By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

It’s too small. Guys are going to be stacked on top of each other. It’s the post-spawn funk time frame. These were just some of the gripes anglers spouted prior to the Ross Barnett Reservoir Elite Series.

As it turned out, it did fish a little small, but that was largely because the howling winds made it darn near impossible for competitors to run back to check in let alone check out any off shore haunts.

While Pelahatchie Bay in the southeast corner of the lake got plenty of attention, the Pearl River (specifically anything above the Highway 43 causeway) wound up dominating this event.

Topwater (frogs, poppers, buzzbaits) accounted for a fair share of bites, but flipping and reaction baits (vibrating jigs, spinnerbait) also got plenty of use. Consistency was elusive as the conditions changed on a daily basis with water clarity deteriorating and changing in different parts of the lake due to the wind direction and intensity.

Below is a rundown of how the rest of the top 5 went about their business:

2nd: Kevin VanDam

> Day 1: 5, 10-15
> Day 2: 5, 17-00
> Day 3: 5, 18-07
> Day 4: 5, 16-04
> Total = 20, 62-10

The local anglers who served as marshals for Kevin VanDam at Ross Barnett were flabbergasted. Never before had they nor had they seen anyone pick up a jerkbait and cast it where VanDam was casting it – and catch fish!

VanDam is no stranger to a jerkbait – it’s among his favorite ways to fish regardless of venue – and he found an application for it that helped carry him to a runner-up finish. In practice, the bites were random and he and nephew Jonathon traded notes on what they were finding.

“You wouldn’t pull up and get six off a spot,” he said. “I was piecing things together each day. The first day I lapped the whole thing to see everything. We discussed what we saw like we always do. Each day, we kept piecing it together a little better. By the end of practice, I didn’t know exactly what I had, but I had a few spots where there fish were grouped up.”

Fish were schooling and keying on shad and he figured that he could find consistent bites despite all the fishing pressure.

“I had some quality bites each day of practice,” he added. “I would’ve had a good stringer each day of practice, but I had no confidence in being able to duplicate it.”

Day 1 of the tournament was “puzzling” for VanDam. He had no shortage of bites on day 1 of the tournament, but the quality fish were elusive. He missed a couple good bites with a topwater popper and wound up with 10-15.

Conditions began to change Friday and he noticed it started to concentrate the fish.

“They were scattered when the water quality was better everywhere,” he said. “When the mud started flowing out of the river and creeks, the baitfish moved away from the dirty water and the bass followed.

“Most of the guys were either flipping or frogging bank grass. What I saw in practice was the bigger fish were on the outside grass or something floating over deeper water because that’s where the shad were.”

Because of that, most of his bites came from 6 or 7 feet of water.

“If I saw a lot of shad, I knew I was in a high percentage area,” he said. “I focused on the centers of the cuts and backwater bays and off the ends of points. The fish were just set up waiting for the pods of shad.”

He employed a variety of baits to catch fish – frog, swimjig, spinnerbait, vibrating jig, popper along with flipping to go with the jerkbait. When the water got dirty, the spinnerbait shined.

The jerkbait was most effective around scattered pads in deeper water.

“The pads were very sparse and grew out deeper so they had longer stems,” he said. “Believe it or not, it came through them pretty good.”

> Topwater/jerkbait gear: 6’10” medium-heavy Quantum Team KVD casting rod, Quantum Smoke casting reel (8.0:1 ratio), 20-pound Bass Pro Shops Excel monofilament line, 20-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon line, Strike King KVD Splash (chrome sexy shad), Strike King KVD Jerkbait 300 (sexy blueback herring).

> VanDam swapped out the hooks on his baits for Mustad KVD TG76 extra short extra strong trebles.

> Main factor in his success – “The jerkbait. When they’re school oriented and focused on shad, a jerkbait is a great tool to generate extra bites. I could go behind anyone anywhere this week and catch ‘em with this. The water wasn’t that muddy and when the fish are shallow to begin with and not positioned on the bottom going to be a good tool.”

> Performance edge – “The Lakemaster mapping. There was a college kid from around there who helped the Lakemaster crew to know where to map. On the upper end and in the areas where bass live there they mapped it to a tee. The river chutes change with flooding and I could see on the map what I wanted to fish and go catch ‘em. That’s how I picked areas.”

