By Todd Ceisner
Bryan Thrift has been to enough FLW Cups to know to be prepared for just about anything. Due to its placement on the calendar in July or August and traditionally somewhere across the south, it’s pretty much a guarantee that the Cup will be a grind.
With Lake Hamilton as the venue for last week’s Cup, Thrift knew to expect the toughest grind since maybe the Three Rivers Cup in Pittsburgh in 2009. At roughly 7,500 surface acres, Hamilton is one of the smallest fisheries to ever host a Cup and with it being a magnet for pleasure boaters, it was imperative to consider a slew of factors when formulating a game plan for a high-stakes tournament.
So how does one prepare for such a scenario?
In Thrift’s case, as he’s apt to do, he went with a multi-pronged and calculated approach, going so far as to identify areas of the lake with lengthy no-wake zones. Those spots, he reasoned, would be mostly immune to any uptick in recreational boaters.
“I expected it to be tough,” he said. “This lake reminds of home and the worst days are always Sunday. You’ll have all the traffic from Saturday and then more traffic Sunday. I expected it and practiced for it. I tried to find places in no-wake zones and out of the traffic just in case I made the cut.”
He was so certain that conditions would deteriorate on the weekend that he predicted the day-1 leader would likely go on to win the event.
“Because of the boat traffic and pressure and after a full day of people sticking fish, it would only get tougher,” he said. “The lake is only so big and everybody found the same stuff.”
His plan worked to perfection as he led wire-to-wire to claim his first victory at the Cup in his 13th try. His three-day total of 38-07 was more than five pounds better than runner-up and roommate Kyle Walters.
Thrift came out of practice with two patterns that he felt allowed him to exploit what would be the best options on the lake in mid-August.
“One was running brush piles and the other was shallow-water junk fishing,” he said.
The lake was small enough that it allowed him to bounce in and out depending on conditions and the vibe he was getting.
Additionally, he discovered an area that seemed to be home to some resident fish.
“There was no telling where you’d catch one, but there were fish in the area,” he said. “It was the perfect scenario for the Cup because it was something I could trust.”
That’s been an issue for him in past Cups. Sure, he’s piled up top-10 finishes like cord wood, but he was always trying to chase the leader down on the final day. The only other time he held the lead entering the final day was in 2013 at the Red River, where he wound up third.
“Fishing in August, you have to fish everything,” he said. “You can’t leave anything unfished. You have to check shallow and deep and mid depth.”
> Day 1: 5, 15-03
> Day 2: 5, 12-07
> Day 3: 5, 10-13
> Total = 15, 38-07
Thrift couldn’t have scripted a better day 1 at the Cup, especially one where he knew a good start would likely keep him in contention on the weekend.
He said his marshal logged 29 fish catches and he wound up weighing a tournament-best 15-3.
“It was a good day,” he said. “It was a phenomenal August day for fishing and getting bites. I must’ve culled a 10-pound limit. I was actually worried I caught too many, but I wanted to catch as much as I could because of how tough I thought it would get.”
He also uncovered an area in the back of Hot Springs Creek that wound up playing a pivotal role in his win.
“It was about five feet deep with a lot of bait in there,” he said. “They’d randomly come up schooling and there were a couple points they’d set up on.”
His catch count dwindled to about 10 fish on day 2 – he had just two keepers at 1 p.m. – but his 12-07 bag kept him atop the leaderboard and prompted others to begin the anointing process.
“Everybody was telling me I was going to win, but I didn’t believe them,” he joked. “I called them all liars.”
Through two days, he’d fished all over the lake, going through numerous baits and hitting shallow hard cover and offshore brush piles while trying to capitalize on schoolers when they showed themselves.
The final day turned in Thrift’s favor right away. After his starting spot fizzled, he made a move to an area where Bryan Schmitt had been catching schoolers the first two days. With no other anglers around, Thrift pulled in there and the water began to froth. He caught several on a topwater and also tried a crankbait when the surface activity slowed.
While the other finalists struggled to generate bites in the early going, Thrift’s livewell filled up in a hurry.
“That calmed me down to where I could fish slow enough to get bigger bites,” he said.
A lengthy dry spell extended into the early afternoon, prompting him to make the critical decision to return to the back to Hot Spring Creek and ride out the day there.
“After catching that limit of schoolers and bouncing between brush and the bank without a bite, I decided to stay until 3:30 because I figured if I have a chance to upgrade, this would be where it is,” he added.
His three biggest fish of the day came off that spot and ultimately sealed the win. Two came up schooling and the other was roaming the flat.
“Just having that limit in the morning gave me the willpower to slow down,” he added.
After making the drive from the lake to the Bank OZK Arena, everybody he encountered treated him as though he’d already won, but he refused to believe it until it was official.
“It feels awesome,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve been teary eyed on stage in a long time.”
Winning Pattern Notes
All told, Thrift said six of seven of his weigh-in fish came out of brush piles while the rest ate a topwater bait.
His approach to brush piles was a three-stage effort. His first cast was always with a Damiki Rig Underspin head paired with a Damiki Armor Shad.
“That would catch the fish suspended over or around the brush,” he said.
He’d then follow up with a crankbait to tick to top of the brush. His clean up offering was a 10-inch worm dragged slowly through the brush.
“It’s something I do around home, but it seems like every time you have spotted bass, they’ll suspend and I can catch them on first two bait and largemouth on the worm,” he said.
A buzzbait was his best option around docks and bank-related shallow cover while a small walking bait landed the majority of the schooling fish.
Winning Gear Notes
> Underspin gear: 7’ medium-heavy Fitzgerald Fishing Stunner HD casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo STX casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 12-pound P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. Damiki Rig Underspin head, 4” Damiki Armor Shad (Tennessee shad).
> Cranking gear: 7’4” heavy-action Fitzgerald Fishing Bryan Thrift signature series cranking rod, Abu Garcia Revo Winch casting reel, same line (12-pound), SPRO deep-diving crankbait.
> Worm gear: 7’ heavy-action Fitzgerald Fishing Stunner HD casting rod, same reel as underspin, same line (15-pound), 1/4- and 5/16-oz. unnamed worm weights, 5/0 Berkley Fusion19 offset worm hook, Zoom Ol’ Monster (plum).
> Buzzbait gear: Same rod as worm, same reel as worm, 20-pound P-Line prototype topwater line, 3/8-oz. homemade buzzbait (white), Zoom Horny Toad trailer (white).
Much of the tackle referenced above is available at the BassFan Store. To browse the selection, click here.