By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

A few eyebrows were raised last fall when Lake Hamilton replaced Lake Ouachita as the host venue for the 2019 FLW Cup. Some worried that the 7,200-acre, heavily-developed and heavily-used lake would be too small for a 52-man, three-day tournament with $300,000 on the line. Others cringed at the stories about weekend boat traffic and how it would affect competitors and some of the prime fishing areas.

Now that it’s over, just about all the fears about Hamilton have been put to bed. As it turned out, the lake was plenty big enough. Sure, a few places that were productive in practice and early in the tournament faded down the stretch, but that’s going to happen. Boat traffic seemed to be a fraction of what it typically is, thanks largely to some dreary weather.

Speaking of the weather, it was the main curveball served up to the field. After four days of blazing sun and high skies in practice, the first two days of the event played out under most cloudy and sometimes rainy skies. As a result some game plans got flip flopped. Some who felt like they could capitalize early on a shallow bite and then migrate offshore had to make adjustments. Likewise, those who couldn’t generate much in the lake found productive water in the river.

It was certainly the grind that most anticipated, but here’s how the rest of the top 5 finishers filled their livewells:

2nd: Kyle Walters

> Day 1: 5, 13-13
> Day 2: 5, 12-05
> Day 3: 4, 7-04
> Total: 15, 33-06

Kyle Walters hails from Florida, but he’s not afraid to fish away from the bank, evidenced by his three-day BFL Regional win at Lake Guntersville in 2013 and his victory in the FLW Series Championship last fall, also at Guntersville.

After visiting Lake Hamilton prior to it going off limits before the FLW Cup, he figured his best chances to succeed would be offshore.

“For me to compete, I knew I’d have to find a way to fish deep,” Walters said. “It plays into something I do at home. In Florida, we don’t get on the bank and beat docks and trees. I had to make a decision to fish a way I thought I could win.”

With no points on the line, he approached it with a win-or-go-home mentality. By the time competition started, he was fully committed to fishing deep brush piles and while roommate and Cup winner Bryan Thrift rigged a couple dozen rods each night, Walters was basically down to two – a Texas-rigged worm and a deep-diving crankbait.

He followed this process for narrowing down which brush piles he revisited in the tournament:

“I would fish every brush pile I could find and fished them without a hook,” he said. “If I got a bite, I’d shake it off and put a red mark (on my electronics). If I didn’t get a bite, I’d go back a second time. If I didn’t get a bite then, it got wiped out.

“It took me three days to go through all of them. A lot of the ones where I caught them (in the tournament) are ones that had red marks on them. I found more spots as the tournament wore on. I tried to treat it like we were fishing lily pads during the spawn. I also marked where the boat was when I got bit so I knew how to position the boat later.”

Many of the piles were in 15 to 20 feet and he was aided by the Garmin Pantoptix LiveScope, which allowed him to sit well off the brush and still be able to tell how the fish were positioned around the brush.

“I tried to stay 70 feet off the pile at a minimum,” he said. “I’d try to throw further than that and if I’d hit it I’d catch one most times.”

He went through about 50 piles each day and fished several of them multiple times. By Sunday, he had to add a dropshot rig to his arsenal as the fish got a little more finicky.

> Worm gear: 7’3” medium-heavy unnamed casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo STX casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 20-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 1/4-oz. unnamed worm weight, 5/0 unnamed offset round bend worm hook, 10” unnamed worm (plum).

> Cranking gear: 7’4” medium-heavy unnamed casting rod, same reel (6.3:1 ratio), same line (12-pound), SPRO Little John DD (citrus shad), SPRO Little John Baby DD (citrus shad).

> Dropshot gear: 7’ medium-action unnamed spinning rod, Shimano Stradic spinning reel, 15-pound Spiderwire Ultracast braided line (white), 12-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line (leader), 1/0 Gamakatsu Aaron Martens TGW G-Finesse Heavy Cover hook, 6” Roboworm Straight Tail Worm (Aaron’s magic), 3/8-oz. Picasso tungsten dropshot weight.

FLW/Jody White
Photo: FLW/Jody White

Dakota Ebare spent all three days in the Ouachita River, firing a weightless Fluke at inside grass lines and shoreline cover.

3rd: Dakota Ebare

> Day 1: 5, 9-08
> Day 2: 5, 14-15
> Day 3: 4, 7-11
> Total: 14, 32-02

Before Hamilton went off limits, Dakota Ebare spent 1 1/2 days there and marked laydowns while taking note of the cooler water and grass in the river. He also devoted time to graphing the main lake in search of brush piles. He left with 200 waypoints, but never caught a keeper fish out of brush all tournament.

