By 1994, Oklahoma pro OT Fears had won the 1987 Red Man All-American on the Arkansas River and established himself as a full-time pro, but despite three Bassmaster Classic appearances, he’d yet to win a B.A.S.S. event. He’d finished 4th at Truman Reservoir in 1983, but since that time he’d notched just four top tens, finishing no better than 7th in any event.
In the mid-90s, though, he went on a bit of a tear, winning three events in the span of 20 tournaments, during a time period of just over a year and a half. The first of those was the 1994 South Carolina Invitational on Santee Cooper, which proved to be not only his B.A.S.S. breakthrough, but also a record-breaker. He won with 77-04 over three days, including a then-record one day, five fish limit of 34 pounds 4 ounces.
“I didn’t know I was on them,” Fears recalled 18 years later. “In practice I caught one fish off the flat and there was another boat close enough to tell if I had a big fish on, so I sat on the rod box and hand-lined it in. While I was sitting there I looked over the shady side of the boat and there was a big black area under the boat. The fish was 6 ½ or 7 pounds and there were 25 or 30 with it, all the same size or bigger. I released it, immediately stood up, got back on the spot where I had hooked it and triangulated.”
The Santee tournament occurred during a period when few if any pros utilized GPS, and Fears was not among the early-adapters. However, his years of fishing and other outdoor pursuits and provided him with plenty of practice in on-the-water relocation, and he said even though it was offshore this was a particularly easy waypoint to eyeball.
“There were two markers on the west shoreline of the lake,” he said. “There was also a stump 150 yards away. With that, a notch on a tree and a smokestack, it lined up perfectly. You couldn’t miss it.”
On the first day of the tournament, despite a strong northern wind that he said produced 3 to 4 foot waves, Fears headed directly to the sweet spot, got a buoy down and lined up his cast. The marker was critical because “if you missed by 10 feet to one side or the other, you wouldn’t get a bite, but if you lined up with the smokestack it was every cast.”
He cast out a Carolina-rigged Zoom green pumpkin lizard and in short order had a big limit in the boat, but despite the fact that he landed every fish that bit, the day was not without its challenges.
“They were meaner than junkyard dogs,” he said. “The meanest I’ve ever tangled with before or since, post-spawn bass that had hit their stride and were feeding up. Every one jumped multiple times, 3 or 4 feet high, and every one pulled drag.”
The fish were the first priority, but fending off another competitor was the second hurdle he had to face. As he fought his second bass, he drifted away from his marker buoy and another fisherman, who’d been fishing a point about a half mile away, followed he bent pole pattern right onto the spot. “I wasn’t paying attention and he drifted in there and started fishing my spot,” Fears said. “I went in there and pushed him away. I had to push him off every time. After my fifth fish, he said ‘OT, why don’t you share it with me? I knew they were here.’ I responded that he must’ve been the dumbest SOB on earth because he was already on the point when I got there.”
With five fish secured in the livewell of his Ranger, Fears was faced with a quandary: he could leave and help his partner catch his fourth and fifth fish, or he could stay and guard the spot. “I knew if we left that that other guy was going to get on the spot,” he said. “So I told my partner that if he agreed to sit there all day I’d let him catch two more. We dropped the anchor and told the other guy to get away. We sat there the rest of the day eating cookies and drinking Mountain Dew. Every hour they’d come up schooling, giant fish, and it took a lot of restraint not to throw at them. My five ended up weighing 28-09 and my partner’s were 21-06.”
Despite the big day, Fears did not lead the tournament. David Fritts, in the midst of what became known as a “Fritts Blitz,” had almost four pounds more. He’d earned six top three finishes in B.A.S.S. competition in the previous 12 months, including three wins, one of which had been in the Bassmaster Classic the previous August. With the 32—08 catch, he now also held the B.A.S.S. record for a five fish limit.
On Day Two, Fears drew a partner who allowed him to pursue Fritts with abandon. “He was a corporate raider type of guy from Indiana,” Fears said. “He just fished them for fun.” Unfortunately, he once again butted heads with another boater. “That morning when I got there, I put my buoy down and up comes a bright blue Bass Cat, about a pitch away, and starts to fish. I said ‘What the hell are you doing?’ He looked at me and said ‘OT, is that you? This guy [referring to his partner] told me these are his fish.’ He pulled the trolling motor. Then Gerald Crawford came up to take pictures of me. The blue Bass Cat came back. ‘This guy said they’re his fish.’ The guy made a cast. I said ‘Gerald, take a picture. I’m protesting him.”
