Next week’s Bassmaster Bass Pro Shops Central Open on Barnett Reservoir will not include the angler who won the last time B.A.S.S. brought a tournament to the lake in 2013, but it could very well have the reigning Angler of the Year.
It should also have the 2013 runner-up at Barnett and at least one more previous winner of a B.A.S.S. event on the 50-year-old lake.
B.A.S.S. has not released its final field for the March 12-14 event to be staged out of Madison Landing, but did send a contact list and the name Randall Tharp was missing.
Tharp, an Alabama native who had just moved to Florida, led the 2013 Central Open season finale from start to finish, winning the October event by nearly four pounds with a three-day total of 41 pounds, 15 ounces.
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.
Browning’s name is included on the B.A.S.S. contact list. Browning is definitely one of the fishermen to watch at Barnett. His resume has three career B.A.S.S. victories including a Central Open victory in each of the last two seasons.
His career earnings top $1.1 million.
Fellow Arkansan Mike McClelland, won won the B.A.S.S. Central Invitational on Barnett in 1996, one of 10 events held on the lake since Ray Scott first envisioned the Bass Angler Sportsman Society while on a fishing trip to the reservoir in the mid 60s.
The first six were at Barnett held in the first six years of B.A.S.S.’s existence — all in the first 10 years after The Rez was impounded in 1965 — and were dominated by first Bill Dance and then by Roland Martin.
Elite Series angler and Louisianan Greg Hackney is on the preliminary list, and if he makes his first trip to Barnett it will be as the current B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year. He secured that title for the first time by winning the final event of the 2014 Elite Series in New York’s Cayuga Lake in August, which gave him a big enough points cushion to survive a 24th-place finish in the B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year Championship one month later in Michigan.
Missing are Mississippi’s two remaining Elite Series anglers, Cliff Pace of Petal and Paul Elias of Laurel. The Elite Series begins the week after Barnett with its kickoff event March 19-22 on the Sabine River in Texas.
It will be interesting to see how many Elite Series anglers come to Jackson. Former Elite Series angler Pete Ponds, who switched to the FLW Tour for 2015, leads a long list of Mississippi and Rez regulars in the field.
In B.A.S.S.’s long history at Barnett, never has a local fisherman or a Mississippian ever claimed a victory. Pete Ponds finished third to McLelland in 1996. Pete’s Dad, Bob Ponds, finished second by one ounce to Ricky Green in the 1972 Rebel Open.
“It’s tough, really tough to beat local memory,” said Pete Ponds, seeking an explanation for local failures. “Non-local fishermen come to the lake each day without the excess baggage of remembering how they caught fish on certain days, and I think they approach the water with fresh ideas.
“Local guys know the lake, and know how they caught fish in the past at this time of the year and in similar conditions. That can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing. Seems it’s always been bad on Barnett.”
Shannon Denson, a local pro who can be dominating in any condition, said that March is feast or famine on the lake.
“There’s no doubt that March can be the best month of fishing on Barnett all year, but that can go out the window with a run of bad weather,” he said. “The fish will be shallow, and the tournament will be won shallow, but the lake fishes awfully small when the bass are shallow.
“You throw a strong cold front in the mix, with a strong north or northwest wind, and the lake will get even smaller. But, if we get three days of good solid weather, without a lot of rain, cold or wind, and we could see 20-pound daily limits.”
Denson recently won a local one-day tournament with a 20-pound, five-fish limit.
“It would be difficult for anyone, including me, to repeat that three days unless it is absolutely perfect and somebody stumbles into a situation he has all to himself,” he said. “Like I said, it all depends on the weather.”
Daily weigh-ins will be free to the public with the first two days being held lakeside at Barnett Reservoir at Madison Landing. The final day will include only the top 12 fishermen and they will trailer to Bass Pro Shops in Pearl for the final weigh-in.
Top prize in the event will include a $40,000 boat/motor package and cash for about a $48,000 total package. A victory also earns an automatic berth in the 2016 Bassmaster Classic, as long as the winner fishes all three Central Open tournaments.