When he returned for official practice, he started up the river where there was flowing, cool water.

“Within five minutes, I had a 3 1/2-pounder jump off on a buzzbait,” he said. “I bent my hook in and got a few more bites. When the sun burned through the fog, I could see the inside grass lines and saw fish cruising.”

He checked brush piles later in the day and reversed the order of spots on the second day, again finding the river to hold the most potential.

“I kept going to the lake to make the brush work,” he said, “but when I went to the river, every time I’d get bit. You could see so many fish trolling around. The fish to win were there, but getting them to bite in the clear water was a challenge.”

His main presentation was a weightless fluke, but the key was trying to remain undetected.

“Most of the fish I weighed I didn’t see, but there were a lot of fish I tried to get to bite,” he said. “If they saw the boat, they weren’t going to bite. I stayed to stay off and was able to catch the ones set up on structure or on inside grass lines.”

Ebare knew on day 1 of the tournament that he’d picked a section of the lake that had some serious potential. He didn’t need to catch any fish to figure that out, though. All he had to do was look around.

“At the start of event, I went up the (Ouachita) river first thing and it was so foggy we couldn’t see anything,” Ebare said. “When the fog burned off, I could look around and see it was David Dudley and Scott Martin and John Cox and me. I had three of the best guys on the planet around me. That’s pretty stout competition and I knew they weren’t going to leave many fish behind.”

Ebare held his own, though, as he probed inside grass lines and hard cover in the cooler, clear water up the river. As the water came through the dam out of Lake Ouachita, it cooled the waters in the Ouachita River so much that Ebare witnessed a number of fish spawning during the tournament.

“One hundred percent they were spawning,” he said. “I saw two pair rolling on Sunday and each had a female that was over four pounds.”

Ebare believes that since Lake Ouachita has been higher than normal since the spring, the constant release of water into Hamilton kept water temperatures in the river low enough to where the fish weren’t able to spawn when they typically do in the spring.

“It never got warm enough for them to spawn until now,” he said.

As the tournament wore, the flow of water out of the dam slowed, meaning his target area got smaller.

“They were cutting back the current every day,” Ebare said. “You could tell because when we started practice, there was clear, clean and cold water until the bridge. Once you got past the bridge, the water cleared up and got cold. By Sunday, there was very little crystal, clear water. When they’d stop moving water, it would backflow from the lake.”

He said having found the same areas as Martin, who also fished the river in the tournament, slowly took a toll over the course of the three days.

“It probably hurt both of us that we were sharing water like that,” he said. “It wasn’t that way at the beginning of the event. By the end, everywhere I wanted to go, he was there. We respected each other and had no issues.”

> Fluke gear: 7’ medium-action Hammer Rods spinning rod, Shimano Sedona spinning reel, 8-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 3/0 Owner offset round bend worm hook, Zoom Salty Super Fluke (watermelon magic).

FLW/Charles Waldorf
Photo: FLW/Charles Waldorf

Jeremy Lawyer had to make some adjustments, but they wound up paying off with a top-5 finish.

4th: Jeremy Lawyer

> Day 1: 5, 12-01
> Day 2: 5, 12-05
> Day 3: 5, 7-00
> Total: 15, 31-06

Looking back, there’s nothing different Jeremy Lawyer would’ve done at the Cup. Other than losing one decent fish in three days, he was happy with how things turned out in light of the adjustments he had to make.

“Everything went my way and I think the deciding factor was the schooling fish Thrift had on day 3 because the brush pile deal was worn out,” Lawyer said.

He got on a strong topwater pattern in the morning in practice and figured that could produce a couple fish to set the tone each day before shifting his focus to deep brush piles. By the time the tournament started, he could tell the offshore game was fading.

“I really thought the way practice was with a topwater, I thought that would be strong and a way to do well,” he said. “ I could tell after day 1 and 2 it got worse and by the morning of day 3 it was terrible. I saw it going downhill. My first plan was to throw topwater for three good fish and then the dropshot would save me to have five, just not to catch a good one. It wound up being the total opposite.”

Ultimately, a dropshot rigged with a variety of finesse worms dobbed around brush piles off docks in 12 to 18 feet of water wound up catching all but two of the fish he weighed in. When he wasn’t on the main lake, he’d probe stretch of docks about halfway back into all the major creek arms on the lower end.

“The larger fish were on the lower end, from the first bridge down to the dam,” he said. “I felt like you could catch numbers were up the river, but I didn’t focus on that much. Driving home, I got to thinking about some of the places I fished late in the day and it seemed the best docks where I was able to cull in the last hour or two the sun got angled over far enough where the brush was on the same side as the shade. I caught them in the same direction to where the shade covered the brush.”

