ZAPATA, Texas — Third-year Elite pro Keith Combs of Huntington, Texas, locked out 11 other finalists Monday in the Rigid Industries Falcon Slam, including his biggest threat after three rounds, four-time Bassmaster Classic champ and Zen master of bass fishing, Rick Clunn.
After weighing 28 pounds, 2 ounces on the final day, Combs hit and surpassed the 100-pound mark with 111 pounds, 5 ounces over four days of competition on Falcon Lake out of Zapata, Texas. In his home state on a lake he’s guided on for years, Combs took his first Bassmaster Elite Series title in wire-to-wire fashion and by a margin of 5-15 over Clunn.
Besides the Bassmaster Century Club entry, Combs walked away with $100,000, an automatic berth in the 2014 Bassmaster Classic, and 100 points in the 2013 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, which awards $100,000 at the end of the eight-event regular season.
“I’m going to cherish this. Wins like this don’t come around often,” Combs said. “I’ve been trying for a long time to get a tour-level win. With the Classic berth, it’s also a relief. This is a huge career move for me.”
Combs has qualified for two Classics, but he missed the 2013 event last February. His previous best Elite Series finishes were a ninth in 2011, his rookie year at an Elite, and a third in 2012. Both were on the St. Johns River in Florida. He’s also scored successes on other circuits in his 18 years as a pro, including the win in the 2010 Toyota Texas Bass Classic.
As he toted his shoulder-stretching bag to the tanks, Combs didn’t think he had the win sewn up over Clunn.
“I figured he would catch 35 again today. He’d caught it two days in a row, I didn’t see how that would change,” Combs said.
Every day of the Slam presented ups and downs for the champ. While the first day his limit of 34-13 happened “pretty quick,” he said, the other three days he had to fight to upgrade 14-inchers.
“When you have a 14-inch fish on Falcon, it’s a ‘down.’ But it always worked out that I caught a big one late in the day,” he said.
Monday, his last bass was his largest of the tournament; it ran about 7 1/2 pounds, he estimated. But he had to wait a painful five hours to get it. With four big ones in the livewell by 8:45 a.m., he was stumped. Then he went to one sweet spot he’d reserved near the check-in point.
With five minutes to go, he boated the 7 1/2-pounder.
“I’ve caught one on that spot every day,” he said. “Today it culled a 1-pounder.”
Combs said his winning lure was a Strike King 6XD in chartreuse blue. He caught all but three of his fish on the 6XD; one he hooked on a Strike King Game Hawg, and two on a 10-inch plum-colored worm.
His pattern, he said, was “simple.” All four days he ran a series of main-lake rock piles on ledges peaking at 6 feet and dropping to about 20 feet.
“I was setting my casts in 6 to 8 feet (of water) and working my bait aggressively,” he said. “I think that was the key. It was a reaction deal. I could see them on my (electronics), but just getting one to bite was hard. I would cast shallow and burn them back to the boat.”
The 12 finalists had a day of forced rest Sunday when high winds on Falcon Lake postponed the last round until Monday. Combs said the off day “saved him.”
“I definitely could not have fished the areas I caught them in today,” he said, noting his water was a long run to the dam and got the worst of the waves, while Clunn’s area was close by and somewhat protected. “I would have gone there and tried it yesterday, but I am sure Rick would have stomped me.”
Clunn, 1 pound behind Combs after three days, missed a chance for his first Elite Series victory to add to his 14 Bassmaster career wins and a record 32 Classic qualifications. Clunn brought in 23-3 Monday, but it was good enough only for second place. But with a 105-6 total, Clunn achieved a goal that’s eluded him in his storied career: making the Century Club.
“That was one of my goals because we don’t get many opportunities to do that. I’ve done a lot of things in my career, but for the last several years, we’ve gone to some really good lakes like Falcon, Clear Lake and the [Louisiana] Delta where you can achieve a hundred, and I hadn’t done it,” he said.
Clunn said coming in with only three fish on the first day after missing several strikes would probably not have changed the outcome of the tournament. He looked back on his Day Two bag of 32-9 and his Day Three catch of 36-14 — the event’s largest — as lifetime achievements.
“Those were the best two days of my fishing career,” he said. “That put me back into the hunt for the 100.”
John Crews of Salem, Va., took third place with 103-13, for the tournament’s third entry in the Century Club. He had the Berkley Heavyweight bag of the day, 29-7, as well as the day’s largest Berkley Big Bass, an 8-6 he stuck with only three minutes left in his fishing time.
Taking fourth place with 99-2 was Elite rookie Josh Bertrand of Gilbert, Ariz. Bertrand began his day in 12th place, but his 27-2 of Monday pulled him up.
Fifth place was secured with 95-9 by Cliff Prince, the Palatka, Fla., pro who was in second place after Day One, even though he had never before competed on Falcon. Edwin Evers of Talala, Okla., finished sixth with 94-10.
The 2012 Rookie of the Year, Brandon Card of Caryville, Tenn., finished seventh at 94-5 and racked up enough points to take the lead in the Angler of the Year race. The points he earned last week with his 10th-place finish on the Sabine River System, combined with his Slam’s points, gave him a two-point lead over Evers.
Bonuses earned by anglers at the Rigid Industries Falcon Slam included:
* Carhartt Big Bass of the tournament, worth $1,000, plus another $500 if the angler was wearing Carhartt apparel, to Matt Greenblatt of Port St. Lucie, Fla., for his Day Two bass of 10-13.
* Berkley Heavyweight Award of $500 for the best five-fish limit goes to Clunn for his Day Three bag of 36-14.
* Toyota $1,000 bonus to the leader in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race: Card with 185 points over two events.
* Luck “E” Strike Comeback Award of $500 to Clunn, who achieved the biggest jump in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings, up to 26th place from 71st.
* Power-Pole Captain’s Cash award of $500 to Clunn as the highest finisher equipped with Power-Poles.
* Livingston Lures Leader Award of $500 for leading on the second day: Combs, who led by posting 28-1 over two days.
Next on the Bassmaster Elite Series schedule is a return to Bull Shoals Lake out of Bull Shoals, Ark., for the April 18-21 Ramada Quest. In April 2012, when the Elite Series last stopped at Bull Shoals, Brandon Palaniuk of Rathdrum, Idaho, won by almost 12 pounds over his nearest challenger. For more on the upcoming event, go to Bassmaster.com.