I began preparation for this tourney weeks beforehand, scouring the internet for fishing reports, articles, and launch locations. My first step in tournament preparation is to search fishing reports for the body of water. This usually produces some great intel, but more importantly, it leads me to local fishing forums where bodies of water are discussed in greater detail. I search the entire forum for clues to lure choices, seasonal patterns, and launch locations. When I find a likely stretch of river, I then consult Google and Bing maps to lay out a float plan, find access points, and visually scout sections of river. I use pushpins and trail marking tools to accurately measure distances between put-in and takeout points. With a weigh-in at 3:30 pm, I didn’t want to take on more than five or six miles of river. I chose a six-mile trip of a tributary where numerous giants had been caught in the past, according to local forum chatter.
The put-in and take out was as treacherous as any I had ever used. I essentially was a 6’bluff wall where the kayaks had to be lowered into waist-deep water, and we had to jump in after them. With daylight breaking around us, I tied on a Bull Shad Swimbaits “Balsa Bull” topwater plug and began working rock ledges upstream. My first retrieve made it about 5’ when a tank smallie in the five-pound range blasted it with a 180°gainer. This fish was so huge it could barely clear the water, and it was so aggressive it actually missed the bait entirely. I dropped my rod and flipped a buzzbait to the ledge as a follow-up bait. The monster exploded the water, but whiffed and missed the bait again! Hurt but unfazed, I worked my way farther upstream, probing small cuts in the bluff bank. The next three fish hit and missed my walk-the-dog bait. I was incredulous! I am a patient, skilled user of walk-the-dog baits, and never set the hook until I feel the weight of the fish on the line. Even so, these fish were so aggressive they were striking the lure three and four times on a retrieve without touching a hook point. Deflated, I sat and shook my head. I should have a strong limit with a kicker fish, but instead I sat fishless. I didn’t get another bite for the next hour and a half as I worked over prime pools and shoals.
My first fish of the day popped the Balsa Bull out of the water as it crossed a gravel bar, but I remained focused and continued the same rhythmic cadence. The 16.5” small mouth followed the bait to my boat and engulfed it near boat side. Finally, I had a fish on the board. The key to working walk the dog baits is to maintain your focus and keep the same rhythmic cadence throughout your retrieve, even if a fish slaps your bait multiple times. Bass with smaller mouths, like spotted bass and smallmouth, are very aggressive and tend to strike the bait multiple times before catching a hook point. If you jerk it away they will give up, but if you maintain your focus and only set the hook when you feel the weight of the fish on your line, you will increase your success exponentially. I filled out my stringer with a couple of small fish and decided to stick with the topwater bite and swimbait for the rest of the day. I knew I would need some big fish, so I decided to swing for the fences.
The Caney Fork dam stopped generation that day, and the water in the mouth of this creek receded so there was barely anything deep enough to fish at the bottom of our float. After three miles of floating, we turned around began to push, paddle, and drag our kayaks back to the takeout. With a 30” stringer, my partner flipping twice, and the tourney leaders a full 20”ahead of me, my confidence was beginning to wane. The River Bassin Trail uses an online scoring system that keeps an updated leaderboard. I usually refrain from looking at it, as I want to fish without knowing what anyone else is doing. If you know you are behind, you tend to press yourself and fish outside of your normal game.
My partner stopped to fish a deep pool where he had caught some smaller fish on shakey head on the float down. I was tempted to tie on a shakey head as it was producing consistently, but I decided to push on. The game plan I created was solid, and I knew the fish were there; I just had to stick to it and execute. I fired the topwater into a narrow opening, and was rewarded with a 14.5” small mouth that upgraded my stringer to just over 40”. I was energized, my confidence was soaring, and I knew I could cull my last fish and put up a decent finish.
We reached the takeout, but I wanted to push upstream and try to catch one of the big fish I missed in the morning. With a huge storm front rolling in on the horizon, I knew we had a narrow feeding window as the fish would really turn on with the dropping barometric pressure. I saw a huge bass chase some baitfish onto a gravel bar, and I began firing my 5” Bull Shad Swimbait upstream, where it was intercepted by a nice 14” small mouth to upgrade my stringer to 44”. My partner pushed ahead and bagged the big fish of the tournament: likely the big fish I saw earlier, a 21” 5 lb tank of a smallmouth. After photos and high fives, we let her go and my partner took a 1” lead over me. I was elated for him, but I wanted to find my kicker. With only twenty minutes left to fish, I sprinted upstream, firing casts at every likely location. I caught several fish in the 12-14” range, none of which offered an upgrade. As I paddled towards the takeout, I made a final cast into the pool where my buddy’s giant had come from. Out of the depths charged an enormous smalljaw with my lure in her mouth. She made at least ten drag-peeling runs, refusing to give up while any strength was left in her body. This cagey fish would make a run then swim back directly under my boat, pushing my tackle to its limits. When she finally slid into the net, I let out a roar. I had found my kicker and netted my new personal best smallmouth. At 20.5” and 4.75lbs she was the fish of a lifetime for me.
The takeout was epic. I had to cut down an old rope swing to drag the kayaks up the 6’bluff wall and we were covered in poison oak and mud. I uploaded my photos as we drove to the weigh in, and was shocked to find that I was tied for first place, with the big fish as tie breaker. I knew the new YakAttack edition Jackson Kayak “Coosa” would be mine! Unfortunately for me, after the tiebreaker I sat in second place by only a hair’s breadth; literally, 1/8” separated our fish. Despite losing by such a close margin, I held my head high. I developed and executed a great game plan, I caught my personal best small mouth, and I won some great prizes for my efforts.