By Todd Ceisner
In 2007, 81 anglers descended on Lake Ouachita for the Forrest Wood Cup. With a $1 million top prize up for grabs, only one man Ė Scott Suggs Ė left satisfied that heíd figured out the sprawling mountain reservoir. In 2011, the field was 57 men. Again, just one guy Ė Scott Martin Ė departed Hot Springs, Ark., with a smile on his face having aced the mid-summer brain-bender. Three years ago, 50 anglers started the Cup and when the weekend wrapped up, it was Brad Knight holding the big trophy aloft.
The rest went home scratching their heads, probably muttering something about Ouachitaís fickle nature and how one thing worked one day, but not the next or lamenting a lost fish here or there. Welcome to summertime fishing in Arkansas, or most anywhere else in the South.
On Friday, 56 anglers Ė some household names in the sport, some relative unknowns Ė will set out across Ouachita as the lake hosts the Cup for the fourth time in the last 12 years. So whoís going to be the last man standing this time around? Nice try.
It could very well be Martin, whoís one of four anglers in the field bidding to become the first two-time Cup winner. It could be Sheldon Collings, the 20-year-old from eastern Oklahoma looking to get over the sting of a miserable season finale at Lake St. Clair. Heck, it could be Arkansas native Mark Rose, the newly-minted Angler of the Year who finished 3rd at Ouachita back in 2011. It could even be Michael Matthee, a South African who qualified through the International Division at last yearís FLW Series Championship.
Bottom line: Itís anybodyís game this week.
The key to success at Ouachita in August seems to be not getting too locked in on any one thing. Unless, of course, youíre Suggs and youíve figured out how to trigger bites with a spinnerbait 20 to 25 feet down near the tops of standing timber where bass congregate in the summer. Or if youíre Martin and you stumble upon a pack of fish stalking bait in 20 to 27 feet with a swimbait. Or if youíre Knight and youíve managed to pinpoint some submerged blowdowns (likely put there by a tornado) in the back of a creek and you have the willingness to wait out five good bites a day with a dropshot. Those are the exceptions.
Otherwise, an open mind might be the most dangerous tool on anyoneís front deck this week, but not too open. While some will live or die following one scent trail, the consensus is that itíll require a mix-and-match approach over three days to find paydirt at Ouachita.
The trick now is figuring out the recipe. Will it be morning topwater mixed with brush piles or probing grass clumps and bream beds? Or will it be stumps and brush? Or standing timber and schooling fish? It could be one combination one day and something totally different the next. Some say thatís the reason Ouachita is the perfect venue for such an event Ė it presents the ultimate test for some of the top anglers in the sport, forcing them to make snap decisions on the fly with so much on the line. Others bemoan the grind of fishing in the heat and would rather have the championship tournament at a lake where thereís more consistent action (cough, Lake Hamilton, cough). Either way, someone will have to overcome some intense conditions and pressure if they are to experience a career-changing moment early Sunday evening.
The water at Ouachita is roughly five feet below full pool and has been steadily dropping through the summer. A line of thunderstorms moved through Wednesday and dumped more than a quarter-inch of rain on the Hot Springs area and another quarter inch was expected to fall as part of another storm system Thursday. That could be the best news any of the competitors could have hoped for as the high pressure thatís been hovering over the lake has made the fishing challenging to say the least.
Any amount of cloud cover or wind or rain could trigger some fish to get active, especially those chasing bait to the surface. More thunderstorms and rain are in the forecast for the balance of the tournament so Wednesday could loom large as it was the only day during practice with any significant cloud cover. An afternoon thunderstorm chased the balance of the field off the water, marking a premature end to the four-day practice period.
Defending Cup champion Justin Atkins says fishing at Ouachita now is nothing like it was in the spring.
ďI would think the clouds will do something because it canít get worse,Ē said JT Kenney, whoís preparing for his 11th Cup.
ďThe cloud cover will help,Ē says Elite Series and Major League Fishing angler Mark Davis, a resident of nearby Mt. Ida. ďThatís a major development. A lot of times if we get afternoon thunderstorms, weíll have clouds through the morning so that will help the shallow and deep fishing and itíll keep the temperatures down a little.Ē
The previous three Cups at Ouachita were all four-day affairs, but with FLW going to a three-day format in the Cup beginning last year at Lake Murray, what was once a marathon is now more of a sprint. The three-day format will likely prompt anglers to seek out size over quantity, but even that can be a treacherous prospect with things as tough as theyíve been.
