Milliken lives up to his big-fish reputation and takes lead at Bassmaster Open on Toledo Bend
MANY, La. —

Ben Milliken is an angler who’s known for catching big bass.

He did nothing to diminish that Thursday on Day 1 of the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Toledo Bend.

The 33-year-old New Caney, Texas, resident pounded the 185,000-acre reservoir that forms the border between Louisiana and his home state, finishing with a five-bass limit of 29 pounds, 8 ounces that gave him the early lead in this three-day tournament. A total of 223 anglers, 168 of them in the inaugural Elite Qualifiers Division, are competing this week.

Milliken, who was part of a duo that caught five bass weighing 60-pounds on O.H. Ivie Lake in Texas in early 2021, said people think of him as a "big-bait, forward-facing sonar guy," but he said versatility helped him to the top of the Toledo Bend leaderboard. It also was key to his fifth-place finish in the season's first Open last month on Alabama's Lake Eufaula, he said.

"I (dragged) offshore and cranked offshore at Eufaula," Milliken said. "I'm not going to talk a lot yet about what I did here today, but it was both LiveScoping and not looking at them.”

Whatever the method, Milliken put himself in prime position to make a run for a tournament win. It was his first time competing on the famed fishery, but he knew its reputation as a big-bass factory. He found the big ones on Thursday, with his heaviest checking in at more than 7 pounds.

"I missed four fish today bigger than the biggest one I had in my bag," he said. "It could have been a crazy-good day."

The 29-8 total certainly was encouraging, Milliken said, considering he scrapped his game plan after practice and tried something much different. He ran down the reservoir about 20 miles on Thursday — and while he said other anglers were there, he believes they're using different techniques than what vaulted him into the pole position.

"I'm doing some pretty specific stuff," he said. "It's the area, but also the presentation."

Keith Tuma, a 50-year-old resident of Brainerd, Minn., who won an Open in 2021 on Florida’s Harris Chain of Lakes, weighed a personal-best limit of five bass for 27-14 to spark his own spectacular start. His bag was anchored by another personal record — a 9-8 giant that tied for the heaviest bass caught on Day 1.

"I’m a bit worked up right now. I’m not gonna’ lie,” Tuma said, as he hoisted a pair of Toledo Bend heavies into the air for the crowd, the 9-8 in his right hand and a 7-pounder in his left.

Tuma struggled early to find his way on the massive fishery, also his first time competing on the legendary reservoir. “I just wanted to survive,” Tuma said. “I wanted 14 or 15 pounds ... but at 10:30 this morning, I had one 14-inch fish in the boat.”

As he started working his way back up the reservoir, his fortunes changed. Tuma said he caught what he believes are spawning bass off hard-bottom spots in about 12 to 14 feet of water. Other than divulging that info, he too was tight-lipped, saying he’ll reveal more details if he makes it inside the Phoenix Boats Cutline to be one of 10 anglers to compete in Saturday’s final round.

Tuma’s 2021 victory on Harris Chain earned him a spot in the 2022 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota, but he finished last among 55 competitors.

No doubt he hopes Toledo Bend is a launching pad for redemption.
“I got 100% lucky today, but I’ll take it,” he said. Adam Rasmussen, of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., also is making his debut on Toledo Bend and is in third place with a limit of 26-0.

“I’m fishing shallower flats and I’m using my Humminbird MEGA Live,” Rasmussen said. “So, I can see them and I can pitch to them. But there are (long gaps) between bites.”

Rasmussen primarily fished an area about 15 minutes down the reservoir, looking for underwater structure.

Seventeen pros in the boater division caught more than 20 pounds, with all but two of the 223 catching at least one bass.

Kerry Terrebonne, of Ponchatoula, La., almost caught 20 pounds himself, despite being confined to a three-bass limit in the nonboater division. Terrebonne’s 19-4 total leads the 139 co-anglers. A.J. Jones, of Lutz, Fla., is second with 16-4 and Steven Doolittle of Chelsea, Okla., is third with 16-0.

Each of the nine Opens champions in 2023 will earn a berth in the 2024 Bassmaster Classic scheduled for March 22-24 in Tulsa, Okla., on Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees. Competitors in the Elite Qualifiers Division are required to fish in each of the nine Opens scheduled in 2023. The top nine in the EQs standings when the season is complete will earn invites to compete on the 2024 Bassmaster Elite Series.

Milliken’s Day 1 performance combined with his fifth-place finish at Eufaula have placed him atop the Elite Qualifiers Division standings with 396 points. He is followed by Texas pro Brett Cannon with 391 points, Tennessee’s John Garrett (388), Georgia’s Josh Bragg (379), Tuma (376), Trey McKinney of Illinois (376), Japan’s Kenta Kimura (376), Georgia’s Matt Henry (371) and Wisconsin’s Jacob Bigelow (371).

Day 2 will begin Friday at 6:45 a.m. CT and weigh-in is scheduled for 2:45 p.m., both from Cypress Bend Park. The Top 10 anglers will advance to Championship Saturday. A total of $340,000 in cash prizes will be awarded to the Top 40 competitors in each division.

The St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Toledo Bend is being hosted by the Sabine Parish Tourist & Recreation Commission and the Louisiana Office of Tourism.