By Todd Ceisner
The gently sloping hillside that buffets the north shore of Big Blakely Creek still shows signs of the F-1 tornado that blistered the area on May 30, 2013. Some trees are still standing, but they’re now just crooked gray poles protruding from the ground, stripped clean of their limbs and branches and leaves.
Some of the remnants of the twister are now resting at the bottom of Big Blakely, creating an underwater wonderland for bass and baitfish and other species to find refuge. Last week, Brad Knight turned the back of Big Blakely into his personal playground as he devoted his entire Forrest Wood Cup – all 32 hours of fishing time – to picking over all of the visible and submerged targets, along with combing the mucky banks to produce the winning stringers.
The Lancing, Tenn., pro who still works at the Wartburg Pharmacy when he’s home, averaged just under 13 pounds per day at Lake Ouachita to capture the Cup and the half-million dollar winner’s share. He was the only angler in the 50-man field to catch at least 10 pounds each day.
So, why’d he choose to spend his whole tournament in one small area, eventually sharing it with another angler who made the Top 10 (Mark Daniels, Jr.), when others were convinced that it would take a combination of deep- and shallow-water patterns to make a run at the win?
“I saw a quote from (Elite Series pro) Gerald Swindle from the Chesapeake Bay tournament that stuck with me,” Knight said. “He said, ‘A fisherman without options can be a dangerous guy.’ That applied to me in this tournament 100 percent. I didn’t have anywhere else to go and that really helped me. When it got slow and I went 3 hours without a bite, I wasn’t thinking if they were schooling down the lake or that I needed to run and do this and that. I didn’t worry about any of that stuff. I put my trolling motor down and all I had to focus on was what adjustments I needed to make in that area.”
Each day brought a different set of conditions and Knight made all the right tweaks to his strategy. His go-to tactic was a 6-inch straight-tail worm on a dropshot rig, but he also caught key fish on a trailer-less buzzbait, flipping a creature bait and cranking a shallow-running balsa square-bill.
“After day 1 and especially day 2, I realized there were winning fish in there,” he said. “I had a deal figured out with the root wad (of the trees). I was really hoping that buzzbait would be the 1-2 punch that would carry me through to the fourth day. The buzzbait kind of waned so I leaned of those dropshot fish in the trees.
“I was really surprised to see how they replenished and after day 3, I actually caught one on my last cast after Mark and I had fished the same tree like 20 times combined. That’s when I knew that no matter what there were more fish coming and they were repositioning.”
Here’s a rundown of how Knight became the newest Cup champion.
Practice for Knight was a struggle. He did not visit Ouachita before it went off limits, largely because he expected the lake to change in the 2 weeks leading up to the official practice session.
He got an early start on the first day of practice and intended to graph brush piles, figuring that would be a dominant pattern.
“I graphed a bunch and fished some on topwater areas and a little after lunch time, I ended up running into the back of this creek,” he said. “I was just looking to do something a little bit different. I wanted to check a bunch of different things on the first day. Everybody knows about the schooling fish and brush-pile fish. The grass was new and there was the bluegill pattern. Those are the deals everybody looks for.”
He said one of the ways he likes to fish at home at Watts Bar Lake is go to the back of creeks where water runs in. Big Blakely looked a lot like home.
“There was fresh water running in,” he said. “You’ve got stained water and most importantly you have unpressured fish that haven’t been fished for because everybody’s out doing the summer deal for so long. So it’s maybe been since April or May that these fish have been cast to.”
He was camping by Stetson Blaylock near the lake during practice and mentioned the area he’d found. It was then that Blaylock told Knight about the 2013 tornado. Knight then started to make the connection in his mind that all of the wood in that creek wasn’t put there strategically - it was Mother Nature’s doing.
“The tornado deposited a lot of trees onto this mud flat that was 2 1/2 to 5 feet deep on top with an 8-foot ditch running through it,” he said. “As I idled back through all the laydowns, I pulled over to the most obvious-looking tree and caught a non-keeper on the front side of it and then on the root ball, I caught a 2 1/2-pounder. I idled all the way to the back to see how far I could go.”
He threw a homemade balsa crankbait and caught a couple keepers before leaving the area.
“I really didn’t think that much of it,” he said. “It wasn’t special. There wasn’t a ton of 4-pounders breaking like you think you have to see to win a tournament like this. It wasn’t real impressive. It just looked good.”
