Before the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Santee Cooper Lakes began, Drew Cook had never led a single round of an Elite Series event.
Apparently, he was just saving up for the best event of his career.
The Cairo, Ga., pro grabbed the lead on Day 1 of the tournament with an astounding catch of 31-13 and then never relinquished the first-place spot, as bags of 24-12, 24-3 and 24-9 pushed him to a four-day total of 105-5. He earned one of the blue trophies that every pro covets, a $100,000 paycheck and a Century Belt for catching more than 100 pounds.
Cook and second-place pro Caleb Kuphall (103-1) became the 33rd and 34th different anglers to reach Century Club status — and Lakes Marion and Moultrie have now produced eight Century Belts, the second-most in Elite Series history, with only Falcon Lake in Texas producing more (15).
“I completely forgot about the Century Belt. That’s cool,” Cook said. “It was a perfect storm this week. I had a blast. I did really well keeping my composure. There were a couple of times this week the wheels could have fallen off. I acted like I had been there before and it all worked out.”
Cook spent his entire week doing what he loves best, sight fishing for spawning largemouth using a Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog.
“That is what is so awesome about it,” he said. “All my friends joked with me and said I was going to win my first tournament either at a place like the Sabine or with a spinning rod smallmouth fishing.
“To be able to win my first one wire-to-wire with my favorite rod doing my absolute favorite things, it is a blessing.”
Spending his time in the Potato Creek region of Lake Marion, Cook caught the majority of his weight in lily pad fields that were located next to deep water.
In practice, the female bass he found had not locked onto beds. But come tournament time, they settled close to the only male he found on bed.
“The area was very special. I didn’t know it was that special,” he said. “Because it had deep water that went all the way to the back of it, it reloaded every day. It really did surprise me. I didn’t know that was going to happen. Having 6 feet of water up against the bank in the back is the reason those fish kept coming in there.”
Cook used two different-sized Fighting Frogs, a 4-inch and a 5-inch. The smaller bait was paired with a 1/4-ounce weight and a 4/0 Gamakatsu G-Finesse Heavy Cover hook, while the bigger frog was rigged with a 3/8-ounce weight and a 5/0 Gamakatsu G-Power hook.
With 22-pound Sunline Shooter spooled on his reels, Cook used a pair of rods — a Dobyns 754 Xstasy and a Dobyns 744 Champion Extreme. He said the rods were just the right length for keeping bass pinned when they jumped and fought.
When he thought a bass was ready to commit to his tilapia magic-colored Fighting Frog, Cook put slack in his line and repeatedly tapped the butt end of his rod to make the bait’s appendages move in the bed without moving the lure out of the strike zone.
He added that the silver fleck in that particular color creates a reflection that catches the eye of a bass and irritates it.
“The bait isn’t moving toward me,” he said. “The bait is staying where it is.”
Entering the day with over a 4-pound lead, Cook started Championship Monday by catching a 5-pounder he had left the previous day in the first hour. But he was still slow to fill his limit, not doing so until around 1 p.m.
“Not having those fast starts the past two days probably saved me today,” he said. “When it got to be about 1 o’clock, there was a little concern, but I wasn’t too worried.”
Although he had a limit, Cook still did not have his biggest bass until just before 2:30 p.m., a 7-14 that won the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Day award and an extra $1,000.
“I don’t even remember what happened,” Cook said about landing the big bass. “I think I kissed (cameraman) Jake (Latendresse). It was in slow motion whenever I set the hook until I got it in my hand.
“I knew that was going to be the one that gave me a shot. It was a big sigh of relief and a big weight off my shoulders.”
With a Day 1 bag weighing 29-10 and a 31-4 limit on Day 3, Kuphall reached the 100-pound mark by catching 29-3 on Championship Monday to lift him into second place. The feat was most impressive, considering the Mukwonago, Wis., pro only caught four bass that weighed 13-0 on Day 2.
“It feels great just to be able to adjust,” he said. “Where I caught them on the third day, I didn’t really fish on the first and second day. To adjust and catch them on something totally different and have that kind of weight, I’m really happy with that.”
Catching mostly prespawn bass with a couple of spawners and post-spawners mixed in, Kuphall targeted deeper cypress trees in Lake Marion.
“Those deeper trees right on the edge on a drop off into deeper water were the ones I was keying on,” he said. “There was nothing about the tree itself. There was no real pattern there, just where they were situated (in relation) to deep water.”
Brandon Palaniuk of Rathdrum, Idaho, finished third with a four-day total of 98-0, falling just shy of the century mark. The 2020 Santee Cooper Lakes Elite Series champion mixed things up in the Potato Creek region, fishing offshore bass with a Rapala OG Slim crankbait, jerkbaits, jigs and an X Zone Lures Blitz Worm before searching for big bedding bass with an X Zone Lures Adrenaline Craw.
“I knew I was going to need four or five big ones if I wanted to make a run at this thing,” Palaniuk said. “I caught a 6 3/4- and a 4-pounder (on my starting spot) and then it died off quickly and I couldn’t get any more big bites there. I felt like I was making good adjustments. I just couldn’t catch enough.”
Pat Schlapper of Wisconsin earned the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Tournament award with the 9-10 largemouth he caught on Day 2, winning $2,000.
Oklahoma pro Luke Palmer, who finished fourth with 95-7, earned the $2,000 VMC Monster Bag Award with his Day 3 catch of 33-5.
South Carolina’s Brandon Cobb took home an additional $3,000 for being the highest-placing entrant in the Toyota Bonus Bucks program, while John Cox of Florida earned $2,000 for being the second-highest placing entrant.
As part of the Yamaha Power Pay program, Cook claimed an additional $4,000 and Palaniuk earned an additional $1,500 for being the second-highest placing entrant.
Ed Loughran III won the $1,000 BassTrakk Contingency award for the most accurate weight reporting.
Heading into the fourth stop of the season, the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite Series at Chickamauga Lake, Cox leads the Progressive Insurance Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings with 285 points. Tennessee pro David Mullins is second with 265, and Arkansan Stetson Blaylock is third with 257.