Despite what appeared to be an early setback, everything else about the day went flawlessly for Fears. “We got out there and it was a calm morning,” he said. “I catch five – boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. At that point [my partner] told me ‘You need to beat Fritts’ record. No one will remember who won, but they will remember the record.”
Fears took out his handheld scale, which placed his limit at somewhere between 29 and 30 pounds. His partner had three fish for 18 pounds but could have had much more. “I’d told him to bring 17 pound line, but he showed up with 12 pound test leader and he broke off three on the hook set. Three big ones broke the leader and one jumped off.” Fears was afraid he’d wear out the school, but his partner urged him once again to upgrade. “I made one cast and bowed up. When I weighed him, I was under 32 pounds. My smallest was 4-12. I made another cast and caught a six-something, which put me right over 32 pounds, plus or minus 2 ounces on my scales. I knew that I might not have the record. My smallest was like a 5-02. I made one more cast and bowed up on a giant. It was wild. I couldn’t control it, it was under the boat on the other side, jumping, but I got it in and it weighed 7-07, which gave me 34-04 on my scale.”
Mid-1990s bass boats did not feature the spacious livewells found in today’s boats. Fears had to find a way to fit five fish that averaged nearly 7 pounds in a confined space not built with that sort of catch in mind.
“They were stacked in there on one side of the livewell like cordwood,” he said. “I had two on the bottom laying on their sides, two in the middle upright, and the one on top that had to be wedged in there. There was no extra room in that livewell. Fortunately, the water and air temperatures were cool.”
In order to guard against mechanical foul-ups, Fears and his partner headed back to the launch site with 45 minutes to spare and proceeded to fish near the ramp.
“My partner needed two more,” he said. “There was a little creek by the weigh in with some holes in the grass. There were two other tournament boats in there. I told my partner to run the trolling motor, but he wanted me to do it. I started throwing a Bill Norman ZZ Top and boom, caught a 2-pounder. Then I caught another about 2 ½. The boat from the back of the creek was now about 25 yards away. I kept throwing that topwater into the open spots. One blows up on it, just a big old set of lips. I go in on the trolling motor, get it, and clear the grass away. Now the boat is about 10 yards away. I put the fish on the scale and it was 5-08, but my smallest was 6-02. It was a classic moment, being able to say ‘That one’s too small.’”
Even after weighing in his record catch, Fears could not rest easy. He found out shortly after weigh-in that on Day Three he’d have “a little extra local help.”
“The guy in the blue Bass Cat came up to me and said ‘That guy said he’s going to get even with you. He’s going to send his buddies to help you out. Then the guy’s wife confronted me. She said ‘My husband said he found those fish.’ I said ‘Your husband’s a liar.’”
The next morning Fears arrived at his spot to find three large deceased bass floating ominously. “Later, word got back to me that the guy had his local buddies go there the evening before and catch a few and put a car battery in the water. I couldn’t get a bite. Finally I catch one, then another, and then I had one over 6 jump off. I caught three or four, but couldn’t get a limit, and my partner just had one that he caught off another spot.” Still, with a bag that weighed 14-07, he beat runner-up Fritts by over 7 pounds and weighed nearly 10 pounds more than third place finisher Lendell Martin.
It took 35 pounds to claim a check (55th place out of 297 anglers) – Fears nearly had that on Day Two alone. Nearly two decades later, he still cherishes that experience: “To have that kind of day, for any fisherman you know it’s a once in a lifetime deal,” he said. “Few people get to experience it. I’m confident that I could’ve had 40 pounds if I had worked on them.”
Even if he’d pushed the scales to 40 pounds, his record still would have been beaten a little less than seven years later, when Dean Rojas shocked the sport with a 45 pound catch at Toho. Fears noted that the two tournaments were very different – “All of [Dean’s] fish were pre-spawn,” he noted, adding that if the Santee fish had been in the same state they would’ve averaged a pound and a half to two pounds more. “It was a totally different deal.”
He’s fished Santee Cooper numerous times before and has returned to the magic spot, using both triangulation and GPS, but has never managed to even approach the monster catch. A month after the tournament, fellow competitor Bobby Wilson, at whose house Fears stayed during the tournament (along with Woo Daves, Peter Thliveros and Kenyon Hill) won a team tournament off of the area Fears had found, He and his partner weighed in 10 fish for “66 or 67 pounds” over the course of two days, but Fears has never tasted such riches there again. “When they put in the grass carp and killed the hydrilla, that was the demise of Santee Cooper,” he said. “Just in the past few years it’s started to come back, but it will never experience another heyday like 1992 to 1995.”