2014 Classic In Depth – Randall Tharp – Fifth Place

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by Dan O’Sullivan

Randall Tharp Day One Takeoff -  photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Randall Tharp Day One Takeoff – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

When the announcement of Lake Guntersville being the site of the 2014 Bassmaster Classic was made, you could almost hear the drool flowing from Port St. Joe, Fla.  Randall Tharp, now a resident of that Florida town had migrated from Guntersville, Ala., were he cut his competitive teeth, and did so in dominating fashion before heading to Florida.

While he had already planned on fishing the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens, Tharp had extra motivation to earn his spot in the Classic; which would put him competing for the second major title in the past six months, and it would be on a lake he called home for years.

Having already won the 2013 Forrest Wood Cup, Tharp longed for the opportunity to win the Bassmaster Classic.  When he won the third and final stop on the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open schedule on Ross Barnett, he made sure he would have a chance to become the first man to hold both The Forrest Wood Cup and Bassmaster Classic titles at the same time.

The instant his name hit the Classic Roster, Tharp became the anointed one.  Many in the media and even some of the anglers basically said that the event would be his to lose.  Tharp would enter the event as perhaps one of  the heaviest favorites in the history of the Classic, right alongside Jason Christie’s first experience with the event on his home waters in 2012 on Grand Lake in Oklahoma.

While Tharp held on to the faith that his ability and experience would carry him through, he would experience the highs and lows of the Classic, and put in one of the most determined performances in Classic history.

Pre-Practice
Tharp’s experience on Guntersville told him that the one thing he knew would come into play would be the many bridges and causeways around the lake.  He said that he figured many of the competitors would focus on those, so he turned his attention to trying to find something different that would separate him from the masses.

He explained that there were several years that the events on Guntersville used to be dominated by anglers targeting fish still on the river in late winter, but that in recent years it had changed.  He believed that if he could locate schools of fish offshore, he would have the pattern largely to himself.

He set out to scout the lake for a week prior to the cutoff, but after three and a half days of scouting, he called his wife Sara and told her that he was done looking.  “I didn’t want to put too much early information into my head,” he said.  “I just spent m time looking for offshore transition areas where the fish move from their winter homes to their spawning grounds.”

Practice
Armed with his information from practice, Tharp started the official practice looking for ways to trigger the fish in those schools to bite.  He started running the areas that he had located with a trio of lures and had some of his best days he said he had ever experienced on the lake.  “I was really just catching one fish off of each location to see what kind of fish were there, and I was catching good ones,” he said.  “I caught them on a lipless bait (XCalibur XR 50 in Royal Shad, a Rapala DT-6 in Bluegill color and a SPRO McStick 110 in Blue Bandit; those were the baits I would use the whole event.”

He spent the whole official practice day on Wednesday trying to further expand his pattern, and while it set him up to lead the first day and be in strong contention on the second day, he also said it

Randall Tharp Day One Reveal -  photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Randall Tharp Day One Reveal – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

possibly cost him the tournament.  “I never looked for a strong backup pattern,” he said.  “I was looking for what would win the tournament and not what I thought everyone else was doing.

Looking back, I should have looked for something else to fall back on because the weather pattern changed drastically, and the fish did with it.”

But, at the time, he had a pattern put together that relied on offshore ridges with eelgrass points that started in four foot of water and fell off into 10 foot.  He found the vast majority of them in the middle of the lake, around the North Sauty area.  Those types of spots were producing dramatic results and he was poised to make a run at winning the Classic.

Day One
He made his first stop of the event on something he hoped nobody else would locate, and as he had hoped; he had it all to himself.  he reported it being a ridge that had four eelgrass points on it, and that current would wash through the gaps in the grass.

He started the morning with the lipless bait, and at one point, he produced a four pounder, five pounder and an eight pounder on consecutive casts.  By 9:30AM, he had had a limit for around 25 pounds.  He decided to try to expand on his program further, and by the end of the day, he was able to cull a few times.  “I’d call it a gradual progression,” he said. “By the end of the day, I had culled up to my final weight”

He ended the day with 27 pounds, 8 ounces and was in the lead after day one of competition.

