By BassFan Staff
Bradley Dortch has a good memory.
Honestly, though, how could he forget what happened a year ago today? Dortch was the leader going into the final day of the Santee Cooper Southeastern FLW Series, but eventually settled for 4th after Bryan Thrift swooped in with a 30-pound stringer to collect the victory.
Fast forward to today, when Dortch found himself in 5th heading out for the final day of the Harris Chain FLW Tour – the third event of his rookie season on Tour. Thrift was in 4th, just 6 ounces ahead of him. In Dortch’s mind, all he cared about was beating Thrift. Winning wasn’t on his radar.
Neither was catching 22-02 and rallying from 3 1/2 pounds back to beat Florida stalwarts JT Kenney and three-day leader John Cox, not to mention that Thrift guy, to capture the victory.
“It feels damn good,” Dortch said Sunday evening. “To beat Thrift is probably one of the best feelings. A year ago to the day is when he went to Santee and tore us all up the final day. To beat out Thrift, Cox and Kenney is crazy. I’m just an average guy.”
The 37-year-old industrial electrician from Atmore, Ala., finished with 73-09, which bested Kenney by 1 pound, 12 ounces, halting Kenney’s dazzling day-4 rally that included a tournament-best 27-03 stringer that gave him 71-13 and moved him up seven spots from 9th.
“It’s crazy to know I just went there and beat X, Y and Z,” Dortch said. “It’s weird, probably because I’m new. I don’t know why it worked or even what I did, but it worked.”
Cox, who relied on his home-lake history at the Harris Chain and stuck with sight-fishing virtually all week, managed 14-03 and slipped to 3rd with 69-01.
Shane Lehew, who’d been in 2nd the first three days, caught 13-05 competing on Sunday for the first time in his career and took 4th with 66-01.
Matt Reed, the ex-Elite Series veteran who made the move to the FLW Tour in 2017, capped off his best tournament in several years with a 5th-place finish behind a 12-06 stringer that pushed his total to 64-14.
The rest of the Top 10 looked like this:
6. Bryan Thrift: 64-09
7. Chris Whitson: 62-14
8. Josh Weaver: 57-10
9. Aaron Britt: 56-03
10. Rusty Trancygier: 54-14
Thrift retreated two spots to 6th and now has three top-6 results in the first three derbies as he has taken a commanding lead in the Angler of the Year points standings with four tournaments remaining.
Once again, big fish made all the difference today as Dortch connected on two in the 6-plus pound class while Kenney had 4 of that caliber. The finalists spanned out across the chain with no one lake really dominating the week. There were enough sight-fishing opportunities this week to keep anglers just interested enough, but there was also an ample supply of post-spawn fish that ultimately turned the event in Dortch’s favor.
In the end, Dortch’s stretch of pads and separate area with isolated hydrilla in Lake Harris proved to hold the winning fish, but the health of the entire fishery was on full display this week amid ideal spring conditions.
The FLW Tour is idle until April 6-9 when it visits Lake Cumberland in Kentucky for the fourth stop of the season.
Poor execution plagued Dortch earlier in the tournament, but on Sunday he caught the fish that mattered most.
Dortch Got Going Early On
> Day 4: 5, 22-02 (20, 73-09)
Dortch hadn’t executed as well as he’d have liked the first three days so he figured he was due for a reversal of fortune today. When he arrived at the clump of grass Sunday morning where he’d lost two big fish Saturday, it didn’t take long for his luck to change.
“I picked up a (lipless crankbait) and it was like déjà vu,” he said. “I made about four casts and hooked a big one. About halfway to the boat, something felt weird. It was foul-hooked in the back. I’d lost a few fish already on the 'Trap so I picked up a speed worm and figured if they’ll eat that, they won’t come off.”
Within a few casts of working the worm through the same grass, he caught another 6-pounder.
“I tried to fish as fast as I could and catch what would eat it because I knew three more 3-pounders would give me 20-plus,” he said. “I figured I needed 20 to have a shot at winning.”
From there, he fished more relaxed and felt like his plan was finally coming together.
“It was like someone took a load off my back,” he said. “I’d only been getting one big bite a day and I seemed to be dumping them. Already, I’d caught both big bites so I knew I could flip pads and throw a 'Trap and speed worm to drum up three more fish.”
He finished his limit with two more solid keepers and culled with a 3-pounder around 3 p.m.
