Cooper Wins MLF Toyota Series Tournament at Smith Lake

April 7, 2024
MLF Toyota Series

CULLMAN, Ala. (April 6, 2024) – A 20-plus-pound limit at Smith Lake isn’t unheard of, but it sure isn’t expected. And of all people, Rusty Cooper of Gurley, Alabama, was the last to expect it to happen after only bringing in four bass on Day 2 of the Toyota Series tournament at Smith Lake event. Cooper, though, had the kind of Championship Saturday all bass anglers dream about, and it culminated in a $95,500 payday (including Phoenix and Big Bass bonuses) and his first MLF trophy – on his first time fishing Smith Lake, against a field of 241 other anglers. Over the three days of competition Cooper weighed in 14 bass totaling 50-10 to earn the win by a 6-pound, 4-ounce margin over Addison, Alabama pro Jesse Wiggins, who finished second with a three-day total of 15 bass weighing 44-6, good for $25,000.  
“Man, everything went perfect today,” Cooper said. “I couldn’t ask for a better day. I had lots of stuff happen that will probably never go right again. I had fish that were tangled up in stuff and they stayed on until I got to them and could get them out. Everything just went right.”

That may be the understatement of the entire season. Outside of Cooper’s 20-pound, 14-ounce limit on Day 3, the largest bag caught at Smith in the tournament was Wiggins’ 17-5 that he caught Saturday – the only bag that eclipsed the 17-pound mark.

As good as Smith Lake is fishing, finding a bag that averages more than 4 pounds per fish is not ordinary. Throughout the week, the field leaned on spotted bass and some largemouth, but no one worked on either species as well as Cooper did on his largemouth on Saturday. He didn’t even catch a single spotted bass in practice or during the event proper.

A big part of Cooper’s success came down to what he considered a terrible two days of practice. Not finding much outside of a couple good bites in a creek pocket, Cooper went to that pocket on Day 1 with the intention of staying there as long as he could. That proved to be the right call.

“Day 1 I was pretty blessed,” he said. “I kind of laid off it because I knew I had that area for three days and knew I was going to stay there and grind. The second day I only had four fish. My co-angler had a 6-pounder. The fish were still there. I just couldn’t catch them for whatever reason, but I knew they were still coming, and I knew I had to stay in there and grind it out.”

Cooper’s largemouth were moving in and out of his area in waves, and while they were undoubtedly using that pocket to spawn, he said he never visibly saw any of the fish he was catching on beds. Almost all of them came on a combination of moving baits that included a Scottsboro swim jig with a Reaction Innovations Skinny Dipper trailer, a 4- or 6-inch Scottsboro swimbait or a Scottsboro glide bait. Only a couple of the keepers he weighed in were caught on a finesse presentation – a wacky-rigged Xcite Baits stickbait. 

The large baits approach, at least on Day 3, was by design. Having weighed in just four keepers for 13-5 on Day 2, Cooper knew he’d have to swing for the fences to have a shot at the win, which he never really expected to come to fruition in the first place.

“I thought there was no way,” he admitted. “I though the second day was going to cost me. Not having that other keeper, that was at least 2 pounds I was behind. I thought there was no way I could pull it off with four fish on Day 2.

“I just put the big baits in my hand today and said I’m going to go for it. I need a big bag. I’m either going to catch them or I’m not.”

And catch them he did. The Huntsville firefighter, who couldn’t commit to a full season of Toyota Series events last year but who finished 79th at Guntersville to start the Central Division season in February this year, now has his ticket punched to the Toyota Series Championship on Wheeler Lake in early November.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said. “I’m just on cloud nine right now. The Lord truly blessed me all week.”

The top 10 pros on Smith Lake finished:

1st:          Rusty Cooper, Gurley, Ala., 14 bass, 50-10, $95,500 (includes $35,000 Phoenix MLF Bonus)
2nd:        Jesse Wiggins, Addison, Ala., 15 bass, 44-6, $25,000
3rd:         Austin Swindle, Parrish, Ala., 15 bass, 44-4, $17,000
4th:         Jeremy Gordon, Rutledge, Tenn., 15 bass, 42-15, $15,000
5th:         Flint Davis, Leesburg, Ga., 15 bass, 42-10, $14,000
6th:         Isaac Peavyhouse, Jamestown, Tenn., 15 bass, 42-4, $10,500
7th:         Laker Howell, Guntersville, Ala., 15 bass, 41-12, $9,000
8th:         Blake Knies, Jasper, Ind., 15 bass, 41-4, $8,000
9th:         Tristan McCormick, Burns, Tenn., 15 bass,  40-15, $7,000
10th:       Wesley Sams, Vinemont, Ala., 15 bass, 40-11, $5,000 

Complete results can be found at

Pro Chandler Brewer of Meridanville, Alabama, won the $500 Day 1 Big Bass award in the pro division Thursday with a bass weighing 4 pounds, 12 ounces. On Friday, Cooper earned the $500 Big Bass prize after bringing a 4-pound, 10-ounce bass to the scale.

Cooper took home an extra $35,000 as the highest finishing Phoenix MLF Bonus member. Boaters are eligible to win up to an extra $35,000 per event in each Toyota Series tournament if all requirements are met. 

Justin Stephenson of Jasper, Alabama, won the Co-angler Division Saturday with a three-day total of 15 bass weighing 34 pounds, 2 ounces. Stephenson took home the top prize package worth $36,000, including a new Phoenix 518 Pro bass boat with a 115-horsepower Mercury outboard motor.

The top 10 co-anglers on Smith Lake finished:

1st:          Justin Stephenson, Jasper, Ala., 15 bass, 34-2, Phoenix 518 Pro boat w/115-hp Mercury outboard + $2,500
2nd:        Pop Catalin, Cookeville, Tenn., 15 bass, 34-0, $7,500
3rd:         Jeff Thompson, McFarland, Wis., 15 bass, 33-5, $6,000
4th:         Cody Abbott, Woodruff, S.C., 15 bass, 32-7, $4,500
5th:         James Steve Burgess, Killen, Ala., 13 bass, 32-5, $4,150
6th:         Larry Franks Jr., Wilsonville, Ala., 14 bass, 31-12, $3,500
7th:         Chris Bensel, Abbeville, S.C., 15 bass, 31-1, $3,000
8th:         Cooper Jett, Norton Shores, Mich., 14 bass, 30-6, $2,250
9th:         Johnny Suratt, Lawrenceburg, Tenn., 15 bass, 29-9, $1,700
10th:       Oliver Siebert, Fenton, Mo., 15 bass, 29-8, $1,500

Jonathan Majors of Chelsea, Alabama, was the Bass $150 award winner in the Strike King co-angler division, Thursday, with a 5-pound, 4-ounce bass, while the Day 2 $150 award went to Eddie Barton of Smiths Grove, Kentucky, with a bass weighing 6 pounds even.

With two of the three regular-season events in the Toyota Series Central Division now complete, pro Austin Swindle of Parrish, Alabama, leads the Central Division Angler of the Year (AOY) race with 513 points, while Chris Bensel of Abbeville, South Carolina, leads the Strike King Co-angler Division AOY race with 492 points.