COUNCE, Tenn. – It was boldly apparent that the grass above the Natchez Trace Bridge was the deal in the Toyota Series Championship Presented by Guaranteed Rate at Pickwick Lake. While Brent Crow sacked 23 pounds, 1 ounce on the final day below the Wilson Dam, the tailrace pattern never played out like many thought. Instead, winding baits around grass on shallow bars was the most consistent pattern until big winds on the final day muddied much of the best areas up and the bite shut down. So, if you’re stumped on how to catch some fall bass around current and grass, give some of these patterns a try.
One of the most consistent anglers in the event, Mikey Keyso lived on a ¼-mile stretch of the bottom end of Sevenmile Island for his runner-up showing.
Keyso’s area had some of the best – and only – matted vegetation he could find on Pickwick and when mixed with an abundance of bait and close proximity to the main river channel, it’s no surprise it was full of bass. While punching the thick grass got him bigger bites early on in the event, a frog ultimately carried him through.
“There was a group of fish in there and I just milked it and milked it,” Keyso said. “[Saturday] I couldn’t flip at all because the wind had just cranked into it. So, I picked up a frog and caught what I could.
“I caught so many 2 ½-pounders on Day 2 and that hurt me a lot. I didn’t get near as many bites [Saturday] and they were on the frog, but just boiling it and popping it, but wouldn’t eat it. I think they were just getting smart to it after three days.”
A 6th Sense Vega frog was his go-to frog, though he had to make do with whatever he had after losing his last one on the final day. Punching, however, got him some of his bigger bites. For that, the Florida pro used a 1 ½-ounce Hawg Tech Tungsten weight, a 3/0 Mustad hook and a Reaction Innovations Sweet Beaver or Kinky Beaver (magic craw swirl). To make sure he got his fish out of the heavy cover he used Scenko Stix Rods for both techniques.
Fishing in his seventh-straight Toyota Series Championship, Greg Bohannan posted his best finish in as many years thanks solely to a topwater. Which isn’t a surprise when you consider how experienced he is in the Ozarks.
“I was running bluffs and rock banks that had current on them,” Bohannan said. “It was kind of like we do in the Ozarks where you just get right up near the bank and work that Sexy Dawg real quick or that Plopper and just cover a ton of water. I was getting about seven bites a day, but every day I’d get a big one.”
While he had a variety of topwaters on the deck, a pair of Strike King Sexy Dawg Hard Knocks (bone and Carolina chrome) lead the charge for Bohannan, which he threw on a 7-foot, medium-heavy Lew’s Custom Pro Mag Bass 1 rod with a Lew’s HyperMag reel spooled with 20-pound Strike King Tour Grade mono.
“I had one of the coolest smallmouth bites of my entire life on one of those baits,” Bohannan said of his Day 2. “I caught a 5-pounder. And [Day 3] I had that big largemouth.”
Running above the Natchez Trace Bridge, Bohannan had three main stretches that he rotated through every day of the event. Each stretch was roughly a few hundred yards long and he’d try to fish them as quickly and effectively as he could.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been with Garmin, I just signed with them,” Bohannan said. “That new Garmin trolling motor, that dude is awesome. I ran it on high most of the day and it used like 40 percent less battery, which was a big key.”
Cody Nichols was one of the only other pros in the Top 10 with plenty of experience on Pickwick, especially this time of year. Banking a Top 10 in the Phoenix Bass Fishing League Super Tournament on Pickwick at the beginning of October, Nichols was able to pick back up where he left off.
“I was catching them on top of shallow bars near the main river,” Nichols said. “You got to stay pretty close to the main river. I caught some big ones out by the main river, but I also had the back of a ditch that had a bunch of fish in it.
“The ditch is where I caught them in the BFL and I caught several out of it this week, too. Everything in front of it was muddy but in the back of the ditch it cleared up and they were stacked in there.”
With a smattering of Hammer Rods on his deck, Nichols did a lot of work with a 6-inch Bull Shad, an ima Little Stik 135 and a ½-ounce Z-Man ChatterBait Jack Hammer (Brett’s bluegill) with a Reaction Innovations Skinny Dipper.
Though a Top 10 is nothing to bat an eye at, Nichols had higher hopes for himself and Pickwick as a whole coming into the event.
“I really thought the lake was going to be on fire,” Nichols said. “Coming into practice I thought it was going to take 20 [pounds] a day for sure to win. Usually, when you get to this time of year the weights start going up. We might be still a week or two off, but I was really excited and thought I might have a really good chance to win but I couldn’t put them in the boat.
