By Todd Ceisner
“You moron! Put it down and get the topwater back in your hand.”
That’s what Drew Benton heard in the back of his mind last weekend each time he picked up a rod that didn’t have a surface bait tied on.
The voice had a valid point. Since late on day 2 of competition, Benton’s success at Lake Travis was almost 100 percent attributable to his reliance on a loud, walking bait that called fish to the surface thinking it was a shad.
More often than not, he heeded his own advice and it carried him to the first Elite Series win of his career, which was accompanied by a berth in next year’s Bassmaster Classic.
Benton averaged just shy of 17 pounds per day, highlighted by a 20-04 effort on day 3, to top the 108-man field that seemed blown away by the burgeoning population of bass at the ultra-clear water Colorado River impoundment located just west of Austin, Texas.
“I didn’t know I had anything remotely close to the winning pattern,” Benton said Sunday evening as the events of the day started to wash over him.
It wasn’t so much a pattern as it was a mindset to stay with what was working. He focused on marinas with deep water under them and “learned a little more each day,” he said. He employed a couple different baits and mixed in a flutter spoon when conditions called for it.
Following are additional details about how the 30-year-old from Panama City, Fla., prevailed in Texas.
Benton arrived at Travis fully prepared to target offshore fish. It’s not his comfort zone, but he had deep-diving crankbaits, among other things, rigged up for practice.
“I started down by the dam and actually went looking for bed-fish,” he said. “It was really clear so I graphed around and thought I could find schools of them. I had stuff tied on to fish deep, but it wasn’t working.”
He eventually developed a game plan around docks, where he could get bit on a swimbait and jerkbait, and by hopping a big shaky-head on points.
“Every now and then I’d catch a big one,” he said. “I caught a couple on a spoon. It was a junk-fishing deal. I’d jerk a few docks, then throw a topwater in between.”
He also checked the Colorado River arm, but the water had cleared up considerably from when he was there for a scouting trip so he wrote it off.
His breakthrough came about halfway through the last day of practice when roommate David Mullins mentioned he’d gotten some bites on a topwater near marinas.
“I started running with it,” Benton said. “I got some bites, but I didn’t have an inkling of a clue that was the deal.”
By the end of day 1 of the tournament, he’d caught a couple weigh-in fish doing it and then one of those voices in his head started up again.
“Maybe I can do this,” he said.
> Day 1: 5, 13-15
> Day 2: 5, 16-13
> Day 3: 5, 20-04
> Day 4: 5, 16-15
> Total = 20, 67-15
Benton said he couldn’t remember another tournament where he was so committed to a particular style of fishing the way he eventually got locked in at Travis. Prior to the tournament, some competitors hypothesized that Travis would fish like a Florida lake, where a kicker fish in the 5-pound range or bigger is often accompanied by smaller, average-sized fish. Benton, a Florida native, was among that contingent.
“I didn’t have confidence in anything but that,” he said.
On Thursday, he had 13-15, which put him in 22nd place. By the end of the day, he started to see how effective a loud walking bait could be.
He committed to it all day Friday and hauled in 16-13 to jump into 5th place. He began to understand that main-lake marinas seemed to hold better quality fish.
“The ones in pockets and creeks went away first,” he said. “The main-lake ones held shad and the deeper the wate,r the better. Most of them were in 90 to 100 feet. The shallowest one I fished was in 50 feet.”
High skies and sunny conditions were his ideal scenario as the fish would set up on the shade lines and in dock slips and charge out to attack the wandering treble-adorned bait.
“I was catching them right under the dock basically,” he said.
He caught five of his weigh fish out of slips and the rest came out of open water. When he left the marina rotation or when clouds started to creep in, he targeted flatter banks with bigger rocks on them. He’d make parallel casts along the shoreline, coaxing bites from fish suspending off the initial breaks.
“The bite was more predictable when the sun was out because it positioned the fish in the shade of the rocks,” Benton added.
The key sequence for Benton occurred the morning of day 3. He knew boat traffic that day was going to turn the lake into a veritable wash tub. Helped by a flurry of solid fish (all 3 pounds or better), he amassed 18 pounds before 9 a.m. and upgraded twice in the afternoon to get up to 20-04, a total that pushed him to the top of the leaderboard.
“My key decision was just to stick with that topwater and go with it,” he said.
Benton’s day 3 was made more memorable by his falling in the water while trying to battle a fish he’d hooked after flipping his bait over a metal dock walkway and into a boat slip. As he maneuvered his boat into position, his boat bumped into the dock and he careened over the side and into the lake. After getting back in the boat, he realized the fish was still hooked. In the process of landing the fish, he violated a rule governing competitors not leaving the boat to land a fish and had to serve a 15-minute penalty at the start of day 4.
The delay didn’t slow him down as his best morning spot wasn’t as productive as it had been. The 3-pounders keep coming, though, and he used a 3-pounder after lunchtime to maintain the separation he needed on the leaderboard to secure the win.
Winning Gear Notes
> Topwater gear: 7’1” heavy-action Phenix Feather Series casting rod, Team Lew’s Pro Magnesium Speed Spool ACB casting reel (7.5:1 ratio), 65-pound Seaguar Smackdown braided line, 4 1/4” Bagley Knocker B (shad), unnamed walking bait (clear).
> Benton mixed in the translucent walking bait when it was sunny. He also swapped the stock trebles for #2 Owner Stinger hooks and used feathered trebles on the back of both baits. “That was key, especially when they were eating the little shad,” he said. “They keyed on the feathered hook.”
> Spoon gear: 7’7” heavy-action Phenix Ultra MBX casting rod, same reel, 20-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, 6” Nichols Ben Parker Mini Magnum Flutter Spoon (gizzard).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “If I wouldn’t have started in that marina on day 3 and gotten off to a good start, we wouldn’t be talking about a win. It was such a nice day and there were so many boats out there that it backed the fish out. I couldn’t catch a quality fish the rest of the day. On Sunday, with the nasty weather, the fish were there so had I not started in that marina, this wouldn’t have happened.”
> Performance edge – “My Phoenix performed flawlessly. Even in that rough water, I was never worried about not making it back in time. I fished until the last minute and it gave me confidence to run in without any issues. Also, the hooks I used were key. Ever since I switched to Owner, I haven’t lost many fish. I put as big a hook as I can on a bait – probably too big for what I was throwing. With that said, I hooked some I probably wouldn’t have had I not put those on.”
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