March 15, 2009 by David A. Brown
BRANSON, Mo. - Typically, when anglers enter a tournament's final round over 7 1/2 pounds out of the lead, their only realistic goal is to make a respectable showing. Well, Robert Harkness did that and much more en route to winning the TBF National Championship presented by the National Guard on Bull Shoals Lake. Entering the tournament's final round in fifth place with 27 pounds, 2 ounces, Harkness ended his day with a bag of fish that more than justified a confident stride as he made his way to the stage. On a day when four of the six finalists fell short of their limits, Harkness pulled out a quintet of keepers, one of which went 5-plus pounds with another nearly 4 pounds. The Elizabeth, W.Va., angler took the lead with a 13-pound, 11-ounce stringer that combined with the 13-0 and 14-2 he weighed on days one and two for a 40-13 total. Harkness held off the next three anglers, but the drama thickened when day-two leader and Northern Division champion Nick Smyers took the stage, already with 34-11, and asked, "How much do I need?" Tournament host Charlie Evans, president and CEO of FLW Outdoors, stated that Smyers needed 6 pounds, 3 ounces for the win. Harkness fidgeted nervously as his final competitor pulled out a good first fish and followed up with a chunky second. He showed no sign of relief at the short bag, as all knew it was too close to call. Cue the drum roll. Smyers' weight: 5 pounds, 7 ounces for a tournament total of 40-2. Harkness wins by 11 ounces. For his efforts, Harkness won $10,000 cash, the use of a "Living the Dream"-wrapped Chevy truck and Ranger boat powered by Evinrude or Yamaha, sponsor merchandise, paid entry fees into either the 2010 Walmart FLW Tour or Walmart FLW Series and travel-expense money. He and all divisional winners advance to the 2009 Walmart BFL All-American presented by Chevy. Harkness also qualifies for the 2009 Forrest Wood Cup presented by Castrol. Evans teased Harkness about "leaking" when he won his Mid-Atlantic Divisional title on day two. Harkness managed to keep his eyes fairly dry during what was clearly an emotional experience, but he described his TBF Championship victory as simply overwhelming. "It's probably going to take a day before I even (comprehend) what I've done," he said. "The biggest tournament I had ever won (paid) $5,000, so this is unbelievable." Harkness said he carried plenty of optimism, tempered with realism, into the final round: "I had no inclination that this could even happen. This morning, I told my wife that I'm just going to go fishing. I'm not fishing against any of these guys - I'm fishing against myself." During three days of competition, Harkness caught all of his fish on shad-colored MegaBass Vision 110 twitchbaits. Targeting deep bluffs, he positioned his boat in 35 feet of water and cast right to the shoreline. Most strikes came about halfway to the boat. For the past three days, Harkness and his fellow competitors faced a frustrating roller coaster of meteorological mayhem. In summary: a 20-degree temperature drop Tuesday night; bitter cold on day one; sunny, high-pressure conditions for day two; and then a cloudy, drizzly scene for the final round. In what should have been a prime prespawn aggregation scenario, many anglers struggled to find consistency worthy of Bull Shoals' reputation. Smyers runs out of fish, slips to second Using a Strike King Series 5 Sexy Shad crankbait, Smyers fished rock bluffs and chunk rock. Throughout the event, he caught his fish toward the back of a creek where warmer, off-colored water and lots of threadfin shad had created an attractive environment. Unfortunately, his game plan fell victim to the week's weather fluctuations and a little too much fishing pressure. "The weather conditions were most of it, because the big fish pulled of off of the spot," he said. "Also, yesterday I beat the keepers that were there, and the spot just didn't replenish. "I fished my same area (from days one and two) and worked all the spots back there, but it just didn't work out for me. I tried moving around to find some new areas, but the bite was just dead today. They were completely off the reaction baits. I even tried a jig, but couldn't get them to bite it." Smyers experienced a flurry of activity early - a period with mixed results. "When I pulled up on the spot, I caught two keepers right away. I missed one before the first one I caught, so that made the difference. I'm sure it was a keeper because it was the first bite on this spot." King finishes third despite breakdown Central Division champion Zachary King of Clarksville, Ark., entered the final round in fourth place with 27 pounds, 10 ounces. Throwing a jerkbait, he added 11-3 and improved one notch to third with 38-13. Engine trouble threatened to kill his day, but King persevered and salvaged the day with the only other limit catch. "About five miles down the lake, my engine (malfunctioned)," he said. "I didn't make it to where I was going, but fortunately there were some fish where I was." Southern Division champion Daniel Ellis of Gleason, Tenn., finished fourth with 34-7. Brandon Craner (Western) of Filer, Idaho, took fifth with 34-3 and won the TBF Ranger Cup competition. Rob Lamoy (Eastern) of Chazy, N.Y., was sixth with 21-8.