April 19, 2008 by Rob Newell
MANNING, S.C. - If you are looking for a model example of what it takes to break into the big leagues of bass fishing these days, look no further than 22-year-old Ott Defoe of Knoxville, Tenn.
Defoe began fishing the Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League (BFL) in 2002, moved to the Stren Series level in 2004, then climbed to the Wal-Mart FLW Series in 2006 and debuted on the Wal-Mart FLW Tour in 2007.
Through it all, Defoe has demonstrated the poise, intensity and focus it takes to succeed in professional bass fishing.
Though he has scored one top-10 in FLW Tour competition, most of his success has come at the Stren Series level, where he has amassed four top-10s, including two second-place finishes.
This week, the time was right for Defoe to etch his first win into his resume, and he did it at Santee Cooper by leading all four days of the Stren Series competition and finishing the event with a four-day total of 93 pounds, 14 ounces.
Judging from his winning margin - 9 pounds, 6 ounces - Defoe's winning week may have looked like a cake walk, but it was far from it.
On day three, Defoe stumbled just a tad, weighing in 19-8. And while 19-8 might not sound like a stumble, when you are leading a tournament on Santee Cooper where 30 pounds could be around the next corner, 19-8 is a bit off the pace.
Add to that the fact that four of Defoe's closest competitors all weighed in over 23 pounds on day three. At the start of day four this morning, Defoe became the rabbit that all of the foxes were chasing, and they thought they could smell blood in Defoe's youth.
Defoe, however, remained unfrazzled and sent his competition scurrying for their foxholes today when he returned fire with day four's biggest limit - 24-2 - to prove that he has what it takes to win.
"This means so much; it's the boost I've been looking for in my career," he said after collecting $25,000 for his win. "I've finished second twice in these Strens, and all I knew when I left that dock this morning was that I was not going to settle for second again today. I knew from yesterday's catches that those guys behind me, like Greg Pugh, were catching them on their terms. And that worried me - of course it worried me - but I had to block that out and stay focused on what I was doing."
While his catch today was certainly impressive, Defoe points to day three as the turning point that allowed him to win.
"I had about 20 pounds yesterday, and I know that looks like I slipped up a bit, but it could have been a whole lot worse than that," he explained. "My primary tree pattern had only produced about 11 pounds by noon, and I made a huge gamble in running about another 30 minutes south of the weigh-in that late in the day to some bedding fish.
"As it turns out, I ended up culling up four or five times on those bedding fish. I really think if I had stayed in those trees on day three, I would have died in there with like 10 or 11 pounds and really left the door open. So even though it looks like I stumbled on day three, that is when I really made the best decision of the whole week to keep myself from wiping out completely."
Defoe returned to his primary area this morning, located in Lake Moultrie between Black's and S&S, and continued to fish his key bait: a 7-inch Berkley Shaky Worm (green-pumpkin), rigged wacky style on a 1/0 Gamakatsu weedless widegap hook and tied to 8-pound-test Berkley 100% Fluorocarbon line on a spinning outfit.
"When you look at the weight I caught on that Berkley Fluorocarbon this week around those big cypress trees - if that's not a testament to some good line, then I don't know what is," Defoe added.
As he mentioned, Defoe did catch a few key bass while sight-fishing during the week, and those came on a Berkley Chigger Craw tied to Berkley 17-pound-test fluorocarbon line rigged with a ¼-ounce Tru-Tungsten weight.
"The whole key to the tree pattern was staying way off those trees and skipping the worm to them," Defoe revealed. "The fish in that clear water around those cypresses are superspooky. I think if you get a boat within 20 yards of them, they spook away or hunker down, but they just will not bite. Nearly every big fish I caught this week came from a long skip cast right up alongside a tree."
Greg Pugh of Cullman, Ala., continued his sight-fishing ways in Lake Moultrie today to catch 20 pounds, 5 ounces and finish second with a four-day total of 84-8 worth $7,677 plus a $5,000 Ranger bonus.
Pugh's two main sight-fishing weapons this week included a Berkley Hollow Belly swimbait and a PJ's 5/16-ounce jig.
"If they didn't like my jig on the first couple of pitches, I'd use the Hollow Belly to agitate them a little bit," Pugh said. "Once they got good and mad at that swimbait, then they'd go for the jig."
Over the last few years, Pugh has proven himself to be one of the best sight-fishermen in FLW Outdoors competition, leading to the question of what makes him so good at the technique.
"I had a lot of good teachers," Pugh revealed. "In the 1990s I spent a lot of time with the Hibdons, Fish Fishburne and Shaw Grigsby. They each taught me a lot about the technique, and since then I've refined it with a lot of my own experience and preferences."
Brett Mitchell of Timmonsville, S.C., finished third by bringing in an 18-13 limit today, which pushed his four-day total to 81-13 worth $6,909.
Mitchell spent most of the week on Lake Moultrie casting a Fish Stalker Trick Stick (June bug) wacky style on a 3/0 Gamakatsu circle hook tied to 40-pound braid.
"I could see plenty of beds in my best area, but instead of getting right up and sight-fishing for them, I found it easier to stay way back and make long casts to the beds, grass and pads," Mitchell said. "It seemed like they bit quicker if they never knew you were there."
Lex Costas of Daniel Sound, S.C., weighed in 23-7 today and finished fourth with a four-day total of 79-0 worth $6,142.
Costas spent most of his week in Lake Moultrie, casting Zoom Trick Worms and Dead Ringers to stumps and grass.
"I was fishing a grass I call onion grass," Costas said. "I don't know what it's really called, but it looks like onions coming up, and it all grew up when the lake was down. Now it's flooded and the fish have moved in it to bed."
Ken Ellis of Bowman, S.C., finished fifth with a four-day total of 74-3 worth $5,374.
Ellis used his signature technique all week: wacky-rigged Senkos and worms, cast along deeper cypress trees for his catches.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros in the Stren Series event on Santee Cooper:
6th: Koby Kreiger of Okeechobee, Fla., four-day total of 73-5, $4,606
7th: Timothy Little of Acworth, Ga., four-day total of 69-11, $4224
8th: Dale Evans of Ridgeville, S.C., four-day total of 67-8, $3,839
9th: Andy Montgomery of Blacksburg, S.C., four-day total of $3,455
10th: Hal Cercopely of Alcolu, S.C., four-day total of $3,072
The fourth and final Stren Series event in the South Division will be held June 4-7 at Pickwick Lake in Florence, Ala.