Cold and dirty water will determine the baits with which Bassmaster Classic contenders Ott DeFoe, Jacob Wheeler and Seth Feider will catch bass this week on Ft. Loudon and Tellico lakes near Knoxville, Tenn. Volunteer State native DeFoe expects to score big with Rapala crankbaits and Terminator® jigs and Spinnerbaits. Wheeler will be chunking and winding Rapala® and Luhr Jensen® crankbaits and Storm® Arashi® lipless baits. Feider might go all in on just one Rapala crankbait.
Heavy rains throughout an extremely cold winter have made Knoxville-area waterbodies cold and dirty. Catching bass in such conditions often requires baits that move a lot of water and make specific vibrations that help fish find them.
“With the conditions we’ve got, we’re not going to have to deal with much clear water in this event,” says DeFoe, a longtime Rapala and Terminator Pro. “It’s certainly going to range from stained to very, very dirty. Which is fine by me. Given that, there’s three baits I feel like I can count on – a crankbait, a spinnerbait and a jig.”
When he hits the water on the first of three official practice days prior to the launch of the Classic on March 15, DeFoe will have the following baits tied on: Rapala DT-4, DT-6 and Shad Rap crankbaits; Terminator Super Stainless Spinnerbaits; and Terminator Pro Series Jigs. He doesn’t expect he’ll be fishing very deep with them.
“Given the condition of the water – being so dirty, so off-color – I don’t see there being a lot of fish caught beyond 15 feet,” he says. “I think zero to 15 feet will be your playing field. That’s why those baits I named will be most prominent.”
Wheeler too will enter Classic practice with Rapala DT crankbaits tied on. He plans also to throw Luhr Jensen Speed Trap lipped crankbaits and Storm Arashi Vibe lipless crankbaits. He’ll throw them all on prototype Sufix Advanced Flourocarbon line (which will be officially introduced to the public this summer at ICAST).
“It’s going to be a Meat & Taters kind of tournament,” says Wheeler, a longtime Rapala and Sufix Pro. “It’s not going to be the kind of tournament where some dude’s out there with a finesse rig dobbing his deal around. It’s going to be a ‘tie on your go-to baits to 14- to 20-pound line and go catch you 5 bigguns.’ I’m excited, it’s going to be an interesting tournament.”
If water temps reach the low to mid-50s, Feider might join DeFoe in throwing a spinnerbait, “but if it stays exactly how it is right now, I might just throw a DT-6 all day long,” he says.
In the days before the Classic’s official practice period began, Wheeler spent some time on a nearby Tennessee waterbody, Lake Chickamauga, where water temps were 46 to 52 degrees and water conditions were stained to muddy. “I’m going to assume it’s going to be similar to that on Loudon and Tellico,” he says.
Based on what he observed on Chickamauga, Wheeler suspects that during the Classic, pre-spawn bass will be “staging in the mouths of places, or on transition banks, rocky little banks, gravel and rip rap.” And that’s why he’ll be throwing DT’s and Speed Trap cranks.
“These are perfect conditions to throw those crankbaits and catch a really big one,” he says. “Especially with more rain coming in and a little more warming weather. Those fish should be getting up there where you need them to get.”
Feider’s DT-6 game-plan is similarly explained.
“For those fish pulling up, when they first get up, they aren’t going to be in a foot of water,” he says. “They’ll be in 4 to 6 feet, creeping up.”
As Tennessee residents with Bassmaster wins in the Volunteer state, both DeFoe and Wheeler are considered by many to be favorites to win this year’s Classic. An Indiana native who now lives in Harrison, TN, near Chickamauga, Wheeler won the 2014 BASSfest on that waterbody, as well as an Elite Series tournament on Cherokee Lake in 2017. DeFoe, a Knoxville-area native who’s won three Bassmaster Opens on nearby Douglas Lake and cut his teeth fishing tournaments on Ft. Loudon and Tellico.
“Growing up, I spent more time and won more money on Ft. Loudon/Tellico than I did on all the other lakes around here,” DeFoe recalls. “Those two were always my bread-and-butter places. Cherokee and Douglas I would do OK on, but Ft. Loudon and Tellico were always the places that I liked the best. For whatever reason, they suited my style better than some of the others.”
Terminator, Luhr Jensen and Sufix are Rapala Respected brands.
Rapala® DT® Series Crankbaits
“DT” stands for “dives to.” Built of balsa wood, Rapala’s signature material, a DT-4 will get down to its maximum depth of four feet sooner than – and thus stay in the strike zone longer than – any other shallow-running crankbait on the market. The way its balsa body wobbles while swimming and digging its bill into the bottom make a DT a perfect tool for triggering bites from shallow, early-season bass on waterbodies with little to no vegetation, like Ft. Loudon and Tellico.
“It’s one of the best cold-water crankbaits,” Feider says. “It just gets bit.”
Effectively fishing a DT crankbait is more than a “chunk-and-wind deal,” Wheeler explains. “While it can be that simple, you’ll catch more by paying attention to what’s going on and winding while feeling every rock and slowing your crankbait down – especially in dirty water. When you come over a rock, stop it, move it a little bit, pause it, reel it, pause it, reel it. When you do that, a lot of times those suckers will bite, and sometimes they bite it a lot better.”
In stained to muddy water, red, orange and chartreuse DT cranks generally out-produce brownish and greenish patterns. “You want something that’s going to show up in that off-color water,” DeFoe explains.
