Part 1 of 4
Mike McClelland cruised to a wire-to-wire victory at the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series Sooner Run in Grove, Okla. The Bella Vista, Ark., native's prior knowledge of Grand Lake allowed him to massage the areas he was already familiar with in practice and key in on the productive ones during the tournament.
Moments before Sunday's weigh-in, Bassmaster.com sat down with McClelland and got his word-for-word recollection of how the event transpired. Here's what the champion had to say:
"Basically we started practice on Memorial Day and I absolutely dreaded it because it's such a big pleasure boating lake. I knew it was going to be really hectic so I made up my mind to practice that day in Duck Creek, which is one of the most populated creeks on the lake. I felt like the boat traffic might be less in there than on the main lake because of some no-wake areas, and felt that I could get more done and learn more.
"So, I stayed in Duck Creek from just about daylight until four o'clock and fished every ledge, drop, and point that I could fish. The key to my whole practice was using my Lowrance GPS to mark brush piles with wake points. It enabled me to go back and get right back on these spots where I found these fish and catch them. I did a lot of that Monday in Duck Creek, anytime I found a brush pile I would mark it on the GPS, fish it real hard, and if it was a good one, leave it in there and if not, take it out.
"I had a good number of bites on Memorial Day, but I made up my mind before getting here that I was going to do everything I could not to catch any fish in practice. I had the points and barbs cut off of my hooks and I was doing everything I could do to keep from catching them. Even Memorial Day, I had a number of 3- to 5-pound fish that were coming all the way to the surface so I was feeling pretty good about what I found.
"About four o'clock I came up to Horse Creek and put in the mouth of the Bernice and started fishing areas that I was more familiar with. Again, marking brush piles with the GPS. Basically I practiced the whole practice with a DD-22, a Zoom Brush Hog or Magnum Lizard, and a Jewel 1/2-ounce Heavy Cover Finesse jig. Before I came over, I committed to fishing structure. I wasn't going to fish docks, I wasn't going to throw to any visible cover, I was just going to structure fish.
"That afternoon I fished until dark and found two good brush piles in the Bernice area that I felt good about. I didn't know about the quality of fish, but I felt like I could catch enough three-pounders out of these brush piles. Late, late in the day I went to a couple of areas that I knew would get beat up and caught a couple of fish just to hone my skills.
"Tuesday I decided to fish from about Horse Creek to just a little bit past Sailboat Bridge here. Again, covering anything that I've caught them on in the past.
"I really keyed in the second day to how slow these fish wanted the bait presented to them. I've always known that you have to fish slowly to catch the bigger fish on this lake. I actually had pulled up on a point that I thought I could catch a good fish on, but worked it back and forth two times without a bite. I thought, 'Man something is up here,' so I threw a cast out there and let it sit for a few seconds. I began to pull it in two or three inches, and felt that there was something big on the other end. I started experimenting and slowing down and working thoroughly through these brush piles that I hadn't been bit in and found out that I had been fishing too fast.
"That gave me another boost of confidence. Jeff Kriet and myself room together, we compare notes, and we're 100 percent honest with one another. We both keyed in on the fact that the fish wanted it slow by the second day and that enabled us to really grind it and work stuff over good. We compared notes and had a few places that he and I were fishing, but I don't think we ever ran across each other during the tournament. We were definitely helping one another out though.
"The third day of practice is always a short day. I actually went to my favorite place on the lake just due to the fact I waited until later in the day when some of the guys started clearing off. I pulled up on the deal and they were eating well there, really well."
(Editor's Note: Wednesday marked the end of practice for McClelland and the rest of the Elite anglers. Pre-tournament premonitions from analysts and other anglers hinted that there were plenty of fish to catch on the lake, but that finding the quality bite was the key. Bags were expected to be anywhere from the 11-pound to 18-pound range with the cut after Day Two around 22 or 23 pounds.)
"The first day of the tournament I went back to my favorite spot and caught a 4 1/2-pounder, but they weren't there like they had been the day before. When you start off with that kind of fish though, it really lights a fire under you. It makes you feel like you can really get something done. I caught two more keepers in this place and really probably stayed there longer than I should have. I fished there until almost nine o'clock and I was thinking I had way too many places to fish to be sitting there.
"I went ahead and packed up and fished through three more points. I was a little frustrated and was probably fishing a little too fast. So I went over where I had the good bites in practice and fished that thing slow like I knew I needed to. I pull up and I am just dragging as slow as I can, and then the first bite is another four-pounder. I put it in the boat and that got my spirits lifted again.
"I sit down, re-tie and re-rig, make two more casts and catch another four-pounder on the same point. At that time, I figured I probably had around 14 pounds. From there I just started running down the lake, hitting as many of the places I could, working thoroughly, and then the storm came in.
"I got in an area where I had accidentally caught a 7 1/2-pounder in practice. It was just one of those 'oops' deals. The wind was blowing so I figured it was a good time to really bear down and fish the area. I caught a three-pounder on the 1/2-ounce Jewel Finesse jig and I culled a little one out with it. The first four came on a full-size Zoom Brush Hog and the other two came on the 1/2-ounce Jewel Heavy Cover finesse jig. I had some more places to go so I took off from there.
"I went to a point I had found the last day of practice down on the main lake. It was a place I had fished in the past and checked it in practice and had gotten some good bites. I pulled up there and the wind was blowing too hard to fish it correctly with a jig or Carolina-rig. So I picked up the DD-22 and circled it with it and I caught another 4 1/2 or 5-pounder. I'm really smoking at this point; I'm feeling really good. I figure I've got about 17 or 18 pounds.
"So I run down to Duck Creek where I spent Memorial Day and really expected to catch them. I fished through three of the best places I had in there without a bite. White bass were on them, every time you threw they were hitting your sinker or jig. Nothing was feeling right, but I spent two hours in there and never had a bite.
"So I thought I would go back to the area where I caught the five-pounder with the DD-22 because the wind had laid down a little bit and the sun had come out. I pulled in there and Brian Snowden was sitting on one of the two points. There are actually two points with about 50 yards in between them and I couldn't tell which one he was sitting on. Brian and I had fished this lake together a lot, so I went by him and asked him if he cared if I fished the other point. He said that he had already fished it and went to the next.
"I started down the point with the DD-22 and it just didn't feel right. So I picked up my Jewel Heavy Cover Finesse jig and came over one of the brush piles on my graph. I backed the boat out and lined up on it and caught the biggest fish I had the first day, which was 5 pounds, 13 ounces. That pushed me up to the 20-plus mark that I had the first day."
(Editor's Note: Only two 20-pound bags were pulled from Grand Lake on the first day of competition. McClelland's 21 pound, 9 ounce sack and Timmy Horton's 21 pound, 7 ounce sack. Only four pounds separated the top 10 anglers, and it looked as if the tournament would be a close race to the finish.)