his ticket punched to the Toyota Series Championship on Wheeler Lake in early November.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said. “I’m just on cloud nine right now. The Lord truly blessed me all week.”

Top 10 pros

1.  Rusty Cooper – 50 – 10 (14) – $95,500 (includes $35,000 Phoenix Bonus)
2.  Jesse Wiggins – 44 – 6 (15) – $25,000
3.  Austin Swindle – 44 – 4 (15) – $17,000
4.  Jeremy Gordon – 42 – 15 (15) – $15,000
5.  Flint Davis – 42 – 10 (15) – $14,000
6.  Isaac Peavyhouse – 42 – 4 (15) – $10,500
7.  Laker Howell – 41 – 12 (15) – $9,000
8.  Blake Knies – 41 – 4 (15) – $8,000
9.  Tristan McCormick – 40 – 15 (15) – $7,000
10.  Wesley Sams – 40 – 11 (15) – $5,000

Complete results

Fishing Clash AOY

Toyota Series Central Division pros are competing for the Fishing Clash Angler of the Year award and a $5,000 payday. Fishing Clash – an interactive 3D fishing simulation game that’s been downloaded by more than 80 million people worldwide – will reward the pro AOYs in all divisions of the Toyota Series, and is the official AOY sponsor of the Bass Pro Tour, Tackle Warehouse Invitationals, Toyota Series and Phoenix Bass Fishing League. 

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