Keith Combs Wins Lake Fork Toyota Texas Bass Classic

Keith Comb's Winning Pattern, Baits & Gear

The Toyota Texas Bass Classic annually produces the strongest field in the sport these days - 18 of the Top 20 anglers in the BassFan World Rankings were on hand last week at Lake Fork. And once again, Keith Combs showed them all how it's done in his bass-crazy home state. Combs' third victory in the three-tour all-star event in the past 4 years was produced with numbers that almost defied belief. The biggest - and by far the most significant - of those was a 110-pound total over just 3 days (15 fish). He came in with little experience on Fork (he lives only 2 1/2 hours away, but must drive past Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend reservoirs to get there), but quickly honed in on how to pull giants from various depths. He took command of the event with a 42-pound stringer on day 1 and just kept adding to his lead from there. He employed three different methods to catch post-spawn fish that were either already set up offshore or headed that way - extremely long casts with a Strike King 10XD and other deep-running crankbaits, "strolling" with smaller plugs and slow-rolling swimbaits. He caught fish from water as shallow as 2 feet and as deep as 35. He finished with averages of more than 36 1/2 pounds per day and more than 7 1/4 pounds per fish. He outdistanced runner-up Stetson Blaylock by the margin of his average weigh-in fish. Combs spent the initial practice days in relatively shallow water and had success catching quality fish that were keying on the shad spawn - they were suckers for a square-bill crankbait. Meanwhile, some of the images he was seeing on his Humminbird graph caused him to explore places that were much farther from the bank. "I kept seeing these fish out in 27 to 30 feet," he said. "I fished a little for them but I couldn't get bit, so I wrote them off as white bass. "Then late on the third day I caught a 5-pounder and a 6 from extremely deep water, and they were extremely fat - those shad-spawn fish were much leaner. That told me I needed to stay off the bank and stay deeper, and I found three schools of deep fish that day and one more during the pro-am (the following day). "From there, I just kind of felt it out as I went along. I basically took a 2 1/2-hour practice window and worked off of that."

Competition:

Combs' opening-day bag contained the biggest fish of the event - a 10-14 monster. That one came from more than 30 feet of water and its tail was dripping blood, meaning that it had just recently departed the spawning beds. There was also a 9 3/4-pound specimen in there, and an 8 1/2. The career-best stringer left him 3 3/4 pounds ahead of 2nd-place Russ Lane. His day-2 sack (which was topped by an 8-pounder) was considerably lighter, but it nonetheless boosted his advantage by a quarter-pound. He caught all of his weight during a 1-hour window at mid-morning on this third stop. He overcame a relatively slow start to the final day before once again weighing the biggest stringer in the field (which by that time had been reduced to 10 competitors). At one of his late stops he came across deep-water ace and eventual 6th-place finisher Mark Rose, who was in the process of compiling a 30 1/2-pound haul on a swimbait. "He was just knocking their lights out," he said of Rose. "I caught one 6-pounder on a 10XD, but he was catching a good one on almost every cast. "My deal is cranking and that's what I have confidence in, but he was just killing them and I had to do something. I switched to a Strike King Shadalicious on a heavy flipping rod and it was game on." He ended up catching an 8-pounder, a 6 and a 5 1/2 to round out his sack.

Winning Pattern:

Combs focused on points that were connected to the main stem of the Sabine River. He was surprised that most of the fish he discovered were not relating to some type of distinguishable cover. "Fork is full of timber and the ridges are covered with stumps, but these fish were mostly just on the bare sandy places," he said. "They were feeding on shad and there were lots of white bass around." The 6XD produced just over half (eight) of his weigh-in fish. Four came on the 10XD and he got three on the swimbait on the final day. By employing the strolling technique (making a long cast and then moving the boat in the opposite direction with the reel spool open), he was able to get the 6XD down to great depths. The method, which was used by Jeremy Starks to win the 2012 Douglas Lake Bassmaster Elite Series, is somewhat controversial because it involves a boat in motion with a bait in the water and is too much like trolling for some people's tastes, but it's completely legal. "If you make a long cast, you can get (the 6XD) down to 18 feet," he said. "If you make a long cast and then let out another 60 to 80 yards of line, you can get it down 27 to 30 feet." He used a reel with a 7.3:1 gear ratio to retrieve the bait as fast as he could. "I was burning it. My thought was with those fish grouped up in big schools with lots of shad down there, I had to try to get a reaction bite."

