There was nothing fancy about the way Keith Combs won the St. Croix Bassmaster Central Open at Sam Rayburn presented by Mossy Oak Fishing.
As the saying goes, “slow and steady wins the race.”
Combs, an Elite Series pro from Huntington, Texas, only a half-hour away from Saturday’s weigh-in at Umphrey Family Pavilion, weighed 16 pounds, 11 ounces on the final day to score a come-from-behind victory with a three-day total of 46-5.
keitCombs was a model of consistency in this derby, catching 14-4 on Day 1 to settle into 14th place, then adding 15-6 a day later to jump to seventh. When none of the six anglers ahead of him at Saturday’s start could muster a bag better than his 16-11 limit, the local favorite seized the championship.
Combs collected $43,867, but his sweetest prize was the berth he secured in the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic. The veteran has fished in eight previous Classics, and his ninth will come March 24-26 on the Tennessee River in Knoxville.
“I’m just happy I don’t have to work the (Classic) Expo,” Combs said, laughing. “But I am relieved. I’ve had some high points this season. I thought I could win (the Elite) on the Mississippi River and I didn’t get it done there (finishing third). I’ve had some seconds the last few years, and that just stings.
“I’m glad the season’s over,” he added. “And it’s good to win at home.”
Combs said he was relieved, as much as elated, he’ll return to the Classic for the first time since 2020. He finished 64th in the Progressive Insurance Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings, which wasn’t high enough to get a spot in the 2023 Classic.
With his finish at Rayburn, it’s a moot point.
The 114,000-acre reservoir in east Texas was nearly 6 feet low, which made fishing difficult at times for even the pros most familiar with the reservoir. Tough enough, Combs said, that he fished places for the first time ever this week.
One spot he located in practice proved particularly productive.
“It was really unique,” he said. “I saw a hard spot off to the side of a channel (I’d been graphing) and I thought it was interesting. It was glowing on the Side Scan, out in this mud flat. I didn’t see any fish there, but it looked like the kind of place I catch them.
“A couple of days before the tournament started, I fished it about 9 a.m. and I got a 5-pounder. I knew it had potential.”
Two of Combs’ best bass on Saturday (both in the 4- to 5-pound range) came off that spot, in about 15 feet of water. He said his best bites came on a Strike King Structure Jig (Okeechobee craw) and a dark-colored Strike King Zeus Worm. He moved shallow late in the day and caught a 3-pounder on a Strike King Tungsten Thunder Cricket.
Combs said other productive lures on Rayburn included a Strike King 6XD crankbait (chartreuse/blue) and a 5XD Tennessee shad 2.0 crankbait.
Of the 188 pros who started the tournament, 10 made the cut to fish Saturday. They included Day 2 leader Logan Latuso, who finished second with 44-8 after weighing four bass for 7-7 on Saturday. He caught a tournament-best 31-4 limit on Friday, including the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the event (9-13).
“It’s a high and a low right now,” the Louisiana pro said. “Only needing 9 pounds to win and only catching four fish.
“But I achieved a lifelong dream by qualifying for the Elite Series today. So that feels really good, to finally make it.”
Latuso earned $22,057 for finishing second and another $750 for the Big Bass honors. Others in the Top 10 were Wisconsin’s Kyle Norsetter (43-11), Tennessee’s Tristan McCormick (43-3), Louisiana’s Tyler Rivet (39-14), Texas’ Cody Bird (39-3), Oklahoma’s Austin Cranford (37-15), Japan’s Kenta Kimura (36-7) and the Illinois tandem of Hayden Newberry (35-9) and Trevor McKinney (32-12).
As part of the Yamaha Power Pay program, Combs took home an additional $1,500.
Rivet added an additional $500 to his winnings for being the highest-finishing Garmin pro.
Six invitations to the 2023 Bassmaster Elite Series were decided Saturday — three going to the anglers who finished atop the Central Opens standings and three more to anglers placing highest in this year’s overall Bassmaster Opens points standings.
Former Elite Series pro Bradley Hallman, of Edmond, Okla., finished first in the Central Opens points race and punched his ticket back into the Elites for 2023. Norsetter was second in the Centrals and Latuso third.
Former Elite Series pro Keith Poche, of Pike Road, Ala., was the overall points winner, collecting $10,000 with that distinction. Poche had already requalified for the Elite Series through the Northern Opens points race.
Tennessee’s Cole Sands (third in overall Opens points), Alabama’s David Gaston (fourth) and Oklahoma’s John Soukup (sixth) also earned spots in the 2023 Bassmaster Elite Series on Saturday. Canada’s Cooper Gallant (second in the Opens points race) qualified for the Elites through the Southern Opens earlier this year.
The Jasper-Lake Sam Rayburn Chamber of Commerce hosted this week’s events.