Swimming with a side-to-side action only balsa baits can achieve, DT’s can back out of shallow cover better than copycat crankbaits, floating up and minimizing snags.
In the Classic, Wheeler will fish his DT’s on prototype Sufix Advanced Fluorocarbon line in 12- to 14-pound-test – 10-pound-test if he needs to reach a little deeper.
“If you get on a bluff wall and you’re not hitting bottom, a lot of times you’re not getting bites,” Wheeler explains. “So the key is swapping over to your 10-pound-test fluoro. It can be a really big deal to get an extra foot, foot and a half of depth. That can be the difference between catching a ton of fish and not getting bit at all on those steeper banks.”
Luhr-Jensen® Speed Trap™
Computer-controlled molding is the secret to the Speed Trap, Luhr Jensen’s floating, snag-resistant, clear-lipped crankbait for the 3- to 8-foot depth range. The process creates a very thin-walled, high-action body, which produces maximum vibration while offering incredible balance. This crankbait will not roll over at any speed. Maximum dive depths for the 1/8th and 1/4 oz. models are 5 and 8 feet, respectively.
“The reason I’ll be throwing Speed Traps in addition to DT’s is because most of the time in the pre-spawn period, especially in dirtier-water situations, bass will set up in that 3 to 6, maybe 7, feet of water,” Wheeler explains. “So those are perfect baits for that application. The bass like to set up on harder-bottom areas – rocky banks, rip-rap, gravel, clay – adjacent to where they’re going to spawn.”
Important design characteristics make Speed Traps different from typical shallow-running crankbaits. A sharp dive angle, for example, gets you to the strike zone faster, especially along steep banks.
Expecting stained to muddy water, Wheeler will start Classic practice with ¼ oz. Speed Traps in reddish crawfish patterns, including Crawdad/Crystal, Hot Texas Red/Crystal and Delta Craw. “Those reds always tend to play in the south in the spring time, especially in the dirtier water,” he says.
Terminator® Super Stainless Spinnerbait
Featuring stainless-steel construction, Terminator’s Super Stainless Spinnerbaits are 30 percent more bend-resistant than traditional stainless-frame spinnerbaits. Designed to rip through vegetation and roll through wood without getting snagged, they feature tandem painted, gold- or nickel-plated blades with an exclusive beveled-edge design that enhances flash and vibration. QuickSkirt changeable premium silicone skirts allow for easy matching the hatch in fluctuating conditions.
“When the water’s cold, your spinnerbait bites are going to be really big,” DeFoe says. “They’re going to be the fish you’re gonna want to hold up on that weigh-in stage at the end of the day.”
In the Classic, DeFoe will target 1- to 5-foot depths with 3/8th oz. and ½ oz. Super Stainless Spinnerbaits in the Chartreuse White Shad color pattern. He’ll add extra thump and flash with a combination of Colorado and Willow blades, or Colorado and Oklahoma blades. He’ll throw them on 17-pound-test fluorocarbon line.
Arashi® Vibe Lipless Crank
Lipless crankbaits like Storm’s Arashi Vibe excel in the spring, when bass are first pulling up from deeper water and moving close to shallow spawning areas. Featuring a soft-knock rattle, the Vibe emits a unique single-cadence, low-pitch sound that attracts attention without alarming tentative fish.
In the Classic, Wheeler will target 1- to 3-foot depths with Vibes in the Red Craw and Mossy Chartreuse Craw color patterns.
“I’m probably going to be retrieving those fairly fast on big flat, gravelly points where I can cover a lot of water in a short amount of time,” he explains. “If I come off a lip, I’ll drop it, I’ll switch up the retrieve. A lot of times, I like yo-yo-ing it once I get out there off of the lip, in 3 to 6 feet of water, just to see if they’ve pulled off and are no longer up on top of the point.”
Not only does a Vibe start swimming at slower speeds than other lipless crankbaits, it falls slower too, allowing you to fish shallower water at a slower speed. “A lot of times, the key with a lipless, and with that Vibe, is the fall,” Wheeler explains. “When you pull on it, it makes that flutter – it’s like a shad fleeing. And then when you kill it, and it sort of like shimmies off, that’s when they get it.”
Arashi Vibes measure 2 3/4 inches and weigh 9/16th of an ounce. They come in 14 color patterns. In the Classic, Wheeler will fish them on 14-pound-test Sufix Advanced Fluorocarbon. “But sometimes, if I’m around big, jagged rocks, I’ll bump my line size up to 17-pound-test,” he says.
Terminator® Pro Jig
Featuring a unique head design, Terminator’s Pro Series Jig is much more versatile than most jigs. Custom jig-skirt colors, color-matched brush guards, a single rattle and a heavy VMC® Black Nickel hook further differentiate it from other cookie-cutter jigs that all pretty much look the same. They’re available in five sizes: ¼ oz, 3/8 oz, ½ oz, ¾ oz and 1 oz.
In the Classic, DeFoe will flip Pro Series Jigs to target shoreline rocks, wood and “any type of fairly heavy stuff,” he says. He’ll fish them on 20-pound-test fluorocarbon line.
DeFoe’s top Pro Series Jig color will likely be a prototype of a new pattern that will be released at ICAST in July, Overdose. “It’s black and blue with a little bit of chartreuse,” DeFoe describes. “That’s one that I’ll definitely have tied on to start with. It’s just a really good dirty-water color. It’s one of my favorite colors that I’ve been fishing for several years now and I can’t wait to add it to our lineup.”