> Dropshot gear: 7’ medium-action Team Lew’s Custom Pro Speed Stick Series All-Purpose spinning rod, Team Lew’s Custom Pro Speed Spin Series 3000 spinning reel, 16-pound Sunline SX1 braided line, 10-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line (leader), 1/0 Gamakatsu Aaron Martens TGW dropshot hook, Zoom Swamp Crawler, Zoom Finesse Worm (morning dawn), unnamed hand-poured worm, 3/8-oz. Bullet Weights tungsten finesse dropshot weight.

> His topwater arsenal consisted of a Freedom Tackle buzzbait with a Zoom Horny Toad (white) trailer, a 3” LIVETARGET Glass Minnow Baitball Popper (pearl natural) and a Fall Creek Lures custom-painted River2Sea Whopper Plopper 130 (midnight shad).

FLW/Charles Waldorf
Photo: FLW/Charles Waldorf

Scott Martin couldn't get much going in the main lake brush piles, so he focused on the clear water up the river.

5th: Scott Martin

> Day 1: 5, 11-09
> Day 2: 5, 11-01
> Day 3: 5, 8-08
> Total: 15, 31-02

Hot Springs has always been a special place to Scott Martin. His extended family has roots there and it’s where he hoisted the Cup in 2011 after winning at Lake Ouachita. He would’ve loved to capture a second Cup last week at Lake Hamilton, but settled for a top-5 by fishing exclusively up the Ouachita River.

“It was a completely new fishery for me,” Martin said. “Before I got there and before practice started, I was really concerned about how tough it would be and the amount of pressure the lake would receive from us. I envisioned every pocket a boat coming and going. I almost got myself spun out about it. Seven thousand acres is like a pond in my mind.”

When he arrived and started exploring the lake, though, he was impressed by how well the lake swallowed up the 52-man field.

“I basically didn’t anyone during the first day of practice and I fished dam to dam, looking at normal banks and pockets and brush,” he said. “It fished really, really big. That got me settled down and then I had to figure out how to win. I think I showed up in the wrong state of mind.”

He initially started to examine the brush pile program on the main lake, but he didn’t have enough to work with to start and the ones he did find didn’t produce the quality of fish he felt he’d need to contend.

“That eliminated the deep stuff for me, so I decided to stay shallow and focus on bluegill beds and finesse tactics around docks and hard cover,” he added. “I put together a pretty decent pattern on predictable stuff.”

Hoping to avoid the weekend boat traffic that he’d read and heard so much about, he opted to also check the river stretch of the lake.

“I found some hydrilla and cooler water,” he said. “Some guys are always going to be attracted to dirty, stained water, but I gravitate to clear water and I felt comfortable up there. There was a little better grade of fish, too, but they were tricky to catch.”

He started the tournament up the river and employed a three-pronged attack with a wacky-rigged soft plastic stickbait around shady spots and docks along with a prop bait over submerged grass and a big glide bait to get bigger fish to show themselves.

He felt those fish probably hadn’t seen 8- to 10-inch trout imitations before, but he made sure to change up size and colors to they didn’t lose interest. He estimated half of the fish he weighed in were caught on a glide bait.

“You can get sucked into doing that all day, but I was able to slow down when I found a couple fish in an area and go through there with a wacky worm,” he said.

Current was the main key to the river being a viable option in the tournament.

“Without the flow, they didn’t bite all that great and there was no schedule to go by,” Martin added. “In talking to people, it sounds like no one fishes up there much. There’s not that many and they’re difficult to catch, but current was the key. I got fortunate with my bait choices. It was a good 1-2 punch with the glide bait and then being to clean up with finesse tactics.”

> Wacky worm gear: 7’2” medium-heavy Favorite Fishing Jackhammer spinning rod, Favorite Fishing Jackhammer spinning reel, 15-pound P-Line TCB 8 braided line, 10-pound P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon line (leader), 1/0 Lazer TroKar Wacky Weedless wide gap hook, Googan Baits Lunker Log (green-pumpkin).

> Prop bait gear: 7’ medium-action Favorite Fishing Sick Stick casting rod, Shimano Metanium casting reel, 15-pound P-Line CXX monofilament line, unnamed prop bait.

> He also mixed in a LIVETARGET Bluegill wakebait.

> Glide bait gear: 7’6” heavy-action Favorite Fishing flipping rod, same reel as prop bait, 15- and 17-pound P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon line, various medium- and large glide baits.

Much of the tackle referenced above is available at the BassFan Store. To browse the selection, click here.