Day 1: Hope Springs Eternal
The alarm on my phone started to chime. It was 3:45 AM and it was Day 1 of my first National Championships. I had barely slept a wink. A late night at the house making last minute plans, combined with the excitement (and uncomfortable sofa) led to minimal sleep. But I didn’t care. The coffee pot churned, and the house buzzed with eager excitement as all of us loaded up and set out to start the day!
There were seven competitors at the house, and most of us were going in different directions. I know a few of them were headed to Caddo, but I was just thinking about my day. Where was I going first, what would I throw at first cast, what were my backup plans? I had all these things running through my head as I hit the road for the 35 minute drive to the boat ramp.
I pulled up to the launch at the north end of Cypress Bayou about 4:45 AM. It was over an hour until we were allowed to launch so I had plenty of time. A few guys from Colorado were already there unloading. We chatted a little as we all prepped for the day ahead. As the predawn hour crept by, one by one, more anglers arrived at the ramp. About 15 anglers were there and ready by 6:00 AM when were were allowed to take off out onto the water. We were actually surprised there weren’t more people at the ramp.
It was a relief we wouldn’t have to fight so many people for fishing spots, but at the same time, it was worrisome. Were we in a bad area? Was there no chance of getting a winning bag here? I quickly pushed those thoughts out of my head as I shot out down the lake. I knew I wanted to get to my creek arm first. As the group left the launch I moved along with them pedaling at a steady pace. One by one they peeled off to set up at other areas and await first cast. It was soon clear I was the only one heading that far south to start the day. I slowed my pace. No need to pedal so hard if I wasn’t racing anyone.
I got to my area, a grass flat out near the mouth of the creek arm. I had a few follows back to the boat here prefishing, so grabbed my rod rigged up with a chatterbait, and waited. 6:30 AM and my alarm beeped, I shut it off, and made my first cast. I burned it back quickly not wanting to get a bite. Fisherman are a highly superstitious bunch but I don’t fall for most of the nonsense. There is an age old belief however that getting a fish on the first cast is bad luck. I figure why temp things, so I’m always sure to waste that first cast.
After fishing over the grass for a short period, it started getting light out. I decided it was time to head up to the bank and get to fishing shallow. I saw a swirl by some grass so I pitched my Wooly Bug up to it. A little tick, a little overly excited hook set, a jump, and the fish was gone. A bummer, but that’s ok. The fish are here and they’re biting. Maybe I can come back to that one later I thought to myself. A few patches of grass later and I felt another bite. This time my hookset was patient and strong and did the trick. That fish wasn’t going anywhere. Only 12.25” but I was on the board, and it was only 7:15 AM.
Getting that first fish submitted was huge. I had been chosen to be one of five anglers from the Northeast to represent Dakota Lithium Batteries in the Team Challenge Cup. Each member’s biggest fish contributed to the teams score, each of the first two days. If I blanked, I not only hurt myself, but I would blank on the team and I did not want to let them down. I didn’t blank, at least I got something for the team. Now I needed to go out and hammer some more and hopefully bigger ones.
What happened to my fish?
I came up to some docks, grabbed my spinning rod with the ExoStick, and went to skipping. Nothing in the back where they had been. Maybe in the middle or front? Nope, not there either! I proceeded to a few more docks with the same result. Nothing. Where did my fish go?
The wind was starting to blow a little more giving some waves to the surface. Much better conditions for throwing the chatterbait. I moved out over the grass flat and started fan casting. A hit! But this felt different. It certainly wasn’t a big bass….. A crappie! And a big one, 15-inches! Normally I would be ecstatic to catch a crappie like that, but this was a bass tournament so back in the water she went.
I worked the chatterbait for almost an hour over the grass flat and proceeded to catch more and more crappie. All 14-15 inches. It was fun, but not what I needed. I needed bass and quickly. It was almost noon and the wind was starting to pick up. I realized I never checked the weather. I had no idea which way the wind was going to blow or how hard it would blow today. How could I forget to check the weather?!
With the wind picking up I moved further back into the creek to get out of the wind. Maybe some of the bass had moved further back. I fished slowly on every piece of cover I could pitch at. Nothing. It was now 12:30 and I only had two hours left. I knew I needed a big change and fast. I shot across to the other shore of the lake, hoping to fish a bigger cove more protected from the wind.
I worked the docks in that cove hard. I skipped to every post. Back in the middle. Along the seawall. Again and again coming up empty. I worked the ExoStick, the Wooly Bug, pulled the chatterbait along the perimeter all without a bite. My plan B and plan C were failing. The wind blew out my cove, my bass turned into crappie, and the docks didn’t produce. My alarm chimed 2:30, the day was over, and I had one fish on the board. It wasn’t a long pedal back to the boat ramp, but it felt like miles. I felt so defeated.
