June 8, 2014 by Curtis Niedermier
FLORENCE, Ala. - It was the spot of a lifetime - a shallow ledge, plumb full of "hammers" - and Greg Hackney found it just 45 minutes into his first day of practice on Pickwick Lake.
For four days, Hackney pounded away on the spot to the tune of a 20-bass tournament total worth 97 pounds, 7 ounces. He caught a jaw-dropping day-two stringer of 31-6 to take over the tournament lead, then milked the bite through thunderstorms, gushing current and heavy spectator traffic over the weekend to make sure that he never relinquished it.
In today's final round of the Walmart FLW Tour event presented by Straight Talk Wireless and hosted by the Florence/Lauderdale Tourism Bureau, Hackney pulled a 21-pound, 9-ounce limit off the school on his magic spot and locked up his first regular-season Tour victory, earning $100,000 and likely writing his ticket to this year's Forrest Wood Cup.
Coming into Pickwick, Hackney figured two things. First, he needed to find something away from the crowds. Second, because of the late spring, there might still be some shad spawning, and the bass could be a little bit behind. He was spot-on with his predictions.
"My fish were pre- and postspawn," Hackney says. "It took awhile for me to figure that out, but I think today I possibly caught some bedding fish up on top, staging kind of on the side. And I caught a lot of bucks.
"Everything is late," he adds. "I knew there was no way they've had time to get finished spawning and look like that [with fat guts]."
Hackney located his tournament-winning spot early the first morning of practice. He was working around some shallow ledges that he'd been inspecting on his electronic map. When he dug in further, he found a ditch running up through the top of the ledge.
"There was a high spot with a small break, and it had a massive mussel bed up top," he says. "The shell was on one side, but the other side was smooth. There was a ditch there, about 2 feet deep. When fish were staging, they were in that little depression [ditch] off to the side. It was real subtle."
The spot was located on the backwater side of the main river, upstream from the bridge that carries the Natchez Trace Parkway across the Tennessee River.
"In practice, I was cranking up that ditch, and at the end of it was an `oil slick' the size of my truck," Hackney says. "I thought, `That can't be what I think it is.'"
It was the telltale sign of a bunch of bait losing a battle to a bunch of jumbo predators - 6- and 7-pound largemouths and 4-pound smallmouths hammering away at gizzard shad that Hackney estimates were 10 to 12 inches long.
Hackney tried to expand the pattern to other areas and did find some other shallow schools. He even fished a couple other spots the first two days of the tournament. However, none had the real giants that he found on spot No. 1.
The gizzard shad and schooling activity
Hackney found some gizzard shad out on the main lake in practice rolling near the surface, which he assumed was spawning activity. Interestingly, he reports seeing very few threadfin shad in Pickwick, possibly the result of a die-off during the hard winter.
The gizzard shad were swimming in larger schools than what Hackney was used to seeing. That extra meal potential was attracting packs of about a half-dozen trophy largemouths that would slide up from deeper water to gorge on the gizzard shad.
Early in the tournament, including on the second day when Hackney blasted 31-6, he figured out how to make the most of the gizzard shad feeding fest going on around his shallow mussel bed.
Whenever Hackney saw the feeding activity, he cast into the fray and experienced some of the fastest, most intense big-bass schooling activity of his life.
"I've seen that before with like 4- and 5-pounders, but never with 6- and 7-pounders," Hackney says. "They were chasing. There were boils as big as the hood of my truck. It was awesome, like saltwater fishing."
During the first two days, Hackney never made "the cast" unless he saw them school, and for as long as he could keep a bait in there, the action would continue. But the gizzard shad didn't show up on day three, and they never showed until the afternoon on day four.
"I could sit back and wait to cast then [the first two days]," Hackney says. "When the school didn't show up, I had to make the cast anyway and try to get them to bite."
The lures and presentation
All week long, Hackney described his program as a 1-2 punch - two lures that he could use to ignite the school and make them bite. Today, he revealed those lures to be a Strike King KVD HC 2.5 square-bill crankbait and a 5-inch Strike King Shadalicious swimbait. He also caught them dragging or hopping a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce Strike King Denny Brauer Structure Jig in black-and-blue or green pumpkin.
Hackney's presentation was also very unique. He was probably one of the only pros who was fishing a ledge with his Power-Poles locked down tight on the bottom.
"I was in 5 feet on top, casting into 8 feet," he explains. "I made a real long cast and fished back uphill."
Every fish Hackney weighed in this week came from less than 6 feet of water, while most of the pros in the top 10 caught their fish from about 10 feet deep to more than 20. It was anything but "typical" for a ledge-fishing tournament.
"I think that's the reason these fish haven't been fished for," he adds. "It's because everybody thinks it's summer on the Tennessee River so they must be deep."
The final rounds
On Saturday, Hackney's spot had changed. He'd worked them pretty hard on Friday, and there was a lot more current during the top-20 day Saturday. Hackney had to grind it out all day long to get his fish to bite. That meant actually expanding out and increasing his search radius, which is something he never had to do the first two days because the action was so fast and furious.
For Sunday, Hackney knew there were still fish around, but he also expected he'd have to work hard to put together a big bag. His foresight was right.
"This morning was definitely slow," Hackney says. "But this afternoon, the fish grouped back up. It was the first time they'd done it since the second day."
He was never able to get the real big bites that he had prior to he weekend and lost one of his best bites - a 5 1/2-pounder - right at the boat. Hackney figures the big ones just moved out or got caught, even though the spot was replenishing with smaller fish. He reports catching some 4-pounders that were "as white as a bar of soap," having just moved up from deeper water to stage for a late spawn.
Looking back on the tournament, Hackney recalled his original goal: to lock up a spot in the Forrest Wood Cup. That was his motivation to burn through some quality 4-pound-plus fish on his best spot back on day two, when he already had a 25-pound limit to guarantee his spot on the top 20. With that decision, he pushed his limit out to 30 pounds.
Considering Michael Neal caught 25 pounds, 9 ounces on Sunday to make a run at the title today, Hackney's perfectly happy that he caught all he could before the weekend. That decision turned out to be a critical part of his win.
"Since it's turned out like it did, I think I made the right move," he says, "and all that stems from me wanting to make the Cup."
To read about the lures and patterns of the top 10 pros from Pickwick Lake this week, click here
Rest of the best
2nd - Michael Neal - 93 pound, 6 ounces - $30,000
3rd - Brent Ehrler - 92 pounds, 11 ounces - $25,000
4th - Troy Morrow - 86 pounds, 5 ounces - $20,000
5th - Robbie Dodson - 85 pounds, 15 ounces - $19,000
6th - Spencer Shuffield - 81 pounds, 3 ounces - $18,000
7th - Michael Wooley - 80 pounds, 11 ounces - $17,000
8th - Jason Lambert - 80 pounds, 1 ounce - $16,000
9th - Shad Schenck - 76 pounds, 7 ounces - $15,000
10th - Casey Ashley - 72 pounds, 4 ounces - $14,000
For complete results,
Kellogg's Angler of the Year update
Andy Morgan remains perched atop the standings in the Kellogg's Angler of the Year race after the Pickwick Lake Tour event with a points total of 945. He will carry an eight-point lead over Repel pro Cody Meyer into the final event of the season on Kentucky Lake at the end of the month.