Later in practice, he tried to get bites in grass pockets and out of brush piles, but neither was a consistent producer.
“I thought a frog would be a big player here as well as a big sinker punching the mats,” he said. “That’s the way I like to fish and I really tried to play that in and I couldn’t get the grass thing going. I did the brush-pile thing and I could catch them on just about every place I saw, but they were all just little. I couldn’t get any consistency going with that.
“I started running more of the creek places looking for that dirtier water and there were just a handful of places that had it on the whole entire lake. I could catch them in it, but I could never get a keeper. On the last day of practice, I ran as far up the river as you could go and caught probably 30 or 40 fish, but never caught a keeper.”
He came into the tournament having amassed zero keeper bites over the final 2 days of practice.
> Day 1: 5, 14-04
> Day 2: 5, 14-00
> Day 3: 5, 12-01
> Day 4: 5, 11-07
> Total = 20, 51-12
Knight started the tournament in the back of Big Blakely “because it’s the only place where I felt like I could catch one,” he said. “It’s the only place I had confidence in.”
When he arrived, Daniels was fishing some trees in the middle of the creek channel so Knight idled past him, all the way to back of the creek and was out of sight of Daniels by the time he started fishing. He started targeting logs and laydowns with a dropshot.
“Really, it was figuring it out as I went,” he said, noting he had a limit for 11 or 12 pounds by 11 a.m. “For the practice I had, I wasn’t doing too bad.”
He left the far reaches of the creek and fished down a flat, mud bank with a buzzbait.
Knight loads his fish into a bag behind Bank of the Ozarks Arena on day 4 of the Forrest Wood Cup.
“Mud banks are a big deal for us back home – just ugly banks that don’t stick out,” he said. “Nobody fishes them, but I got on a buzzbait deal and culled everything I had. It was just a main creek-channel flat.
“That had me more excited about the back of the creek deal with the logs. I figured (the buzzbait) could be something that would produce the bites to win this tournament if I left it in my hand and covered enough water. It was perfect for my style of fishing – put the trolling motor on 70, make 10 million casts and at the end of the day hopefully get five good bites.”
His 14-04 haul put him in 5th place following day 1.
He returned to the Big Blakely on Friday – so did Daniels – and had a limit in the boat within an hour.
“I caught a couple of really good ones early and went out with the buzzbait later and culled once,” he said. “I spent a lot of time doing that kind of stuff, but it never really did pan out really well.”
He tallied 14-00 and moved into 2nd, trailing only Ramie Colson, Jr. entering the weekend.
A brief thunderstorm on Saturday morning didn’t deter Knight from going back to the creek where the water kept falling as it had been all over the lake.
“I started to figure things out a little more and what was happening,” he said. “You could visibly see a log projecting out of the water. It was like pole timber. Mark was fishing that stuff, too, but he was fishing the stuff that you could see. What I figured out was there were two parts to the tree on some of the stuff. You’d either have the fluffy part with the branches and limbs or you’d have the root wad. That would project a long ways under the water. You might actually be 30 or 40 feet from where you could see the log coming out of the water.”
Knight said targeting the root balls, or wads, produced several key fish throughout the tournament.
“As I’m back there all day, I was learning what were the right trees,” he said. “I’d get on it with the trolling motor and watching my graph to see where the tree was and where the root wad was. I’d mark a waypoint so I could keep coming back through these areas. Mark and I were casting to the exact same places, but that was my advantage over his deal. I knew where those bass were sitting. We caught some off of the stuff you could see, but that was the main thing.”
He bagged a limit by 10:30 on day 3 and sensed the spectator traffic in and around the creek was starting to impact the fish, so he tried other baits and other stretches.
“I tried to do some different things because it seemed like it would change each day what logs would be the ones,” he added. “I had about eight or 10 that were prime time that I could catch good ones on.”
With a steady rain falling, he caught his second-best fish of the day on his last cast to give him 12-01 and keep him in 2nd place, 12 ounces behind Jacob Wheeler.
By the final day, Knight felt like he was dialed in to which trees would produce bites. Meanwhile, he and Daniels continued to co-exist and share water.
