UPCOMING EVENT: TOYOTA SERIES - 2020 - Ft. Gibson

Barefoot Becker Hunts Another Title

Barefoot Becker Hunts Another Title
Matt Becker

He’s shoeless, and he’s on the hunt for a Forrest Wood Cup-winning bag of fish on Lake Ouachita. Matt Becker, the 2018 FLW Tour Rookie of the Year, begins his third day of official practice for the Cup at the Crystal Springs boat ramp, which is situated in the back of a large creek that extends to the south from about the midpoint of the reservoir.

It’s a popular ramp on this morning. Becker launches alongside some real FLW Tour hammers – guys like Bryan Thrift, Justin Atkins, Jeff Sprague, Michael Neal and others.

The 26-year-old from Pennsylvania might not have the Southern bass fishing pedigree of those others, but he’s loaded with drive and motivated to add to what’s already been a stellar start to his career.

Becker put in his research time in pre-practice and was able to see just about all of Lake Ouachita except the far upriver portions. He added a lot of waypoints to his Lowrance unit back before the cutoff, and today’s plan is to continue checking spots that he flagged a few weeks ago and to expand on a couple of patterns he’s been toying with.

“I’m gonna go try and find some schoolers right now,” he says as he idles out from the ramp. “Then I’ll go burn the bank with topwater.”

 

The first run isn’t far. Becker stops outside a couple of broad creek mouths guarded by large points and an island – classic schooling spots. His eyes shift back and forth between the two screens in front of him and the surface of the lake. 

“There’s not even any bait in here,” he says. “We’re just going to bounce around this morning until I see something.”

That’s exactly what he does, hitting a trio of spots with nothing to show for it.

“This wind kind of hurts for looking for bait and fish busting,” Becker says. “It’s weird. It blows a little every morning. Then it slicks off and gets hot, then blows again in the afternoon. Or it has the last two days.

“Well, we’re O for three,” he adds. The clock says 6:40 a.m.

 

Eventually Becker turns the corner into the main river channel and heads for a series of islands and humps. His Navionics map looks like a toddler’s drawing. There are curvy lines running every which way, and a mix of blue (shallow humps), white (deep water) and tan (land) all along the edge of the main channel. Standing timber is visible near the shorelines.

“It’s overwhelming,” he says about the amount of cover and structure in the lake. “I think that’s why it’s so tough, because there are so many places a bass can live. In the spring when they’re spawning, they all have to go to the bank, and they get grouped up. Now they’re all spread out.”

Finally, a fish shows itself, and Becker gets to work at 6:46 with a pencil popper and an under-spin fitted with a Keitech swimbait.

 

Yes, he’s barefoot already. In fact, the first thing Becker did when he got in the boat was pitch his flip-flops in a back compartment. Don’t worry, he’s only hooked himself in the foot once in his life.

“I hate shoes,” he says. “Unless it’s too cold and I have to wear shoes, I’m barefoot.”

 

The next sign of life is a catoosh caused by what looks like a black bass busting the surface. It’s followed soon after by a CATOOSH from a much larger, much angrier striped bass. Becker believes some of the bigger largemouths might be roaming with the stripers, but he’s unable to verify. The only thing he hooks is a branch on one of the submerged trees.

“You want to get down to the timber, but you want to stay right above it. It’s hard to count it down right.”

 

It’s 7:09, and Becker still hasn’t had a bite, despite slinging a few other options at the fish.

“I expected a lot more schoolers to be here after pre-practice,” he says. “I thought this was my best area.”

A Great Lakes smallmouth angler, Becker is skilled with a drop-shot, which is his next tool. Quickly, though, he reels up and spins around.

“We went over a ton of fish there,” he says. “I don’t know if they were bass.”

He doesn’t find out. Becker pulls the plug at a few minutes shy of 7:30.

 

On the evening of Monday’s second practice day, Becker stopped to scan a point in the mouth of a nearby creek. That’s his next stop.

He pulls out a black River2Sea Whopper Plopper and starts chopping water around standing timber. Becker has some casting game. His casts land remarkably close to the treetops.

Growing up near the Three Rivers fishery in Pittsburgh uniquely prepared Becker for the challenges of five-bites-a-day tournaments. He’s hoping the focus it takes to navigate a tough derby will help him this week.

