August 18, 2013 by Brett Carlson
SHREVEPORT-BOSSIER CITY, La. - Two years ago, Randall Tharp fished a nearly-flawless Forrest Wood Cup on Lake Ouachita but took second to Scott Martin and a big school of offshore bass. Tharp prepared for the 2013 Cup knowing that deep fish weren't an option on the Red River. Everything was shallow and positioned around dense cover - right in the honey badger's wheelhouse.
Coming in to the tournament, Tharp had located a handful of productive backwater areas in Pool 5. He was convinced that the bigger bites that came from the main river were random, whereas the backwater kickers, while extremely difficult, could be patterned. On day one, he learned several other pros had found those same areas and was forced to regroup and reassess. By Sunday, he was fishing two spots - one a finger off the river located three miles north of Red River South Marina and one a lily pad field adjacent to the marina in Port Lake.
Tharp started each of the last three days on the finger, one of the few areas lined with homes. He'd throw a bluegill-colored 3/8-ounce 4x4 Swim Jig with a Strike King Rage Craw Trailer (green pumpkin with 1/3 of the body trimmed) on the side that featured a mud bank. Once the sun got up around 9 a.m., he'd bounce across and fish the longer riprap stretch with a Lucky Craft 1.5 squarebill crankbait (TO color).
After losing three quality fish on the swim jig yesterday, Tharp instinctively opted for a frog on the mud bank and that gut feeling proved correct as he caught one of his three big fish on his very first cast with a Spro Bronzeye Junior 60 (tropical white).
In the afternoon, he would return to the backwater pad field in Port Lake, which ironically was within walking distance of the campground where Tharp and his wife Sara stayed for the week. That backwater featured some of the thickest vegetation in the system and it's the area that coughed up most of the 18-8 from day one. Today, it produced the other two kickers, these coming on a black and blue Bronzeye 65. Tharp would pick apart certain areas with his Power-Poles down, saturating high-percentage stretches with repeated casts.
"On the last day of prepractice I caught 20 pounds in about 30 minutes in that area and knew I was on something special. That was where I caught most of my big fish this week."
Early in the week, Tharp was surprised at how few bites he was getting. Instead of the 40 or 50 he received in practice, he was now down to a dozen or so per day. In fact, he was fishless for the first three hours of the tournament. Today he caught only seven keepers, but they weighed 14 pounds even, more than enough to fend off a hard-charging Jacob Wheeler. Tharp's total weight for the week was 53 pounds, 2 ounces.
"The key this week was the swim jig, but today I wanted bigger hooks, bigger line and a bigger rod and that's where the frog came in."
Six years ago the EverStart pro was the owner of a construction business and a successful regional fisherman in north Alabama. With an FLW Tour win on Okeechobee and a Forrest Wood Cup title on his resume he's now regarded as one of the best shallow sticks in the game. For winning the most lucrative tournament in bass fishing, Tharp earned $500,000. Fittingly, he couldn't wait to have the Cup awarded to him and instead swiftly grabbed it himself after hearing his name called as champion.
"Last year when the schedule came out and I saw that the Cup was going back to the Red River and Shreveport, this was all I could think about; I knew that it was going to be my time. A lot of the lakes we go to don't afford me the opportunity to win. But this is the way I like to fish. "
Wheeler threatens for repeat, finishes second
For the second consecutive day, Wheeler brought in the heaviest stringer, but it wasn't enough to overtake Tharp and repeat as Forrest Wood Cup champion. Today, he weighed a 14-pound, 3-ounce frog stringer and finished the tournament with a cumulative weight of 49 pounds, 2 ounces. With only 7 pounds on day one, Wheeler started the tournament in 40th place and finished second, earning $75,000. At approximately 9 a.m., Wheeler had a 4-pounder, a 3 1/4 and a 2-pounder in his livewell. At that moment, he had completed the climb and was leading the Cup. But no other kickers came.
"I was behind the 8-ball after day one; I had to catch them," said the 22-year-old Indiana pro.
Earlier in the week, Wheeler flipped a Trigger X Goo Bug on the main river. On day three, he put a quick limit in the boat flipping and then honed in on the frog pattern. By day four, he was frog fishing almost exclusively with a Spro Bronzeye 65 in nasty shad color. He had two backwater areas south of the takeoff, the better of the two known as Do Not Dredge, or the Gator Hole as the locals call it.
Wheeler would idle all the way back, dodging stumps until he reached the thickest lily pads he could find.
"The bass were keying on bluegills," explained Wheeler. "Everything looked good, but they were setting up on a shallow ridge within the pads. I fished every pad and every pocket along that ridge thoroughly and my wrists and forearms are killing from twitching that frog non-stop."
When Wheeler entered Do Not Dredge, he'd make a few casts with a drop-shot and a Trigger X Probe Worm around the rocky opening. That opening is the same area Adrian Avena put a show on the first day. Then he'd make a few casts with a buzzbait around the timber before picking up the frog. Wheeler said the frog bite would peak around 1 p.m. when the weather started to get hot each day. When a bass would miss the frog, Wheeler would oftentimes pitch back with a wacky-rigged Trigger X Flutter Worm.