“I went in there expecting to catch a limit early,” he said. “I knew the right places where they were setting up and every day I had a lot of spectator traffic and camera boats meandering around. When you’d get there first thing, that wasn’t happening so those fish were fresh and set up right and you could catch them on a dropshot.”
That didn’t happen on Sunday, which began with scattered cloud cover. He sensed the fish were getting tighter to the wood, especially the thicker pieces.
“There was one tree that I started on every morning that I always caught a keeper or two on,” he said. “I went to that tree and pitched to the outside and went all the way around it and never got a bite. I could feel the pressure on the third day affected that area.
“I looked over and saw one big, thick laydown part of a tree that was out in the middle. I hadn’t used a flipping rod since I’ve been here in the wood. I went over to it and put a Beaver on and on my second pitch I caught one of my good ones. That got me on a little roll.”
He picked up two more fish on a dropshot, then went through a lull before finishing his limit with a dropshot. His next adjustment was to pick up a square-bill crankbait that he’d hoped would’ve been a bigger factor in the tournament.
“The wind started to change directions and was blowing into the creek,” he said. “It hadn’t been doing that throughout the week. It started dirtying the water up and those fish got shallow and active and I got a homemade square-bill crankbait out and went to work shallow.”
With a 10-year-old homemade balsa crankbait that he painted tied on, he culled four times before the end of the day.
Here's a before and after look at the area surrounding Big Blakely Creek, where Knight fished during the Forrest Wood Cup. A tornado hit the hillside in May 2013, uprooting trees and scattering them in the creek.
“It was crazy,” he said. “It was the right situation for it. It’s a shallow-running deal. That was the major adjustment for me. Each day it was something different you had to feel out to get the bite.”
Winning Pattern Notes
> Knight said the falling water allowed him to identify more targets. “It was exposing a lot of new wood for me,” he said. “When I was fishing the obvious stuff, if I saw a dark spot, I’d mark a waypoint. That way when I came back down, I’d know where to throw.”
> The dropshot is a technique Knight started employing a couple years ago and has become a go-to tactic of his. “I started employing it in different ways, shallow or deep,” he said. “I don’t have anything in my arsenal that gets more bites than that does. When fishing’s tough, I have more confidence to do that than to do anything.”
> Knight on why the dropshot was so effective: “The back of the creek was silted in with a mucky bottom. Those fish, you could pitch a jig or a worm and that’s something some other guys were doing earlier in the tournament. Those fish don’t like to bite that stuff off the bottom in that silted up stuff. I don’t know if it disappears or what but it seemed like when I could pitch my dropshot in there, the weight would go down into that silt, but the worm was still sitting up.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Dropshot gear: 6’10” medium-action Powell spinning rod, unnamed spinning reel, 20-pound Gamma Torque braided line (main), 10-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon (leader), 1/0 Roboworm Rebarb worm hook, 6” Roboworm straight-tail worm (morning dawn), 1/4-oz. unnamed dropshot weight.
> He used a 10-inch leader between the hook and weight.
> Buzzbait gear: 7’4” medium-heavy Powell Max 3D casting rod, unnamed casting reel, 50-pound Gamma Torque line, 1/4-oz. Boogerman buzzbait (pearl black), trailer hook.
> Having the trailer hook on the buzzbait was critical, Knight said. “All three of my big fish on day 1 were caught on the trailer hook,” he said.
> Crankbait gear: 7’2 heavy-action Powell Max 3D casting rod, unnamed casting reel, 12-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, homemade balsa crankbait (silver shad).
> Knight said the crankbait he used is as least 10 years old, but he’s no longer involved in lure building. “I’m never sanding another balsa plug in my life,” he said. “That deal’s done. I’m never painting another plug as long as I live. I’ve retired from the painting business.”
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Just the prior experience of looking for dirty water in the back of a creek at this time of year. Also, not getting a bite in practice on days 2 and 3. I didn’t have anything else to go do. As crazy as it sounds, sometimes it’s a blessing in disguise not getting those bites.”
> Performance edge – “The Power-Poles were a major player for me this week. The whole flat was 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 feet deep and instead of having to work around logs with my trolling motor, I could put my poles down and make continuous casts to areas. My Powell rods were a major player, so was that Gamma line and my Phoenix and Mercury. The total package all needs to work in order to have success.”
Much of the tackle referenced above is available at the BassFan Store. To browse the selection, click here.