Stick to your guns in tournament fishing
Kentucky and Barkley Lakes in the spring are something special. The bass get in the bushes and on the flats, and there are ample opportunities to catch big fish on every flip or cast. Tournaments have been going steady for weeks on the lakes, and weights have been impressive. So my partner, Brian Wilson, owner of Cumberland Pro Lures in Burnside, Ky., and I were excited about the Jet-A-Marina tournament on April 3. This has been an annual tournament on the lakes for 22 years and is usually the largest tournament on the lakes all year.
Brian and I talked leading up to the tournament, and I told him the water came up to summer pool and the water temperatures were warming from all the sunshine. It was setting up to be a great situation for flipping and pitching, something we both love to do. We also decided with the water up and temps warming that we could fish shallow, and Barkley would offer plenty of cover and probably a lot less company.
So we made a game plan to hit North Barkley one day and South Barkley another during practice, and then we would decide where to fish our tournament.
The first day on the North end, we decided to run creeks just off the main channel. We ran several bays, pockets and creek arms and managed a few keepers here and there. We finally found a roadbed that had more than one keeper on it, but none over 3 1/2 pounds. Even if the area expanded and yielded more 3-pounders, we didn’t think 15 pounds would be near enough to win on these lakes this time of year.
What we did figure out was the bass we caught here and there seemed to be shallow but right near a creek channel. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of creek channel swings in the early spring (see our Guntersville Reports). So I tucked that information away as we continued to search.
We ran down lake about 5 miles to get into new water and check fish both shallow and on deeper banks. Our search was fruitless. We threw crankbaits, spinnerbaits, flipped jigs, casted jigs, threw Texas rigs and more. We fished in less than a foot of water in the backs of bays to 12 feet of water in the mouths of bays, all to no avail. The water temps were approaching 63 degrees in the back of the last bays we fished. And that had us scratching our heads as to where the fish were.
We ended our first day of practice with four keeper bites and a bunch of short fish. But we felt we had one small area that could possibly kick out a limit on Saturday. Yet we didn’t feel confident it would weigh much.
On our second practice day, we trailered down to south Barkley and decided to look in couple bays and creek arms. We planned to flip bushes for quite a while and also fish some deeper banks, points and maybe a hump or two. We pulled up on one point. I made one cast with a Texas-rigged Zoom Brush Hog and caught a 5-pound largemouth. We strapped the rods down and moved across to a hump. We fished it for a while and didn’t even get a nibble. From there we moved to another point with a deep channel close. I made two casts with a Texas-rigged Brush Hog and caught a 3-pound largemouth on the second cast. That was two keepers 200 yards from each other.
We decided to run around to different parts of this one creek arm and just look around and get familiar with which banks were steep, which ones were shallow, which ones had bushes, which ones had wood, rock and other cover. We fished off and on and managed another keeper but really we were trying not to educate the fish too much in our area.
From there we left and started hitting small bays on the way back to the ramp. Our search was fruitless. We probably made 1,000 flips, pitches and casts without a single keeper to show for it. Many fish were shallow, but we never found the right quality shallow.
That afternoon we retied all our baits and narrowed down from 20 rods to about 12 rods for the two of us. We had four Texas-rigged Zoom Lizards, Brush Hogs and Baby Brush Hogs. We had a couple rods with Cumberland Pro and Bounty Hunter spinnerbaits, one with a Rapala DT 6, one with a Cumberland Pro Caster jig, two with Cumberland Pro HD jigs, one with a Heavy Gator Football Jig and an extra rod with another jig.
That night I pulled up my Navionics NavPlanner2 software on my PC to look at our area in a little more detail. I saw a couple of good channel swing banks and another couple of points that we saw in practice that we thought looked good that looked really good on that mapping software. I always like to study a map after I find a productive area to learn a little more about what options I have in there. Knowing where the flats, where the roadbeds, where the points and where the channels are will give you a lot of options to consider as you piece together your tournament day. Navionics are great on the boat, but I like using it at home just as much.
We snuck under a dock the morning of the tournament and waited out a heavy down pour, cold blowing wind out of the Northwest and first safe light to begin blasting off. We launched out as boat 119 of a field of more than 300 boats.
The water, wind and waves were absolutely brutal. We battled a driving wind that piled the waves against the current on Barkley Lake and made for a very wet slow ride to the Tennessee end of south Barkley. Note to self: learn how to run the west bank when the water is at summer pool. That would have given us another 30 minutes of fishing and dry underwear.
After more than an hour of getting soaked and slammed around in the washing machine that those Northwest winds kicked up on Barkley, we finally made it. When I say soaked, I’m talking about having to take all my layers off and fishing bare-chested with just my rain coat on. I was never so happy to see the sun poke out around 9 a.m.
We pulled up to the point where we caught the 5-pounder in practice. Nothing was happening. Now the air temps were much cooler, it was overcast and the conditions were much different than practice. We worked down the fairly steep rocky bank for a while without a single keeper and just a few short fish. We cut across to another steep rocky bank where we’d had another keeper with the same results.
