By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

(Editor's note: In observance of the Memorial Day holiday Monday, a new First Cast article will not publish until Tuesday, May 29.)

Elite Series anglers love a challenge and that’s exactly what they got at Lake Travis, site of last week’s Toyota Texas Fest. The deep, clear-water impoundment on the Colorado River just west of Austin presented myriad trials that tested even the most seasoned angler’s wherewithal.

Initially, the 14-inch minimum length threshold seemed innocuous. It was Texa,s after all – how hard could it be to catch five 14-inchers a day? Ha! It turned out to be quite a daunting exercise for some as the lake proved to be smack full of 12- to 13 1/2-inchers, a testament to its largemouth recruitment rate.

Then add the notorious Texas heat, which greeted the field for practice and hung around through the competition until a respite of rain arrived on the final day. In addition, the recreational boat traffic on the lake was unlike some had seen anywhere else.

Add it all up and there was no shortage of challenges for the 108-man field. Those who broke through and gained separation found themselves employing multiple tactics. Even winner Drew Benton mixed in a spoon to complement his topwater game.

There was a voracious feeding frenzy early in the morning as fish feasted on shad that were spawning near the surface, especially in and around marinas. As the sun reached its apex later in the morning, the transition to hard cover, either shade lines on docks or flooded trees up the Colorado River, helped carry other anglers to top-5 finishes.

Here’s a rundown of how the rest of the top 5 separated themselves from the pack.

2nd: Jacob Wheeler

> Day 1: 5, 17-04
> Day 2: 5, 18-03
> Day 3: 5, 12-15
> Day 4: 5, 16-02
> Total = 20, 64-08

To say Lake Travis fit nicely in Jacob Wheeler’s wheelhouse would be an understatement. The consummate junk-fisherman, Wheeler reveled in being able to do a little bit of everything and catch decent fish at just about every turn.

After snagging the lead following an 18-03 effort on day 2, he slipped to 2nd with 12-15 on day 3 before bouncing back with 16-02 on the final day.

“I’m not, by any means, disappointed,” he said. “I have no regrets. I fished as hard as I could.”

He fished fast, too, noting that based on the speed of his trolling motor, he was moving down the bank at an average speed of 2 mph.

“That was my deal. I love doing that,” he said. “The story for me was never getting that big one on day 3. If I cull a 2-pounder for a 5, then I win. I’ve been in this positon enough in my career to know when it’s your time, you’re going to win.”

Wheeler set the tone each day offshore with a small jigging spoon that he’d use to pluck fish from 30 feet or deeper. Once he’d fill out his limit, he’d transition to a bigger flutter spoon in hopes to lure the bigger fish from the group.

“I’d go offshore right away,” he said. “I had a rotation of three places, but they’d leave in the afternoon. I’d catch 8 to 12 pounds there in the morning, then go shallow.

“They were eating smaller bait, but if you could trigger them with a bigger spoon, I could catch bigger ones,” he added. “Normally, you’re trying to throw as big a bait as possible when there’s a thousand bass down there.”

He said the spoon scenario was much different than what he finds at home along the Tennessee River. He focused on long bars that were covered in trees. If there was a gap between trees, that’s where he tried to put his bait.

“There were open holes in the bushes,” he said. “There might be an old road from when the water was down or an area where the trees hadn’t grown up. The schools were on the edge of the areas where it was sparse or thick. It was just different. The fish set up before it dropped off into the river channel.”

He also caught a few fish cranking and on topwater baits.

> Small spoon gear: 7’3” heavy-action Okuma Scott Martin TCS casting rod, Okuma Helios casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 14-pound Sufix Invisiline Castable fluorocarbon line, 7/8-oz. War Eagle jigging spoon.

> Big spoon gear: 7’11” heavy-action Okuma Scott Martin TCS casting rod, same reel, same line (20-pound), Nichols Lures Ben Parker Mini Magnum Flutter Spoon (chrome).

> Topwater gear: 7’6” heavy-action Okuma Scott Martin TCS casting rod, same reel (8.0:1 ratio), 50-pound Sufix 832 Advanced Superline braided line, various topwater baits.

> Main factor in his success – “I fished super clean this week. Staying on the bank Sunday after I caught that big one was key because on previous days I’d split it half and half.”

> Performance edge – “The water was dropping a couple inches a day so the biggest thing was having polarized glasses to see those bushes under the water. My Wiley X Omegas helped me see those fish down 10 feet. I caught multiple fish during the tournament that way.”

