HOT SPRINGS — Connor Cunningham of Springfield, Mo., could have skipped Saturday’s final round and still won the championship at the Bass Fishing League All-American on Lake Hamilton.
Cunningham’s weight after Friday’s second round would have been enough to win the championship by 2 ounces. Nevertheless, Cunningham padded his total Saturday by catching five bass weighing 11 pounds, 10 ounces for a final weight of 44-4 to win the $100,000 championship. Cunningham won an additional $20,000 bonus from Phoenix Boats and a $2,000 bonus from an outboard motor sponsor to boost his winnings to $122,000.
Hunter Eubanks of Inman, S.C., who entered the final round in second place, finished the tournament in the same position. His three-day total weight of 32-9 fell an ounce short of Cunningham’s two-day total of 32-10.
The victory capped Cunningham’s first season on the Major League Fishing Bass Fishing League circuit, which features one-day tournaments geared to amateur weekend anglers. Cunningham works for a beverage distributor in Springfield, Mo.
“I think it’s a huge achievement to get into this tournament from the Ozark Division,” Cunningham said. “I think there’s been four or five [Ozark Division] champions in this tournament. To be in their company, I don’t think I deserve to be in their company.”
While the rest of the field weighed in limits of small fish, Cunningham averaged 14.8 pounds per day throwing a bone colored Whopper Plopper, a novelty lure that usually doesn’t catch fish on reservoirs in early summer. He threw it in shallow water and caught most of his fish in depths of 1-3 feet. He said he fished 30-40 spots, which he said covered the entire lake.
“It’s something I do at home a little bit when the conditions are right,” Cunningham said. “In this clear water, it scares people off even thinking they’re that shallow. But these big largemouths, sometimes you can catch them shallow. I got super lucky to catch them this shallow at this time at this lake, but I think it’s because nobody does it and sticks with it all day.”
An abundance of bass fry was Cunningham’s clue that bass were in shallow water. With that many baby bass concentrated in the shallows, Cunningham said he believed that adult bass were surely nearby. Other anglers noticed the fry, as well, but they did not complete the puzzle.
Brian Bean of Hot Springs, for example, said that Lake Hamilton was a couple of weeks behind other lakes in the state, referring to the bass spawn phase.
“I actually caught one off a [spawning] bed [Friday],” Bean said. “There’s a lot of fry around.”
Cunningham said the shallow post-spawn pattern is probably fading.
“If you held this tournament another week or two later, I don’t think I would have had this kind of luck,” Cunningham said.
In the first two rounds, Cunningham said he caught almost all of his fish on a Whopper Plopper.
“It’s always been my favorite since it came out,” Cunningham said. “I used bone and black, but they didn’t like the black one.”
He used a 7.3:1 high speed reel and a 7-foot, 3-inch, medium/heavy Halo Fishing HFX rod.
“It has enough backbone to horse those big fish around and enough tip to deliver the bait. It’s the perfect rod for it,” Cunningham said.
He said he also used 65-pound test braided line because it does not stretch. He said he does not want his line to stretch when using a Whopper Plopper.
Cunningham’s home lake is Table Rock Lake at Branson. He qualified for the All-American by finishing second in a regional championship on Lake Norfork. Both of those lakes are similar to Lake Hamilton in terms of clarity and cover.
“Lake Hamilton is set up a lot like Table Rock would be in the fall,” Cunningham said. “You could not catch them like this on Table Rock in June.”:
Cunningham said he also caught a few bass on a football jig in deep water. He caught one fish late in the first round with a deep-diving crankbait over a hump about 15 feet deep.