Toyota Series Championship: How tough is Table Rock? - Major League Fishing

Toyota Series Championship: How tough is Table Rock?

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Surprisingly, there was no fog delay on Day 1 of the Toyota Series Championship. Photo by Jody White. Angler: Ben McCann.
November 2, 2023 • Jody White • Toyota Series

BRANSON, Mo. – Day 1 of the Toyota Series Championship Presented by Simms on Table Rock Lake started out under crisp and cold conditions. Thankfully, the temperatures were not literally freezing at takeoff, but it was cold enough that even the Canadians donned toques and every Strike King co-angler was praying for a short run to the starting spot.

With huge payouts on the line for pros and co-anglers, the crowing event of the Toyota Series Presented by Phoenix Boats season is sure to be a good one. Still, the quality of the fishing is very much up for debate, and the Ozarks have not dealt the anglers an easy hand this week.

See the field list

Brutal practice sets the tone

Though the event should feature fairly decent fall conditions, practice offered the first big front of the season. Faced with rain, wind, and freezing temperatures, anglers had to spend the first half of practice trying to stay dry and warm, and the second half un-freezing their boat compartments enough to get a rod out.

“It has been miserable,” said Jeremy Lawyer, a man intimately familiar with the cold weather brutalities of region. “I think what has made it a worse miserable feeling is the fact that we went from 80 to 30. Then, on top of that, the fishing is not the greatest, so it makes it that much tougher.”

For Jake Lawrence, the practice period was also one of the toughest he’s ever endured.

“I’ve had one other one back in college where it snowed and everything was frozen over – train wreck,” he said. “But we didn’t have a 30-minute window in practice where it was right, not a major ordeal just to get to and from a place. It was either wind or rain or both. That first day was one of the coldest rains I’ve ever fished in. I absolutely froze the first day of practice.”

Still, even though water temperatures are dropping, it’s not projected to be enough to shake the lake from a summer or fall state directly to the stable and good winter conditions the Ozarks are known for.

Tougher conditions mean the potential techniques run the gamut from finesse to power.

“Everywhere, but nowhere in particular”

If there’s one sure thing this week, it’s that the fishing is a little scattered. Though it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Top 10 doing mostly one thing by the end, the players on Day 1 are all setting out with widely varying game plans.

“I don’t have a lot of experience here, but from looking at it the last four days, I feel like it’s in that transitional period,” Lawrence said. “They seem to be everywhere, but nowhere in particular. They’re not all doing the same thing, like we want ‘em to do. In one sense, that’s good, because it’s definitely gonna spread the field out. But, it’s going to make the fishing more difficult from a consistency standpoint, which is the name of the game here. Somebody has found some groups and an area that has a lot of fish, but overall, I feel like they’re still scattered.”

Lawyer, a real Ozark expert, is of the same opinion.

“I think it’s going to be a tournament where a guy cannot do one thing,” he said. “I don’t think Cody Huff can catch his weight to do well simply by looking at ‘em on one hole, or stuff like that. It’s going to take a combination, maybe catching one in the morning on a Plopper, then finding a few keepers on a channel swing. Then, maybe the sun gets up and you find some bait in the back of a creek and you catch one or two off the bait and then you continue to hodgepodge around. Maybe someone catches a couple off a boat dock. Then, at the end of the day, you build up to 14 or 16 pounds. But, I don’t think it’s going to be very easy to do that.”

The one thing that seemed like a sure bet going into the event was the LiveScope bite. In theory, most of the field was going to sweep their forward-facing beams out through timber and open water to target lots of limits. Now, some of the best at it seem to be having a hard time. To hear Kyle Hall tell it, he’ll be lucky to catch a bass. According to Lawrence, relying on your electronics won’t be the shoo-in some thought it would be.

“I don’t have a ton of experience on this lake, so my opinion here is not based on a lot of information,” he said. “But, I’m not really liking what I’m seeing out there, as far as the open water roamers. Most of what I’m seeing are singles or pairs. On a TVA system, or someplace that’s got fertile, green water, it’s hard to catch a single. In this gin-clear water, you might as well forget it. I’m not seeing enough of those wolf packs, you know, five to 10 fish, you can get one of those to bite every time you see one. I’m just not seeing enough of them.”

For Lawrence, that means he’s headed to the bank.

“I’ve made my mind up, I had really one strong day of practice up a river,” he said. “I love catching them not looking at them, and I’m really excited to go up there and do that. It’s a high-risk, high-reward deal. I think I could stay in the lower end and catch a 12-pound bag and probably come out with a decent finish if it was a points deal or anything other than what it is. With this being the championship and the way it is set up, I’m running up the river and I’m going to die by it – I think it’s the only legitimate shot I have to win. I had a lot of fun up there the other day, catching them on top. I’m not getting a ton of bites, but when I get one it seems to be a good largemouth.”

On the other hand, the idea of long fog delays, sunny skies and light winds has Lawyer dreading the shallow bite.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to go manhandle them on a Plopper,” Lawyer said. “But, there’s no way this tournament is won on a Plopper. I think the first day of practice, there was damn sure some guys who caught some on a Plopper. I caught a decent one in about 20 minutes and I put it down, because I knew it would suck me in. In the tournament, we’re not going to have those kinds of conditions. I tried to practice for the tournament, so I didn’t get sucked in up a river or a shallow bite. That might burn me, but I just tried to practice a little smarter.”

Many are guessing that the winner will need a varied gameplan.

What does it take?

While there’s certainly a typical amount of practice complaining (Lawyer said the last day of practice had his fellow competitors burning his phone down in search of advice), some folks are catching some good fish. Alec Morrison and Spencer Shuffield both think practice went well, and the aforementioned Cody Huff is on tenterhooks to see what the day holds. Still, it sounds like this may end up being an event with a few “haves” and a lot of “have-nots.”

While Lawyer and Lawrence both think that something in the mid-40s wins, Lawyer believes there will be a huge gap between first and 25th by the end of weigh-in on Day 2.

“I’m gonna say 20 pounds makes the cut,” he said. “I could be wrong, but it seems to me it’s gotten tougher and tougher as practice has gone on. But, I also think it’ll be lower because we’re going to get fogged in both mornings, and we’re going to have short days.”

Pegging the winning weight at 47 or 48 pounds and the cut weight at 24 pounds, Huff said the fishing is indeed tough.

“I think the top couple weights will probably be pretty good, but outside the top four or five it’s going to be a pretty tough tournament,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be easy to get five keeper bites in a day. I think the outlier, that could surprise somebody, is if somebody figures out the smallmouth. It seems like when someone catches a smallmouth right now, they’re good ones, but I don’t see it being a big smashfest at all. Last time I won here, it was way better than it is now.”

All that could be true, but the fact remains that there are more than 200 pros and Strike King co-anglers from literally all over the world setting out to figure the place out. They’re all good, and some are truly superlative – don’t be surprised if at least a few folks make Table Rock look really good.