As the last bass was weighed and the 2019-2020 Tuff-Man Series came to a close under the dome of the Bell County Expo Center, a total of $70,700 had been paid out to contestants over the span of the four regular season events and the final, two-day championship event.
The championship event saw 60 teams qualify during the regular season and took place Saturday on Belton Lake, and on Sunday on Stillhouse Hollow.
Even by Texas standards, the weather both days was quite balmy, with manageable winds and afternoon temperatures around 70 degrees, with a water surface temperature around 53.
Under the Tuff-Man format, each two-angler team sought to catch the heaviest five-fish sack over a fixed period of time during each of the two days.
One team, the husband and wife team of Craig and Carla Gilbert, has dominated the Tuff-Man Series over the last several years with multiple first-place finishes, amassing tens of thousands of dollars in winnings. Craig is a U.S. Army retiree, and Carla retired from the Texas prison system after over 20 years of service.
Once again this year, the Gilberts took first place with a two-day cumulative weight of 37.29 pounds.
As I spoke with Craig Gilbert about his approach both days, and his take on the Tuff-Man series in general, he readily shared his thoughts.
Gilbert said that on Day 1 he and his wife began the morning fishing steep banks with both Texas-rigged soft plastics and Carolina-rigged soft plastics fished in 20-foot deep water slowly near the shoreline. Although this approach yielded results, they were not the kind of tournament-winning results they were after.
The Gilberts then shifted their focus to deep water where they landed their largest fish, a 5.73-pound largemouth, on a slab fished vertically in roughly 50 feet of water. The Gilberts ended their day on Belton Lake with five fish weighing 19.81 pounds, nearly five pounds ahead of the second-place team of Lowell Bennett and Johnny Matthews with 14.89 pounds, and nearly seven pounds ahead of the third-place team of Dustin Barfield and Nathan Matthews with 12.91 pounds.
The Gilberts’ strong lead on Day 1 would serve them well on Day 2.
Sunday’s competition was drama-filled. The husband and wife team of Charlie Gantenbein and Wendy Randolph caught two outsized largemouth bass, one of which weighed over 10 pounds, well before the tournament’s end, leaving fans wondering if the couple, who only managed four bass on Belton Lake might pull off a come-from-behind victory.
When the couple added an additional 9-pound fish to their sack, it was anyone’s guess how the contest might turn out.
Gantenbein’s fish were far from the only quality fish landed on Stillhouse during the tournament. Stable water conditions, an ample supply of sunfish, and acres of hydrilla habitat have allowed for bass to grow large. Although Gantenbein’s 9-plus-pound and 10.01-pound fish were the largest of the day, the team of Garrett Hennig and Brandon McQueen landed an 8.55-pound bass. The team of Byron Albrecht and Charles Reagan landed an 8.00-pound bass. Ronnie Mathis and Don Schuetze landed a bass weighing 7.76 pounds, and multiple 4- to 6-pounders were taken, as well.
Once again the Gilberts began fishing shallow early on, experienced minimal results and then went deep and vertical. Gilbert said he only moved four times the entire tournament, and two of these moves took place in the same general vicinity, all the time fishing vertically with a shad-imitating slabs.
“We saw some birds working and hurried to get to them. We saw there were white bass in the area — not many — but enough. We started jigging and it was slow at first, but when we started to pick up some drum, the bass bit right after.”
Vertical jigging yielded a Day 2 seventh-place finish for the Gilberts with a total weight that day of 17.48 pounds. Combined with their strong finish on Day 1, their cumulative two-day weight of 37.29 pounds clinched the victory — and a $12,000 check.
When I asked Gilbert about the key to his consistency, he immediately answered, “Confidence. Confidence allows me to stick to vertical jigging for two or three hours without a bite. I’ve got the patience to persist and stay out there all day doing my favorite thing.”
Gilbert was complimentary of the conduct of the Tuff-Man Series in general, and specifically about the positive changes made this season.
When asked about the Tuff-Man Series, he said, “I like the stiff competition, I like the four-lake format and the new points system, the payout is attractive, and the staff is just great.”
For the second year in a row, the Tuff-Man organizers invited youth anglers from the Central Texas High School Tournament Trail to fish simultaneously, and then share the facilities, stage, emcees and more during each organization’s weigh-in. As the Tuff-Man anglers hit Belton on Saturday, the youth fished Stillhouse, then both entities swapped locations on Sunday.
CTHSTT organizer Henry Niemiec reported that first place went to Riley Ritter and AJ Settle fishing for Bremond ISD with a total weight of 24.99 pounds. Second place went to Brayden Baugh fishing for Robinson Bass Club with a weight of 15.65 pounds. Third place went to Josh Mathews and Hunter Henderson fishing for the Midlothian Bass Club with a weight of 14.51 pounds. The best finish by local youth went to Cole Laxon and Matthew Perry fishing for the All Around Anglers club with a total weight of 12.84 pounds.
Announcing the youths’ results and presenting them with their prizes was longtime professional angler and Waco native Alton Jones Sr. The youth anglers won both prizes and scholarship money.