“I lost fish every day. I had the bites to win for sure. But that happens when you’re throwing treble hook baits.”
Jeff Reynolds has never been to Pickwick in the fall before, but it didn’t slow him down.
“Just knowing it was fall, I knew fish were probably going to be relating to grass, shad and something shallow,” Reynolds said. “You always think about moving to the back of creeks this time of year, but this lake is more like a river and there’s not a lot of creeks to get into. But with all the shallow bars it has, some of them are a foot and half deep on top and turn into a big flat and the fish will get on them.”
Also running above the Natchez Trace Bridge, Reynolds had one, key stretch of bar.
“I was catching most of my fish on the bars with some grass on them,” he said. “The bigger ones I caught were in more scattered grass. All the big, pretty clumps had 100 boats on them. So I found a few places that had a little bit of grass and I really had one stretch. Both mornings [Days 1 and 2] I caught four keepers each day off one 100-yard stretch in an hour and a half. My bigger fish I found were right on the edge of the river and not all the way back up yet.”
“When I got in there [Day 3] there were waves rolling in and it muddied up. I knew it was probably over, but I tried to make it work but just never could.”
Reynolds knew a topwater would be a great way to imitate shad and fish shallow water effectively. So, a River2Sea Whopper Plopper 130 thrown on a 7-foot, 3-inch medium-heavy Crotalus Custom Rod with 50-pound braid got the nod.
The only four-time Toyota Series Angler of the Year currently in existence, Todd Castledine got burned by the wind on the final day. Prior to that, he was crushing the grass bite on the shallow bars above the Natchez Trace.
“I found most of what I found on day one of practice without a map,” Castledine said. “Then, I called Justin Atkins and borrowed a LakeMaster card. But, my starting spot is a needle in a haystack, and I found it just idling around. I was like ‘Ah, this looks good,’ and first cast I caught one, and I caught a big one there every morning.
“The day I got here I had like 40 bites and I thought this was going to be easy,” said the lanky Texan. “The next day was like [Day 3] and I had like five. So, I was a little worried. I think I could have still caught them if it was calm, I think it was the wind that was the problem. Because it looked a lot different today.”
Fishing a Strike King Hybrid Hunter and Sexy Dawg Hard Knock, Castledine said that the 3- to 4-foot range was the best. He was fishing shallow enough, that rising water on Day 2 notably helped him get his crankbait over the grass on one spot. As for the grass he was fishing, he says the best stuff was hydrilla, but that he could pick a fish off here and there out of coontail in practice.
“I treated it like the Great Lakes, like St. Clair,” Castledine explained. “All I would do is start making waypoints every time I caught one. You would look up, and all of a sudden, you’d only get bit close to that waypoint. Not necessarily on it, but near it. You’d have clusters of waypoints, you’d have grass, but I think honestly what it was were small high spots and indentions.”
Catching big weights on the first two days, Chris Digino fished a section of grass and backchannel above the Natchez Trace.
“I got dialed in fishing it from the main lake side, I got some really big bites,” he said. “The first day of the tournament it just wasn’t working, I came down into the ditch and fished it from the backside. They were loaded up in there and I milked it for all it was worth.”
Digino caught some on a red crankbait, but did most of his work with a ½-ounce Z-Man ChatterBait Jack Hammer with a Lake Fork Live Magic Shad and a 3/8-ounce homemade swim jig with a Keitech Swing Impact FAT trailer.
On the final day, he only landed one keeper.
“I think I had poor time management,” he said. “I tried to milk it too long, it just wasn’t fast enough, and the fish had scattered out. I really wanted to go to some matted stuff, and I just never made the run. I went to some other stuff I wanted to try try, and I came to find out that the Top 10 was everywhere I wanted to go.”
Dakota Ebare made his second-straight appearance in the Top 10 at the Toyota Series Championship thanks largely to covering water and throwing a bunch of baits. Though, there was still a method to his madness.
“I kind of junk fished,” Ebare said. “The pattern was shallow. I tried to stay in the current around shell or grass. And I looked for gizzard shad. That was the key.
“But, turns out, the fish were feeding on crawfish quite a bit. Cody (Nichols) and I talked about that a lot because we kept seeing crawfish in our livewell. In practice we were throwing ChatterBaits in white and couldn’t get bit, but [Saturday] my co-angler was catching the fire out them on a fire craw ChatterBait, so I finally got tired of netting fish and tied one on and caught my lonely 3-pounder.”
Like Reynolds, Ebare had also never been to Pickwick in the fall, but he knew enough of what fish should be doing to make it work.
