By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Of the 2nd- through 5th-place finishers at the recent MLF Bass Pro Tour event at Alabama's Smith Lake, only Todd Faircloth looked like a good bet for a single-digit placement after their first day on the water. The Texan was in 2nd place after the Group B Shotgun Round (that side of the bracket produced all of the top-5 finishers), while eventual tournament runner-up Brent Chapman was 19th, Michael Neal was 22nd and Jason Christie was buried all the way down in 37th place – just three rungs from the bottom.
That trio made big moves in the Elimination Round while Faircloth maintained his No. 2 position in the group, and all carried the momentum through the remainder of the derby.
2nd: Brent Chapman
> Shotgun Round: 19, 27-12
> Elimination Round: 28, 42-08
> Knockout Round: 19, 31-00
> Championship Round: 22, 40-14
Chapman authored the tournament's most dramatic moment when he flipped up a 3-12 largemouth in the closing seconds of the Knockout Round to gain his berth in the finals. Had the Championship Round gone on for another hour, he might've surpassed winner Dean Rojas, as his bush-flipping program was again paying dividends.
It was his first visit to Smith in 15 years, but he was able to stay abreast of the various moods and locations of the fish to keep himself in the game.
"All four days I did something different and kept changing with the fish, and to me that's what made it cool and exciting," he said. "The first day it was a square-bill, a topwater and a ChatterBait, then it was the ChatterBait and the crankbait, then (in the Knockout Round) it was the crankbait and flipping, and (in the Championship Round) it was all about the swim jig early and then flipping again in the afternoon.
"I think one thing that helped me was not having more experience on the lake. In two days of practice I figured out that the creek we took off in was going to be my stomping grounds where I was going to fish and I went about making the most of it. I used four different techniques as the week progressed and if I had not done that, I wouldn't have been fishing (on the final day)."
> Cranking gear: 7' medium-action KastKing Speed Demon Pro rod, KastKing Bassinator Elite casting reel 6.6:1 ratio), 12-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, Westin BabyBite DR (shad).
> Flipping gear: 7'5" KastKing Speed Demon Pro rod, same reel (8:1 ratio), 20-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon, 5/16-ounce tungsten weight, 3/0 Lazer TroKar Flippin' hook, unnamed 4" creature bait.
> Swim jig gear: 7'3" medium-heavy KastKing Speed Demon Pro Jig/Worm rod, same reel (8:1 ratio), 40-pound KastKing Pro braided line, 3/8-ounce homemade swimjig (shad), unnamed paddle-tail swimbait trailer (white).
Michael Neal spent nearly the entire tournament fishing steep bluff banks.
3rd: Michael Neal
> Shotgun Round: 16, 25-08
> Elimination Round: 24, 36-15
> Knockout Round: 23, 34-15
> Championship Round: 21, 34-15
Neal made his second straight final-round appearance and third of the season to move inside the top 10 on the Angler of the Year points list. He threw a jerkbait on points for a bit following a storm that blew through during the Knockout Round, but spent the rest of the tournament on steep, rocky banks with a Neko rig.
"In practice I used a dropshot a lot and that's what I generated all my bites on, but the algae bloom kept getting worse and the water kept getting dirtier," he said. "I was using a 1/4-ounce weight on the dropshot and I think it was just flying past them and they couldn't see it as good anymore.
"The Neko was a slower presentation that was better in dirty water. When the water was clearer, they wouldn't bite the Neko at all, but they'd bite the dropshot."
He started the tournament with slightly more than half a dozen stretches of bank running 500 yards or so that he had confidence in. As the event went on, he whittled it down to two.
He got some of his bites from the first 4 or 5 feet of the water column and others from as deep as 25. He said most of his fish were suspended in the 10- to 15-foot range.
"The main thing for me was sticking to my game plan and not trying to go and do something way off the wall. Even with the jerkbait, it was the same kind of banks and points and stuff. They might've been on a different part of it every day, but when I'd hit them I could catch five or six pretty quick."
> Finesse gear: 7'2" medium-heavy Denali Covert rod, Daiwa Tatula LT 2500 spinning reel, 10-pound Sunline SX1 braided line (main line), 8-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon leader (20'), size 1 Gamakatsu G-Finesse Weedless Stinger hook, Big Bite Baits Soft Neko Wacky Stick (tilapia).
