One of Barnett Reservoir’s best bass anglers — and winner of the last big Bassmaster event held on the lake — is jealous of the fishermen who will compete in Mississippi’s first-ever Elite Series tournament at the lake on April 27-30.
“They couldn’t pick a better time of the year to fish Barnett than they did, which is why I was disappointed when they announced an Elite (Series) instead of another Open,” said Ridgeland’s Gene Bishop, who ran away with the 2015 Bassmaster Central Open on Barnett. “The spawn will be over by April, but I’m betting that most of the bass will still be caught in 5 feet of water or less. The water temperature will be in the 70s, shad will be spawning and bass will be chasing.
“It really doesn’t matter how you like to fish. Basically, any type of pattern, from a frog to a spinnerbait, cranking, punching matted grass, flipping and pitching at piers — anything you can do in 5 feet of water and less should and will catch fish that week.”
When Bishop won, earning a trip to the 2016 Bassmaster Classic, he did so in March on the front end of the spawn.
After a slow start on the first day, with a little over 9 pounds, Bishop realized the water temperature had risen faster than expected, so he moved shallow and put up a 26-pound stringer on Day 2 to take the lead and then sealed the deal with 21 pounds to run away from most of the field and 1½ pounds more than his closest rival.
“That was the opposite of what they will be doing,” Bishop said. “I was on the pre-spawn, and the fish were just leaving the first drops and moving up in the shallow. I left the ledges and moved to the pad stems and did what everyone on Barnett does that time of year: I swam a lizard through the pad stems and the big fish had moved up and were feeding before bedding.
“In the Elite, the big fish will have already moved up to the beds and should be back out on those drops.”
The winner will most likely identify some of those drops and hammer out some big limits.
“The key to the Elite, I think, will be finding a key place on the first drop that is holding big fish,” Bishop said. “Somebody finds a couple of those, and they can ride that to a win.”
It won’t be easy though, he said.
“Thing is, the Navionics chips aren’t that good here — they just don’t work as well here as they do on a lot of the lakes these guys fish,” Bishop explained. “To find those sweet spots here, you have to find them old-school, and that means hundreds of hours spent on the water to find them.
“So unless somebody shows them something, then those hotspots are tough to find.”
However, he said someone will likely be sitting on productive waters.
“... (T)hese guys are good — some of the best fishermen alive,” Bishop said. “They will find some good spots, but I don’t think you can win it off one spot. For that pattern, you better have more than one or two spots.
“You can catch a lot of fish, but you can’t catch a lot of quality fish doing that.”
Bishop said he knew exactly how to approach the event, were he one of the competitors.
“I’d start the morning with a frog around vegetation and see if I could catch a toad or two,” he said. “Then I’d move off to the ledge and use a Carolina rig to find a school on the first drop.”
Bishop said a ledge limit of 12 to 13 pounds was possible, and two days of that would easily be enough to make the first cut to the top 50 and assure a paycheck.
But could it get an angler to Sunday’s final round of 12?
“I don’t know — maybe not,” Bishop said. “I think to make the two-day cut, 25 or 26 pounds would do, but I think it will take a 15-pound a day average to make the top 12.”
He said he expects it to take less weight to make the final day than during his 2015 run to victory.
“I think somebody can pop a 20-pound bag, or maybe two of them, but I don’t think anybody can put up 25 or 26 pounds that time of year unless they really find a spot or two off the bank holding big ones,” Bishop said.
There is only one thing that could change his outlook and likely drive weights down.
“A bad rain a few days before (the tournament), like 2 or 3 inches in a day, could really make it tough, especially for anyone who likes to fish the river,” Bishop said. “It will get muddy and will be running hard, and that will push a lot of water and a lot of fishermen down the river to the main lake.
“If that happens, it will make the lake fish small.”
Piers and docks have been a major factor in the two most recent of 11 Bassmaster events held on Barnett, a fact most Rez regulars found surprising.
In the 2015 Open, former pro bull rider Jay Brainard from Oklahoma was the most consistent angler in the tournament, catching all his fish flipping piers and boat ducks in the Main Harbor area to build a three-day take of 54½ pounds.
In 2013, Randall Tharp won an October Central Open with a three-day catch of 41-15, and he caught every fish on docks and piers either in Pelahatchie Bay or the lower main lake on the eastern shore.
“Tharp was fishing piers in 2013 in Pelahatchie Bay — piers we all thought were garbage, and he wins,” Bishop said. “Touring pros come in and they don’t have the 20 years of experience we have on this water. They look for docks, the things they fish at most events and something they can relate to.
“That’s why that happened.”
Only three Mississippians will fish the Elite. All have some experience on Barnett but very limited success: Elite veterans and former Bassmaster Classic champions Paul Elias of Laurel and Cliff Pace of Petal will be joined by second-year Elite pro Brock Mosley of Collinsville.
When looking for pre-tournament favorites, the easiest place to start would be the 2015 Central Open.
Brainard has shown he can catch fish around boat docks, and he’s an Elite rookie this year.
Tommy Biffle of Oklahoma finished third to Bishop at 52-9, and said this of Barnett: “I love this lake — a lot.”
Behind them were Elite Series pros and former B.A.S.S. winners Jason Christie in fourth with 45-12, Stephen Browning in fifth with 42-13 and Fred Roumbanis in sixth with 41-3.
Roumbainis might be the happiest of all the Elite is coming to Barnett.
“You guys have a great fishery here, and I sure would like to see B.A.S.S. bring an Elite Series here this time of year,” he said. “That would be fun.”
Well, we’ll see.