Late January on Sam Rayburn can be a prime time to fish for both numbers and size. The famed Texas impoundment didn’t disappoint for the Toyota Series presented by A.R.E. season opener. In typical east Texas fashion, the Southwestern Division event presented by Berkley, saw a focus on a combination of drains and hydrilla for the bulk of the heavy lifting. However, there were a few anglers who bucked that trend and caught fish offshore.
One of the anglers focusing his efforts offshore was tournament winner Derek Mundy, who was red-hot on Rayburn in the month of January. Mundy weighed two fish over 10 pounds and the second-largest bag ever weighed in Toyota Series history (39 pounds, 7 ounces on day two) targeting hard spots where big females were gathering to eventually make their push up the grass.
For the rest of the Top 10, offshore fishing played a part, but the majority of the pros got it done in the abundant hydrilla found throughout the lake.
Here’s the scoop on how the top pros made hay on Sam Rayburn.
Jason Bonds knows his way around Rayburn, but after weighing just two bass on day one, he almost considered not even going back out on day two. Good thing he did. The Texas pro got back in the game after walloping a limit worth 34-1 on day two, which was comprised of four 8-pounders.
Needing to have another day like Friday in the Championship Round, Bond was able to put a 9-pounder in the boat, but the rest of the big bites never showed up.
“My game plan was to just try and stay in second, because it was going to be hard to beat Derek,” Bonds says. “I moved up from 158th to second and you can’t ask for no more than that.
“I knew the wind was going to make it tough to catch them where I did on day two, so I started in the grass because I thought that bite would be better with the warmer weather and clouds. I caught two small keepers and then that 9-pounder.”
Though he pieced together a limit, Bonds only scraped together keeper bites the rest of the day. Still, with only a few hours of practice for the event, he was more than happy with how things worked out.
“I didn’t get any practice, and I hadn’t been out here for about three weeks,” Bonds says. “My team partner, Todd, and I were out here then and found an area with some fish in it. That’s where I fished around [Saturday]. But I had a horrible week. Monday, my fuel pump when out in my boat. Tuesday, I had to spend a day at the shop, and Wednesday I came out and my truck needed an electrical reset, so I had to take it to get fixed. It was the lowest of lows to the highest of highs this week.
“I ain’t too big on this, but that old saying ‘never give up’ was kind of in play. I thought I was out of it after weighing 5-14 or whatever it was the first day. There’s a lot of times I may have thrown in the towel, but I went back out and caught that big bag.”
Bonds’ big day two came fishing offshore stuff around mid-lake and was mostly the result of fishing history. For the big bites, his main choices were either a Strike King 6XD, Strike King 8XD or a Strike King Magnum Game Hawg, which he rigged several ways.
Having one of the more consistent weeks in terms of weight, Aaron Johnson put a slightly different twist on targeting drains and grass with a lipless crankbait for his finish.
“I got ‘em going pretty good in practice, so I just stuck with it,” Johnson says. “I really just focused on small depressions on flats. I tried to stay away from the drains because they get so much pressure, though I did fish some. A small depression maybe a foot, foot-and-a-half deeper than everything around it, and that’s where the fish were sitting.”
Johnson ran his pattern within eyesight of the 147 bridge throughout the week. Pressure from locals and Toyota Series competitors was heavy in the area, but keying on stuff people overlooked was the ticket for the Louisiana pro.
“Knowing little key stretches and nuances about the grass in those areas are what’s important,” Johnson adds. “Knowing when they were going to bite was also key. I knew there was a morning bite, and I knew it’d pick up again around 10:30. And there was another bite later in the day around 2:00. So, I just made sure I was in key areas at those times and in between that I just bounced around and tried different things and sometimes I’d pick one up.”
Making his first Top 10 in MLF competition, Jason Conn committed himself to one small area throughout the event. Weighing 21-6 on day one and 18-3 on day two, local pressure would take its toll in his area on the final day and he’d slip to fourth place.
“I was throwing baits off the bank, because everyone else was throwing towards the bank,” Conn says. “I didn’t really pick up on it until the last day of practice, but I started catching fish and rolled with it. My key bite was slow-rolling that bladed jig over the grass.”
Conn essentially camped on a 100-yard stretch in the Deer Stand where a ditch led to a spawning flat. With lily pad stems on a flat and good hydrilla deeper, it was the perfect spot for fish to reload each day.
“I actually left that area on the final day for a bit and when I came back there were two boats on it,” he says. “I asked if the one guy had done any good and he said he’d just caught a [5-pounder] and a 7. That was brutal. It was frustrating, but it is what it is.”
While a vibrating jig was his main weapon, Conn also threw a 6th Sense Curve Finesse Squarebill over the grass to give the fish something other than a lipless crankbait and vibrating jig to look at.
Jeff Reynolds made his 13th Top 10 with MLF sticking to what he knows – fishing shallow.
