Dare to be different: That was strategy of bass pro James Watson when he won national tournament

James Watson (center) of Nixa, Mo., celebrated after learning that he had the winning weight in the Bassmaster Central Open at Table Rock Lake from Oct. 1-3.
James Watson (center) of Nixa, Mo., celebrated after learning that he had the winning weight in the Bassmaster Central Open at Table Rock Lake from Oct. 1-3. Special to The Star

To the average bass fisherman, James Watson’s strategy in one of the biggest bass tournaments of his life just didn’t make sense.

There he was, fishing in the shallows in the middle of the day, on super-clear Table Rock Lake, with the sun beating down. And using a topwater lure, no less.

Watson definitely was going against the grain. And that’s why he ended up as the champion in the three-day Bassmaster Central Open from Oct. 1-3.

While many other pros worked deeper water with bottom-probing lures, Watson stayed on top and caught 15 bass weighing 46 pounds, 4 ounces. That earned him the championship prize of a fully rigged bass boat valued at $45,000 and $7,918 in cash.

But the biggest prize, in his eyes, was an automatic berth in the Bassmaster Classic.

“Anybody who has ever fished for bass dreams about sitting in your boat and being towed into the arena for weigh-ins at the Classic, and holding your fish up for the crowd to see,” said Watson, 43, who lives in Nixa, Mo. “This is like an unbelievable dream for me.”

And all because he dared to be different.

But it wasn’t as if Watson was following some wild hare when he came up with his strategy. He used the same tactics to win a Professional Anglers Association (PAA) national tournament in September of 2013 at Table Rock. He went into the Bassmaster tournament confident he could duplicate that performance.

Though topwater lures often are associated with early morning and late evening fishing, Watson found that bass will hit them in the middle of the day, especially right after a full moon.

“At this time of the year, the bass will be on chunk-rock banks chasing big gizzard shad,” said Watson, who is in his sixth year of fishing on the pro circuit. “These shad can be 10 to 15 inches long. We call them grizzlies.

“The bass will just be cruising through, chasing these big shad.”

The key? Finding the banks with the biggest rocks he could find.

Watson fished from the dam to the Baxter area, always keying on spots that fit his pattern. He wasn’t tied to one spot. In fact, he said he fished new water every day.

“I spent a lot of time on the trolling motor, just looking for those key spots,” he said.

He used two large topwater lures, a Luck E Strike Frantic Toad and a River2Sea Whopper Plopper, to catch his bass.

Jacob Wheeler of Indianapolis, finished second with 42 pounds, 12 ounces.

For Watson, the Table Rock tournament was just one more step in his professional career. He has found success on the FLW and PAA pro circuits, now he is hopeful he can make his mark on the BASS side.

He co-owns a realty business in the Ozarks, but stopped splitting his time between selling houses and fishing three years ago. He is now a full-time pro, though he still owns half of the business.

“I can always go back to the realty business if I have to,” he said. “But hopefully, that won’t be for a while.”

Brent Frazee: 816-234-4319, @fishboybrent