Third-year Elite pro Keith Combs of Huntington 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. 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 month. His previous best Elite Series finishes were a ninth in 2011, his rookie year as 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 up 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 Slam 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 [California] 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.”
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