The Tennessee River lakes are some of the most regarded bass fisheries in the world. Pickwick, Guntersville, Wheeler, Chickamauga, and Kentucky Lake all come to mind when discussing these famed lakes, but Watts Bar Lake has flown under the radar, having never hosted a top-level professional bass tournament until this year.
It was an unknown for many in the field and proved to be quite the challenge to the anglers as the fish were transitioning between their shallow spawning locations and deeper summertime haunts on the main river. But some anglers were able to piece together the puzzle.
Going with the trend for the year of first-time winners, Alabama's Ryan Salzman won the event with 13 bass for 24 pounds, 13 ounces, on the final day. He edged out Jacob Wheeler by 11 ounces.
The story of the first few days of fishing on Watts Bar was a tough bite, but anglers found success both shallow and deep. Kevin VanDam and David Walker were the group winners and advanced directly to the Championship Round.
Bass fishing legend VanDam has scored several wins on Tennessee River lakes in his career and was able to win Group A after catching 21 bass for 51-3 over two days of fishing. Instead of the typical cranking pattern he helped make famous this time of year on neighboring fisheries, he stuck shallow. He mixed it up with a jerkbait, a shallow crankbait, a vibrating jig, and a creature bait he'd pitch into lay-downs.
In Group B, Tennessee pro David Walker scored two consistent days of 22-1 and 23-10 to win the group. He also kept it fresh, fishing a Carolina-Rig, a medium diving crankbait, and a bladed swim jig to win the group.
As the remaining 38 anglers took to Watts Bar for the Knockout Round, they were greeted with rain and lightning, which caused MLF officials to delay the start of the morning for an hour.
Veteran pro Mark Davis was able to win the round with ten bass for 25-12, primarily on the strength of a drop-shot, lipless crankbait, and 10-inch worm on a Texas-rig fished around docks and grass. The remaining seven advanced anglers found success with many different patterns in what proved to be a very close day with tight weights down to 8th place.
Randall Tharp, Ryan Salzman, Jacob Wheeler, Dakota Ebare, Brent Ehrler, Fletcher Shryock, and Alton Jones were the remaining anglers who made up the Championship Round field.
While the event lacked the huge catch totals of other Bass Pro Tour events, it wasn't short of drama. The low weights on the final day meant that several anglers had a chance to make a run and win, which Salzman did late in the day.
Jacob Wheeler held the lead with 90-minutes to go before Salzman took over with a 2-10. Wheeler then regained the top spot with a 2-2 with 35 minutes left in the day. Then, Salzman added a 2-0 of his own 10 minutes later to reacquire the top spot. It was enough and gave Salzman his first tour-level victory, but not before some tense moments.
"My stomach was in knots, and I kept telling myself to calm down and focus on the next cast," the rookie Salzman said. "I'm speechless that it happened. This field is phenomenal and they don't cut you any slack; they bring the heat every tournament."
To win, Salzman focused his efforts on the current around Watts Bar Dam and he never left sight of it the entire week.
"In practice, they were schooling like crazy, and I knew it was the winning spot if I could figure out how to catch them," he said. "The first two days during the qualifying rounds, I was able to catch enough of them on a Roboworm on a drop-shot rig to advance."
During the Knockout and Championship rounds, the current flow increased along with the bass activity. "The magic started to happen during the Knockout Round when they started pulling more current and getting the fish positioned feeding on shad."
To catch his winning bass, he fished a trio of small shad-imitating swimbaits, a Keitech Swing Impact Fat, a Reaction Innovations Little Dipper, and a True Bass 3.5-inch Minner.
"Words can't describe this win," he said. "This is a dream come true for me, and I just hope I can do it again."