Most of us know that iconic line from A League of Their Own where Tom Hanks proclaims “There’s no crying!! There’s no crying in Baseball!”. At the KBF Northeast Regional Final in Erie, Pa I had a few moments where I had to stop and remind myself There’s no crying in tournament fishing! Well, maybe just a little…
Tuesday afternoon I was wrapping up my day at the office. I had the next three days off to travel to Erie, prefish for the event, and then hopefully put up some solid numbers during the tourney. I decided that I wasn’t going to leave that night. I had originally thought I would make most of the drive Tuesday night, sleep in the truck, then get there early wednesday to prefish. But since it was just prefishing, there was no need to get there that early and worry about sleeping on the road. It was just easier to load everything up, get a good bit of sleep at home in my own bed, and then leave early in the morning.
I hit the road about 3:30am Wednesday. I was excited to get out there and get some time on the main lake. I pulled into the Walnut Creek boat launch and took off for deeper water. The plan was simple. Get out to 30-feet of water and just cruise staring at my electronics looking for humps and rock piles. After an hour of pedaling, I wasn’t finding anything. I had found a few schools of baitfish and some big marks under and around them, but this was no pattern to attempt for a bass tournament on Lake Erie. While I stared at my electronics, particularly the side imaging, I was able to identify areas where there were distinct bottom changes from soft bottom to hard gravel. I marked an occasional suspended fish on some of these hard bottom areas so I decided to take some time fishing them.
I pulled out the drop shot and rigged up a Reaction Innovations Shiver Shot in green pumpkin. To me this looked pretty goby-like which I knew was the main smallmouth forage. It only took a few drops and I felt the distinct Tick of a bite. I reeled down and the rod doubled over. My heart raced and I thought for sure I was hooked up with a big lake Erie smallie. But as the fish approached the surface I saw the tell tale silver flash of a big ol drum. Not my target fish, but still a fun catch.
I continued to run that pattern over gravel bars from 25-30 feet deep. I landed another drum and a whole bunch of rock bass. I just didn’t know where the smallies were. When fishing rock on Lake Erie, you can catch drum, rock bass, smallmouth, and walleye all on the same structure. I just didn’t know if the smallmouth were there and wanted a different presentation, just weren’t feeding, or if I needed a new kind of structure all together. It was getting frustrating. On top of that, I was starting to get pretty seasick. The wind and waves were not that bad, but there was a steady swell on the water. Some were as big as 4-5 feet. Nothing dangerous as they were broad crested and would just pick the kayak up and bring it back down. But that swell, combined with the heat and sun was getting to me. I rarely get motion sickness. I think if the weather had been cloudy and cooler I would have been fine. Conversely if the lake had been flat calm with the sun and heat I would have been fine. But that combo got to me and I had to get off the water.
It took me over an hour to unpack and load up my kayak. My stomach was churning and I was in rough shape. I took my time, layed on the shore a bit, slowly packed up, drove to my hotel, and just relaxed for a while. I needed to make a plan for the next day because spot 1 certainly did not produce.
Day 2 of practice started with rain and wind. It was a dark dreary day with a strong north wind. There was a small craft advisory for the main lake so it was no time to go exploring for smallmouth. I slept in just a little and then decided that today my best plan was to check my largemouth spots in the bay from last year. My primary area from 2018 was a large weed area in only 2-4 feet of water. It had consistently produced fish for me, however the quality was definitely not there. Most fish I got there were 10-15”. Not the size class I felt I needed to win. I launched into the bay and made a direct line to my area. I pulled into the weeds, grabbed a Baby Brush Hog and started flipping. It took less than 2 minutes and I landed a 13-inch bass. That was all the sign I needed. This was the same pattern and the same area as last year. I knew what to expect so I turned right around and left.
I knew only having one pattern was no way to approach a tournament. I needed a plan B and hopefully even a plan C. I felt a deeper pattern would be good to establish so I started targeting the submerged weeds in 10-12 feet of water. I pitched a jig around, worked a chatterbait, swimbait, a big worm, a shakeyhead, but I couldn’t find another bite. I was getting tired of fighting the wind and was about to leave when I saw another kayak angler a short distance away. I recognized the kayaker as Trish from my home club and quickly pedaled over and caught up with her. We ended up going all the way across the bay to prefish around a marina.
