By Todd Ceisner
The Toledo Bend Elite Series was a power-fisherman’s dream. It wasn’t easy to get a big bite, but it was easy to pick a part of the lake and hunker down, then cycle through baits and techniques to figure out what would trigger the quality fish to eat.
The fish were scattered from the bank out to 30 feet in all three phases of the spawn. With the water down from the level it was at during last year’s Elite Series event and with a decrease in the amount of vegetation, hard targets and offshore transition areas became the focus.
What spawners were left were small and sometimes hard to see due to the windy conditions, which dirtied up the water. The post-spawn fish hadn't quite reached their offshore havens and decided it was time to feed. As winner John Murray found out, there were still ample pre-spawn fish. It was a lake in transition and the field wasn't able to get dialed in on one particular technique.
Following is a recap of the rest of the top finishers’ strategies:
2nd: Jason Christie
> Day 1: 5, 21-05
> Day 2: 5, 15-03
> Day 3: 5, 16-02
> Day 4: 5, 20-01
> Total = 20, 72-11
Christie focused on the northern parts of the lake simply to stay away from his competitors and locals, who headed south.
“Strictly boat traffic,” he said. “It’s really hard to fish around all the competitors and all the locals.”
He started the tournament closer to the blast-off point and walloped 21-05, including a 9-10 kicker, mostly with a spinnerbait in dirty water, a result of Wednesday’s heavy winds. He remained in the same area the morning of day 2, but sensed a move up the lake was necessary.
“I still caught some, but the water was getting clean real fast,” he said. “I decided to head north after that. I was pretty much chasing water color as much as anything after day 2.”
He stuck with a spinnerbait after switching areas and varied what he threw based on water clarity. He targeted hard, visible cover, like wood.
“Most of it was anything hard,” he noted. “It was a combination of the shad spawn and fish spawning. I felt like I was getting the best of both worlds there.
“Once I get the spawn into my head, it’s hard to get it out. Once I feel like fish are spawning, I want to fish for those fish instead of post-spawners.”
With that mindset, he fished in cuts and pockets and anywhere he figured they’d spawn. He caught a mix of pre- and post-spawners throughout the event.
“I probably weighed two-thirds post-spawn fish,” he said. “On Sunday, I had all pre-spawners. I don’t know why they moved up. Maybe it was the wind or moon.”
> Spinnerbait gear: 6’10” medium-heavy Falcon Cara Head Turner casting rod, Lew's Custom Pro casting reel (6.8:1 ratio), 22-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. Booyah spinnerbait (chartreuse/white).
> In clear water, a silver and gold blade tandem worked for Christie. On the final day, he threw one with a red kicker blade and also had a silver-silver combo rigged up.
> He also weighed in a couple fish on a 1/2-oz. Booyah Bankroll jig (black/blue).
> Main factor in his success – “I have to give it to the 9-10, that’s what got me kicked off, and just fishing my strengths. That’s a big lake and you can get intimidated with the wind.”
> Performance edge – “I caught a lot of fish this week with the Power-Poles down. I was making multiple casts to the same target. That was a big deal. Also, on my Garmin units, I could put my cursor at takeoff and it would give me an estimated arrival time based on the speed I was going. I wanted to fish until the end and it was great because when I’m driving 17 to 20 mph in the rough water and you’re wondering if you’re ever getting back, that thing would tell me I’m going to get there. Trusting that was a big deal.”
Jamie Hartman mixed deep and shallow patterns in order to notched his second top-3 finish of the year.
3rd: Jamie Hartman
> Day 1: 5, 23-05
> Day 2: 5, 15-12
> Day 3: 5, 17-14
> Day 4: 5, 15-08
> Total = 20, 72-07
Jamie Hartman arrived at Toledo Bend thinking he could do some damage off the bank on post-spawn fish.
“I came with the notion that these fish would be done spawning and be grouped up offshore and ready to eat,” he said. “I graphed and marked a ton of stuff offshore like brush piles and outside channel swings. I put 2 days of practice into that and it wasn’t working. I just couldn’t get it going.”
He caught a few fish, but they weren’t the quality he knew he’d need come tournament time.
“I scrambled and backed more into the creeks instead of going back out,” he added.
He found one area that proved productive every morning. It was the intersection of two creek channels that featured a high spot.
“I could sit out deep and throw up on the split,” he said.
He’d employ a small, compact finesse jig and a magnum shaky-head there, but the bite would consistently die off before long. That forced him to hit other spots and eventually do some sight-fishing when the conditions allowed.
“I caught them out to 32 feet this week, so that helped,” he said. “It wasn’t what I expected. Between the finesse jig and the magnum finesse worm, those caught my bigger fish. From there, depending on where I was at, I changed what I was throwing all the time.”
> Finesse jig gear: 7’3” medium-heavy Cashion casting rod, Lew's Tournament Pro G casting reel, 15-pound Hi-Seas fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. Riot Baits Minima jig (peanut butter & jelly), Riot Baits Tantrum trailer (green-pumpkin).
> Hartman typically prefers the 3/8-oz. version of the Minima jig, but had to upsize for the 12- to 15-foot depths he was working.
> The Tantrum is a yet-to-be-released craw bait from Riot that has a thicker body.
> The jig was a key producer in the morning and when he’d cover water toward shallower stretches along hay grass.
> Magnum shaky-head gear: Same rod, same reel, same line (15-pound), unnamed 3/8-oz. shaky-head jig, Zoom Magnum Finesse Worm (redbug, green-pumpkin, watermelon red).
> He swapped colors depending on water clarity and sun position.
> Sight-fishing gear: Same rod, same reel, same line as jig, 3/16-oz. unnamed worm weight, 3/0 Owner EWG worm hook, Riot Baits Little Fuzzy (green-pumpkin).
