GROVE, Okla. When Mike McClelland finished seventh in the Bassmaster Memorial in Fort Worth, Texas, two weeks ago, he missed the cut for the final day, and therefore a chance to win, by three ounces. McClelland typically has a large entourage of family and friends that travels from Arkansas to support him, some wearing "Yellin' for McClelland" t-shirts. When they consoled him after the close-but-no-cigar performance at Fort Worth, McClelland told every one of them the same thing.
"I told them it was okay," recalled McClelland, "but I really want to win at Grand Lake."
McClelland, a 38-year-old Bella Vista, Ark., resident, not only won the CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series Sooner Run on Grand Lake, he led from start to finish. And it wasn't even close.
Over four days of five-bass daily limits, McClelland totaled 79 pounds, 7 ounces. After catching a 25-pound, 3-ounce limit Friday, McClelland opened a 12-pound lead on the field and was never seriously challenged. McClelland's final margin of victory was 15-9 over Matt Reed of Madisonville, Texas, who finished second with 63-14.
"This is surreal," McClelland said.
Part of that feeling was from a $100,000 first-place paycheck. But more importantly, it may prove to be the next step up the ladder of professional bass fishing success for McClelland. He started fishing Bassmaster events in 1997, then quit the pro circuit for two years while working for Champion Boats before returning to the tour in 2004.
McClelland has tasted success before. He had won three Bassmaster tournaments before this season, including the CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship last December on the Alabama River.
"Before this season, my goal was to win the (Bassmaster) Classic, Angler of the Year or one of these Elite Series tournaments," said McClelland. "I feel like I've reached that next plateau now. This solidifies me as an angler who is going to remain on the Tour. And it gives me the opportunity to pick up some bigger sponsorships."
McClelland grew up in northwestern Arkansas. Bella Vista, where he currently resides, is just over an hour's drive from Grand Lake, a 46,500-acre impoundment in the Ozark hills of northeastern Oklahoma. McClelland guessed he'd spent more than 100 days of tournament and pre-tournament bass fishing here. Before that, Grand Lake, with its wide variety of structure and a healthy bass population, served as the training waters for his pro fishing career.
"This is where I learned to fish boat docks, and this lake is where I learned to flip willow trees," McClelland said. "I learned a lot about fishing deep structure on this lake, too."
That last technique is what McClelland relied on to win this week. He'd made up his mind a month ago, when the lake was closed to the tournament anglers until this week, that he was going to target big fish. And that meant fishing relatively deep. Most of his bass were caught at depths of 8 to 20 feet.
"The biggest thing I did was slow down," McClelland said. "These post-spawn fish want a very, very slow presentation. I'd drag my bait until I hit a brushpile. When I'd get it there, I'd just yo-yo it until one of those big ones latched on."
McClelland added to his winnings with a 7-pound, 7-ounce largemouth Friday, good for another $1,000 as the big bass of the day. It was the second-largest bass caught in the tournament, topped only by a 7-10 caught by Timmy Horton of Muscle Shoals, Ala., on Thursday.
McClelland caught all of his fish on three lures. His primary bait was a half-ounce Jewel Heavy Cover Finesse football-head jig combined with a Zoom Baby Brush Hog soft plastic trailer. Main color patterns for the jig were peanut butter and peanut butter-and-jelly. Trailer colors included green pumpkin, watermelon with purple flakes and watermelon with red flakes. When he was carolina-rigging, McClelland relied primarily on a green pumpkin full-size Zoom Brush Hog. He also caught fish on a Norman DD22 crankbait in a blue back/chartreuse sides color pattern.
"All of those are big profile baits," McClelland said. "That half-ounce jig might sound small, but you build it up with the trailer and it's really a pretty big bait."
To cap the surreal aspect of McClelland's big week, Sunday also marked his middle son Jacob's 16th birthday. Everyone knows what a teenage boy wants on his 16th birthday. McClelland's lucky streak may have actually started when he won $16,500 for his seventh place finish at Fort Worth. It was with those winnings that he bought Jacob the car he'll get for turning 16. There's no telling what kind of ride the teenager might have begged for if he knew dad had an extra $100,000 in the bank.