We fished the area a while but didn’t get any bites. I wasn’t prefishing very hard at the time. It was an area I fished the previous year and kind of knew what to expect so I avoided using my primary baits. I was doinking around with my texas rigged worm and gave it a pitch up along some sheet piling. The bait sank into the weeds and it got heavy. I figured it was a subtle bite and set the hook. But all I felt was pressure. I kept the line tight, but I couldn’t move anything. I didn’t know if I was snagged, wrapped around weeds or what. For 10-15 seconds I just kept the line tight. I felt a slight tug every so often so I knew I had a fish hooked, I just didn’t know how big or what else I was caught on since my line was clearly wrapped in something. Then all of the sudden I felt it come loose and my line was free. I pulled the fish up and that’s when I saw it was a good bass! I reeled down, grabbed the net, pulled it up and scooped a wad of weeds and fish. After untangling everything, I pulled the 19-inch bass up and quickly looked around to make sure nobody but Trish saw me catch it. After a few quick photos I gave it a kiss good-bye, hoping that maybe I would see it again in the next two days.
That was a good way to end my prefishing so after hanging with Trish for just a few more minutes, I made my way back to the boat ramp. I wanted to take some time to re-tie and re-rig my rods before the tournament. I knew my pattern from last year was good, I knew my areas were good. I had a game plan and I just had to roll with it.
The evening captains meeting disrupted everything. They announced the main lake was open! Now I had a big decision to make. Go in the bay, fish my spots which I had full confidence would produce a limit, albeit just a 65 inch limit, or go for broke and go to my main lake spots from last year and try to land some of those big smallies! I figured with the main lake open, there was no way it would be won in the bay. And with potentially saving my bay spots for day 2, I decided to swing for the fences and head out to the main lake. I chose poorly.
Day 1 came and I dragged my kayak out across the beach. The breakwaters on the west side were my primary target for the day. In 2018 I had success with both a spook and a squarebill around them and every bite I got was quality. The problem was I would only get a few bites. I hoped this year would be different. Trish did the same thing, however she was more to the north. We both started out throwing different baits. We communicated throughout the morning trying to get on a pattern. By 8:30 we were two hours in, and I had landed two nice walleye; but that wasn’t what I was looking for. Trish called me excited she had landed a nice smallie. She told me swim baits so I quickly turned around to see what I had to work with. I had been fishing slow most of the morning, but if she was on swim baits, then it meant they were on a moving bait pattern. I grabbed the cranking rod, my favorite rod for smallmouth, and got to work.
It took less than 10 minutes! I cast across the end of one of the breakwaters with a Berkely Digger 8.5. I was grinding it over the rocks when I felt the pull and set the hook. This fish was heavy and big. It just kept pulling hard straight down. It wasn’t giving me the big head shakes or coming up and jumping like a typical smallmouth. I thought for sure I had on a big drum. As I pumped and reeled the fish up I knew it was getting close, so with my rod in my right hand and my net in my left, I lifted the fish to pull it out from under the boat. That’s when I saw it, a 20-inch jet black smallmouth. In a flash the fish saw the boat, saw the surface, and made a leap. My crankbait went flying, I lunged with the net, but the fish was gone. I was so upset at myself for not being more careful, for not knowing it was a bass, for not landing the fish. The front hatch of my Hobie took a little abuse from my net before I regained my composure and kept fishing. That had to be a good sign. I was getting bites and was on the juice. Again, I was wrong.
I worked that crankbait up and down the breakwaters for the next 2.5 hours with nothing more than rock bass taking a nibble. It was just after 11 and I was working my way back along the breakwaters when I finally got another bite. This one hit like a freight train and I knew immediately it was a good bass. I just prayed it would stay down but it didn’t. The brief fight ended when the 18-inch plus smallie leaped into the air and I felt the Tink! of my line breaking. I was heartbroken. Nearly 5 hours in and I had only gotten two bites, both high quality fish, and neither were on my board. I lost it for a moment in my kayak. I just sat there, my eyes welled up, and I felt defeated.
The wind was starting to pick up and I needed a change. With just under three hours left, I made the run into the beach, loaded the kayak on my cart, and ran across into the bay. I got to the launch and all I could see were waves! The bay was worse than the main lake. But I had made the decision to move so there was no going back now. I shoved off and battled the waves getting to my prime spot. By the time I pulled up I was soaked. I could see a kayak nearby and just hoped he hadn’t beat up this area too bad. I made one pass around and finally on the far side I got the bite I expected. A 13.50-inch largemouth and the skunk was off. It was 12:30 and I was on the board.
Now I needed to make another decision. I had already fished around these weeds a little and had only gotten the one bite. There was plenty more area to fish here, but I thought maybe I would be better off by the marina I got my big one the previous day. Again, I chose poorly.
