LAKE FORK — If ever a bass tournament could be compared to a toe-to-toe championship boxing match, the Toyota Bass Classic was it.
Actually, maybe it was more like a street brawl.
In the end two-time TTBC winner, Texan Keith Combs came away with the fewest bruises, his third title and the $150,000 winning prize package.
It wasn’t easy. Combs left the ramp on the last morning looking like he might be sailing toward back-to-back TTBC titles after leading each of the first two days of the event. He had a four-pound lead over second place when the day started.
And then Sunday’s final round fishing began.
In a field that was pared down from 50 professional fishermen to the top 10 in the standings, Arkansas fisherman Stetson Blaylock wasted no time moving from second to first with two bass weighing 10 pounds, 4 ounces the first 15 minutes on the water.
But his then-91-pound, 8-ounce bag didn’t last long.
Alabama fisherman Russ Lane, who started the morning in third, got hot and landed 25-12 in the first two hours to take over the lead and hold it through much of the morning.
With a slow big fish bit during the morning the leader board mostly changed by ounces until Combs had two bass weighing 10 pounds in 20 minutes in the 10 o’clock hour to move back into second just a pound and a half behind Lane. It was a move that didn’t last because Blaylock came back 10 minutes later with a 5-8 to again overtake Combs.
Catching a 4-8 at 11:40 a.m. Combs, who has called Huntington home the last four years, pulled back into a tie with Lane at 96-8. Blaylock sat just eight ounces back.
Then Combs’ magic returned when he caught an 8-pound, 8-ounce at noon to vault back into first with 102 pounds after culling his smallest weight of the morning. Five minutes later Lane had a 6 to inch to within four pounds. Lane than added 5-8 to close the gap another pound, but Combs answered minutes later with a 6-8 in the 1 o’clock hour.
Blaylock landed a 5-12 to stay close, and then threw the next punch around 1:30 by catching a 5-8 and jumping back into second with 99-4.
At 1:40 p.m., Combs delivered the knockout punch when he landed his second 8-pounder of the day. At that point he had a 9-pound, 4-ounce lead over both Blaylock and Lane.
Blaylock became the second fishermen to boat a three-day 100-plus-pound total when he caught a 5-12 at 2:13 p.m. He ended the tournament with 102-12.
Combs hit 110 pounds when he caught a 5-8 five minutes later. At that point his lead was just too much for the field to overcome.
On an overcast, windy day, Combs started uncharacteristically slow.
“It just wasn’t happening,” Combs said. “I was fishing the same areas I was fishing all week. When the wind started blowing better they started biting.”
Combs, whose Sunday stringer included the 8-8 and an 8, a 6-8, 6 and 5-8, said most came off a chartreuse and blue Strike King 6X9 crankbait in 27 feet of water.
Asked where he caught most of the fish all three days he responded, “Very close to here.” In fact, visitors to the event at the Sabine River Authority’s lake office had a ringside seat to watch him fish.
Combs three-day total easily eclipsed the old TTBC tournament record of 76-12 caught in 2011 on Lake Conroe. Actually, all 10 fishermen beat the previous tournament record.
Asked why he has done so well at the TTBC, Combs said it has played perfectly into his strongpoint.
“I love to throw crankbaits fishing offshore. Conroe set up perfectly for that. This was the same. If you are able to fish you favorite technique you are going to do your best,” said Combs, who finished the tournament with a better than 7-pound, 4-ounce average.
Combs, Lane and Blaylock weren’t the only fishermen slugging it out Sunday. Oklahoma’s Justin Christie and Alabama’s Jason Lucas stayed in the fray through much of the day. Christie, who started the morning in fifth, stayed consistent throughout the morning with bass from 4 to 6 pounds.
Lucas, fourth after two rounds, got hot just after noon and landed a 7 and a 6-12 within four minutes of each other.
Within the first hour of the tournament Randy Haynes of Tennessee boated five fish weighing 18-12 and stayed hot throughout the day, finishing with 27 pounds, 8 ounces.
The TTBC included the top fishermen from the 2013 Bassmaster Elite Series, the Walmart FLW Cup and the Professional Anglers Association tournament circuits. It is a unique event because of Lake Fork’s 16- to 24-inch slot limit. Fishermen were permitted to bring in one bass over the slot, but an onboard judge tabulated all bass. The competitors were credited with their top five weights.
For the three day event the fishermen weighed 528 bass totaling 2,702 pounds for a better than 5-pound average.
Final tournament standings were: Keith Combs, Texas, 110; Stetson Blaylock, Arkansas, 102-8; Russ Lane, Alabama, 99-4; Jason Christie, Oklahoma, 97; Jason Lucas, Alabama, 97; Mark Ross, Arkansas, 93; Randy Haynes, Tennessee, 2-12; Matt Reed, Texas, 85-8; Todd Faircloth, Texas, 82-8; and Brandon Coulter, Tennessee, 77-12