By Todd Ceisner
As easy as it would’ve been to spend the last year fantasizing about winning the Bassmaster Classic in his hometown, Ott DeFoe refused to give in to the temptation.
“I’m one of those people who tries not to think about the kind of stuff you can’t control,” DeFoe said. “I try to take each day at a time and I get in trouble for that a lot because [my wife] Jennie says I don’t prepare very well and I don’t think very far into the future. I just worry about the here and now and take the rest as it comes.”
Rather than tie himself up in knots about it, he focused first on qualifying for the event and once that hurdle was cleared, the thoughts shifted to how to be productive and effective during the tournament. Winning was never an expectation, only a product of well-executed strategy combined with some good fortune.
“Once it was announced I wanted to fish well all year on the Elite Series and make sure I made it,” he said. “Once that was done, I kind of let it enter my mind, but it was just about the tournament, not about winning. It was just about how I was going to catch them and how the weather would affect it and what would the water levels be doing. I kept constant tabs on that stuff from November until now. I thought about it, but it was not about the winning moment. It was always about how am I going to catch the fish once the time comes.”
When the time came, he committed to a shallow-water game plan focusing exclusively on hard-bottom stretches or submerged hard targets (wood, stumps) in water no deeper than 7 feet. Reaction baits dominated the event and DeFoe’s stringers were made up largely of bass caught on a lipless crankbait and a vibrating jig.
The plan went swimmingly on day 1 as he registered the lone 20-pound bag (20-00) among the 52 competitors to take the early lead. He stumbled a bit on day 2 with a little more than 10 pounds before storming back on Sunday with 18-14 to capture the win, earning a victory lap around the inside of a packed Thompson-Boling Arena on the University of Tennessee campus.
Here are a few more details about how DeFoe navigated the Classic experience at Fort Loudoun and Tellico lakes.
DeFoe typically bypasses visiting the Classic venue before it goes off limits after Dec. 31, but having not spent any significant time on Lou-Tel in many years, he spent a couple days there in December and idled while studying what he was seeing on his Humminbird Side Imaging.
“I already knew what I was looking for – shallow stuff off shore like hard spots, wood, brush, stumps, whatever, from 2 to 7 feet deep,” he said. “That’s what I was going to fish win, lose or draw.”
When the three-day practice session arrived the weekend before the tournament, he had to be cautious about which spots he was seen fishing. As the “local favorite,” he didn’t want to tip his hand regarding what or where he planned to fish.
“Of the half dozen or so primo spots on the lake, I fished one and I got three bites on it and caught a 2-pounder,” he said. “I knew I’d fish those places regardless if I got bit on them in practice or not. That’s why I didn’t want to spend any time on them or draw any attention to them.”
> Day 1: 5, 20-00
> Day 2: 5, 10-05
> Day 3: 5, 18-14
> Total = 15, 49-03
The opening day of the 49th Classic will be remembered for the stiff wind that blew against the natural current of the river. It didn’t slow DeFoe down, though.
He caught two smallmouth (both 18-plus inches) from the area he fished in practice and wound up weighing in four bass on a lipless crankbait and one caught on a shallow-diving Rapala crankbait. While his 20-00 total, which included a 6-pound kicker, topped the field and reinforced his pre-tournament favorite status, he knew the rest of the tournament wouldn’t be a cakewalk.
“I knew it wouldn’t be easy because I knew how special that day was,” he said. “The last fish I culled was not a 2-pounder. It wasn’t like I went through a bunch of 2 1/2s. It looked really good on paper. I got five good bites and landed every one of them.”
He relinquished the lead on day 2 – he caught three on a vibrating jig and two on a lipless crank – and opted to channel his disappointment in an effort to get refocused for Sunday.
“I was upset after (Saturday) because of having such a big bag the first day,” he said. “I feel like slipping that bad, not even catching 12 or 13 pounds, which would’ve kept me in the lead, I majorly shot myself in the foot. Having that really bad, off day allowed me to fish a lot freer (Sunday) and not have anything to lose.”
Among the spots he fished was the one that produced the two smallmouth on Friday. On day 2, however, the fish seemed to bite differently.
“I had four or five bites there and they’d stick for a second, then pull off. They just bit weird,” he said.
Still, he had confidence things would come together for him, but they never did.
“I thought that it would happen well enough because the worst day of practice I had was probably 14 pounds,” he added. “I knew if I had equal to my worst day of practice at that point, I’d probably be just fine.”
He left the dock Sunday 2 pounds behind leader Jacob Wheeler and landed two keepers on a jerkbait to break the ice early on.
Here's a up-close look at the Storm Arashi Vibe that DeFoe caught many of his weigh fish at the Classic.
“Those were, by far, the deepest fish I caught all week,” he said, guessing they were 6 or 7 feet down. “I never caught fish as deep as I thought I would. From the time practice started, they were all as shallow as I expected them to be.”
From there, it was a grind until he heeded a tip he’d received from Keith Poche prior to the day-2 weigh. Poche had mentioned to DeFoe losing several quality fish along the outside of a floating dock at the Fort Loudoun Marina near Fort Loudoun Dam. DeFoe headed that way and turned his day around with a vibrating jig. Later on, he upgraded with a 4-pounder to seal the win.
While DeFoe enjoyed a stellar day Sunday – his 18-14 bag was one of just five 18-pound bags caught in the tournament – others struggled as a result of the conditions.
“It was primarily to do – at least 75 percent of being a tough day – with it being the second day after a front,” DeFoe explained. “We were almost a half day off anyway because that front system that come through, Thursday would’ve really been the day for it to be a catch-fest. It was warm and windy. Most of our fronts are pretty well on time with morning and evening, but that front was kind of halfway through the day so when we went out on Friday, clouds were already starting to break up, but we still had a south wind. It was post-frontal skies, but with the south wind. That was, to me, what made Friday good.
“Saturday, you had the real bluebird skies, but already had the north wind. That’s typically the day-after sort of thing and Sunday was the second full day after the front where you have the coldest night. It doesn’t warm up throughout the day so that throws them a big curveball. We had high, bright skies and no wind. As far as the current in the system, there really wasn’t any less. It was exactly the same today as it was Saturday. There wasn’t any wind to help position those fish any.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Lipless crankbait gear: 7’6” medium-heavy Bass Pro Shops Crankin’ Stick casting rod, Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Signature Series Platinum casting reel (6.8:1 ratio), 17-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon line, Storm Arashi Vibe (rusty craw).
> DeFoe added additional coloring to the bait with orange, red and black permanent markers.
> Vibrating jig gear: Same rod as lipless, Bass Pro Shops Carbonlite casting reel (7.5:1 ratio), same line, 3/8-oz. unnamed vibrating jig (chartreuse/white), unnamed fluke-style trailer (pearl white).
> Crankbait gear: 7’ medium-heavy Bass Pro Shops Crankin’ Stick casting rod, same reel as lipless, same line (14-pound), Rapala DT-4 (dark brown craw).
> On the crankbaits, he swapped the stock hooks for #2 VMC hybrid short-shank trebles (lipless) and a #4 on the DT-4.
Much of the tackle referenced above is available at the BassFan Store. To browse the selection, click here.