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

Cliff Pace had the big fish figured out at Lake Travis.

3rd: Cliff Pace

> Day 1: 5, 19-08
> Day 2: 5, 13-04
> Day 3: 5, 13-07
> Day 4: 5, 15-09
> Total = 20, 61-12

For Cliff Pace, life at Lake Travis was all about reading the conditions and being willing to change on the fly. He said the fishing seemed to change each day and it was imperative to adjust along with it.

While he never moved out of 3rd for the duration of the tournament, he landed two of the biggest fish caught in competition, including the 10-05 on day 1 that netted him a new Toyota Tundra for winning big-bass honors.

“I kept an open mind all week and fished hard all day, every day, start to finish,” he said. “It forced me to slow down when I needed to on day 1 when it was slick flat. Then I took advantage of the weather we had on days 3 and 4. It was all about fishing the conditions.”

His two areas of focus were points and isolated bushes offshore, which he probed with a Carolina rig, and suspended fish on main-lake points. Those fish saw a steady dose of topwater baits and jerkbaits.

The unique aspect of his Carolina-rig setup was the small plastic he was using. The Drop Shad is a 3 3/4-inch bait by V&M (to be introduced at ICAST), but Pace said it seemed to match the smaller shad the bass were keying on in the clear water.

“I caught some fish on it every day,” he noted.

The topwater program worked well on day 3 when the wind picked up. When the suspended fish quit biting, he threw a couple different jerkbaits on wind-blown main-lake flats.

“Tha was random because you had to go through like 20 12-inchers and then you’d catch a big one,” he said. “You had to get enough bites to get a good bite.”

He said the 8-pounder on day 4 ate a jerkbait just as it touched the top of a tree that came up to 8 feet in 15 feet of water.

“I felt the bait touch the tree and when it came through there, I stopped it and she ate it,” he said.

> Carolina rig gear: 7’4” extra-heavy TFO Pacemaker casting rod, unnamed casting reel, 20-pound HI-SEAS 100% fluorocarbon line (main), 15-pound leader (same line), 3/4-oz. Elite Tungsten flippin’ weight, 3/0 Mustad offset worm hook, V&M Baits Drop Shad (green-pumpkin watermelon laminate).

> Topwater gear: Same rod (medium-heavy), same reel, 50-pound HI-SEAS Grand Slam braided line, unnamed walking bait (custom shad pattern).

> Jerkbait gear: 6’10” medium-action TFO Pacemaker casting rod, same reel, 12-pound HI-SEAS 100% fluorocarbon line, Jackall Squad Minnow 115SP (ghost minnow, SG threadfin), Jackall DowZvido (same colors).

> Main factor in his success – “I just got blessed and caught two giants. It was great to catch those two, but frustrating to catch them and not win. I’m thankful for what I did this week.”

> Performance edge – “My Raymarine (electronics) helped. I found those isolated bushes in practice and I idled a lot of main-lake flats. I could throw where I knew they were.”

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

Keith Combs felt like he was around the fish to win offshore.

4th: Keith Combs

> Day 1: 5, 12-06
> Day 2: 5, 10-10
> Day 3: 5, 17-06
> Day 4: 5, 20-04
> Total = 20, 60-10

Nobody caught more weight (37-10) over the final two days at Travis than Keith Combs. He only wishes the first two days were as prolific.

He figured out pretty quick in practice that a morning shad spawn was happening and he could rely on that if need to be. The drawback was many other competitors were keying on the same scenario.

“I caught one big one on a 10XD out deep so I ran with that the rest of the time,” he said. “I didn’t find a lot of it, but I had three spots I liked and six spots on my hit list. After three days of looking, when you found them there was a big school, but just not a lot of places they were on yet.”

His only regret was spending too much time on a spot he thought would materialize before pulling the plug on it.

“I had a deep hole in the mid-lake area first thing in the mornings,” he said. “I don’t know if I couldn’t get there early enough, but I’d catch a couple and then the school would break up. I stayed an hour trying to figure it out.

“On Saturday morning, I went there for 10 minutes and said, ‘Forget it.’ I went to my second hole and caught 17 (pounds) quick. I went back to the second spot on day 4 and caught them solid for an hour on every cast. That first school led me astray.”

The 25- to 40-foot section of the water column was his depth range as the fish would suspend over the tops of trees and old brush.

