Purists likely look at last week's Ft. Gibson Bassmaster Elite Series as the closest example of a true no-info tournament. A flooded Arkansas River forced officials to move the tournament north to Ft. Gibson, and the field had only a short practice day the following day to prepare.
But there was one pro in the field
who knew the lake up and down – Tommy Biffle, who lives there. He mowed his lawn instead of practicing and from the get-go, it was his event to win or lose.
He won, but it was close, and he edged runner-up Skeet Reese by a little less than 3 pounds.
It was Biffle's fifth BASS win, and a special one, because he did it in front of his family, friends and local community.
Here's how he did it.
The Gibson Lowdown
Ft. Gibson was hit hard by the largemouth bass virus about 10 years ago. But the lake is now in peak form, with strong numbers of fish and quite a few giants. Lots of 3-, 4- and 5-pounders came to the scales, along with the occasional 6 and 7.
The lake's diverse, with a true river at its top, creek channels, a main channel and slow-tapering banks.
Prior to day 1, there was the expectation that the main bite would be offshore. Daytime temps were near 100 and the water had reached 85 degrees. Logic dictated the fish would be in full summer mode.
But water coming down the Grand River, along with Ft. Gibson Dam work that dictated the lake be kept low, resulted in a significant amount of current through the main channel. And the lake was 3 feet lower than normal along the banks.
The far offshore bite was pretty much dead, and the ultra-shallow bite in the lake wasn't the ticket. The fish were ultra-shallow up the river, and both Rick Morris and Matt Herren had a shot to win it up there. But Biffle beat them by focusing on rocky bottoms in 2 1/2 to 10 feet of water.
> Day 1: 5, 19-11
> Day 2: 5, 18-09
> Day 3: 5, 17-04
> Day 4: 5, 18-03
> Total = 20, 73-11
Biffle's day-1 strategy was to fish everything he thought the field would eventually find.
"I was basically trying to catch all I could to keep them from catching them," he said. "But really, what I was fishing, they weren't finding. We have an area in the lake called Toppers where a lot of jackpots go out of. I knew a bunch of the guys would be up there, but I wasn't really fishing for release fish or anything. The fishing in the whole area's just good.
"When we started, I hit one of my favorite spots and didn't catch them. Then I went over to another area where I'd caught some in the past and it turned out to be really good."
That second area became his "key starting place" and he began there the next three mornings to fill a limit. Other pros saw him fishing there, he said, and likely fished it after him, "but if they didn't know right where the right stuff was, they probably weren't catching them."
He caught a starting limit there every day on his Gene Larew Biffle Bug rig, then ran other stuff he knew from past experience on the lake.
Another area quickly turned into a dependable second stop, but it largely served up bad luck. He lost a 5-pounder there one day, plus another 5-pounder and a 6-pounder across competition. "I never did catch a big one there and had three or four different big ones on," he said.
Winning Pattern Notes
Biffle said his starting spot was "way off the bank – the bottom was rough bottom with little flat rocks. The rest of the bottom around it was pretty smooth, and they were staying on that rough rock."
Biffle started on the same spot every morning to catch a limit.
The rest of his areas were "all offshore. They all had rough rock and were places I've known about forever. But they were shallower than I wanted to be. I had a lot of good stuff out deeper, but for some reason, the fish just weren't out there deep yet. So I kind of had to do what they were doing.
"I don't know why they were shallower," he added. "The water that flows through there kind of stays in the main channel when it flows through, and the water level the whole week didn't vary more than 6 inches. They do stay shallow a lot in this lake, but at this time of year, with the water being in the mid-80s, some should have been deeper. I'd go each day to a couple deep places and maybe catch one or none. They weren't out there."
He didn't fish the river and noted the irony: "Everywhere I go in this country I try to fish the river, but here I never go up the river. I about messed up when I told Matt Herren he could catch them up the river. He almost caught them too good. There's a lot of good fish up there."
How Biffle Fished the Bug
Biffle got a new, homemade football head from his buddy Earl Collins shortly before the Smith Mt. Elite Series this year. The football head has a round wire loop, and the hook swings freely in that loop (you have to put the hook on the loop before you pour the head).
Biffle rigged it up with a Gene Larew Biffle Bug and used it a little at Smith Mt., but ever since then he's used it a ton, and it's catching fish everywhere he goes, he said.
The traditional way to fish a deep or mid-depth football-head is to drag it along bottom. The design of the head catches on rock and tips the trailer up – much like a crawfish in a defensive position.
It's a technique that was born in the west, brought east by Jim Moynagh for a tournament on Minnetonka, and is now a dominant presentation throughout the country.
But Biffle's hinged football-head technique is different. He said he throws the bait as far as he can, then reels steadily at a good pace so the jig constantly ticks bottom. He likens it to digging bottom with a crankbait.
The hinge action creates a presentation the fish want to eat, he noted, and said fish are seeing a lot of crankbaits these days, but not this new presentation.
He added: "A good way to describe it to somebody who's not thrown it is it's always bumping bottom and it can be hard to detect the bite. You reel it along at a pretty good clip and it's going thump-thump-thump-thumo-thump real fast as it ticks bottom. Sometimes they hit it pretty hard, but most times you lost contact with the bottom and just feel a little weight. That's a fish."
He said no matter where he goes now, he has two of the rigs tied up and on deck at all times. And he plans to use it next month at the BASS post-season in Alabama.
Word is Gene Larew plans to build and market the jig. The name isn't set yet, but the company joked that they were going to name it after him – the HardHead – and Biffle reportedly liked that.
Here's a look at Biffle's bait combo - a homemade, hinged football-head tipped with a Gene Larew Biffle Bug.
Winning Gear Notes
> Bug gear: 6'10" heavy-action Quantum Tour Tommy Biffle rod, Quantum Energy PT SS casting reel (7.3:1 "Burner"), 20-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon, 7/16-ounce homemade hinged football-head jig (green-pumpkin/copper), Gene Larew Biffle Bug (watermelon-red/dark-back).
> The jighead used a 4/0 Owner Wide Gap hook.
> He also used a 9/16- and 5/16-ounce head, depending on water depth.
The Bottom Line
"Fishing with the Bug all the time. I could say it was knowing all those places, but if I was fishing some other bait there, I probably wouldn't have caught much. So it's definitely the Bug. I'm sure the fish have seen a bunch of cranks already this year, but they haven't seen this. It must look like a crawdad to them."
> Biffle's now well over the $2 million mark in career winnings.
> He's been with Gene Larew for a long time. He originally signed with the manufacturer shortly after Larew died and his friend took over the company. "They had some changes in ownership and I got away from them for a year or two, but then when the good people got back in there I got back in too," he said. "I've been with them ever since." He's the only tour-level pro on the company's promotional staff.
> He's not going to pre-practice in Alabama this week for the post-season. He fished it last year and is comfortable with what he already knows about the fisheries.