Every once in a while, you run into a tournament where a missing name really looms large. Sometimes up north it might be Scott Dobson or Ron Nelson. On Kentucky Lake, a tournament field without Cole Floyd or Jason Lambert can feel incomplete. The Toyota Series Presented by A.R.E. Central Division finale on Lake Chickamauga was missing John Cox. In addition to his 2019 FLW Tour win in May on Chickamauga, Cox has won Bassmaster Open events in both April and May on his favorite Tennessee River reservoir. To say Cox would have won for sure is likely doing a disservice to the other pros, but it sure would have been interesting to see him there, gliding around the shallows in his aluminum boat with a wacky rig in hand.
Last week, the fishing on Chickamauga was pretty stingy, which lead to some interesting variety. Jordan Hartman earned the win with an offshore strategy, but other pros cobbled together their bags on a variety of patterns. With weights a bit lower than usual, though not much lower than the pre-tournament predictions, the final day was very exciting and featured some big moves, with Miles Burghoff rocketing from ninth to third and Seth Davis going from fifth to second and nearly earning the win.
Here’s how the top pros did their damage.
One of the top locals in the field, Davis used all his wiles to scrap up 51 pounds, 1 ounce, and finish in second by less than a pound.
Putting in 40 hours of graphing ahead of the tournament, Davis found one shallower school that was off the beaten path. Two kickers there on Day 2 and a pair of 3-pounders caught from it on the final day put him in contention to win.
“I had one school I think I had to myself that was relating to a creek channel drop,” says Davis. “It was a school of fish I graphed in shallower water, I thought it was a 13-pound school. I got my limit there the first day and then I ran around like a mad man. The second day, I caught ‘em on a Neko and a [Azuma] Z Boss 20 in there and then ran around.”
On the final day, Davis again leaned on his shallower school, but he also caught his biggest fish long-lining on a community hole and spent 30 minutes trying and failing to catch a 4-pounder on a bed. When he did ledge fish, his primary baits were a Z Boss and a Strike King 10XD. His Neko bait of choice was a Big Bite Baits Trick Stick.
Davis says that only about 40 percent of the bass were out in their summertime locales, so he didn’t have any qualms about mixing it up as much as he did, or catching as many as he did on a spinning rod.
“I fished the way I thought I had to fish to win [Saturday],” says Davis. “I’ve caught a 29-pound bag before in May on a spinning rod in a tournament here. Spinning rods catch big ones here. There’s nothing I would have done different; I did what I thought I had to do.”
With a pair of Top-10 finishes to his credit on Chickamauga in under a year, Burghoff is rounding into form on the Tennessee River. Tallying 48-1 for the week, Burghoff used some big bedding fish to kickstart him and finished out a final-day rally with ledge fish.
“It seems like every time I do well here it’s junk fishing and bouncing between shallow and deep,” says Burghoff. “This week started out with some bed fish, I had two large fish on one bed and I ended up catching both. I finished out the rest of my fishing offshore. The next two days were pretty much exclusively offshore, just running around trying to find schools that were somewhat willing to bite.”
For his sight fish, Burghoff used a Z-Man Boar HogZ Texas-rigged on a 3/0 Hayabusa WRM959 hook with 20-pound Seaguar AbrazX. Offshore, he mostly relied on a reaction bite with a Strike King 5XD with 2/0 Hayabusa TBL930 trebles on 12-pound Seaguar InvisX.
Burghoff resorted to a reaction-based approach to his offshore fish and says he really only had one place he could catch any dragging.
“I was reeling as fast as I could,” he says. “I had a Fitzgerald VLD 10 in the 6.5:1 gear ratio and I was burning it as fast as I could – it was wearing me out. I’m just getting a reaction bite, that’s why the crankbait is working. Anything with one hook, they’re just not eating it, you need something with some sticky trebles on it.”
On the final day, Burghoff actually long-lined the 5XD out deep for some of his weight. On Day 2, he did much of his damage on schools that were closer to the bank and not fully out on the main river. Though he tried to fish shallow some, Burghoff says that dirty water and a lack of patience made the sight-fishing and cruising game hard for him. Luckily, he did just fine off the bank.
Putting down 46-11, Tommy Brown did it all shallow, turning left from takeoff and seining the backwaters up the river for his catch.
“I was staying super shallow all week long,” says Brown. “Everything was above takeoff for me. I looked at the fish down the lake, I went for about a day and a half, and I wasn’t seeing enough of the schools to bother with them.”
Catching about eight keepers per day, Brown plucked some off beds and caught others just fishing. Either way, he was in stealth mode, scaling down his presentations and catching most of his fish on either a Little Creeper All American Sunfish or a Zoom Fluke.
The Sunfish was a key bait for bedding fish that Brown says is a secret of his.
“I only use it for bed fishing,” says Brown. “If you can not be seen by the fish, it is a 100 percent catch rate. Well, for me, it has been.”
After a trying season, Brown was happy to end it on a good note.
“This is my favorite lake, I put a lot of work into this event,” says Brown. “I fished the rest of the division and didn’t do any good in the other two. I had boat issues on Guntersville, and on the second one, we had a flood. That was a tough one for me. Ever since then, I’ve been soul searching, I had a burning desire to do well in this one.”
Making his first Top 10 with MLF above the BFL level, Jeff Dyer stuck to his guns shallow all week.
“All I did for three days is I just went fishing,” says Dyer. “I’m a shallow fisherman, so that’s what I fished for. If you catch a couple good ones each day, it’ll shoot you right up there.”
Weighing four bass off beds on the week, Dyer fished the first two days above takeoff and spent much of the third day in Sale Creek. Sticking with a pair of jigs shallow, he says the best places were where there was grass growing in front of the shoreline cattails.