“The lake doesn’t have a lot of points,” he said. “There’s a channel and secondary creeks that run into it and that forms two points out there. I’d crank the ends of those points. On 15-pound Seaguar, I could get (the 10XD) down to 28 on a long cast. That was perfect for the tops of that brush.”

His cranking pattern thrived when it was cloudy and windy. When the offshore bite slowed down, he headed to docks to fish a big flutter spoon and a shad-shaped soft plastic on a weighted swimbait hook to target fish set up on shade lines.

“You know this time of year fish will be on the bank and fish will be deep,” he said. “The thing you run into here that’s different from other Texas lakes is it doesn’t have a lot of offshore structure. It’s so bluffy on one side and the other side has flats.

“With 108 guys who are good with their electronics, I didn’t know if a complete offshore thing would get it done. It could have and I feel like I was on the fish to win. I just didn’t make a good decision on where to start.”

> Cranking gear: 7’ Shimano Curado prototype cranking rod, Shimano Curado K casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 15-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, Strike King 10XD (Tennessee shad, sexy shad).

> He also caught two day-3 keepers on a Strike King Sexy Spoon (shad), and three keepers on day 1 free-falling a 5” Strike King KVD Perfect Plastic Caffeine Shad rigged on a 3/16-oz. weighted swimbait hook under docks.

> Main factor in his success – “Those Lakemaster maps. It’s dead on. Once I saw the outside edge of that brush and how it would set up, I shaded it to 35 feet and looked for points that ran out to that depth. Doing that let me break it down pretty quick.”

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

Brent Chapman spurned the clear water of the lower lake for the stained water of the Colorado River.

5th: Brent Chapman

> Day 1: 5, 16-01
> Day 2: 5, 11-08
> Day 3: 5, 15-12
> Day 4: 5, 15-13
> Total = 20, 59-02

Brent Chapman didn’t want to play the finesse game he could see developing in the ultra-clear water on Travis’ lower end. When he discovered a workable pattern and an ample population of fish in the stained waters of the Colorado River, that’s where he decided to invest his time.

“On the first day of practice, I caught a 4-pounder in the clear water and it got obvious once the sun got up how things would set up,” he said. “I figured the finesse deal would materialize.”

Later that day, he ran up the river and caught a few bass, including a 5-pounder, on a square-bill crankbait. He went back and spent the duration of the second day and found fish suspended in trees and bushes. That’s when he decided how he’d fish the tournament.

“The third day I stayed on the lower end and it didn’t seem to be in the same ballpark as the river,” he said. “It reminded me to fish what I was comfortable in and that was the dirty water. I felt like if I was going to bomb, I’m going to do it doing what I like doing.”

His day-1 stringer was anchored by a 5 1/4-pounder and he was proud of the fact that he caught an 18-inch fish each day, meaning he could show one off on stage at weigh-in.

He had a one-two punch of early-morning topwater bites followed by targeting flooded trees and bushes he could flip when the sun got high.

“The water clarity was perfect with 1 to 2 feet of visibility,” he said. “Down the lake it was a whole different animal. My key stretches were closer to the channel where the fish got on the banks and would feed along those channels where the shad were spawning. As the day progressed, they got in those flooded bushes and trees along the channel.”

The flipping fish varied in depths from 2 to 20 feet, he said.

“I caught fish out of both and everywhere in between – that’s what was so crazy about it,” he added. “I also couldn’t go back to the same places and catch them on same thing the next day.

“It’s a neat lake. I was impressed with it. Everybody talked it down and said that it’d be brutal, but our biggest fish of the year will come out of here.”

> Topwater gear: 7’ medium-action Wright & McGill Skeet Reese Micro Honeycomb casting rod, Wright & McGill Skeet Reese II casting reel (7.0:1 ratio), 40-pound Gamma Torque braided line, 3/8-oz. homemade buzzbait (unpainted), unnamed swimbait trailer (shad).

> Flipping gear: 7’6” heavy-action Wright & McGill Skeet Reese Micro Honeycomb casting rod, same reel, 20-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 1/4- and 3/8-oz. Eagle Claw tungsten worm weights, 5/0 Lazer Sharp worm hook, Zoom Ol’ Monster (plum).

> Main factor in his success – “Committing to the dirty water and the plan and sticking with it. Picking an area and getting to know it well was key.”

> Performance edge – “My Triton and Mercury were great. I bet I put 500 miles plus on this rig all week. To do that for that many days without a glitch is pretty impressive.”

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