BRANSON, Mo. – Jigs are BACK, baby! Well, jigheads are back, with skirts and all sorts of little minnows on the business end. As many expected, the Toyota Series Championship Presented by Simms was a full-scale LiveScope battle on Table Rock. But, even though some real standards turned out to be key, there were enough interesting edge cases to make the event pretty fascinating.
Here’s what worked best for the top finishers on Table Rock.
Chad Mrazek earned the win targeting fish around timber with a 7/16-ounce football jig with half a 6th Sense Clout as a trailer – it was a bait Mrazek is super comfortable with and part of his LiveScope rotation. Heavier, 16-pound line was also key.
“I’ve been scoping with that bait for a while now,” he said. “I used 16-pound Sunline Sniper, and I can’t break it. Most of my better drains, there were trees everywhere, you’re going to get wrapped up. I think I only lost like two fish all week.”
Coming ounces away from a truly historic year, Emil Wagner split his time between chasing deep largemouth and spotted bass and smallmouth that were higher in the water column. Down deep, he ripped a 7/8-ounce War Eagle Jiggin Spoon. Up higher, he used a 3/16-ounce Dirty Jigs Guppy Head with a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flatnose Minnow.
For rods, Wagner relied on Fenwick World Class sticks, using a 7-foot, 1-inch, medium power, extra fast action spinning rod for his Damiki and a 7-1, medium baitcaster for the spoon.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone more consistent in the Toyota Series Championship than Drew Gill. In 2022, he finished third at Guntersville – he followed that up with another third-place finish this year on Table Rock.
“I rocked with one bait all week, every fish I weighed came on a 1/4-ounce Damiki rig, catching fish suspended shallow over the river channel,” he said. “It worked up the lake, not down the lake. Finding a couple sweet little sections was the key.”
Targeting fish that were about 10 or 15 feet down, Gill says they typically bit only about 3 feet below the surface. Gill says a 7-6, medium light Ark Invoker Pro Series spinning rod was the ticket, both for working the bait and making sure he didn’t pull it out of the mouth of an eager bass.
The top three pros all had at least one really big day mixed in – Jeremy Gordon simply stayed super consistent, relying on an East Tennessee staple.
“I used a regular Damiki Armor Shad; just how we do it in Tennessee,” he said. “They were biting that new Yamamoto Sonar Shad, and I caught some on it in the derby, but the Armor Shad was the main player for me.”
Using the 3-inch Armor Shad, Gordon used mostly chartreuse and blue, smoke black silver and white silver colors.
“They wanted the smaller profile,” he said. “I caught a fish and it spit up a shad and it was bigger, you’d figure the bigger bait would be the deal. But, they would not commit to the bigger baits.”
For heads, Gordon used a homemade lead one, as well as the Angler Tungsten Eclipse Swimbait Head. For shallower fish, about 15 feet down, he stuck with a 1/4-ounce head. For fish in the 20- to 35-foot range, a 3/8-ounce head was the ticket. For fish down deeper, a 5/8- or 3/4-ounce head got the call.
“Most guys were fishing super deep, catching fish out of 40 or 60 foot of water,” he said. “I tried to find fish that were 20 foot or shallower, chasing bait balls. In the morning I was trying to stay pretty shallow, no deeper than 30 foot, in the midday, I’d be out over 50 to 80 foot. Then, it seemed like late in the day those shallower drains were where I would catch better quality.”
Did you think we were done with jigs and minnows? Think again! Jacob Walker knocked out a Top 10 and used a Damiki for the bulk of the work, going with a Queen Tackle Sonar Head (all the way from 1/4- to 1-ounce depending on depth) and a 4-inch Deps Sakamata Shad.
“I caught 30 to 40 fish a day, all on the 4-inch Sakamata Shad,” he said. “The flanges, or wings, help to hold the nose of the bait up when you’re trying to keep it above fish. There are not many other baits that offer that. The action of that bait calls them up.”
However, it wasn’t just about a jig and a minnow for Walker. He also caught some smallmouth out off the bank on a Reaction Innovations Vixen custom-painted in “MG herring” by Mark Restivo.
“There were some big smallmouth schooling; I was seeing them from 10 foot to the surface to 50 feet down,” he said. “Some of them were super high and active, and it was nuts. It would have been nasty to get a drone on some of that stuff.”
The highest finisher to really break from the pack, Christian Ostrander threw a KGB TSG glide bait and a 3/4-ounce football jig around trees and docks. Earlier in the event, he fished his jig on the edges of docks successfully, but he had to put it way into them to catch fish on the final day.
Sacking up 16 pounds on the final day, Brody Campbell did the standard stuff. For his Damiki, he went with a Strike King 3X ElazTech Baby Z-Too on a 1/2-ounce VMC Neon Moon Eye Jig. He also occasionally mixed in a 7/8-ounce Rapala Jigging Rap.
“They could be anywhere from 10 foot to 40 foot,” said the Indiana pro. “I was mainly catching smallmouth and spots. That big largemouth was the only one I weighed, it was a freak one.”
After leading the first two days, a tough final day dropped Mike Raber in the standings. He ran a multifaceted game plan on the week, which stood out a bit from the crowd.
“I had a couple key docks, and I was catching them on a jig in some of the slips, especially where there was brush,” he said. “I was catching a lot of my big fish on the back of docks, under the walkways. And, on Day 1 and Day 2, I caught some key spotted bass on an underspin on the front of docks on cables.”
His jig of choice was a 7/16-ounce Jewel Pee-Wee Spider Jig HD, but he had lost enough that he was on to a Jewel Pro Spider Jig by Day 3. He paired all his jigs with a cut-down Zoom UltraVibe Speed Craw.
Raber also used a Damiki with a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Jerk Shad and a 1/2-ounce Queen Tackle Sonar Head or a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flatnose Minnow with a 3/16-ounce Bite-Me Tackle Buster head.
On Day 1, most of Raber’s big ones came out of a drain in 30 to 40 feet, but they disappeared after that.
“I will never understand where those fish went, or why they weren’t there the next two days, but that’s just how it worked out,” he said. “I think it’s the nature of the beast, the baitfish deal, I never got keyed in on until the end of practice. So, everything I learned about it I learned about in about one day.”
Wrapping up the Top 10, Canadian Evan Kung was also the top-finishing international angler at the event, an honor that Canadians have taken home two of the last three years.
Chasing fish around bait, Kung got honed in on the correct areas with a Swimbait Garage Hyper Shad.
“I used it more in practice, I caught a lot on it in practice,” he said. “It helped me find some areas of the lake with bigger fish in it. They stopped eating the glide in the tournament because it was so calm, but I was in the areas of the lake with the bigger fish.”
On derby days, he relied on a jig and a minnow like many others. For Kung, a 3/8-ounce Bass Tactics Smeltinator was the head of choice, paired with either a 3.5-inch Z-Man Scented Jerk ShadZ or an X Zone Lures Hot Shot Minnow
“I started with the Jerk ShadZ,” he said. “When the fish got more pressured, I switched more to the Hot Shot Minnow. It is a little smaller and more subtle and got a few more bites.
“They were chasing bait balls, usually it was anywhere from 5 foot to 40 foot down,” Kung said. “But, I was usually over 150 to 200 feet of water. It was weird. I caught some shallower in 80 foot, but the bigger ones I caught were out farther.”