“It’s just typical fall stuff,” Ebare said. “You look for bait and the fish get shallow.”
With minimal southern experience, Barry Graves earned the top spot in the International Division and carried the flag for Canada. Fishing shallow bars above the Natchez Trace, Graves did well every day but the last one.
“I’d done a lot of research before I came here, and I had a pretty good idea the bars would play a factor,” he said. “I spent a lot of time in practice driving around, whenever I’d find the ones with weed on them I’d get bit. A lot of guys were throwing horizontal stuff, swimbaits and ChatterBaits, I didn’t get bit well on that in practice, but I could get bit on the jig.”
Graves went with either a 5/16- or 9/16-ounce Punisher Jig (black) with a Zoom Tiny Salty Chunk trailer (green pumpkin). He fished it on short casts, and his retrieve was a cross between swimming it and dragging it.
“I rode it for the first two days and today it died,” he said. “I knew from practice the wind made it tough on those bars, I don’t know why, but today I couldn’t get them to go.”
Still, between the Division Bonus and his payout, he pocketed $21,000 and a Top 10 on the Tennessee River.
“It’s crazy, I came here just hoping to win the International Division,” said Graves. “To end up in the Top 10 is icing on the cake as they might say.”
Aaron Johnson decided to fish his first full season this year in the Southwestern Division of the Toyota Series with hopes of qualifying for the championship on Pickwick. So, between actually qualifying for the event and ending his season with a Top 10, it was certainly something he was proud of, even if it didn’t go as smoothly as he’d hoped.
Like many others in the Top 10, Johnson had never seen Pickwick before, but a little homework before his arrival got him on the right track.
“I did some map study on my laptop looking at Google Earth and my map on my GPS to get an understanding of how the lake sets up,” said Johnson. “I watched a couple of videos on YouTube and from prior tournaments to tell me what’s in the lake. I knew I wasn’t going to catch smallmouth because I’ve never done that, I know I’m not going to fish rocks and I know I don’t have to worry about fishing deep because it’s not going to happen and the lake is too low to be flipping. So, that told me I was going to fish grass and I like to fish grass to begin with and that’s why I wanted to get to Pickwick.”
Having won a Toyota Series event on Sam Rayburn in the fall of 2020 cranking grass, Johnson knew he’d have a shot at a decent finish if he could find the right stuff.
Knowing he wanted to be close to the main river, Johnson covered a lot of water upstream from Waterloo. Though, after hitting a stump and messing up his lower unit on the first day of practice, the Texas pro didn’t get to see much else until the final day of practice when he got his lower unit replaced.
“I kept looking for grass on flats off the river,” Johnson said. “About 4 o’clock on the last day of practice I found what I was looking for, which was scattered clumps of grass. Everything else I found was just grass beds that didn’t have much definition to them. It was a mix of hydrilla and coontail on a flat with variations of depth, maybe a foot here and there.”
To do his damage around shallow grass, Johnson used the same modified square-bill crankbait he fished with so much success in his win on Sam Rayburn in 2020. He cranked it on 15-pound fluorocarbon with a 7:1 gear ratio Quantum reel and a 7-foot, medium-heavy Kister Magnesium casting rod.
Johnson would wind up focusing his efforts around a ½-mile to ¾-mile square stretch of river between Kogers Island and Sevenmile Island with matted and submerged clumps of grass. The first two days produced limits of over 16 and 13 pounds to slide him into the Top 10. While the wind on the final day killed the grass bite for some, Johnson had a backup plan, though a mechanical issue would ultimately be his demise.
“I had a little area you couldn’t see the grass at all and that’s where I caught all my fish the final day,” said Johnson. “The big flats got blown out from the high winds. My secondary spot was off the wall right off the edge of a slough. It was only maybe 30 yards by 20 yards and it could reload since it was off the slough and the main river.”
Unfortunately, after catching 15 pounds on Day 3, Johnson decided to start working his way back to weigh-in accounting for over an hour of running with the wind. By the time he hit the mouth of Bear Creek, he threw an ear off his prop. By that point, the rest of the pros were already ahead of him and he wound up throwing his fish back since he wouldn’t make it to weigh-in.
Even though he wasn’t able to make it back and missed out on some extra cash, Johnson is okay with how the week went.
“The goal I had was to make it to Pickwick because I knew it had grass and I like fishing grass in the fall,” saidJohnson. “To get there when you consider the challenges I had in practice and find them, make some adjustments during the tournament and make the cut is a win in my book.”