These multi-day events are tricky. You can’t win anything in the first day, but if you put up a really small bag and don’t get a limit, you’ll be in a hole you can’t dig yourself out of. I only managed one fish, I was sitting in 361 place of 461, and it was over. I couldn’t win. I didn’t even have a chance at making the cut to fish on Saturday. It was demoralizing. I made bad decisions and I paid the price, but I had to move on.
Fishing When There’s Nothing to Fish For
Friday came and I had decisions to make. What should I do? I wasn’t in contention for making the cut, but I could improve my standing. More importantly, I could prove to myself that I belonged here, that I could go out and catch a good bag and that I had the skills to fish in any condition physically, environmentally, and in this case, mentally. I decided I wanted to go to Bistineau. Cypress would be pounded by the wind again and I knew I could find cover in the trees and Island on Bistineau. I didn’t know what the day would bring, but I knew if I wanted a chance at a better bag, I needed a new plan.
I didn’t get to the launch quite as early on Friday. No need to rush onto the water. I didn’t need to fight for spots, and I didn’t have as far to run to my first area. There were even fewer people at the Pine Bluffs boat ramp Friday than had been at Cypress the day before. Only five of us pushed away from the dock at 6:00 AM. I shot across to the island and started working my chatterbait on the outside perimeter cypress trees. It was still dark and I wanted to wait for a little more light before weaving my way through the low hanging branches because, well snakes!
Once I felt I had enough light, I cruised in and got up closer to the shallow water. Some people, both locals and kayakers had mentioned that a lizard pattern was working good. So I took off the wooly bug and instead rigged up a Reaction Innovations Man Bear Pig. I started pitching it into the shallow trees and Cypress knees (I had to look up what they were called) around the island shoreline. It didn’t take long and I had a fish in the boat. The first thought to enter my head was 7:10 AM, same time as yesterday. Oh no, better not be the same pattern. It wasn’t. 20 minutes later and I was on the board again! 20 minutes after that another one! By noon I had a limit and I was cruising. Pitching the Man Bear Pig all over. I was having fun and catching fish. At one point I set the hook on an 11” bass like it was an 11 pounder. I almost fell out of my kayak! I still wasn’t used to standing and fishing I needed a little more practice, and to maybe not crank back on the fish so hard.
Lines out time came, I had made a small cull, put up over 74”, and felt great about my day. I moved myself up from 361 to 221. Not the finish I wanted when the event started, but the day I needed to have that day. I went out and fished for me. I fished for fun. I fished for pride. I fished to learn and better myself. I know the mistakes I made, and I now have more weapons in my arsenal for next time I’m in that kind of scenario.
That evening at the Captains Meeting they announced the winner of the Team Challenge Cup…. It wasn’t us. My poor showing on the first day had us down in 9th place to start day 2. And again on friday, I wasn’t able to put up any big kicker fish. We finished the team competition in 9th place of 12 teams. We had a few big fish amongst the 5 of us, and we had a few anglers make the cut to fish Saturday, but we just didn’t have the consistent big fish the other teams caught. It was still a great experience. Through the event, I developed a relationship with an amazing company, Dakota Lithium. And even though the NC and the Team Cup are over, I get to continue to represent and work with them.
Not making the cut to saturday, I was free to fish wherever I felt like. I was still in the big bass portion of the competition so one bite could still gain me a paycheck. I decided to fish the Red River to see if I could win the Red River Bounty. I had found a launch on aerial images and maps that looked promising. There wasn’t any information on it though. I found out that some other anglers had prefished there without issue so I decided that was as good a spot as any.
The Public Ramp Conundrum
Saturday morning I hit the launch just a little after dawn, not being in a hurry at all to get on the water. There was a gate at the ramp but it was open and there were no signs anywhere. While I was loading up, a few other kayakers showed up at the launch including last years National Champion. All of us had missed the cut and were just looking for the big bass the Red River is famous for. I launched and began fishing in the little backwater area. After almost 2 hours one of the other kayakers came cruising by me. “We gotta go, that launch was private and any fish we catch are ineligible”. I was dumbfounded. How could it be a private launch. No signs, open gate, people had fished it all week. But it was a ruling by one of the Tournament Directors so we had to go. It was 10:00 AM, I was tired, grumpy, sore, and just ready to be done. I decided a late breakfast at Wafflehouse would help relieve the frustration.
At the final captains meeting we watched as the winners went up and received their big checks. We watched as the new National Champion was crowned. Each one of them had fished slightly different, each one worked hard, and each one deserved all the accolades they got and more. It was an amazingly tough event and those select few had persevered against 461 of the best kayak anglers in the country. It was both uplifting and humbling at the same time to know I had finished in the top half, but yet was far behind such a talented and hard working group. I knew I had a long way to go before I would be up there holding the check. The biggest thing I continue to learn, tournament after tournament, is just how little I truly know about fishing. It was a long week down in Shreveport Louisiana. Sunday morning I left for home, with 22 hours ahead of me in my truck to reflect on what an amazing experience it had been to be at the KBF National Championships.