"When the water in my areas dropped 10 degrees the first morning, that really hurt. But it was exciting to have a chance to be the first two-time Cup champion."
Bryan Thrift's big-fish spot finally let him down on day four as he managed only five small keepers weighing 6 pounds, 11 ounces. That spot was a brush pile located at the end of a point in a backwater.
While he fished in 3 to 5 feet, the bass had access to deep water as Thrift's Chevy-wrapped Ranger was positioned in 17 or 18 feet.
Thrift intentionally found the off-the-wall spot, located in Pool 5 in an area called Caspiana, as he knew everyone else would focus on the pads.
"I wanted something to myself," said the two-time FLW Tour champion. "And this place didn't look like anything; there were no lily pads or milfoil - just standing timber. I think I just caught them all. It's hard to win a tournament when you're banking to get a big bite off of just one place. I had thoughts about running down to Pool 3 and by 9:30 this morning I already wished I would have."
Thrift visited the spot twice today and spent 2 1/2 hours of time there working an 1/8-ounce Evercast Lures Shaky Head rigged with a 6 1/2-inch Damiki Finesse Miki. That's the presentation that triggered four kickers earlier in the week, including a 7 1/2-pounder, the biggest bass of the tournament. At other spots, he mixed in a Trick Worm and a ChatterBait (Fluke trailer), the ChatterBait being the one thing he could fish fast. Thrift ran as for north as the train trestle in Shreveport and as far south as Pool 4.
The Shelby, N.C., native now has five top-10 finishes in his last seven Cups. For a total weight of 46 pounds, 1 ounce, Thrift took third and earned $60,000.
"I'm glad Randall caught a big bag to beat me. It would've been a lot harder if he hadn't caught much."
Milner rises to fourth
Less than two months ago Kerry Milner was just a successful weekend angler. After winning the BFL All-American, he earned the chance to fish against the big boys. Four days later, it appears Milner can more than hold his own.
"I found the quality in my prepractice," said the Bono, Ark., native. "I translated what I know about the Arkansas River and I looked at as much backwater as I could. Come tournament time I concentrated on three main areas, two in the backwaters and one in the river."
Milner spent the first day flipping - either with a Zoom Brush Hog or a Baby Brush Hog. On day two he switched to an 1/8-ounce homemade shaky head with a Trick Worm. Day three he discovered the frog bite and that carried him the last two days. His two frogs were also the Spro Bronzeye 65 and Bronzeye Junior 60.
"I never caught a fish on a frog in practice. I just tried it and they were eating it so good I never put it down. I'd fish it fast at first to cover water and then once I found the school I slowed way down. In fact, I stayed in the same spot with my Power-Poles down and culled several times today."
Milner spent most of day four in an area called the White House, a few miles south of Do Not Dredge in Pool 5. He fished the same general area as Ray Scheide - the far back corner littered with giant lily pads.
For the second consecutive day, Milner weighed an 11-pound, 10-ounce stringer and finished the week with 44 pounds, 7 ounces. For fourth place, he earned $55,000.
"I wanted to come prove to myself that I could compete against these guys. This (in the top 10) is where I wanted to be. It's wonderful."
Nixon falls to fifth
Nobody wants a Cup more than Larry Nixon, but 2013 will go down as yet another near miss for the General as he weighed an 8-pound, 6-ounce limit Sunday to fall from third to fifth, ending the tournament with 44 pounds, 4 ounces.
Nixon started the week on a productive milfoil bed across from Milner in the White House. On days one and two, it produced his kickers, but the north wind essentially trashed it on days three and four and Nixon was forced to flip in the main river. Today, he was determined to fish for quality bites in the backwaters and make a true run at the title.
"I fished pretty much all day to win," said the former Bassmaster Classic champion. "I had no fish at 11 this morning, so I ran out and caught five in 30 minutes on the river and then immediately ran back to the backwaters. This is the one you go for and I went for it today."
Nixon's one quality fish today was caught on a frog, the first frog fish he weighed this week. On the milfoil bed he Texas-rigged a Yamamoto Flappin' Hog II (blue pearl baby flake). When he flipped, he opted for the bigger 4 1/2-inch Yamamoto Flappin' Hog.
For fifth place, Nixon earned $50,000.
"It was a great week, but I'm pretty disappointed. You never how many more chances you'll have at this."
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the Forrest Wood Cup on the Red River:
6th: Michael Neal of Dayton, Tenn., 44-2, $45,000
7th: Mark Rose of West Memphis, Ark., 43-7, $40,000
8th: Troy Morrow of Eastanollee, Ga., 41-8, $35,000
9th: Tom Monsoor of La Crosse, Wis., 41-2, $30,000
10th: Robbie Dodson of Harrison, Ark., 37-11, $25,000
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