Caleb Kuphall was nowhere to be found on the list of pre-tournament favorites at the Basspro.com Bassmaster Central Open on Lewis Smith Lake. That changed today, when he won the event with a three-day total weight of 43 pounds, 2 ounces.
Kuphall’s nearest challenger was John Cox of Debary, Fla., who took second with 42-1. Local expert Jordan Wiggins of Cullman was third with 41-3, and David Williams of Newton, NC., settled for fourth with 41-2. Griffin Phillips of Mount Olive, Ala., was fifth with 40-11.
The Mukwonago, Wis., angler was far removed from understanding the nuances of the lake’s nomadic spotted bass. He wisely steered away from what he did not know. Instead, he went searching for largemouth and found enough to keep him in contention to win from the start.
“I came here knowing the dirtiest water would be in the upper reaches of the lake,” Kuphall said. “But I knew that I would need spotted bass in the mix, so I developed a one-two punch for both species.”
Blue herring surfacing near the dam alerted Kuphall to the presence of spotted bass. He began each morning along a 400-yard stretch of chunk rock bank where the bass were feeding upon the bait. With a limit in his livewell Kuphall then traveled to the upper reaches of the lake, where he found a series of pockets lined with shoreline buck brush in stained water.
“It was just what I was looking for, which was the ability to flip buck brush in an area with quality fish,” he said.
The one-two punch of spotted bass and largemouth proved its potential with a Thursday limit weighing 14-4 that put him in ninth place. Friday was a repeat of the productive pattern, and Kuphall returned to the scales with a limit weighing 12-1 that landed him in sixth place. Today proved even better with a final limit weighing 16-13.
Kuphall chose two simple lures that worked specifically for each species. He used homemade 3/8-ounce jigs, one shaped for swimming and the other for flipping, and both tipped with soft plastic crawfish trailers. Green pumpkin was the all-around choice for the jigs and trailers.
“I could see the spotted bass eat the bait in the clear water so all it took was pitching it near them,” he said. “For the largemouth I flipped the jig into the buck brush for the strikes.”
All week the water level was dropping — by as much as 4 feet from the start of practice until today — but that did not hinder his bite.
“The largemouth just moved out with the falling water and staged on new cover,” he explained. “The spotted bass never left because of the food source there along the rocks.”
Cox stayed on the run, choosing a junk fishing pattern of rotating through lures based on the cover he encountered along the way. While the falling water hindered some anglers, it worked in his favor.
“It pulled fish out of the pockets and onto the points,” he explained. “It gave me fresh fish to work on because they never really got caught by other anglers.
Cox’s lure lineup included the new Berkley Choppo 90, which he used as a coverage bait. For slower bites, he used a 5-inch Berkley PowerBait MaxScent The General rigged on a 1/0 Berkley Fusion19 Finesse Wide Gap Hook.
Kuphall won $37,200 and a berth in the 2020 Bassmaster Classic, should he fish the remaining two Central Opens.
Jonathon Barnette of Jasper won the co-angler division after leading all three days. He caught a winning weight of 23-13 and won $18,000, while Todd Lee, also of Jasper, claimed second with 21-11. Keith Honeycutt of Temple, Texas, was third with 21-7, and Mitch Van Ert was fourth with 21-3. Joe Eubanks of Marietta, Ga., was fifth with 21-1.
The Phoenix Big Bass award paid $750 to pro angler Stacy King of Reeds Spring, Mo., for catching a bass weighing 5-11. Dwain Vogelpohl won $250 as the top co-angler with a bass weighing 5-8.
Berkley Cast for Cash rewarded the Top 2 finishing contingency program members in each division. Cox and Greg Pugh of Cullman, Ala., won $1,500 and $1,000, respectively, as the top pros. Barnette and Brian Murphy of Sulphur, La., won $250 and $100 respectively, as the top co-anglers.