Here are a couple stats to keep in mind as the tournament rolls along this week. The average weight of the day-3 leader in the three Cups at Ouachita was 41.77 pounds or a shade more than 41-12. To crack the top 10 after day 2, itís taken an average of 22-15. Maybe the cloud cover helps push those trends higher or maybe they have no effect at all. Stay tuned.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Lake Ouachita
> Type of Water: Highland reservoir
> Surface Acres (full pool): 40,000 acres
> Primary structure/cover: Grass, standing timber, points, humps, creek channels, brush piles
> Primary forage: Shad, crawfish, sunfish/crappie
> Average depth: 51 feet
> Species: Largemouths, spotted bass, smallmouths
> Minimum length: 13 inches for largemouths and spots (smallmouths are catch-and-release only)
> Reputation: A beautiful, undeveloped lake that varies in fishing quality by season
> Weather: Itís been hot and sticky, but cloudy skies and rain could shake things up
> Water temp: Upper 80s to low 90s
> Water visibility/color: 8 feet/slightly stained
> Fish in: All depths (down to about 35 feet)
> Fish phase: Summer
> Primary patterns: Carolina- and Texas-rigged big worms, jigs, shaky-heads, dropshots, some early topwater, flipping, square-bill crankbaits, swimbaits
> Winning weight: 46 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 10 after 2 days): 22 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for Ouachita
> Biggest factors: Decision-making. Some will try to stick with one thing too long while others will fly by the seat of their pants.
> Biggest decision: Deep or shallow? A mix will most likely be required, and timing will be critical
> Wildcard: Schooling fish. If youíre fortunate enough to be around them when they break the surface, good things can happen in a hurry.
Below is a map illustrating how Ouachita lays out, courtesy of Navionics:
So Many Options
If the Cup were a springtime tournament, the tenor about Ouachita would be much different, but the summer timing of it means trying to figure out the lake at perhaps the worst point on the calendar. Itís hot, the waterís nearly 90 degrees and many of the tournaments held at Ouachita during the summer are night events because thatís when bass are most active under such conditions. Since FLW is unlikely to shift the competition hours around and have a weigh-in followed by brunch, the 56 anglers will have to play the hand theyíve been dealt.
ď(In the summer), the water gets really warm and the lake thermoclines and they donít want to eat large meals,Ē says Jeff Sprague, who will be competing in his third Cup (as a pro) after a 28th-place finish in FLW Tour points. ďThey get real finicky and get in a funky mood. August is the heat of the heat with no cool nights. Once we get to September, it starts to cool off at night and the fish are able to feed and get a little more aggressive and set up more relating to cover.Ē
That means heading out Friday with the mindset that a myriad of tactics could produce throughout the day.
ďThe deal is it could be won any number of ways,Ē said Rob Kilby, a longtime FLW Tour angler who lives in Hot Springs and has fished Ouachita most of his life. ďIt could be shallow topwater, brush, grass or out on the drops. Thereís plenty of grass in the lake right now and thereís a lot of different ways to catch them. Itís hard to put three days together on any of those, though. I think a guy is going to need to put a combo together to catch them shallow, deep and suspended. The winner might have three different ways to catch them.Ē
It's hard to predict how bass will behave in the dead of summer at Ouachita, added Davis, who finished 4th in the 2007 Cup. There are no docks or bulkheads to throw at so anglers are left to locate something the fish can relate to. Sometimes, itís brush or stumps or standing timber. Other times, itís the edge of a hydrilla clump.
ďJuly and August are the two worst months to fish Ouachita because itís so hit and miss,Ē he said. ďTheyíre here today and gone tomorrow. You better have more than one plan of attack because finding something that will work day in and day out is tough.
ďThe last time it was here, (Knight) won it in the back of a creek. I guess if you find a creek with some shad in it and a population of fish and youíre patient enough to fish for them, you could do well, but mostly youíll have to have multiple things going on to be consistent.Ē
Even Kilby said the local anglers struggle to get a firm grasp on how to be efficient during the summer months. Some just wait until sundown.