Day Two
The second day of the event saw him with much more attention than he had even on the first day despite being a heavy favorite.  Having the lead to start day two meant that he was going to have as many as 100 spectator boats, a remote control helicopter and a lot more attention overall.

Despite that, he said things started well.  “I got off to a great start,” he said.  “I got the school fired up and was going well despite the crowds and casting around that drone helicopter filming.”  He decided to make a move to get some room for himself, and when he arrived, he caught a five pounder on the first cast.

Randall Tharp Day Two Best -  photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Randall Tharp Day Two Best – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

It was then that he had what he called the turning point of his event.  He decided to make a short move, but had a mechanical issue that stopped him.  It got repaired fairly quickly, but he sensed that things had changed once he returned to his area.  While things had been clicking beforehand, they became noticeably tougher afterward and he struggled to get back on rhythm with the fish.

“I don’t know if something changed with the current or spectators while I was getting worked on, but something changed,” he said.  “It was easy before that, and I guess I lost my tune with the fish, because it all changed.”

He brought 19 pounds, 13 ounces to the scales, which pushed his weight to 47 pounds, 5 ounces; one ounce behind day two leader Edwin Evers.

Day Three
The final day never really materialized on the primary pattern for Tharp.  By 11:00, he still had two keepers in his livewell for just under eight pounds.  he decided to make a move to some individual docks that had produced for him regularly in the past, and he started getting bites on a signature 4×4 Jig.  The problem was, the lure, rod reel and line that had become his bread and butter producer, began missing its mark.

“I lost the three bites I had on it,” he said.  “All three were good fish; and one was a true big one, but I just couldn’t keep them pinned.”  He said he set the hook on the final one in a tree, and that it had him hung immediately.  The fish broke free from the cover, swirled at the surface, hung in two branches and stopped.  He trolling motored over and reached for the fish only to watch the lure fall out of its mouth.  “I obviously couldn’t weigh it in the water,” he said. “But, it was bigger than a six pounder, and it really stung.  That was the first time I can ever remember feeling like giving up in a tournament.  I shook that after only a minute, but I know that fish would have made things a lot closer.”

He went back to his ridges after that and managed to fill his limit late.  His rally was a little late, but he managed to bring 15 pounds, 7 ounces to the scales to push his total to 62 pounds, 12 ounces to finish fifth.

Techniques and Equipment
His main lure was the XCalibur XR50 rattle bait.  He reported catching more than 80-percent of the fish he weighed on the lipless crankbait.  He threw that lure on a Halo Fishing 7’4″ medium-heavy crankbait rod that he matched with a Shimano Core 100 reel with 6.2:1 retrieve speed filled with 14-pound-test Gamm Edge Fluorocarbon.

He managed to weigh a few fish on the Bluegill colored Rapala DT-6.  He tossed that on a 7′ medium-heavy Halo Fishing crankbait rod and the same Shimano reel spooled with 10-pound-test

Randall Tharp Day Two Best -  photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Randall Tharp Day Two Best – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

Gamma Edge Fluorocarbon.

He said a few late fish each day came on the SPRO jerkbait, and he threw that on a 7′ medium action Halo Twilight rod, a Shimano Core MG50 reel with 7.2:1 retrieve speed and 10-pound-test Gamma Edge Fluorocarbon line.

Hindsight
Tharp feels that he lost the event by not having a solid backup pattern.  “I planned on the whole tournament being won on those outside fish, and the warming trend we got last week really changed things now that I look back at it,” he said.  “I should have at least given myself something to move to as the fish made their changes with the weather.”

While he is disappointed, and upset that he didn’t give himself more of a chance to win, he realizes that he probably showed a lot of who he is as an angler under the microscope of the Bassmaster Classic.  “I could have really damaged my career had I not performed well,” he said.  “Being a favorite as I was, if I had bombed, then people could have said I wasn’t as good as they had thought.  I certainly wanted to win on Guntersville, but I realize how difficult a local favorite – or one of the true big names in the sport has it – and I’ll be more prepared the next time I go to the Classic.

“This whole experience has made me even hungrier to go out and win this event,” he said.  “I plan on being around for a long time, and I plan on winning this event one day.  it didn’t work out this time, but I will be back again and walk away with that trophy.”