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OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: Lieblong's groundwork paid off

by Bryan Hendricks | September 24, 2020 at 2:27 a.m.

Jason Lieblong of Conway said he was lucky to win the FLW Toyota Series Plains Division tournament Saturday at Lake Dardanelle, but he made his own luck.

Lieblong last won a tournament on Lake Dardanelle in 2015. It was an FLW Rayovac Series event, which preceded the Costa Series. A long drought ensued, and Lieblong said he despaired. Nobody wants to be a one-hit wonder. In fishing, as in any other arena -- whether it's fishing tournaments, playing football or selling insurance -- what you did yesterday doesn't matter. You're only as good as today.

Lieblong spent all of 2020 preparing for the Toyota tournament, which was held Sept. 17-19. He fished every little tournament held on Lake Dardanelle during the spring and summer. He observed all of the winners and took notes on their tactics, patterns and baits. He was prepared when the Toyota tournament started, but 111 other competitors had the same goal.

Some, such as Zach King of Clarksville, were equally prepared, if not more so. King has been fishing Lake Dardanelle since he was a child. Every angler in the tournament acknowledged that King is Lake Dardanelle's best angler, and he reinforced that opinion by taking a commanding lead in the first round.

King collapsed in the second round and did not make the top 10 for Championship Saturday. Joe Bennett of Ashland, Mo., seized the lead in the second round in a fashion that has won so many tournaments over time. He fished five minutes from the ramp concentrating on docks that everybody else overlooked.

Bennett was once very prominent in bass fishing. In the span of a few months, he lost his mother, father, brother and wife. He dropped out of the sport and pretty much out of living all together.

"A few people here came up to me and said they thought I had died," Bennett said.

All tournament anglers these days wear jerseys festooned with sponsor's logos, even if a sponsor's contribution is only a few bags of bait or a 10% discount on a $5,000 electronics unit. The big names have boats wrapped in sponsor's colors.

A no-nonsense Marine (there's no such thing as a former Marine), Bennett started his mornings wearing a red flannel shirt and blue jeans, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his lips. I can't remember the last time I saw a tournament angler smoke while fishing.

All of Bennett's tackle was at least 20 years old. He relied on spinnerbaits. Hardly anybody throws spinnerbaits anymore. That's a grandpa deal, although Billy Doak of Centerview, Mo., used them extensively to finish seventh. To throw spinnerbaits, Bennett used a 5-foot, 8-inch rod, a "short-arming" technique he helped pioneer more than 20 years ago.

I guess I am an unwitting Bennett disciple. I've been using short baitcasting rods for 15 years to catch smallmouth bass in creeks and small rivers. I spent much of Championship Saturday in Bennett's company hoping to photograph him catching the fish that would earn his championship.

It was not to be. Bennett's pattern failed on the last day, but Lieblong made a big kick in the final round that would make former University of Arkansas track coach John McDonnell proud. McDonnell preached saving your best for last, to pass the guy in front of you so quickly and so decisively that you break his will to compete.

Lieblong caught the tournament's heaviest limit in the last round. Word started getting around the lake that Lieblong was on a roll. Kevin Riney of Bono and Teddy Bogard of Rison fished very well, but Lieblong was too strong in the final furlong.

Lieblong's big run actually started Friday when his co-angler, Max Wilson, chided Lieblong for leaving a good spot and wasting three precious hours in a bad spot. Wilson is 79 years old, and Lieblong yielded.

I asked Lieblong how he would have responded if Wilson had been 22 instead of 72.

"I probably would have said, 'Mind your own business,' " Lieblong said. "I'm more experienced than you, and I know what I'm doing."

Drawing Wilson as a co-angler was a stroke of luck for Lieblong, but the decision to heed good advice was still his to make.

Lieblong decided correctly and proved himself a worthy champion. The win automatically qualifies him for the Toyota Series Championship on Dec. 3-5 at Kentucky's Lake Cumberland.

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