By Todd Ceisner
The way Bryan Thrift saw it after practice for the Lake Cumberland FLW Tour, there was no scenario he could envision that culminated with him lifting a trophy over his head and going home with a billboard-sized check.
Conditions were changing and productive patterns and areas were mostly elusive during the three-day practice session. As the tournament wore on, though, his opinion quickly changed and by Saturday, he realized Cumberland was there for the taking.
But it required him to adopt a head-down-and-fish mindset rather than making a few casts in a few dozen different spots across the lake – you know, his typical run-and-gun approach. Cumberland is not the easiest lake to run and gun on, but Thrift (and others) had plenty of success settling into pocket-laden creek arms, especially on the lower end, and picking apart the various and numerous pieces of flooded cover along the shoreline.
“It’s a fishing lake,” Thrift declared. “I guess you could run spots, but it was more than getting in an area and putting the trolling motor down and going down the bank a few hundred yards and cranking up and going elsewhere to do the same thing.
“I wasn’t zeroed in on anything. When I’d put the trolling motor down, I was starting on the main creek bank and wherever the bank went I went. I’d troll into pockets and come out the other side.”
On a lake where he rode largemouth and spotted bass to a 12th-place finish in last year’s Tour stop, Thrift weighed in four limits of smallmouth last week, a testament to Cumberland’s diverse and robust fishery.
He averaged just about 17 1/2 pounds a day, highlighted by back-to-back 18-pound stringers on the final two days, to score his sixth career FLW Tour win.
Here are some additional details about how Thrift went home with another trophy:
To hear Thrift tell it, Cumberland was stingy during practice as a cold front gripped the area and seemed to blunt the shallow migration the fish had previously started.
“Practice was a struggle for me,” he said. “The place I caught them (in the tournament), I got three bites in the whole creek all practice. It was the only place where I had more than one bite.”
With the water high and warm weather in the forecast for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Thrift tried to get something figured out.
“It was pretty tough on me,” he said. “I ran around and sampled a lot of the lake.”
On the second day of practice, he ran into a few smallmouth, but none were over 2 1/2 pounds.
“Knowing there was a 12-inch (minimum) size limit, that’s all I had,” he said. “I had to start out there.”
He caught some on a small swimbait rigged on a light jighead and also had bites on a jerkbait and spinnerbait.
"The swimbait was actually my third plan,” he added.
> Day 1: 5, 15-09
> Day 2: 5, 17-04
> Day 3: 5, 18-11
> Day 4: 5, 18-10
> Total = 20, 70-02
Thrift kicked off the tournament using a jerkbait and spinnerbait, but those eventually tailed off as the water started to warm and clear up on Thursday.
“I caught a couple on the swimbait and ran with it,” he said.
And so began the daily routine of making repeated casts toward the bank and slowly winding the swimbait over and around submerged cover.
“I thought 'that’s all I have,' so I just had to put the trolling motor down and make peace with this is where I have to stay all day,” he said.
Other anglers likely would’ve used spinning tackle to fish the way Thrift was, but he insisted on casting gear. He said it allowed him to control the bait more.
“It was a constantly slow retrieve. I didn’t count it down,” he said. “I made long coasts and would almost hit the bank, then let it pendulum back to me. It was a slow, finesse, subtle presentation.”
The bite pattern was pretty random and unpredictable, he added.
“Sometimes they’d bite against the bank and some were out at the boat,” he said. “It was weird. It goes back to just fishing down the bank. I never knew when I’d get a bite on the bank and I never knew where on the cast it would happen.”
The wind also presented a challenge as to making sure he was able feel what his bait was doing.
“It wasn’t really more challenging to stay on them, but it was more a challenge to fish how I wanted to fish,” he said. “Fishing as slow as I was, I had to keep the boat in one position and try not to move a lot.”
He followed up his 15 1/2 pounds on day 1 with 17-04 on day 2, which pushed him into the top 10 entering the weekend. He took over the lead on Saturday with an 18-11 bag.
“I caught them decent and that gave me room on day 3 to expand and find something else,” he said. “For some reason, I got dialed in on them on day 3. I know I weighed smallmouth on days 1 and 2, but that’s when I assured myself that the smallmouth were bigger in that area so I tried to run with them a little more.”
In the end, he relied on a couple different swimbait profiles on a simple jighead to bag the winning fish. While others were slinging spinnerbaits around sycamores and flooded bushes. Thrift was coaxing bites from fish either close to the bank or suspended out closer to his boat.
“I was still fishing the same type of water as the other guys,” he added.
He said an event like this where he’s able to get dialed in on one particular bait or presentation is enjoyable because it eliminates a lot of guesswork.
“I like to be on a one-rod deal, but I still have 10 on the deck,” he said. “I rode around with 10 to 12 rods out, but only picked up two all day. I wanted to be prepared for that curveball because it happens to me too often. Plus, I know if I don’t have the bait on the deck I won’t take the time to dig it out of the rod box.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Swimbait gear: 7’ medium-heavy Fitzgerald Fishing Stunner HD casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo MGX II casting reel (8.0:1 ratio), 8-pound P-Line Ultimate fluorocarbon line, 1/8-, 1/4-, 3/8-oz. unnamed ball-head jigs, 3” Damiki Armor Shad paddle-tail swimbait (flash shad), 3.8” unnamed paddle-tail swimbait (Tennessee shad).
> Under the sunny conditions Thursday and Friday, Thrift opted for the smaller profile Damiki swimbait. Amidst the low-light conditions on the weekend, the larger bait was more effective.
> Asked how he was able to get the bait to run how he intended using a high-speed reel, Thrift chuckled and said, “You just have to wind it slow.”
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Resisting the urge to run around.”
> Performance edge – “The whole combination of the rod, reel and line I was using. I was able to fight and land those smallmouth on baitcasting equipment when 90 percent of people would’ve fished that on a spinning rod. I try not to use a spinning rod if I can help it.”
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