By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Ott DeFoe was confident that if he could make it to the Championship Round of the recent MLF Bass Pro Tour event in Texas, he could have a fun day at Lake Athens. It took a while for the party to get rolling, but it was, as the kids used to say, a "major rager" at the end.
He captured his first BPT victory with a 23-fish, 69-12 showing on the final day at the 1,800-acre impoundment that's home to the renowned Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center. He stacked up the vast majority of that weight in the latter half of the final 2 1/2-hour period as he waylaid a huge school of fish sitting on a hard spot in about 7 feet of water.
Once that action got under way, the other nine competitors who advanced to the finals had no prayer. His total ended up more than 28 pounds clear of 2nd-place Alton Jones Jr.
The win was the continuation of a superb start to the season for the 34-year-old Tennessean and 2019 Bassmaster Classic champion. His worst finish in three events is 12th and he now sits atop the Angler of the Year standings with an 18-point edge over Brent Chapman.
He squeaked into the finals by claiming the last advancing spot (8th) in the Knockout Round the previous day at Lake Fork, which was where the first five days of the tournament were contested. He primarily sight-fished during at Fork and expected to employ a similar program if he made it to Athens, but his practice day there (two days prior to the Championship Round) convinced him otherwise.
Schoolers Clued Him In
Competitors were permitted a 6-hour visit to Athens on one of their off days during the qualifying rounds (the 80-angler field is split into A and B groups for those). DeFoe went on Monday and was fishing his way down the bank, seeing a lot of empty beds and a few occupied by fish that wouldn't meet the 2-pound minimum. Then he saw a small group of bass come to the surface in pursuit of baitfish in deeper water.
His attempts to catch any of those were unsuccessful, but shortly thereafter he encountered a similar situation on a point. There were a lot more fish in that congregation.
"I hooked one on a topwater, then another one got on the bait with it as I was bringing it in," he said. "Then I had a 5-pounder jump on a jerkbait and I threw right back and caught a 4. After that I idled the spot and I could see on my Humminbird Side Imaging (sonar) that it was absolutely loaded.
"I was about an hour into the day, so I started looking for more places like it. That was by far the best I found, but I did come across some others that had small groups on them – I figured there was enough to keep catching them throughout the day. A couple were little flat places and the others were grass edges in 8 to 10 feet of water."
He'd finished 9th in his qualifying group with a two-day total of 79-10 on 27 fish. He needed to end up one place higher in the Knockout Round to take advantage of what he'd found at Athens, and that's exactly what he did with a 10-fish, 34-05 haul.
"That whole day I had to keep changing and running different areas. I was able to practice for quite a bit of my second qualifying day and I found some new fish (on beds), and some of those worked out, but I also went through some stretches of completely dead water.
"When I went back to some of the fish I'd marked, I either couldn't see them or I couldn't get them to bite. In the third period I bounced around and made a couple of good stops and I ended up with enough to get me in."
Sluggish Start to Final Day
DeFoe's biggest worry going into the Championship Round was that one or more of the other qualifiers had also found his big group of quality offshore fish. He was the final boat to leave the launch and was all alone when he arrived.
"I could see on my (electronics) that they were still there and they came up schooling one time before lines-in," he said. "I thought it was really gonna be on, but then it took me 10 or 15 minutes to catch one and I only ended up getting a couple more.
"I could see 'em, but they wouldn't bite. They acted like they'd been beat on."
His struggles continued through the second period, but the final stanza was a different story entirely. He got into a huge wad of fish sitting on a hard spot in front of a bridge that he estimated to be the size of three or four boats. The hard spot, which was 7 feet deep, was surrounded by water a foot and a half deeper that contained scattered grass.
He caught his best fish there, including a 9-06 monster that gave him the lead, on a Rapala DT10 crankbait. He also scored on a wakebait, a Neko rig, a jerkbait and a swimbait.
"The biggest key for me was going down (to Athens) and pre-fishing for 5 of the 6 hours that we got," he said. "Once I got the clues about the offshore stuff, I had zero intention of throwing at the bank after that. I knew that if I could get on one good place offshore, I could really light them up."
Winning Gear Notes
> Cranking gear: 7'6" medium-heavy Bass Pro Shops cranking rod, Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Platinum casting reel (6.8:1 ratio), 12-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon line, Rapala DT10 (Biggs shad).
> That color is painted by a friend of DeFoe's in Tennessee. It's scheduled to be introduced by Rapala this summer at ICAST.
> Sight-fishing gear (spinning): 7'1" medium-action Bass Pro Shops Platinum spinning rod, size 30 Bass Pro Shops platinum spinning reel, 10-pound Bass Pro Shops Hyper Braid 8 (main line), 12-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon leader, size 1 VMC Weedless Neko hook, Bass Pro Shops Finesse Worm (bubble gum).
> Sight-fishing gear (casting): 7' medium-heavy Bass Pro Shops Platinum rod, same reels as cranking (8.3:1 ratio), 17-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS fluorocarbon, 1/4-ounce Swagger tungsten weight, 5/0 VMC Tokyo Rig Heavy Duty hook, unnamed 4" swimbait (shad).
> "The first day (at Lake Fork) those fish were pretty fresh, they'd just pulled up, and I never fished for one that I didn't catch on that pink worm," he said. "The next day they wouldn't bite as quickly and I used the swimbait to really torture them. They reacted to it a lot better."