“There was no wind and I needed the wind so I rode around to find some hydrilla,” he said. “I pulled up and it started raining and that’s when I caught that fish I culled with.”
Dortch’s better bites came out of a 150-yard stretch of pads with 6 to 7 feet of water on the edge, the deepest pads he’d found all week. The other key element was an isolated clump of hydrilla that he estimated produced nearly 30 pounds of his weight this week in Lake Harris.
Additional details about Dortch’s patterns and the rest of the top 5 will be published later this week.
2nd: Kenney Headed to Griffin
> Day 4: 5, 27-03 (20, 71-13)
Don’t expect Kenney to shed a tear about falling short of what would’ve been an epic 9th-to-1st comeback.
“Being in 9th and moving to 2nd, I made a hell of a lot more money than I thought I’d make,” he said. “At least I knew Bradley had ‘em so I didn’t have to sit there worrying about it the whole time.”
JT Kenney nearly erased a 10-pound, 4-ounce deficit today, but was still happy with 2nd place.
He made an instinctual decision today to change things up and abandon his flipping and pitching routine in Lake Harris. Instead, he targeted shell beds in Lake Griffin, where he’d caught a 4-pounder in practice doing the same thing.
“I figured, ‘What the heck? Let’s go do that,” he joked.
He said after catching just 10-00 on day 3, he figured the bass hanging around the cattails, pads and arrowheads were starting to get depleted. Plus, with cloudy and breezy weather in Sunday’s forecast, he figured a moving bait would be more productive. He alternated between a Strike King Red Eye Shad and Booyah Hard Knocker to draw strikes from post-spawners feasting on the bait that was also on the shell bed.
“It’s not like I smashed ‘em and caught a million fish,” he said. “I caught 10 and had four nice ones. I think my smallest was 3 1/2. Shell-bed fish tend to like those conditions. Half of it was I thought the spawning stuff was coming to an end and the other half was playing the conditions. It was just an educated guess.”
He doesn’t think he’d change anything in terms of how he fished all week.
“I have no regrets, especially after being in 9th and getting to within 1 1/2 pounds of winning,” he said. “Should I have gone to Griffin on Saturday? Maybe. Would have I caught them? I don’t know.”
3rd: Cox Bummed
> Day 4: 5, 14-03 (20, 69-01)
Cox started the day casting instead of looking, but eventually spent the balance of his day searching for difference-makers that he could see. He found them, but couldn’t get them to cooperate.
“I thought I did okay on the third day, but there was an area felt l needed to look at it and didn’t,” he said. “I went there today and it was really good area. It had some serious potential. The first bed threw at I caught a 6-pounder. I saw two 8s swim out that were rubbing with bucks. I thought it was fixing to be really good.”
Regardless of what he tried, the fish weren’t in the mood to bother with his bait.
“I couldn’t get it going,” he said. “I almost had one big one ready to eat and then another big one came over and started rubbing on it. That stunk.”
At one point, he returned to an area he’d fished previously only to find locals who’d been watching the FLW Live feed fishing the same area.
“They said they didn’t know I was coming back and told me they’d caught two 3s and a 4,” Cox said.
As far as regrets, he has none. He loves to sight-fish and he was in his comfort zone being close to home.
“I started doubting the sight-fishing on day 3,” he said. “I wish I would’ve focused completely on it. I would do the same thing if we were going out tomorrow. The opportunities are there. It’s different from when you’re casting and hoping to get random bites. I ran into the fish to win the tournament and that’s all you can ask for.”
4th: Little Harris Key for Lehew
> Day 4: 5, 13-05 (20, 66-01)
Catching bass was a breeze for Lehew all week, but as the tournament wore on the big ones in the area he focused on in Little Lake Harris either grew wise to his ways or became less numerous.
Either way, he was pleased with recording his best career finish as a pro.
“I was pretty happy with it,” he said. “I did what I could do. There wasn’t a whole lot more I could’ve done. I stuck to the same game plan and caught a ton of fish. I really thought there would be some big ones around that shad spawn.”
He had a one-two punch of casting a lipless crankbait through and around a large hydrilla flat not far from an expanse of scattered lily pads with 2 to 4 feet of water under them.
“Today, there were a ton of locals in there in the pads,” he said. “I knew they’d been beat up on for 3 days, but I had it to myself for the last couple hours and I got eight bites. I caught four, missed three and lost one. I figured that was my best shot at a big bite.”