Cody Nichols has caught a bass or two on Pickwick Lake in the fall, so his prime goal this week was to make the Toyota Series Championship. After a Top 10 at Guntersville, he finished 140th at Dale Hollow – a Top 10 at Chickamauga was exactly what he needed to finish 19th in the points and lock in Pickwick.
“Day 1, I went down there and got on a community spot and pretty much set on it all day,” says Nichols. “I fished beside some live bait fishermen, I got to watch them catch over 100 in front of me, and I ground out 11 pounds. The next two days, I came up, shallow bar fishing. I fished some grass and some shell, and then I hit some cypress trees.”
Fishing in about 5 to 6 feet on the bars, Nichols caught 21-2 on Day 2 to rocket into the Top 10.
“There was one little sweet spot right off the river, it was grass, and then it would get clean with just shell and start back grass,” says Nichols. “It was about twice the size of the boat, and it was absolute luck I found it.”
On Day 2, he started there and caught a 4-pounder and a 5-pounder in the first 10 minutes. Unfortunately, those fish were nowhere to be found on Day 3.
With 44-15 for three days, Joseph Webster mixed a shallow school, grass fish and ledge fish to earn his 15th Top 10 in 92 events with MLF.
“It’s been pretty good,” says Webster. “Every morning I was starting on a school in the back of a creek, and [Saturday morning] I had a few locals in there that didn’t want me with them. So, I just had to carry on. But, overall the week has been good. I caught most of them on a drop-shot and a crankbait, and any time you can make a Top 10 it’s been a good week.”
For his shallow school, which Webster says was in about 10 feet, he mostly plied a drop-shot with a 6-inch Roboworm Straight Tail Worm in Aaron’s morning dawn. He also dabbled in some shallow peppergrass with a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent The General. Offshore, Webster says he had about a half dozen schools on ledges that topped out around 12 feet with the fish sitting in 14 to 16 feet. There, he wound a Berkley Dredger 20.5 and used the drop-shot.
“I was just trying to get over sucking at Eufaula,” says Webster. “I told my wife, ‘Either we’re fixing to go a little further in debt or I’m fixing to get over this funk.’ So, it was a pretty good week.”
For whatever reason, Andrew Nordbye’s bite went off a cliff on the final day. With back-to-back 18-pound bags, the young pro was in the lead after Day 2, but he scrounged up just three keepers on the final day.
Fishing brush piles in 8 to 14 feet, Nordbye used a shaky head with a finesse worm that he souped-up with Tightlines UV Fish Bomb Scent in the garlic flavor. Watching many of his fish eat on LiveScope, he did very well on days one and two.
“I would watch the fish go down on the bait, and if it smelled wrong I don’t think they would have eaten it. If I twitched it wrong they didn’t eat it,” says Nordbye. “That was the first two days, [Saturday], they wouldn’t touch anything. You name it, I threw it at them. I probably missed 10 fish that just bit the tip of it, and I could see them in there.”
Fishing brush isn’t exactly an unknown pattern on Chickamauga, but it would have been a novel way to win in May had Nordbye pulled it off.
“I found ‘em all the day before the tournament,” he says of his brush piles. “I stumbled upon one and caught a 3-pounder out of it, and I just graphed for them the rest of the day. I had like 40 brush piles in an area all to myself. They were loaded, I caught a lot of fish, and [Saturday] they wouldn’t touch anything.”
Despite coming up short, Nordbye says he’s grateful for his first Top 10 outside of college.
“I’m super grateful for it,” he says. “The Lord gave me a word. He said, ‘If you’re not grateful for what you have, you won’t be grateful for what you don’t yet have.’”
Fishing an entire Toyota Series division for the first time since 2018 to qualify for the championship on his home lake of Pickwick, Cody Harrison wrapped up his berth with a Top 10 finish that featured a whole slew of patterns.
“I bounced all over the place and fished all sorts of different patterns,” says Harrison, who was able to practice very little for the event. “The most productive place was a shad spawn place, I caught either a limit or most of my limit there each of the first two days. But they weren’t there [the final day] so I went scrambling.”
Fishing everything from a shad spawn area up the river to offshore grass, bank grass and deep fish down the lake, Harrison did about everything he could think of. His two best producers were a True Bass Shuttlecock Hair Jig deep and a ½-ounce Z-Man/Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer with a 7-inch Castaic Baits Jerky J Eels he fished shallow.
“Honestly, the way this lake is fishing, and the amount of time I had, I don’t think I could have done anything different,” says Harrison. “If I had more time, I might have graphed around more, but honestly, those schools were tougher to get to bite than the shallow fish were. So, I don’t think I’d have felt more comfortable having more places to fish offshore.”
Sticking shallow the whole time, Jeff McLain dropped into 10th place and locked himself in for Pickwick in the fall.
Throwing a wacky-rigged 5-inch Yamamoto Senko, McLain had a simple strategy to put fish in the boat.
“Slow, slow, slow,” says McLain. “Everybody was pitching and flipping into that grass, and they didn’t want anything punching or making a lot of noise. You had to just ease it around them to get a bite.”
Spending his time in the backwater areas around the Hiwassee, McLain committed to the shallow bite because it seemed like the most certain way to a limit.
“I started down south on the ledges, but I really couldn’t get on anything,” he says. “I found better fish up here in the grass, more consistent fish. I was pretty much fishing for points, I wanted to make the championship, and I needed five keepers every day. I thought that was my best way to do it.”
Turned out, not only was it a good way to a limit, but a 7-pounder he caught on Day 1 gave him an extra $150 for Big Bass and helped boost him into the Top 10.