KINGSTON, Tenn. — Tyler Williams makes no bones about his narrowly focused bait preference, but he’s no one-trick pony.
Proving his versatility, the angler from Belgrade, Maine, won the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Watts Bar Reservoir with a three-day total of 41 pounds, 4 ounces.
Williams placed second on Day 1 with 14-15 and added a second-round limit of 14-6 to take the lead on Day 2. Then with a Championship Saturday limit of 11-15, Williams edged South Carolina pro JT Thompkins by 2-7.
For his efforts, Williams won $42,267 and earned an automatic berth in the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota scheduled for March 22-24 on Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees near Tulsa.
“This is exciting,” Williams said. “It will probably hit me on the drive to (next week’s Opens Series event at) Lake of the Ozarks.”
Williams caught most of his bass by targeting isolated current-washed cover with a 3/4-ounce Greenfish Tackle living rubber jig fitted with a Yamamoto Flappin' Hog trailer. When Day 3 brought overcast skies, wind, afternoon rains and minimal current, Williams stuck with his go-to bait but adjusted his presentations to target fish holding higher in the water column.
“I fished exactly how I like to fish this week,” Williams said of his trusty jig. “That jig is a good search bait; I can read fish really well with it (on forward-facing sonar).
“I worked it almost like a hair jig, so I think that living rubber skirt gave it some extra action and triggered some of those fish.”
As Williams explained, the final round’s dimmer conditions and lack of water movement contrasted the first two days in which partly sunny skies and dependable afternoon current positioned fish in predictable feeding positions.
“I was crawling the jig until today, and today the fish wanted to suspend more with no current and clouds,” Williams said. “I would reel the jig really quickly and get it to hop off the bottom, then hit my (reel’s thumb bar) and let it free spool and they’d eat it.”
Williams’ road to victory began with a Day 1 disaster. On his first spot, his trolling motor and shallow-water anchors malfunctioned, thereby depriving him of key boat positioning strategies.
Drifting through key areas, Williams would lean over his bow to manually adjust his forward-facing sonar transducer. Despite this severe limitation, he made the most of his casting angles and sacked up his best bag of the event.
“Once I got my trolling motor running (for Day 2), I was able to run some schooling fish,” he said. “Today, I had a spot that I think had 1,000 fish on it. That jig was really effective.
“Sometimes, I’d speed reel it, kill it, speed reel it, kill it, speed reel it, kill it and then I’d let it sit there and they’d eat it.”
Hailing from Myrtle Beach, S.C., Thompkins placed 17th on Day 1 with 11-13 and, despite several key fish losses, he moved into third with a Day 2 limit of 13-5. Closing with the final round’s biggest bag — 13-11 — Thompkins settled at second with 38-13.
Earlier in the event, Thompkins caught his bass on a Strike King Sexy Dog topwater and an Outkast Tackle Juice jig with a Strike King Rage Bug trailer. The final round saw him stepping up the aggression.
“My buddy Tyler (Williams) outfished me Day 1 and Day 2, but I didn’t want him to outfish me again on Day 3, so I put a Garage Hyper Shad glidebait, along with an Outkast Tackle jig and a Strike King Sexy Dawg in my hand and I just had fun all day,” Thompkins said. “This was one of the most fun days of fishing I’ve ever had.”
Thompkins’ final-round limit included the day’s biggest bass — a 5-1. He caught that bass on a jig.
Trey McKinney of Carbondale, Ill., placed third with 37-10. He turned in daily weights of 12-4, 16-2 and 9-4.
McKinney spent most of his time offshore, where he worked isolated targets in 20 to 30 feet. He caught his bass on a Strike King Caffeine Shad in the glacier color and a 3/8-ounce Strike King Baby Structure jig in black and blue or peanut butter and jelly with a green pumpkin Strike King Menace trailer.
“I used the Baby Menace for deep water and the full-sized Menace for shallow water,” McKinney said. “I want my jig to sink fast, so that’s why I go with the Baby Menace offshore.”
McKinney now owns three second-place finishes in St. Croix Bassmaster Open competition this season. He also was runner-up at Toledo Bend and Lake Eufaula (Okla). He earned an additional $500 as the highest-finishing registered pro fishing St. Croix rods thanks to the St. Croix Rod Rewards program.
Ninth-place finisher Ish Monroe of Oakdale, Calif., won the $750 Phoenix Boats Big Bass award for his 5-2.
As part of the Yamaha Power Pay program, Williams took home a $2,000 bonus.
Thompkins leads the St. Croix Bassmaster Open Elite Qualifiers standings with 1,286. Tennessee's John Garret is in second with 1,263 points. McKinney is in third with 1,232 points. The top nine finishers in the EQ Division will earn invitations to the 2024 Elite Series. For full standings, visit Bassmaster.com.
The City of Kingston is hosting the tournament.
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2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Title Sponsor: St. Croix
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Platinum Sponsor: Toyota
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Premier Sponsors: Bass Pro Shops, Dakota Lithium, Humminbird, Mercury, Minn Kota, Nitro Boats, Power-Pole, Progressive Insurance, Ranger Boats, Rapala, Skeeter Boats, Yamaha
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Supporting Sponsors: AFTCO, Daiwa, Garmin, Lew's, Marathon, Triton Boats, VMC
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