HUDDLESTON, Va. While others zigged this week, Skeet Reese zagged and the decision paid off in spades.
Bucking the sightfishing trend and primarily working a swimbait, the Auburn, Calif., pro left the competition in the dust his closest competitor was Jason Williamson more than the 14 pounds behind. Reese amassed 78 pounds, 1 ounce of Smith Mountain Lake bass to take his fifth Bassmaster victory at the Evan Williams Bourbon Blue Ridge Brawl.
Reese continued the good vibes in what has been a white-hot start to the Elite Series. But it all hasn't been roses for Reese as he had a bitter taste after the season-opening California swing. Reese fell to Virginian John Crews on the California Delta by 1 ounce and failed to score victory on what he considers his home fishery, Clear Lake.
But Reese left nothing to chance this week, posting more than 17 pounds all four days of competition. With the victory, Reese moves ahead in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings by a wide margin of more than 85 points.
"I worked my tail off this week and I burned through a ton of water," said Reese, the 2007 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year. "I knew it can be a grind here and you're never guaranteed to catch them so I never felt comfortable, even until the end. But it was a great week and it's special to win like this."
Reese built a 6-plus pound margin heading into Sunday but with changing conditions on Smith Mountain, the 2009 Bassmaster Classic champion knew nothing was guaranteed. Fortunately, the steady wind Reese needed blew Sunday, allowing him to put the nail in the coffin with a final-day tally of 19 pounds, 14 ounces.
Reese said the swimbait a 6-inch Rago SKT Swimmer in light hitch was key for two reasons. One, it was large enough to entice the right bites. Additionally, the color and design mimicked bluegill, a main forage on Smith Mountain.
Reese's conviction in the swimbait was important as well. On Friday, nearly two-thirds through his competition day, he only had two fish in the boat. And he began to question his technique.
"I knew that these fish aren't necessarily used to seeing bigger lures," he said. "But there are some bigger fish in this lake and they are capable of eating bigger baits. That's why I stuck to my guns."
Though the swimbait was instrumental, Reese did mix in other techniques he sight fished for a minority of his time throughout the tournament and worked a Berkley worm Sunday.
Smith Mountain sets up well for Reese. The clear fishery littered with docks is similar to Clear Lake, where Reese is supremely comfortable. And Reese has performed here, notching a fourth and a ninth in past events.
And the first event, in 2007, laid the groundwork for this week's victory. Reese said he caught a few on a swimbait that year and developed the pattern in the 2009 event before committing full-bore this week.
While Reese held steady throughout the week, other anglers were all over the map. Williamson of Wagener, S.C., started off the event with a bang, a 22-9 limit, the biggest of the tournament. But the sight bite subsequently died off, causing Williamson to settle for second.
Still, Williamson was pleased with the week and the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points he was able to rack up.
"I have no complaints this week," said Williamson, 29. "This was Skeet's tournament and there is not a thing that I did that I would change."
Dean Rojas of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., gave Williamson a scare for second but finished in third with 61-8. Ounces behind Rojas was shallow-water specialist Terry Scroggins of Palatka, Fla., with 61-5. Rounding out the top five was Matt Reed of Madisonville, Texas, with 61-2.
With a 10th-place finish in the event, Greg Hackney of Gonzales, La., stands as Reese's closest competition in the Angler of the Year standings.
With five events left in the Elite Series, anglers will be jockeying to qualify for the Elite Series Postseason and 2011 Bassmaster Classic (New Orleans, Louisiana Delta). Rojas was third in the AOY standings followed by Edwin Evers of Oklahoma and Dave Wolak of North Carolina.
Only the top 12 qualified for the final day of competition on Sunday.
Coverage of the Brawl will be featured on The Bassmasters on Sunday, May 2 at 9 a.m. ET.