Despite the “anything can happen” banter around Cypress Bend Park, everyone knew Ben Milliken had the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Toledo Bend well in hand heading into Championship Saturday.
In fact, “Will he win?” was less a question than “How big will his margin of victory be?”
The 33-year-old New Caney, Texas, resident answered those questions and more on Saturday after a history-making romp across this fabled fishery.
Milliken won with 77 pounds, 14 ounces, the third-largest total in a three-day Open in B.A.S.S. history, trailing only Gerald Swindle (who caught 80-13 over three days on Lake Toho in 2011) and Cory Johnston (who had an even 78 pounds at 1000 Islands in 2021.) Milliken’s win was decisive, with a 10-9 cushion between him and Trey McKinney, who finished second with 67-5.
Milliken collected a first-place cash prize of more than $52,000, part of a $285,000 total purse split among the Top 40 of 223 anglers entered in the boater division at Toledo Bend. The win also secured him a berth in the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota when it’s held next March on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees.
“This is my dream,” Milliken said of the Classic berth. “I wasn’t expecting it this week. To have it go down this week, close to home, is unbelievable.”
Despite being a YouTube star with more than a half million people following his fishing exploits, Milliken is new to tournament fishing. He’s off to an auspicious start, with a fifth-place finish at the first Open of the year on Alabama’s Lake Eufaula and now a commanding victory at Toledo Bend.
Milliken led wire to wire on the 185,000-acre fishery that forms the north-central border between Louisiana and Texas. His 29-8 limit on Day 1 was easily the heaviest of the tournament and he followed with 26-15 on Day 2 to give himself nearly a 12-pound cushion heading into the final round.
He didn’t disappoint when the pressure was on, catching a 21-7 limit on Day 3, second only to McKinney’s 22-8.
A small armada of spectator boats followed Milliken to his favored spot, about 10 miles down the reservoir at a place locals call Indian Mounds. He fished clay points throughout the area in about 6 or 7 feet of water, throwing a variety of altered glide baits, ranging from 7 to 15 inches in length, and natural in color to match the forage bass were eating.
The big lures proved to be the draw for The Bend’s big bass on the first two days.
“In the afternoon when the sun got out, I’d see these bigger dots show up on the LiveScope,” Milliken said of his activity on Days 1 and 2. “They were big gizzard shad, and when that collides with the big bass moving out offshore (here), things can get pretty crazy on that big glidebait.
“I caught a 7-pounder and then an 8-pounder, and I knew that was the program I wanted to go with.”
Milliken also knows big bites can be fickle and that he needed a secondary plan in case his sweet spot went sour. He found it in the form of a Carolina-rigged 6th Sense Hogwalla (green pumpkin juice) creature bait, which supplemented his catch on the first two days.
It was his go-to lure on Day 3, however, when he worked an offshore spot near Indian Mounds for his best catches.
“It stays level and horizontal on the fall,” Milliken said. “Other people were in the area with Carolina rigs, but they weren’t catching like I was.”
McKinney threw everything he could into Saturday’s final round, catching the day’s best bag. The 18-year-old Carbondale, Ill., resident was the only angler besides Milliken to catch 20-pound bags each day of the tournament. He won $25,274 for finishing second. McKinney added $500 as the highest-finishing registered pro fishing St. Croix rods thanks to the St. Croix Rod Rewards program.
McKinney fished in shallow water for most of the tournament, using a shad-colored Denny Brauer Baby Structure jig and a 5XD, both from Strike King, for his best bass. He switched to chartreuse/blue plastics on Day 3 when bright sun and temperatures in the upper 80s forced him to deeper water.
“I threw back a 3-8 for my final cull of the day,” McKinney said. “My hands are all chewed up. But this was unbelievable. I’ll never forget this tournament as long as I live.”
The $750 Phoenix Boats Big Bass Award was split between Minnesota pro Keith Tuma and Louisiana’s B.J. Usie, who both weighed a 9-8 lunker on Day 1. Milliken won the Garmin Contingency Award of $500 for posting the heaviest total weight by a competitor using Garmin electronics.