EUFAULA, Okla. — When Joey Nania saw Lake Eufaula listed on the 2023 St. Croix Bassmaster Opens schedule, he thought it would be a tournament he’d just need to survive to stay in contention for a Bassmaster Elite Series bid.
But Nania did more than just survive this week, landing a three-day total of 52 pounds, 8 ounces to win the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Lake Eufaula, Okla. His second career Opens victory earned him a berth in the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota scheduled for March 22-24 in Tulsa, Okla., along with a check for $48,800 and a $500 Garmin contingency bonus.
“If there was any concern about struggling and wanting to survive, this was the one I wanted to survive,” said Nania, who finished 13th at the 2022 Classic on Lake Hartwell. “When I got here, the lake was different from what I expected and I was happy about that. It fit my style a little bit better.
“I fished for 11 years before I won a tournament. So, it was incredible to even win one. Fishing the Classic was amazing and I’m not on the Elite Series. So, the only way for me to make it is to win. I knew if I was meant to be on that stage again, it would happen. To be a two-time winner is crazy.”
Starting the tournament in 25th place with 14-5, Nania rocketed up the leaderboard with 22-2 on the second day before adding 16-1 on Championship Saturday to claim the trophy. Nania outlasted 18-year-old Illinois pro Trey McKinney who finished second with 51-4.
In a tournament where large groups of anglers were gathered in several areas, Nania was able to separate himself by fishing to his strengths in less-pressured areas and then executing on every bite.
“Everything has to go right. I didn’t lose a fish all week,” he said. “I caught every one of them on a spinning rod on a lake where you aren’t supposed to do that. I was doing something I love to do.”
Nania focused on several offshore aspects. With both of his patterns, his best technique was a Ned-Miki rig, a shad-imitating, finesse presentation, which he built with a 3/16-ounce Z-Man Finesse Eyez jighead with a 1/0 hook and a Z-Man StreakZ 3.75 soft plastic.
He tied that to a 14-pound Vicious Tora fluorocarbon leader attached to 10-pound Vicious yellow no-fade braid main line.
“It is fairly light but sinks fast enough to get a reaction strike,” Nania explained. “It is like what Gussy (Jeff Gustafson) won the Classic on, just a little smaller.”
His best spot the first two days was an offshore hump in 22 feet of water by the dam that sat just above the thermocline. His biggest bass on Day 2, a 6 1/2-pounder, came off that hump.
“There were just a few bass out there, but they were big ones,” Nania said. “The 22-foot range is where the biggest bass on the lake were, it was just hard to get bit. The water is so clear, too, and the thermocline on the bottom end of the lake was in about 25 feet of water.”
Nania also fished 20 brushpiles a day located on points in the mouths of bays in 10 to 14 feet. Those piles were full of several different species of fish, including crappie, catfish and white bass — and when he did see a largemouth on his Garmin LiveScope, he had to tease and coax the bass into biting.
“I was really teasing the fish out of those brushpiles. I was hovering my Ned-Miki and barely winding it over the piles and creeping it over the limbs, trying to attract the bass up and out,” he said. “Once I did that, I continued to coast it away from them and hover it over them and take it away slowly. The bites were really cool. They slowly came up behind it and then just continued right through the bait super slow and gentle.”
On the final day, Nania started on a rocky bank near takeoff and calmed his nerves by catching a 2-pounder on a 6th Sense Provoke 106X jerkbait. From there, he rotated through his brushpiles and rounded up 12 pounds quickly before moving to the deep spot where he landed the majority of his big bass the first two days.
Unfortunately, he could not get any more bites in that area, and just before check-in, he moved back to the rock wall near takeoff and landed two 3 1/2-pound largemouth on a Z-Man TRD BugZ rigged weedless on a 1/6-ounce Z-Man NedlockZ jighead Ned rig that ultimately pushed him to victory.
“At the end of the day, I was grateful for 12 pounds,” he said. “I rolled up by the ramp — the pattern I fished with a Ned rig on the rocks … that pattern worked right at the end.
“Trevor McKinney was on the point I liked the most from practice, so I pulled up on a different one. I saw something swimming in a shad ball and I threw the Ned rig out there and it started swimming off. I threw out again, and three casts later I caught another 3 1/2.”
Putting together bags of 15-7 and 19-12 the first two days, Trey McKinney caught 16-1 on the final day. But he lost two big bass under a dock late in the day that likely would have pushed him to victory.
“Today was really heartbreaking. I had quite a few opportunities and I didn’t capitalize,” he said. “I had one dock and I knew they were there and I saved them for the last hour. The second cast, I hung one and knew it was a giant. I got it halfway back to the boat and felt it stop. I looked on Active Target and it had wrapped itself around a crossbar and broke off.”
After retying, McKinney skipped under the same dock and hooked another big bass that took the same route as the previous fish, wrapping around the crossbar before breaking the line.
While disappointing, it was McKinney’s second runner-up finish of the season and pushed him into second in the Opens Elite Qualifier points race. He also secured a $500 St, Croix Rewards check by being the highest-finishing pro using St. Croix Rods.
Matt Messer of Warfield, Ky., finished third with 47-2. Starting with 13-8 on Day 1, Messer caught 22-10 on Day 2, a bag anchored by an 8-1 largemouth that earned him $750 for Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Tournament. He added 11-0 on the final day.
“Today was tough. I knew if it was dead slick, it would be hard for me to get bit, and when I pulled up, it was dead slick,” Messer said. “I didn’t get a bite for two hours and then the wind picked up a little bit. I caught three fast and one of them was a 3-pounder. I thought it was going to be on. But honestly, I think I just caught them all.”
With four events remaining, Union City, Tenn., pro John Garrett leads the Bassmaster Opens Elite Qualifier standings with 926 points. He is followed by Trey McKinney in second with 921 points, Elite Series pro Kenta Kimura of Japan in third with 910 points, South Carolina angler JT Thompkins in fourth with 893 and Minnesota angler Keith Tuma in fifth with 878.
The top nine finishers in the EQ Division will earn invitations to the 2024 Elite Series. For full standings, visit Bassmaster.com.
The tournament was hosted by the Eufaula Area Chamber of Commerce.