ďItís not real friendly to locals because there are so many ways to catch them,Ē Kilby said. ďItís not like Kentucky Lake where you know three or four ledges will really have them or when the water gets to a certain point that they get here or there. Itís not like Kroger where you know where to go to get fish.Ē
Davis said one element to fishing Ouachita in the summer that gets overlooked, even by locals, is the deep standing timber. Suggs put the puzzle together back in í07, but heíd spent a considerable amount of time on the lake and had a general understanding of where the fish were apt to gang up. Someone whoís seeing the lake for the first time this week might not be willing to investigate that option with so many other scenarios at hand.
ďThese fish will school up and suspend in that deep timber,Ē Davis said. ďYou canít go out there any time of the day and catch them. There are windows and itís a tough nut to crack, and Iím not sure a lot of guys even try that. Itís an intimidating way to fish, but the vast majority of fish spend the summer that way.Ē
Most of the timber Davis is referring to resides on the lower half of the lake in some of the bigger creeks. Thereís also stands of it in the Ouachita River arm to the west. It may sound easy enough to break down, but Davis says itís not.
Alex Davis said part of the challenge at Ouachita is adjusting his expectations of what a good day will be.
ďYouíre in 50 to 75 feet of water and youíve got scattered pole timber,Ē he said. ďHow do you set up on them? What if you donít see them school or on your electronics? If you do and theyíre not active, then theyíre not catchable. Itís easy to feel lost out there. Itís a slow process and those fish move. They will be on a different set of trees from one day to the next. Itís like a needle in a haystack.Ē
If the stars align and someone is able to tap into the fish around the tops of those trees, Davis said it could be the pathway to victory.
ďYou can catch them on dropshot or a Texas rig or a spoon or a big spinnerbait,Ē he said. ďThere are windows of opportunity, but to have all that figured out by someone not familiar with the lake could be a stretch. If they can crack that nut, though, you could win this thing. Even the locals donít do it that much.Ē
With temperatures pushing 90 degrees and the fishing mostly a grind, mental toughness is a real component to any successful Cup strategy. Long lulls between bites can be taxing and execution then becomes paramount when thereís a tick on the line.
ďItís real easy to get discouraged,Ē Davis said. ďYou can get to a point where youíre just out there going through the motions. You have to be mentally tough and donít overcomplicate it because at the end of the day, you have to pick a way to fish and go do it. There are a lot of ways to catch them. Itís just that none of them are real good. A guy can go with what he likes and keep it simple. Itís easy to run all over and come up with nothing so you have to make the most out of what you have the most confidence in.Ē
Staying on your toes from the start of day 1 through end of (hopefully) day 3 will be easier said than done.
ďEach and every bite is extraordinarily crucial,Ē Kenney added. ďThe other thing is we all get $10,000, but the top 10 pays really well so if you get one or two decent bites then youíre almost guaranteed to be in the top 10. Staying focused is a big deal here.Ē
There is no telling how many brush piles have been installed at Ouachita, but thereís a good chance a few anglers will train their sights on them this week, hoping to coax a few key bites from around them.
Itís a dicey proposition, Kilby and Davis agree, because of the finicky nature of the fish that tend to hang out around them.
ďBrush piles are a love/hate deal,Ē Kilby said. ďYou can catch Ďem good one day and not get a bite the next. Most of that is because they suspend out away from the brush. You canít round them up and get them tight to the cover so you can catch them on different stuff. You canít go from brush pile to brush pile with a swimbait either.Ē
Much of the brush, Kilby says, was strategically planted to benefit anglers competing in night tournaments or crappie anglers. With such intense sun penetration during the day, brush any shallower than 25 feet will not likely hold any fish of demonstrable size until after sundown.
ďIf you put brush in to fish during the daytime, itís going to be considerably deeper than for fishing at night,Ē he said. ďConversely, deep brush isnít good because they donít stay that deep. Thatís why most of those brush piles are too shallow for fishing during the day. On the lower lake, if itís less than 25 feet, it wonít be good during the day, but if itís in 35 to 55, you wonít catch anything at night, but they could be there during day.Ē
Davis says the spotted bass, which are smaller on average compared to Ouachitaís largemouth, are more apt to hang around brush and that itís something he wouldnít be reliant on.