A big part of tournament fishing is keeping yourself calm and maintaining your confidence when the fishing doesn’t go exactly like you planned it should go. I think that’s where many anglers go astray. We set a plan in our mind of how our tournament day will go. Then when it doesn’t go according to plan, we get spun out and start scurrying around in panic mode.
We knew our area had quality fish in it. We just needed to figure out what the weather did to change their position and their behavior. We decided to work back into the bay on the sunny side where the water got a lot shallower.
I cast a light Texas rig near a laydown and had a real aggressive bite but nothing on the line. â€œThat seemed like a bedding bass,â€ I said to Brian. â€œI’m not sure, but it was extremely aggressive and then not on there when I went to set.â€
I cast right back and slowly drug the Texas rig into the same spot. Another rapid bite and I swung hard and fast. A 3-pounder boiled up to the surface, and I called for the net. We scooped her up and kicked on the livewell. Our first keeper was in the box. We stayed in that shallow pocket fan casting and slowly working Texas rigs and jigs around looking for other fish possibly moved up early.
Without any more keepers, we headed back to another shallow pocket. We worked back through this pocket fishing some laydowns and other wood cover. At the very back of the pocket a bunch of wood had blown into the pocket and formed a likely canopy for a bass to hide under. Back home on Beaver Lake in Arkansas we called this â€œSawdusting.â€ Basically you pitch a jig or Texas-rig through the matted mess of logs and tightly packed debris. Then just hop your jig in place.
I pitched my Cumberland Pro HD jig through the wood pile and picked up on it. It was solid like it was stuck. That usually means one thing.
I set the hook as hard as I could and started cranking another 3-pounder out of the mess and yelled for the net again. We set her in the livewell and started to breathe a little easier about our situation. Again we fished the area quite a while making a couple passes on the wood debris without anymore bites.
We moved back up to channel swing bank that had a great looking point that extended out into the swing. We saw this spot in practice and on the NavPlanner2 software and purposely saved it for the tournament day to explore a little more. Boys are we glad we did.
About Brian’s fifth cast with his Cumberland Pro Caster jig, he loaded up on a fish on the end of the point. I asked if he needed the net and he acted real casual about it. When the fish neared the surface, I started to shake. â€œIt’s a freaking 5-pounder,â€ I said scurrying for the net.
I scooped her up and the rush of adrenaline hit us both and there was a â€œmanlyâ€ bear hug that ensued for a brief second. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a little on the homophobic side, but the thing I love most about fishing and especially tournament fishing, is when you catch a good fish that you know will help your cause, there is just a rush of adrenaline and child-like giddiness that consumes you for a brief moment. I’d love to bottle that energy up and sell it. I’d make a fortune.
We got our game face back on quickly as time was running out until we’d have to make the long run back. We worked the point and another like it for quite a while without a single bite.
We moved back to our initial starting point and Brian swung a small keeper to the boat on the Texas-rigged Baby Brush Hog. The fish was small but we both realized it was a keeper spotted bass. They only have to be 12-inches and this one met the minimum. We’re talking maybe a 15-ounce fish. But it was number four and we were nearly to our limit on a grinding tough day.
We finally decided that we needed to make the run back and give our one good spot on the north end a shot to see if we couldn’t squeeze out a final keeper before weigh-in. The spot looked like it had been hammered that day as there were easily 10 boats in that creek when we got there. We caught a few short fish and then had to run the rest of the way in.
We put four fish on the scale for 11 pounds, 15 ounces. We were certain that wouldn’t get a check. But what we learned is that most people had their patterns completely fall apart with that brief but brutal cold front. Most said they scrambled and could only manage a few keepers. Mike Ward and Tommy Ellis ended up winning the event fishing Strike King Red Eye Shads south of Paris, Tenn. on Kentucky Lake. Fact is both Ward and Ellis are extremely hard to beat on these lakes. Their records speak for themselves.
We ended up 15th out of 300 plus boats and pocketed $350. It was a bunch of fun. We had some exciting moments. The weather turned out to be beautiful, and we made a little change. If there is a better way to spend a Saturday, I don’t know what it is for me.
I learned a lot that day. I felt good that we had committed to our area and expanded on it during the tournament rather than in practice. I felt good that we were able to catch the fish several different ways when they weren’t locked into any one specific pattern. I felt good that we didn’t let soggy britches and stubborn bass knock us off track too much. And I really felt good when I learned so many of the big sticks on the lake had faltered when we grinded it out.
That one missing keeper will haunt me for a while. We didn’t lose any fish, but not coming in with five bass on Kentucky Lake in the spring leaves me with that same sensation as when you slam the locked car door. That feeling you get the instant before it latches when you realize your keys are still in the car. It’s just a brief instant where you feel like a complete failure. Then you shrug it off and move on. I guess that’s what I’ll do. It’s spring, and the bass are about to be up shallow for us all to enjoy a little more.