After competing in four tournaments to earn their way to the championship event held Jan. 21-22, 61 teams made the cut and went head to head in the final of the 17th annual TuffMan championship two-day, two-lake tournament. The first day was spent on Stillhouse Hollow Reservoir and the second day was spent on Belton Lake.

As early as the Wednesday before this Saturday/Sunday tournament, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was forecasting winds around 36 mph, with gusts over 40 on Sunday, as a strong cold front moved into Texas. As Thursday and Friday came and went, NOAA maintained this forecast.

As the anglers gathered for the pre-tournament meeting on Friday evening at the Expo Center in Belton, many felt the tournament would be won on Stillhouse on the first day, as teams would likely struggle to land quality fish under such difficult conditions on Belton on Sunday.

As the teams returned from their first day on the water at Stillhouse, they rolled into the arena at the Bell County Expo Center, greeted by co-emcees B.A.S.S. professional angler Keith Combs, as well as the president of G3 boats. Each team removed their live catch from their boats’ livewells and had the fish weighed on a digital scale. Once weighed, the fish were released into a recuperation tank for later transport back to Stillhouse Hollow.

The team of Billy Freeman and Ed Cole managed to put together a five-fish limit of bass by 10 a.m., and then continued to search for and catch fish throughout their time on the water, thus allowing them to replace smaller fish with larger fish (a process called culling).

Freeman and Cole experienced their best action using a dropshot rig rigged up with a 4-inch Rattlesnake soft plastic bait fished in a small channel in about 44 feet of water. The pair brought 22.73 pounds of fish to the scale and led the event as the first day came to a close.

As forecast, the winds steadily increased overnight into Sunday morning, and by launch time the winds were every bit as strong as they had been forecast to be — so strong, in fact, that tournament organizers made a decision to allow the anglers to launch on a Belton Lake ramp of their choice instead of insisting on a single launch site as is normally the case.

As the anglers returned to the Expo Center for Sunday’s weigh-in, the Central Texas Boat Show attendees cleared out of the exhibition hall and headed for the arena to see which team would prevail.

All eyes were on the scales as Saturday leaders Freeman and Cole weighed in. They brought five fish weighing a total of 9.25 pounds in from Belton Lake. Their cumulative two-day weight stood at 31.98 pounds.

On Saturday, the team of Ryan Warren and Frank Ellis had a solid performance, bringing in 18.82 pounds of fish, thus landing them in fifth place after the first day. The pair did not really get on the fish until around 10 a.m., but, once they found fish on hydrilla growing in 10-12 feet of water, they were able to sack up their fish on soft plastics.

On Sunday, as the wind denied them access to a number of the areas they desired to fish, Warren and Ellis improvised and deployed a drift sock. This device is more commonly used by catfishermen and hybrid anglers while drifting over large expanses of water with bait. The drift sock behaves like a parachute opened at boatside, serving to greatly slow the speed of a boat’s drift in windy conditions.

The drag created by the drift sock was sufficient to allow Warren and Ellis to work a particular length of bank over and over again. Each pass they made produced fish for them, so they milked that bank for all it was worth using both spinnerbaits and Alabama Rigs.

The fish that bank produced for these inventive anglers would be all it took to put them at the top of the pack. Their 13.41 pounds of fish taken on Belton would give them a grand total weight of 32.23 pounds, just barely nudging out Freeman and Cole by a quarter-pound.

Warren, who just opened B&K Heating and Air in Gatesville, split the $10,000 grand prize with Ellis, owner of A.R.T. Heating and Air in Copperas Cove. Because the pair was fishing out of a Nitro bass boat, Nitro granted an additional $5,000 contingency prize for the pair to split. Both plan to reinvest their earnings into their tournament angling pursuits.

Second place went to Freeman and Cole, and third place went to Thomas Martens and Dean Alexander.

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