Winning Gear:

Cranking gear: 7' medium-action Power Tackle KC 170 rod, Shimano Curado casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 15-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon line, Strike King 6XD (chartreuse/powder-blue back) or Strike King 10XD (sexy shad).

Swimbait gear: 7'6" Power Tackle KC 104.5 rod, same reel, 20-pound Seaguar Tatsu, 1-ounce hand-poured jighead, 6" Strike King Shadalicious swimbait (shad).

Main factor: "I think being able to catch them from different depths was an advantage."

Performance edge: "The way the wind blew, I'd have to give it to my new Minn Kota Fortrex (trolling motor). That was the first time I'd ever strolled, and it was grueling, but my trolling motor was stout all day. I kept it on 70 or 80 for most of the day and I was able to do what I needed to."

TTBC Winning Pattern Bassfan 5/13/14 (John Johnson)

Stetson Blaylock's Pattern, Baits & Gear

Stetson Blaylock alternated between two areas, both at the mouths of creeks, that big fish were using as stopovers on the way to or from the spawning beds. He said the majority of the fish he caught were in the post-spawn phase, but he's pretty certain that some had yet to undergo the annual reproduction ritual. "I checked those places every day (in practice), and every day there were more fish," he said. "I started shallow, and then I just moved deep after I struck out. I'd just idle around and use the DownScan on my Lowrance (depthfinder) to find them. "The fish were in anywhere from 16 to 25 feet of water, mainly just on offshore breaks where they sit when they're moving up or moving out. Most of the time I was maybe 300 yards from the bank." Swimbaits produced the majority of his fish, but he also cranked up a few.

Swimbait gear: 7'6" heavy-action 13 Fishing Envy Black rod, 13 Fishing Concept E casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 17-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, generic 3/4-ounce lead jighead, 5" Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits swimbait (cream white).

He also threw several hollow-bodied swimbaits.

Cranking gear: 7'6" medium-heavy 13 Fishing Envy Black rod, 13 Fishing Concept E casting reel (6.6:1 ratio), 15-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon, Livingston Lures DM 20 or other deep-diving crankbaits.

Main factor: "The biggest key was boat pressure staying off my stuff. The locals and other tournament guys who found the same fish, everybody was real respectful and let me have it. I got on my spots every time I wanted to."

Performance edge: "Probably having the right rods and reels. I was able to make a lot of casts every day to real deep water without getting totally fatigued."

TTBC 2-5 Patterns Bassfan 5/14/14 (John Johnson)

Russ Lane's Pattern, Baits & Gear

Russ Lane didn't do a lot of running around once the tournament got under way. In fact, he was never away from his primary location for more than an hour on any of the 3 competition days. "I found that place on the second day of practice," he said. "It seemed like the wind blew from the same direction (the south) all week and I was running windy points and idling around, looking for hard places like old roadbeds. "I pulled up to this spot and caught a 5-pounder, then I changed angles and caught another 5-pounder. I ended up catching five fish in like five casts, and they were all good ones." The place featured an old road coming off the end of a point, with big pockets that contained shallow grass and lily pads on each side of the point. The fish, some of which were likely still spawning, were in the 10-foot depth range. "It was one of the neatest places I've ever found. The fish weren't on the road bed they were off to one side. The wind blew so hard all week that it made the current sweep across the road, and they were sitting on the down-current side." He had no trouble catching them on a crankbait early in the event, but was forced to slow down with a jig and a worm later on.

Cranking gear: 7' medium-action CastAway Skeleton prototype glass or Skeleton composite rod, Shimano Curado casting reel (7:1 ratio), 12- or 13-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, Spro Fat Papa 70 (mellow yellow or sneaky blue).

Worm gear: 7'6" CastAway Skeleton flipping and pitching rod, same reel, 22-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 1/2- or 3/4-ounce homemade swing-hook football jig with 5/0 Gamakatsu EWG hook, 10" Big Bite Baits Kriet Tail Worm (blue fleck).