John Cox felt like he was around the winning fish on beds, but couldn't them to cooperate when he needed them to.
5th: Reed’s Best Spots Dried Up
> Day 4: 5, 12-06 (20, 64-14)
Reed stuck with his simple Carolina rig strategy today in Lake Eustis, but he sensed the population of fish inhabiting the shell beds he kept visiting was starting to dwindle. Still, he was thrilled to collect his best finish in a tour-level event since he placed 4th at the Clarks Hills Elite Series back in May 2010.
“It was a great week,” he said. “I just ran out of fish. Any time you finish in the top 5, you have to be happy. I fished clean all week and didn’t lose a fish that would’ve mattered.”
With the slight change in weather, the fish started biting differently.
“Today, they just got weird on me,” he said. “They were biting like perch. There was one I caught that was hooked on the outside of the cheek. It just didn’t eat it right.”
To counter that, he resorted to a shaky-head to catch two of his weigh fish.
“I think they got tired of me and it didn’t replenish last night and the cupboard just went dry,” he added.
The top-5 is so far the highlight of his first year competing on the FLW Tour after more than a decade on the Elite Series and Bassmaster Tour. He stepped away from the Elite Series in the middle of the 2016 season, but feels rejuvenated now.
“Personally, things are in a much better place now,” he said. “My mind is in a much better place. At (Lake) Travis two weeks ago, I didn’t get paid and finished a pound out of the money. But practice at Travis felt right. Things fell into place. Everything was going good and even after Travis, I felt like I was getting the tires back on the road.
“Here, every day in practice, I found something new and added to it. When you’re doing this as long as I have been, when it’s broke, it’s hard to know what’s broke about it, so it feels good to walk on stage on the final day. There were years where I was accustomed to that and I’ll admit this dry spell I’ve had, you start to question yourself.”
> Day 4 stats – 10 anglers, 10 limits.
> After three events, the Angler of the Year race is starting to take shape with Bryan Thrift way out front with 593 points (out of a possible 600). Brandon Cobb is 2nd with 552, followed by Clark Wendlandt (538), Mark Rose (536) and Casey Scanlon (518).
1. Bradley Dortch -- Atmore, Al -- 15-4 (5) -- 21-2 (5) -- 36-6 (10) -- 15-01 (5) -- 22-02 (5) -- 73-09 (20) -- $100,700
2. JT Kenney -- Palm Bay, Fl -- 16-12 (5) -- 17-14 (5) -- 34-10 (10) -- 10-00 (5) -- 27-03 (5) -- 71-13 (20) -- $30,000
3. John Cox -- Debary, Fl -- 25-11 (5) -- 18-15 (5) -- 44-10 (10) -- 10-04 (5) -- 14-03 (5) -- 69-01 (20) -- $25,000
4. Shane Lehew -- Catawba, NC -- 23-15 (5) -- 14-14 (5) -- 38-13 (10) -- 13-15 (5) -- 13-05 (5) -- 66-01 (20) -- $20,100
5. Matt Reed -- Madisonville, Tx -- 16-6 (5) -- 17-8 (5) -- 33-14 (10) -- 18-10 (5) -- 12-06 (5) -- 64-14 (20) -- $19,000
6. Bryan Thrift -- Shelby, NC -- 19-10 (5) -- 17-3 (5) -- 36-13 (10) -- 15-00 (5) -- 12-12 (5) -- 64-09 (20) -- $18,000
7. Chris Whitson -- Louisville, Tn -- 16-14 (5) -- 12-0 (5) -- 28-14 (10) -- 16-08 (5) -- 17-08 (5) -- 62-14 (20) -- $17,000
8. Joshua Weaver -- Macon, Ga -- 14-9 (5) -- 22-0 (5) -- 36-9 (10) -- 10-07 (5) -- 10-10 (5) -- 57-10 (20) -- $16,000
9. Aaron Britt -- Yuba City, Ca -- 10-7 (5) -- 19-13 (5) -- 30-4 (10) -- 14-06 (5) -- 11-09 (5) -- 56-03 (20) -- $15,000
10. Rusty Trancygier -- Hahira, Ga -- 18-2 (5) -- 15-7 (5) -- 33-9 (10) -- 13-05 (5) -- 8-00 (5) -- 54-14 (20) -- $14,000