RUSSELLVILLE -- A co-angler's gentle rebuke might offend some anglers, but it saved Jason Lieblong of Conway from disaster during the second round of the FLW Toyota Series bass tournament Friday at Lake Dardanelle.
Instead of getting angry, Lieblong heeded his co-angler's advice and recovered to post an impressive finish Friday. He finished strong on Saturday, too, with five bass weighing 15-15 pounds for a three-day total of 40-9 to win the tournament and $70,277.
Lieblong, who had been steadily catching bass in the lower part of the lake at Delaware Bay, decided midway through Friday's second round that he could catch bigger bass upriver. With three bass in the live well, Lieblong and his co-angler Max Wilson made a long run to the far upper end. They went three hours without a bite.
"Max Wilson. He's 79 years old," said Lieblong, whose only other win at Lake Dardanelle was an FLW Ray-O-Vac event in 2015. "He kind of got on me like my dad would. He said, 'Son, what are we doing up here? The fish are down there, and you haven't caught a fish in three hours.' "
Lieblong conceded the point and made the long run back down the lake to his forsaken hot spot.
Lieblong spent most of the tournament in a relatively small area that teemed with baitfish. He caught most of his bass on a white Jackhammer chatterbait and a bone colored cigar bait by Paycheck Baits called The One, which is no longer produced. He also flipped wood cover with a green pumpkin Zoom Brush Hawg.
Discouraged from nearly a half decade of futility on his home lake, Lieblong said he dedicated himself this year to winning this Toyota Series event. He fished many small tournaments throughout the summer and paid close attention to prominent local anglers such as Kevin Short of Fairfield Bay, who finished 10th in the Toyota Series event.
"That's the best of the best," Lieblong said. "Fishing against those guys every weekend, you're doing something. It's time on the water. Find a spot here and there and find out what's going on. It's making the right choices, like coming back downriver yesterday when we weren't getting bit upriver."
The conditions were right for success. Water levels fell consistently in the upper end where many of the 224 anglers concentrated. Daily fluctuations repositioned fish daily and kept those anglers scrambling. That's the situation Lieblong encountered during his brief visit to that part of the lake.
The water level was stable in the lower lake. Slight north and northeast winds on Thursday and Friday positioned bait and bass in less than 2 feet of water. On Saturday, a northeast wind blew 5-10 mph. It pushed the bait out into 3 feet, which Lieblong said was "doable."
"The lake level was high on the lower end, which makes it good for my kind of fishing," Lieblong said. "The wind pushed the bait out, but they were still on points in 2-3 feet of water. The shad were so thick you could almost walk on them. We threw a chatterbait or spook to fire them up, and it never stopped."
Joe Bennett of Ashland, Mo., led the tournament entering the final round and was rock solid consistent with 13-6 and 13-14, respectively, on Thursday and Friday. A 13-pound bag on Saturday would have sealed the deal for him. Instead, he caught only four fish that weighed 6-12 for a three-day total of 34-0.
"Joe caught them well the first two days," Lieblong said. "I told myself, 'This is Dardanelle. Either he catches them or he doesn't.' He had four fish. That's happened to me a hundred times on this lake."
Lieblong said he prevailed despite himself.
"The first two days I kept messing up," Lieblong said. "I spent an hour and a half on a sandbar that I found in practice that I never fished. I idled around for an hour and a half and never had any fish, but I had bites in practice and I had to get to it.
"I go over there and catch one fish. I said, 'This isn't going to work,' so I ran upriver with a squarebill and got lucky and caught one on a rock wall. I saw a stick and flipped at it and caught two with an hour to go and finished with 11 pounds. I got lucky."
After weighing in 13-0 on Friday, which improved his Thursday weight by 1-6, Lieblong said he went to bed knowing he had a very good chance to win.
"When I culled one at 1:30 today, I looked at my co-angler and said, 'We might have this.' I needed to cull because if they're biting for me, they might be biting for the guys that are leading."
When Lieblong said "we" might have this, he meant it. His co-angler, Jeremy Parker of Batavia, Ill., won the co-angler division and a new Phoenix bass boat and motor package valued at $35,000.