ďYouíll find that you may know where 50 piles are, but only two or three may hold catchable fish during the daylight,Ē he said.
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
ďIím going to chase those schoolers for a couple hours and then I guess fish deep brush. There are fish in the brush. Itís just a matter of whether you can get them out. Youíre liable to fish 10 piles and not get a bite and then all of a sudden you get a bite and itís a good one. Things just have to go right. If itís meant to be, itíll happen.
ďIíve gotten bites on a buzzbait and stuff, but Iím not going to run pockets for three, four or five bites. Iíll just fish out and hope I catch one. Iíd like to have about 12 pounds a day. I think that will be strong. Losing a 2-pounder could cost you $10,000 here.
"I fish Smith Lake a lot and there are lakes in Alabama where they get in that brush good. It just seems like when you get over a pile of brush, you can tell if youíre going to get a bite because itís active with fish around it. There will be crappie or whatever over the top of it. If you find those, you can get a bite, but some of them youíll go over and see every limb and thereís nothing there.
ďIt seemed like they bit a little better with the clouds (Wednesday). I donít know what it was, but even on the deep stuff, they seemed more active. Itís not going to hurt anything.Ē
ďItís pretty tough out there. Iím pretty much committing to fishing offshore for the most part. I know that most of the big fish are probably going to come off the bank, but for the amount of time Iíve done it, itís not that easy. Iíve had some glimmers of hope fishing out deep and itís not easy out there, but thatís my best chance to have a good tournament.
ďI found quite a few places that have fish on them, but theyíre not all easy to catch. The water is so clear that itís perfect for an Aqua-Vu [camera] and Iíve had my dad with me so I had him drop it down every so often and a lot of them are bass. I think I can live out there doing that. It'd be fun to fish here in March or April. There are tons of fish out there and theyíre plenty healthy.Ē
ďItís bigger than it appears to be. If you thought you could fish all the places on the bank, itís huge. Itís very time-consuming and it seems very random. Itís a cool lake the way it sets up because people can fish deep or shallow or fish grass. From that standpoint, itís nice and you donít see anybody all day, but itís August.
ďMy PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) is high. As long as you realize youíre not going to get a lot of bites and youíre not going to catch 20 fish and 15 pounds is huge Ö once you get that through your head, itís easier to deal with. When you start thinking 10 to 12 pounds is actually decent, itís easier, but itís hard to get it through your head when you come from St. Clair or Guntersville and 12 pounds is nothing. After being here for four days, it soaks in that Iím not doing that bad. Itís just that itís not that good.
ďIíve found a couple deeper brush piles that havefish and I love grass so Iím sure Iíll probably tamper with that at some point and then of course, the whole shallow, going-down-the-bank game. I donít think one person can win it doing one thing. I think you might have to have to catch one out of the grass, two shallow and three out of brush piles. Or youíll have three or four fish and go to brush and fill out your limit. I think itíll be a hodge-podge.Ē
ďI think whomever wins is going to have to catch a shallow fish or two to go along with some deep fish. I donít think you can fish just one or the other and win. The shallow bites are the bigger bites, but theyíre very random. I would be totally amazed if somebody could catch five up there. If I can get a couple places out deep where I know there are actual legitimate schools of fish, I think a limit would be pretty simple, like a 15- or 20-minute deal, if I can get them to myself. But youíre talking a 7- or 8-pound limit. Thatís my plan Ė try to get five and run the shallow deal the rest of the day and try to catch one or two.
ďI have fished so many brush piles this week Iím tired of throwing at them. You can get a bite or two out of them and Iíve caught a couple largemouth out of them, but youíll fish 40 piles and get two bites. You can catch spots, but they donít matter.
ďItís very easy to get frustrated because you can literally go so far between bites. You just want to quit. Itís so hot, miserable hot with unbearable humidity and you can only do one thing for so long before you have to switch it up. Itís a grinder Ė a physical and mental grinder. Itís going to be a long day.Ē
ďItís a little overwhelming with all the structure and places they can be. Theyíre pretty spread out. I donít have much confidence in the deep stuff so I stuck shallow. Itís what I like to do. Thatís how I feel the most confident going into it. Iíll maybe start on some schoolers and beat the bank the rest of the day and hope to get five bites.