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Jonathon VanDam spent his whole tournament on the north end of the lake.

3rd: Jonathon VanDam

> Day 1: 5, 15-13
> Day 2: 5, 15-01
> Day 3: 5, 15-01
> Day 4: 5, 13-05
> Total = 20, 59-04

In practice, Jonathon VanDam mostly threw a frog and vibrating jig around lily pads. By the end of competition, he was working a jerkbait through the pads and it resulted in his best finish since a runner-up showing at the St. Lawrence River in 2015.

“I’ve watch Kevin (throw a jerkbait) a bunch of times in Louisiana or Florida, where people don’t think to throw it,” he said. “If it’s clear enough to see it, it’s deadly, especially when they’re on shad.

Using a fairly quick retrieve with short pauses between twitches, VanDam was able to generate consistent bites, especially around concentrations of baitfish.

“Once you figured out where they were sitting, you could make same cast and catch ‘em every cast.”

He spent the entire tournament above the Highway 43 causeway and he utilized the detailed mapping that Lakemaster did on the lake to identify backwaters that looked productive.

“I could look at it on my iPad at night and have an idea of where I needed to be,” he said.

Most of the fish he weighed in came out of 5 to 7 feet of water, deeper than most in the field were fishing.

> Jerkbait gear: 6’9” medium-action G. Loomis Fiber-Blend jerkbait rod, Shimano Curado 70 casting reel, 17-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon line, Strike King KVD Jerkbait 300 (chartreuse sexy shad).

> Vibrating jig gear: 7’2” medium-heavy Shimano Expride fiberglass casting rod, Shimano Metanium MG casting reel, same line, 1/2-oz. unnamed vibrating jig (white), Strike King Rage Tail Menace trailer (white), Strike King KVD Perfect Plastics Blade Minnow trailer (white).

> Main factor in his success – “I fished around guys all week, but I was doing something totally different that they hadn’t even thought of. A lot of times that’s how you win. Everyone was frogging and flipping. That difference was the biggest key to my success.”

> Performance edge – “My HydroWave. Running it on Delayed Schooling Pattern at 1/4 to 1/2 volume. What that did is when I got in those areas, it activated the shad. The fish were sitting in those troughs and I’d see multiple fish bust shad on the surface. It seemed to activate everything in those areas. I felt like it drew them to me.”

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Bobby Lane felt like home at Ross Barnett Reservoir as he worked around pad fields and clumps of cattails.

4th: Bobby Lane

> Day 1: 5, 20-14
> Day 2: 5, 11-10
> Day 3: 5, 11-02
> Day 4: 5, 13-15
> Total = 20, 57-09

Bobby Lane found a comfort zone at Ross Barnett Reservoir and he never left. He covered a majority of the lake in practice, but ultimately narrowed his focus to places that looked a lot like lakes he fishes in Florida, where lily pads, grass clumps and reed heads are prevalent.

“I stuck to what I like to do best and not getting spun out was key,” he said. “You can get in big trouble there real quick.

“I approached it exactly like home,” he said. “I kept telling myself to hunker down and do what you like to do best. I put a swimjig rod, a frog rod and a flipping stick in the boat and did that all 4 days. I never took my spinning reels out of the rod locker.”

He focused on scattered pads with a swimjig, threw a frog through the holes behind the pads and then flipped clumps of small cattails.

“I fished four areas where I felt like I had a 3-pound plus bite,” he said. “I fished each of those four. As the tournament went on, I didn’t realize how many fish I was around.

“In practice, I wanted to look at everything. I knew it was a swimjig lake and if I could find them on that, I should be able to go through the same areas and flip where I was swimjigging.”

When he caught a key fish on a swimjig, he’d find the deepest mats nearby and go back and flip those. Clumps of cat tails also proved productive.

“Some had 1 foot and some had 2 feet of water on them,” he said. “Once I got that first good bite, even with other boats around, I flipped around and found where the deeper ones were and rode that all the way to the top 5.

“In the area I found, there was a deep channel out in front of the area and some fish were coming in and eating bream and shad in the morning. In the afternoon, it was like the dead sea so they probably swam back out.”