Jig gear: Same rod, reel and line as worm, 5/8-ounce Buckeye Lures Mop Jig (PB&J), Big Bite Baits Real Deal Craw or Kriet Tail Worm trailer (green-pumpkin).

Main factor: "I'd just say having the mindset to try to find a big school of fish instead of just fishing shallow."

Performance edge: "No doubt it was my Phoenix/Yamaha rig. The lake was so rough from the wind and there's timber everywhere the boating conditions were rough, but my boat handled them all perfectly."

TTBC 2-5 Patterns Bassfan 5/14/14 (John Johnson)

Jason Christie's Pattern, Baits & Gear

Jason Christie brought up a unique aspect of the TTBC as it relates to offshore structure fishing: Because fish measuring between 16 and 24 inches at Lake Fork must be immediately released, it's tough to keep them from "tattling." "I love the format and I think it's the future of this sport, but it makes it difficult when you're fishing these schools," he said. "At other tournaments you catch one and throw it in your livewell and keep him quiet. But this way, when you let one go, he's going right back to the school and telling the rest of them that you're up there." Nonetheless, the two-tour standout from Oklahoma figured out ways to entice a bunch of big ones, even if they were aware of his presence. He was incredibly consistent - he weighed 32 pounds on day 1 and 32-08 on each of the next 2 days. "I probably spent 80 percent of my practice time just idling and trying to find smaller schools with three or four fish that other guys wouldn't be fishing for. On the bigger schools, I'd try to find that one sweet spot where I could pull up and make the same cast over and over and get them fired up. "Sometimes I'd catch one or two and they'd spook and move maybe 10 or 20 yards. Then I'd try to find them again and mark a new waypoint." He used both a crankbait and a swimbait to catch fish off of structure. In the early mornings he targeted fish that were feasting on the shad spawn and caught several good ones on a frog imitation.

Cranking gear: 7'10" medium-heavy Falcon XD Cranker rod, Lew's BB1 Pro casting reel (5.1:1 ratio), 16-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, Bomber Fat Free Shad BD7 or Silent BD7 crankbait (citruse).

Swimbait gear: Same rod, reel (7.3:1 ratio) and line, 1-ounce homemade jighead, 6" YUM Money Minnow (river shad).

Frog gear: 6'10" Falcon Jason Christie Signature Series rod, same reel (7.3:1), 50-pound Sunline FX2 braided line, Booyah Pad Crasher (black).

Main factor: "A lot of guys fished all shallow or all deep, but I kind of mixed it up. I wanted to fish deep because I felt like that was the best way to win, but I ended up weighing three for fish 20 pounds off the bank with the frog."

Performance edge: "I'd have to give this one to the Lowrance StructureScan for helping me stay on those deeper fish."

TTBC 2-5 Patterns Bassfan 5/14/14 (John Johnson)

Justin Lucas' Pattern, Baits & Gear

Justin Lucas said Lake Fork reminded him a lot of the body of water he lives on. "It kind of set up like Guntersville does, without the factor of the current," he said. "I kind of treated it like that. I knew there were a lot of fish leaving the banks and I got some shallow fish going (in practice), but in the tournament I really wanted to try to hit a home run. "I knew the bank wasn't going to give me a chance to win and I never fished within a hundred yards of it." He had four areas that he rotated amongst. "If they didn't start biting in 10 or 15 minutes, I'd go to the next one. I'd just make my run and it might be the second or third time around before they'd turn on. "It wasn't like I had a ton of spots, but it was enough that if somebody else was on one, I could run away." He caught every fish he weighed on a swimbait.

Swimbait gear: 7'6" heavy-action Abu Garcia Veracity rod, Abu Garcia Revo SX casting reel (6.4:1 ratio), 17-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line, 3/8-, 1/2-, 5/8- or 3/4-ounce homemade jighead, various 6" hollow-belly swimbaits (variety of colors).

Main factor: "I didn't lose a single fish all week that would've helped me."

Performance edge: "The Lowrance StructureScan was how I found everything."

TTBC 2-5 Patterns Bassfan 5/14/14 (John Johnson)