ďThey seemed to bite a little better with the clouds (Wednesday morning). I wasnít sticking a whole lot, but there was more schooling activity than the last couple of days. Iím not that good at fishing deep and Iím not going to win that way. Thatís why Iím going to stick to the bank. I hope thereís enough stuff to fish. The problem comes when you start fishing behind people that you donít know about.Ē
ďJust the lack of bites. Itís hard to get a bite and get dialed in on what you need to look for. I donít mind the tough fishing or tough tournaments, but Iíd like to know what I need to look for. When youíre not getting that many bites, itís hard to get dialed in on what to do. Iím just banking on the few bites Iíve had and building on that the rest of the week.Ē
ďIíve thrown at schoolers and caught two keepers, but both were line burners. To me, itís definitely not something to count on. I was here in May when the water was 4 feet higher and it was easy. You could almost call your shot doing down the bank. Two weeks ago, it wasnít much different than it is now. You could catch a few along the bank, but it seems to be even fewer now.
ďI canít find Ďem suspended and thereís not a ton on the bank. You have to think theyíre somewhere on the lake. Thereís a bunch of fish in here and Iím sure someone is going to make us all look stupid. It just seems no matter the time or location, thereís always something more predominant and Iíve havenít seen anything that gives me a hint what that is.
ďChange is one thing everybody is hopeful for and I think a little bit of clouds could make it better. What could happen is somebody whoís not catching them now could see things change in their favor.Ē
ď(Tuesday) was day 8 for me here in the past month. I know what Iím doing Friday, but I donít know how itíll work out. Iíve fished everything imaginable. Staying focused is the big key. Itís a day-and-night difference when itís cloudy and rainy here. Before cutoff there was a day like that and I caught 15 keepers that day. When this high pressure settles in, itís impossible to catch a keeper.
Jeff Sprague is confident he's around enough bass to be competitive this week. Whether they'll bite is another story.
ďI hope you can live on one thing because thatís what Iím going to do. Iím sure guys have schoolers in the morning going. Iíve found some but theyíre not worth catching. Thereís a brush deal and a bluegill deal, but with it not being a full moon, Iím not sure how many are up spawning, if any at all. If we have a little clouds, Iím feeling confident. It wonít come alive to the tune of everybody weighing 15 pounds Friday, but we could see some decent bags. If itís bluebird, itíll be pretty tough and youíll have to break out the spinning rod and hope for five keepers and then hope to get lucky and get a big one.Ē
ďI have found absolutely nothing. I threw topwater all day Monday and caught a 4-pounder and a 2-pounder. I fished deep Sunday and caught one 2 1/2-pounder. I also found several schooling places, but theyíre all really little. Iím headed in the right direction, I think.
ďI looked at some grass for sure and thereís no life around it. I saw no bluegills or bait or bass that pulled on my stuff. The grass doesnít look pretty. Itís brown and not bright green, but there are places where itís in 12 feet of water and itís six feet off the bottom. The only X-factor is the weather change, but it wonít make it go from 21 pounds to make the top 10 to 30 pounds.Ē
ďItís not been real good. Iíd never seen Ouachita before Sunday. I came in blind. I donít know where guys caught Ďem before, but several guys have a lot of history here. At the same time, I donít think the lake is fishing well. I canít imagine that itís fishing as well or better than it did a few years ago. Iím not seeing many bites or fish or brush Ė all of those deals, Iím not seeing any of them being good. Guys may find stuff that hadnít been done before, but I think itíll be a junkfest grind.
ďSome of the history has made it tougher because places they got caught people know about those areas so Iím trying to look off the beaten path. Itís a championship event so youíre trying to find something special and get something going nobody else has or an area to yourself. Itís been a lot of dead time, but the guy who wins it will have earned it. Itís been a mental grind already. Trying to figure them out every day and catch them every day versus this group is tough enough as it is, but on this lake itís doubly tough. Iím ready for a weather change. Maybe some rain and clouds will mix things up and make the fish show up.Ē
ďItís not as good as it was the last time it was here. I donít think the schooling fish are as big of a factor as last time. The bank has been beat to death by locals and by us. The deep bite, if you can find something out there, youíre more apt to find walleye or white bass. So here we are, looking at 11 to 13 pounds being a good bag of fish.