“Usually I like tough tournaments, but I’m not even sure I’m doing the right thing,” says Becker. “I just need to get a couple bites.”

 

The search continues into the creek, where Becker pulls out a Zoom Tiny Fluke rigged with an open light-wire hook. It’s a cute little bait that doesn’t cast easily in the wind, yet it looks great in the water. He fishes it up along the surface with short twitches to imitate the small baitfish that rain out of the water on just about every topwater cast.

Two small spotted bass show themselves by tracking the Fluke back to the boat. A couple casts later a better fish follows suit.

“They don’t want to eat it though,” says Becker.

He flips the boat and casts a crappie grub to the spot, which gets no looks but spurs a brief conversation about how to pronounce “crappie.” Becker says it’s pronounced like “happy.” He can’t be right about everything.

 

After leaving the point, Becker jets over to another series of main-lake islands. Something has the local birds all worked up. They’re swarming one particular island with a cluster of short, bushy trees.

“It’d be better if they were diving on bait,” he says about the birds as he begins needling some submerged shallow grass with a Zoom Brush Hog. “This is nice healthy looking grass. I would rather fish it. I like flipping deep grass, deep hydrilla. But they don’t seem to set up in it the same way they do in natural lakes.”

 

Two minutes later, he sets the hook on the first keeper. It measures 15 inches but is too skinny to make a Cup dream come true.

 

The 15-incher is the only keeper Becker can muster, and the slow fishing signals a switch in tactics. He cuts off the black Plopper and ties on a bluegill pattern. A buzzbait and Megabass popper also come out.

 

Becker’s strategy for getting some bass mojo going is simple: eat a cookie.

He gobbles a chocolate chip snack on the way to a new area.

 

At 8:45, he starts picking apart shallow points and pockets full of timber, stumps, the occasional laydown and a little bit of willow grass that’s still in the water. He says the lake has dropped a foot since pre-practice, and judging by the old water line on the bank, it’s fallen closer to 2 feet since the willow grass topped out.

“I just want to catch, like, one 4- or 5-pounder, just to see how it sets up,” he says. “I don’t mind running new water in the tournament, but I don’t even know what’s the right water. I can catch little bass, but I had enough fish for a check before I even came here. I want to fish for first place.”

 

Becker’s topwater gets thrashed by a chain pickerel a few feet off the bank.

After prying the hooks free, he washes his hands in the lake to rid them of the stinky esox slime.

 

His next few casts prompt follows from bluegills. Insects are fluttering about all over the pocket. There’s a duck swimming out in front of his boat, and three deer are walking across the back of the next pocket over. Basically, there’s plenty of life in this section.

“I see one,” Becker says. He makes a pitch, but the bass won’t take it. “It’s not very interested in anything. It’s about a 3-pounder; cruising.”

 

The chain gang continues at 9:30, when Becker pops another of the toothy predators on the bank leading out of the creek. This fish ate the popper too.

“I didn’t know they were in here, and I’m dialed in on them,” he says.

 

Another nearby creek has more of the same, but also some better submerged grass.

“There’s bass in here somewhere,” Becker says. “This is perfect.”

Not even 60 seconds go by when bass No. 2 slams the Plopper.

“It’s a little spotted bass,” he says. “What is that? Why is there a spotted bass back here?”

The fish goes on the board to check its length. “Almost,” he says, and it gets tossed back in the lake.

 

A 20-minute stop at a slightly more offshore point produces nothing for Becker, and by 10:30 he’s running pockets and points again with the Plopper.

“That’s what we’re looking for.” Becker’s just set the hook into a decent fish on a gravel point.

“It’s a 2 1/2. Should be a 3. It came off literally nothing different. You’ve just got to cover water I suppose.”

 

Today’s heat index was forecast to top triple digits, and for once the weatherman seems like he’s nailed the prediction. Even though the shadows are still long, it’s already getting steamy.

For Becker, it’s time to make a run up the rivers, if for nothing else than to eliminate some water and cool off a bit. He stops quickly to graph some points back in the Crystal Springs area before dropping me off.

The young pro wastes little time flipping his rig around and getting back out there. Becker is a worker; he’s efficient, calm and focused. And he’s barefoot. We’ll see if that’s the right recipe to brew up another 20-something Cup championship.

 

Tags: curtis-niedermier  pre-tournament  2018-08-10-forrest-wood-cup- 

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