> Flipping gear: 7’6” heavy-action Abu Garcia Villain casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo Premier STX, 50- and 65-pound Spiderwire Ultracast braided line, 3/8- 1/2- and 1-oz. Flat Out Tungstens worm weights, 4/0 and 5/0 Lazer TroKar TK 135 flipping hook, Berkley Havoc Pit Boss (junebug) and Berkley Havoc Bottom Hopper (junebug).

> Lane switched to the Bottom Hopper straight worm under calmer conditions, but his bite ratio didn’t decrease.

> Swimjig gear: 7’3” medium-heavy Abu Garcia Villain casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo ALX casting reel (8.0:1 ratio), 50-pound Spiderwire Ultracast braided line, 3/8-oz. 4x4 Bass Jigs swimjig (white and bream), various trailers (white).

> Lane said the high-speed ratio of the ALX was crucial is catching up to fish after they’d swipe his jig.

> Frog gear: 7’2” medium-heavy Abu Garcia Ike Power Series casting rod, same reel as swimjig, same line as swimjig, unnamed hollow-body frog (black).

> He also caught a couple keepers on a new bait made by Yo-Zuri that will be introduced at ICAST.

> Main factor in his success – “Downsizing my line to 50-pound so I could detect the bites better.”

> Performance edge – “My Bob’s Jack Plate allowed me to run through that shallow water. That was key. It never does not work. I don’t care if I’m in 6 inches of water or 75 miles per hour, it always works and that’s important. Combined with my Phoenix, which floats so shallow, and my Yamaha, everything performed to perfection.”

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Mark Menendez feasted on the shad spawn early in the event and then did some damage flipping docks in Pelahatchie Bay on the weekend,

5th: Mark Menendez

> Day 1: 5, 17-00
> Day 2: 5, 17-11
> Day 3: 5, 10-02
> Day 4: 5, 12-10
> Total = 20, 57-07

Menendez was content to stay on the lower end of Ross Barnett for the duration of the tournament. That’s because he found bass relating to balls of shad early in the tournament along the dam and then tapped into a flipping program in Pelahatchie Bay that carried him through the weekend.

“I had a solid practice and felt like I’d catch some fish,” he said. “I didn’t know I’d have 17-pound stringers each of the first two days.”

He said a key element to his approach was picking on small details and applying them the next day.

“I took one key each day and added it to the next day,” he said. “Even though the shad spawn went away, I’d caught a couple on day 2 on the jig and that was enough to tell me to peck around. There were a lot of big fish in that area. I connected with enough 2 1/2- to 4-pounders to make a difference.”

His electronics were pivotal to helping him identify where the baitfish were gathered around the dam during practice and the first couple days of competition.

“I fished smart,” he said. “I worked to figure out the dwindling shad spawn. It just played out on me. I found it with the Garmin Panoptix. I just went down the dam and would look out in front and see the balls of shad. Some of the places were 60 yards long and I found three of those. I rotated through those. They were the winning fish, no doubt, but the shad stopped spawning and the fish had no reason to pull up there.”

By the final day, he still went through those areas, but he finished his day in Pelahatchie where he’d flip the outermost, wind-blown dock pole with a 3/8-oz. jig.

> Spinnerbait gear: 7’3” medium-heavy Lew's Custom Lite Speed Stick magnum jig casting rod, Team Lew's Lite Speed Spool casting reel (6.8:1 ratio), 17-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, 1/2-oz. Strike King Premier Elite spinnerbait (white), 6” unnamed ribbon tail trailer (white).

> The out-of-production spinnerbait was the same bait he used to win the West Point Lake Southern Open in 2005. The ribbon tail trailer, he said, also attracted more bigger fish rather than all 10-inchers.

> Flipping gear: 7’6” heavy-action Lew's Custom Lite Speed Stick magnum flipping casting rod, TTeam Lew's Pro Magnesium Speed Spool casting reel (7.5:1 ratio), 20-pound Seaguar AbrazX fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. Strike King Denny Brauer Premier Pro Jig (black/blue or black chartreuse), Strike King Rage Tail Rage Craw trailer (black/blue flake).

> The rod/reel combo that Menendez uses to flip weighs 8 ounces total and has made flipping fun for him again. “Its breathed new life into my elbows,” he said. “I can fish without pain now.”

> Main factor in his success – “Learning something new every day and plugging it in the next day.”

> Performance edge – “My Garmin Panoptix was the absolute key.”

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