> Main factor in his success – “Decision-making. That was big. I needed to know where to start and how long to stay and where to go to second and third. On the final day, I jumped spots and came back and got some bites.”
> Performance edge – “Without a doubt, my Lowrance electronics got me those offshore fish. I had one graph on my dash before practice and the Lowrance crew was nice enough to meet me on the dock on day 1 and I ran dual graphs on my dash. You could see so much more with that big screen.”
Casey Ashley had a shallow pattern for the morning and a deeper pattern for the afternoon.
4th: Casey Ashley
> Day 1: 5, 13-03
> Day 2: 5, 23-09
> Day 3: 5, 16-07
> Day 4: 5, 17-03
> Total = 20, 70-06
Casey Ashley’s practice wasn’t much to brag about, but he was able to develop a morning-afternoon combo that carried him through the tournament.
He steered clear of the southern end of the lake just to avoid the crowds that he figured would only grow in size as the weekend approached.
“I just don’t fish south here,” he said. “There are too many boats. I can’t fish in a crowd.”
He caught a modest 13-03 on day 1, then shot into the top 10 on day 2 with a 23-09 stringer. He’d caught a good one on a topwater early in the day, then stumbled on the area and found a deeper spot where he used a football jig to pick off fish hanging around sunken logs and timber.
“It was a secondary offshore place in front of a big spawning flat,” he said. “I figured whatever was there would be using it to go in and stopping there on their way out.”
On day 3, he caught a few on a spinnerbait in an area where shad were spawning up high on standing timber, then went to his jig spot and caught 16 1/2 pounds to move up to 2nd entering the final day.
“On Sunday, I did the topwater deal and then went to that other spot to finish it out,” he said. “I figured more fish were there.”
> Jig gear: 7’4” heavy-action Quantum PT Tour casting rod, Quantum Smoke HD casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 20-pound Hi-Seas fluorocarbon line, 3/4-oz. unnamed football-head jig, Zoom Z Craw trailer (green-pumpkin).
> He slow-rolled the jig like a spinnerbait in 7 to 9 feet of water.
> Spinnerbait gear: 7’ medium-heavy Quantum Tour PT casting rod, Quantum Smoke casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), same line (20-pound), homemade 3/4-oz. double-willow spinnerbait (white), Zoom twin legs trailer (white).
> Ashley used a #4 gold blade in front and a silver #5 on the back.
> He also caught some topwater fish on a popper bait, which was effective around bream beds as well.
> Main factor in his success – “Keeping an open mind.”
> Performance edge – “All of it. My Triton and Mercury to my Quantum rods and reels to my line. I needed it all.”
Brandon Palaniuk averaged just shy of 17 pounds per day with vibrating jig and a swim jig.
5th: Brandon Palaniuk
> Day 1: 5, 19-13
> Day 2: 5, 13-11
> Day 3: 5, 17-01
> Day 4: 5, 16-12
> Total = 20, 67-05
Brandon Palaniuk got burned by offshore fish at the Bassmaster Classic. He wasn’t going to let it happen again at Toledo Bend.
He started practice on a small patch of emergent water willow and eventually caught the bulk of his weight over the final two days of the tournament there.
“I made one pass (in practice) and had 10 to 12 bites, but I didn’t get any big bites,” he said. “I caught maybe one 3-pounder. That told me there were still a bunch of fish shallow.
“I was so tired of idling at Conroe and marking stuff and not catching anything that I spent the majority of time shallow. It’s April in this part of the world, so you should be able to still catch ‘em.”
On the second day of practice, he tapped into an offshore grass bite and spent the final day expanding on that concept.
“I probably had 22 pounds, but wasn’t getting a lot of bites,” he added. “It was definitely a pattern. I could look at the map and say, ‘This is where I’d catch one,’ and I’d go catch one. I thought it would get better, but it seems like it went away. It was interesting.”
With a vibrating jig, he targeted hydrilla in 4 to 10 feet of water in a creek south of the takeoff area.
“I was fishing staging areas outside of spawning bays – shallow humps that had good hydrilla on it,” he said. “Those fish were just sitting up higher.”
He had nearly 20 pounds on day 1 and 13-11 on day 2. On Saturday, he opted to start on the shallow water willow.
“I think the progression of the warmer nights got those fish back to where they were in practice,” he said.
> Bladed jig gear: 7’ medium-heavy Alpha Angler Rebound fiberglass casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo MGXtreme casting reel (7.0:1 ratio), 15-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. homemade vibrating jig (green-pumpkin orange), Zoom Z Craw trailer (California 420).
> Swimjig gear: 7’3” medium-heavy Alpha Angler Zilla casting rod, Abu Garcia IV7 (Japanese model) casting reel, same line (17-pound), 3/8-oz. unnamed swimjig (white), Zoom Super Speed Craw trailer (white).
> The swimjig also had a few black and chartreuse strands for some contrast. He caught so many fish on it, he went through three jigs because eventually the skirt would get thinned out.
> Prior to the season, Palaniuk had about 20 of his Abu Garcia reels serviced by ZPI, a Japanese company that initially specialized in super-tuning Formula-1 race cars, but has since expanded to smaller mechanical applications such as fishing reels. He’s noticed a considerable increase in performance so far this season.
> He fished the swi jig just beneath the surface in 12 to 18 inches of water. “It didn’t need it to sink that far,” he said. “Those fish were feeding on shad or spawning in that grass. I figured that out Sunday.”
> Main factor in his success – “Having an open mind and not getting caught up in what should be happening at Toledo Bend and not getting caught up in looking for a deep hole.”
> Performance edge – “The Alpha Angler Rebound rod. With those fish I was catching, that rod hooks them so well on a bladed jig and keeps them buttoned. I didn’t break a fish off all week.”
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