ďItíll be interesting to see what the cloud cover will do. Cooler weather will change things. When the wind changes like itís going to change and the pressure changes, these fish just sitting out there suspended might move up and be catchable, which means my weight predication may be off. We welcome the change, however, a guy is going to have go back to the drawing board.
ďThis deal is you have to catch everything that bites you and swing as hard as you can. Iím pretty confident Iím around some fish. I donít know what theyíll weigh, but Iíve seen some decent fish and I think if a guy gets in a rotation it could go well. You can also get in a bad rotation and be left out in the wind.Ē
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Bryan Thrift Ė Arguably the best angler in the game without a Cup or Classic title to his credit. The law of average dictates he will win a Cup eventually, especially if he keeps putting himself in contention entering the final day. Heís been a top-7 finisher at the last six Cups and has finished lower than 15th just once in 11 Cups.
2. Cody Meyer Ė Has seen both ends of the spectrum of the Cup at Ouachita with a 7th-place showing in 2011 and a 31st in 2015. Coming off an eighth straight top-15 finish in FLW Tour points, the Californian has the versatility needed to unlock Ouachitaís finicky bass.
3. David Dudley Ė Heís lacking a top-end finish this season, which is uncharacteristic of the three-time AOY, but he seems to click with Ouachita, no matter the time of year. In five previous visits to the lake, heís finished as high as 3rd (2010 FLW Tour) and no worse than 16th (2002 FLW Tour).
4. David Williams Ė Deep, clear reservoirs donít faze this North Carolinian, who had a dazzling debut season on the Tour. He favors a spinnerbait scenario, but is just as adept at picking over brush piles, too.
5. Brandon Cobb Ė Heís 3-for-3 as far as top-10 finishes go in the Cup, including a 3rd at Ouachita in 2015. The big stage doesnít faze him anymore and he says the dog days of August are among his favorite times to be on the water.
6. Michael Neal Ė This is Cup No. 6 for the Tennessee pro, who has established himself as a persistent contender. Heís been in the mix on the final day of Tour events and at the Cup too often, it seems, for the chips not to fall in his favor sometime soon. Heís got the mental makeup to withstand the grueling spells between bites and thatíll be a big factor this week.
7. Scott Martin Ė His family has strong ties to this part of Arkansas, which added a lot of meaning to his 2011 Cup triumph. Nothing would mean more to him than to win a second Cup on the same lake. Heís fresh off a 3rd-place finish in AOY points and an 11th straight season with at least one top-10 finish.
8. Matt Arey Ė The former Cup winner (as a co-angler in 2006) overcame a 151st-place finish in the season opener to qualify for his eighth straight Cup as a pro. Arkansas has been good to him before with his two Tour wins coming at Beaver Lake. He has the skillset to decode Ouachita and finished the season on a roll with three straight top-20 showings.
9. Shane Lehew Ė Was in the mix after day 1 at Lake Murray a year ago, but faded to 19th. This is his 4th straight Cup and the quiet Lake Norman ace could be poised to make a big splash at Ouachita.
10. Mark Rose Ė What would cap off an AOY season better than a Cup title? How about a Cup title in his home state. Ledges wonít be mentioned once this week, but Rose has proven his versatility over the years and that will be a dominant theme at Ouachita.
> Anglers will launch at 7 a.m. CT all 3 days from Brady Mountain Resort and Marina (4120 Brady Mountain Road in Royal, Ark.). Daily weigh-ins will commence at 5 p.m. at Bank of the Ozarks Arena & Hot Springs Convention Center (134 Convention Blvd., Hot Springs, Ark.). The Forrest Wood Cup Expo, to be held at the Hot Springs Convention Center, will be open from 10 a.m. CT to 4:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
> Fri., Aug. 10 Ė Scattered showers/thunderstorms - 86į/71į
- Wind: Light and variable
> Sat., Aug. 11 Ė Scattered thunderstorms - 87į/71į
- Wind: Light and variable
> Sun., Aug. 12 Ė Mix of Sun and Clouds - 86į/70į
- Wind: Light and variable