I headed that way fishing along the shore as I went. I didn’t get any bites on the laydowns on my way over. I approached the marina area and that’s when I saw them. Two other kayak anglers fishing the rip-rap and bank area. I leap-frogged the one and went into a dock area. I fished it thoroughly, but didn’t get any bites. It was clear this area had been worked over by the other anglers. I came out of the dock with the intent of getting one more crack at the sheet piling from before but I was too late. The angler I passed, had passed me and was currently sitting right on the spot. So that was it. I had no spots to fish, with only 15 minutes left in the day I had no time to run back to my prime area. I had one fish on the board and my day was over. Dejected, I made the trek across the bay, loaded up the kayak on the truck, and headed to check-in.
After check-in Trish and I went out to grab some dinner and figure out a Day 2 plan. It was clear our plans didn’t work out so well. We each only had the one fish. What was worse, the wind was shifting for Day Two. With a strong west wind forecast I would not be able to go to my prime spot on the main lake. Knowing that many anglers had fished the bay the first day and knowing that the leader was on big smallmouth we opted to again hit the main lake. This time we would focus on the rock piles and gravel humps on the east side of the bay, protected from the wind. I had never fished this area before but felt it was as good a plan as any.
Saturday morning was a long day of nothing. I spend hours with my drop shot rod targeting rock and gravel from as shallow as 12-feet and as deep as 25 feet with the same result everywhere. Little nibbles from what I suspect were perch or rock bass and one great fight from a 10 lb drum. That was it. By late morning I switched gears. I headed to the riprap walls around the bay and went to work. I threw everything at it. Ned rig, wacky rig, crank baits, chatterbaits, swim baits, worms, creatures, all getting nothing! I was dumbfounded. I fished over 150 yards of riprap with a wacky worm and didn’t get a bite. Not even a rock bass.
I made a run north with just under two hours remaining into a weedy area in hopes of finding some largemouth. Some of it just looked ideal. Submerged grass in 10-feet, a light chop, slightly stained water. I burned the chatterbait over and over again but nothing took it. I made my way back into a cove and found some shallow lily pads, but the hydrilla under was so dense it would have been nearly impossible to fish even if any bass were in there.
I came out of the cove and drifted around the grass flat for 10 minutes. I was still casting the chatterbait, but I was really just trying to come up with a plan. Any plan. Even a bad plan! Just something I could do. But I had nothing. By that time Trish had made her way over. It was about 1:30 and we had just an hour left. Neither of us had a fish on the board. We figured might as well work the riprap back toward the launch and call it a day so we made the run back across the channel. I ducked into a corner to try to flip some grass that I had found before while Trish went on ahead. After a few minutes of no bites I continued on. I approached the opening to a marina. I didn’t think we were allowed to fish in there, but I had seen other anglers in there earlier and there were no signs saying private property. I pedaled in and saw Trish off to the left so I turned right and proceeded to fish.
I flipped my brush hog along the boat docks and weeds but didn’t get any bites. I got to the end of the row and noticed that there was a small channel between the last dock and the perimeter stone. I turned in there and that’s where it finally happened. My first bite in hours. I flipped the brush hog up along some weeds. It fell to the bottom and felt the fish pick it up. I set the hook and then felt nothing. I reeled back my line only to find a bobber stop and the crinkled end of my leader where the knot had pulled out. I was done! That was the last straw. I couldn’t take any more failure that trip. I wrapped the line around the reel handle, put the rod away, and left the channel. As I got to the open area Trish asked me “What are you doing, there’s 20 minutes left?”. I wasn’t sure I could take any more emotionally, but I finally said Yeah, might as well keep going. I looked behind me and said to myself What can I break off next? Neko rig, why the hell not?!
I pedaled back into the channel and fished to just past where I had broken off. I cast the neko rig out and it got hung up in some of the grass. I gave the rod a tug and popped the Exostick loose. That when I saw the largemouth shoot out from under some weeds and grab the bait. I set the hook and quickly got him in the net. I was pumped!! I was screaming like Ike when he lands a 5 pounder. It was 2:15 and I had a fish on the board. It was a good one at that, a 17.25. I went right back to casting hoping to maybe get another in waning minutes, but it didn’t happen. The regional final was over and it was time to go.
The results came in and my two fish, one each day, had me in 19th place out of 45 anglers. The top two were the only ones who put up limits both days. Both fishing largemouth in the bay. I was drained physically and mentally. I was really kicking myself for the choices I made. I chose not to fish my most reliable area. I still believe I could have fished it for two straight days, caught limits of 65 inches each day, and that would have placed me firmly in 3rd place. I instead chose to go big, thinking I would need those big bags. I failed to find the fish I needed, and when I did, I failed to execute. It was a long few emotional days knowing it was likely my last Trail event of the season. You hate to end things on that note, but it just gives me all the more motivation to come back next year stronger and more prepared! Hopefully then the only crying will be the tears of joy in victory.