“My pattern was doing a couple different things,” Reynolds says. “I was either fishing super, super shallow or on top of the grass or outside grass. The first day I caught most of my fish in anywhere from 5 to 8 foot of water. My bigger fish came on outside grass lines on secondary points and pockets.
“I could catch a lot of fish up shallow. I really think I could catch 40 or 50 a day, but I couldn’t catch them in 2 or 3 foot of water. It had to be dirt, dirt shallow. I really don’t know what was going on because they weren’t spawning. I know a lot of them were bucks up there getting ready to spawn, but there’s a lot of little bait behind the bushes. You could go around and flip some of the prettiest bushes or throw a swim jig at them and not get a bite, but if you throw behind that stuff, you catch the snot out of them.”
Texas pro Garrett Hilton kept tabs on both an offshore bite and the grass throughout the event to finish sixth. While the grass provided the most consistent action, cranking a gizzard shad 6th Sense Crush 500DD on a hard spot offshore would help give him kicker bites.
“My crankbait fish, I got like two bites, but one was a 7 1/2-pounder,” says Hilton. “I caught her on a hard spot out in about 15 foot. But that was kind of a one-bite deal.
“So, the rest of my fish were on a [Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap]. The inside grass line was kind of a deal. When the water warmed up in the afternoon and the sun came out, the fish would get on top of that grass or get up behind it. They’re on transition banks right now following the bait.”
Hilton rotated through several grass stretches that he knew had consistent bites. Timing was one of the biggest factors for him when it came to filling the livewell.
“You just had to roll in at the right time when the water temperature got right or the bait rolled in – whichever it was,” he says. “You’d catch males, but eventually a female would come in and pop it.”
After catching 21-3 on day one, Bass Pro Tour pro Jeff Sprague caught fish the rest of the week but couldn’t connect with more of the big bites he found Thursday. Still, a Top 10 is more than he could ask for considering it’d been a few years since he’d fished a tournament on Rayburn.
Sprague opted to dial in the tried-and-true early-season pattern on Rayburn of running drains in hopes of connecting with schools of bass making their way shallow.
“I was targeting main-lake drains with hyrdrilla in anywhere from 12 to 6 or 8 foot,” Sprague says. “I’d follow the drains in and run into grass patches that had several fish on them. I did fish one stretch each day that had a good number of fish, but otherwise, I had to continuously search for new patches each day. I wound up running new water, because at any point you could run into a 30-pound bag. I think it’s just too early for the big girls to be up shallow and that’s why we saw those big bags come out in 15 to 18 feet.”
Sprague got some of his bigger bites on a Strike King Thunder Cricket with a Strike King Blade Minnow, but his bread and butter was a Strike King Red Eye Shad Tungsten 2 Tap. He threw the Red Eye Shad on 15-pound Strike King Tour Grade fluorocarbon on a soon-to-be-released signature series Lew’s rod with a Lew’s Custom Pro reel.
From the dam to the 147 bridge was where the majority of competitors homed in during the tournament, but not Lowell Bennett. The Texas pro did basically the opposite of everyone else by finding the dirtiest, shallowest water he could.
“I ran some drains and had so much traffic in practice I decided to try and get away from that,” Bennett explains. “I found a few fish up shallow, in 1 to 3 foot of water, way back in creeks, but I ran out of fish.
“I was fishing very protected water and didn’t have a lot of main-lake access to replenish fish.”
Sticking to your guns is never a bad approach in a tournament setting, as Kevin Lasyone knows all too well. The Louisiana pro is known for throwing one color of jig, and he did just that to yet another Rayburn Top 10.
A 1/2-ounce V&M Pacemaker Football Jig (sneaky snake color) with a green pumpkin craw trailer was the jig of choice. Lasyone has made good money on the sneaky snake color overs the years and it paid off once again for the Rayburn ace.
“I was just dragging a jig, and when you’d hit a stump, they’d eat it,” Lasyone says. “You had to let them eat it. If you didn’t let them eat it, you didn’t catch them.”
Making a Top 10 at any level is tough, but making one in your Toyota Series debut on Rayburn is noteworthy. Brandon Flowers employed a simple pattern to do just that.
“I was running main-lake and secondary points in the mouths of the major spawning creeks way up the lake,” Flowers says. “I was basically fishing the inside grass line on those points. I felt like those bigger fish were staging there to maybe move up in a month or so to get ready to spawn.
“I had a route that I ran every day, and I had one stretch that was about four or five points in a row with really good grass on them that was my predominant stretch for bigger ones. I should have probably ran new water [Saturday] because I only caught the three. I don’t know what happened. I was getting about 30 bites a day, and to only get three makes me think the weather affected them. The overcast skies made the grass lay down instead of stand up, and my bait wasn’t coming through it the same way it did on the first two days.”