Jason Christie's offshore pattern was dominant during the Elimination and Knockout rounds.
4th: Jason Christie
> Shotgun Round: 12, 14-13
> Elimination Round: 28, 51-00
> Knockout Round: 27, 48-03
> Championship Round: 20, 32-06
Christie had to change gears after posting dismal numbers in the Shotgun Round. A single recollection from practice propelled his huge comeback in the Elimination Round and sustained him for the remainder of the event.
"I really never got on the shad spawn in practice – I was flipping bushes and running the bank with a topwater and I was catching both (spotted bass) and largemouth. There were quite a few spots spawning in 5 to 8 feet and a lot of the bushes were in 4 to 6 feet, and they'd be right on the very outside of those."
He lost a few fish on the first day of competition, but didn't get anywhere near the number of bites as competitors who'd fared well. He realized that a big change was needed after the first period of the Elimination Round, and that's when he recalled idling over a deeper hard-bottom spot and seeing just a few fish on his graph.
"I thought maybe some of them had pulled out there. When I got there I could tell it hadn't been fished – I caught a bunch real quick and a lot of them were good ones and they didn't have hook holes in their mouths or anything like that. I think they were fish that were just getting there."
He recorded the top weight in the Knockout Round, but never got the clear sky he needed in the finals.
"I thought there were enough fish there to still make it happen, but they never grouped up. If the sun had come out at 9 or 10 o'clock I think I could've caught them."
His main tactic was to fire up the clusters with a swimbait and then compile numbers with a finesse worm.
"It was easier (in the Elimination and Knockout rounds) because they were in groups of six or eight. (In the Championship Round) they were all singles or doubles and they weren't competitive for the bait."
> Swimbait gear: 7'3" Falcon Cara Amistad rod, Lew's HyperMag Speed Spool casting reel (7.5:1 ratio), 14-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 3/8-ounce prototype Scottsboro Tackle swimbait head with Lazer TroKar hook, 3.5" YUM Pulse (pearl) and various other baits.
> Finesse gear: 6'10" Falcon Cara Head Turner rod, Lew's Pro-Ti Speed Spool reel (7.5:1 ratio), 12-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon, unnamed 3/8-ounce jighead, 6" YUM Finesse Worm (Mardi Gras).
Todd Faircloth's shad-spawn and offshore programs were both consistent throughout the event.
5th: Todd Faircloth
> Shotgun Round: 33, 54-12
> Elimination Round: 20, 31-15
> Knockout Round: 20, 33-07
> Championship Round: 21, 32-02
Faircloth followed the same routine each day: He'd work the shad spawn around docks during the early portion of each day and then move to offshore points for the remainder of the round. Like Christie, his deep-water efforts were hindered in the Championship Round by the lack of sun.
He caught his shad-spawn fish on a swim jig and the deeper dwellers on a wobble-head.
"Getting on that shad-spawn deal in practice steered me in the right direction," he said. "The offshore thing was pretty specific to when the sun was out; once it got cloudy it was a no-go. It was so easy the first two days when the sun was out, but it was like a graveyard the last couple days. It was like they just disappeared."
His shad-spawn action would usually last throughout the first of the three 2 1/2-hour periods.
"Looking back (at the Championship Round), I probably should've pushed the dock think a little harder. I was still getting a few bites when I quit, but they were kind of nipping at the bait and not getting it. Once the day got brighter they could get a better visual on the bait."
> Swim jig gear: 7'4" heavy-action Denali rod, unnamed casting reel (7.4:1 ratio), 18-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 3/8-ounce Strike King Tour Grade swim jig (white), Strike King Menace Grub trailer (pearl).
> Wobble-head gear: 7' medium-heavy Denali Lithium Series rod, same reel, 10-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 3/8-ounce Strike King Tour Grade Tungsten Swinging Football Head, 2/0 Gamakatsu Round Bend or size 2 Gamakatsu Stinger hook, 3 1/4" Strike King Rage Swimmer (pro blue).
> He Texas-rigged the Rage Swimmer on the Round Bend hook and fished it with the hook exposed on the Stinger.
> He said he caught seven or eight scorable fish over the course of the event on a square-bill crankbait.
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