Randall Tharp had to defend more than just his wire-to-wire lead in Saturday’s final round of the Bassmaster Central Open on Barnett Reservoir in Ridgeland, which he did with a five-fish limit of 12 pounds, 11 ounces for a three-day winning total of 41-15.

Tharp, an Alabama native who recently moved to Port St. Joe, Fla., also had to defend the legality of his final day’s catch.

In an interview after the final weigh-in Tharp said he caught a 3-pound fish Saturday “on a boat dock in the cove of that campground over there,” referring to Timberlake Campground near the dam in Rankin County. “There’s only two docks in there.”

The problem is that the vast majority of that cove is closed to fishing.

A sign near the mouth of the cove prohibits boats beyond that point. Tournament rules prohibit competitors from entering areas closed to boaters, and earlier in the event veteran bass angler Tommy Martin had a day’s catch disqualified for fishing in the same cove.

When alerted to Tharp’s comments, B.A.S.S. tournament director Chris Bowes confronted the fisherman about his actions and ultimately decided to allow Tharp’s catch to stand..

“I asked Randall about it and he said he did not cross the line, that he knew the sign was there and he stayed outside it and fished only the first dock (campground’s L-shaped fishing pier),” Bowes said. “In Tommy’s case, he admitted he went farther back in the cove to the other dock and did not know the sign was there. 

“I know that first dock, and it is really, really close to the line. The trouble is that there is no clear line. There’s only the one pole with the sign, and when you look across the cove it is hard to tell exactly where the line is. What I’m saying is how do you tell what point on the far bank is directly across from the pier in relation to the sign?”

An hour after he had announced Tharp as the winner at the weigh-in, Bowes said he would take another look at the pier in question but at the time said he was satisfied with Tharp’s answer.

Click here for the full leaderboard.

Without a change, Tharp’s next stop will be the 2014 Bassmaster Classic that, along with a $47,000 boat/cash package, is the prize for an Open victory. That Classic entry is what Tharp came to Barnett to get.

“I can’t tell you how much it means to me to get in the Classic at Lake Guntersville (in Alabama),” Tharp said. “Before I moved to Florida, that is basically where I learned to tournament fish. I earned a lot of money fishing there, so much that I bought a camper there to base out of for tournaments.

“I’ve won a lot of events there, including one of these Opens, so, yeah, it’s really, really big for me to get that.”

Tharp also wrapped up the Central Open points title for the season and earns an invite to step up to the Bassmaster Elite Series, an invite he’s received but turned down four times before.

“This time, since the FLW and Elites will not butt heads in scheduling for the first time, I am going to fish the Elites,” said Tharp, who recently won the FLW’s equivalent to the Bassmaster Classic, the Forrest Wood Cup, and its $500,000 top prize.

Tharp stuck to the same basic pattern all week — docks and piers.

“All of my fish except one or two came off docks and piers either on the lower lake and mostly in Pelahatchie Bay,” he said. “The bites got tougher every day, and I think that was a combination of the weather conditions getting worse and the pressure the fish were getting.

“Of the 12 guys who fished the final round, I know at least six of us were fishing in the bay close to each other. There’s not that much water to fish, especially isolated docks and piers that I was keying on.

“That’s why I left the bay and came back out on the lower lake.”

Tharp did most of his damage, he said, on a ½-ounce Randall Tharp Signature Series 4x4 Jig. It was the jig that produced the winning fish — a 5-pound, 2-ounce fish that was the big fish of the day Saturday. He caught it on a pier behind an apartment complex.

“I only got six bites today, but I was able to convert that into a limit,” he said. “This was the toughest of the three days for me.”

Tharp’s margin of victory was an ounce short of 4 pounds. 

Hard-charging Stephen Browning, an Elite Series pro from Hot Springs, Ark., finished second with 38 pounds. His final-day catch of 16-14 was the heaviest limit weighed over three days.

“I was in Pelahatchie Bay with most of the leaders,” said Browning, who earned $15,247. Browning will also fish the Bassmaster Classic after winning a Central Open event earlier this year on the Red River at Shreveport. “That’s where I was all week — in the pads.

“But I did something totally different today that was the key to the big sack. I felt that because the weather conditions were so poor and the fish had been pounded on so hard for a few days that they would move. So I moved out and, instead of fishing in the thick pads, I fished outside of them.”

The pattern worked from the get-go.

“I caught a 3- and then a 4-pounder real early, so I knew I was on to something,” he said. “I stayed out, and I found that even the ditches in the pads had some cover in the them, and that’s where the fish had moved.”

Browning, who started the final day in 10th place, said he used a Z-Man Zinkerz rigged Texas style with a 4/0 Mustad hook and flipped it outside the pad edges all day.

“What I did the first two days was use the same lure plus some other stuff to work openings and lanes between pads,” he said. “Those fish saw a lot of stuff, and just backed out.”

Gene Eisenmann of Frisco, Texas, finished third with 35-13, adding 13-8 on the final day.

“I lost this event in the second round,” he said. “I fished stupid on Friday, and it cost me.”

Eisenmann had just 6-15 on Day 2.

Australian Carl Jocumsen was fourth with 32-7, and Kenta Kimura of Japan fifth at 30-1. Both said the frog bites that had worked the first two days to get them in contention failed them in the strong winds on Saturday.

Will Major of Port Allen, La., won the co-angler division despite catching only one fish and a scant 1 pound, 4 ounces on Saturday. He finished the three-day event with 17-1 to earn a boat package worth $25,000. 

“I pretty much fished the same way all three days, despite being with three different pros and finishing different areas,” he said. “I caught all of my fish except one on a solid white Horny Toad. Can you believe that — solid white.

“I have to credit my son for that. It’s his secret weapon, and we only had a few when we came up here. We ran out in practice, but he had to go back home to work one day and he went all over and finally found one pack of them at the Bass Pro Shop in Denham Springs, La. How about that?”

The crowd outside the Bass Pro Shop in Pearl Saturday roared.

“Don’t bother going in there to look (in the store), because I already have them. And we looked everywhere else we could find,” Major said. “But if you can find them, you better buy them because, buddy, these fish love them.”