The RiverBassin Tournament Trail
I awoke at 4 AM Friday morning. As usual, I was excited, nervous, and a little groggy as I headed downstairs. The car was loaded and ready to rock, so after grabbing a quick breakfast and mapping my route, I hit the road to pick up Bill in Winston-Salem. He was ready to roll when I pulled up and within 15 minutes we were on the road to Georgia. In typical RippinLip team fashion, we still weren't certain exactly where we wanted to fish. But, we had a list of about 5 spots to check out. Around 11 AM we pulled into a WalMart about 20 minutes from our first river stop. We got fishing licenses and some food and got back to the car. As we left the parking lot, I noticed the "Check Engine Light" had turned on. We figured it was probably a fluke given the long drive, immense heat, and smog we had driven through for a few hours.
At our first stop, we arrived to find a muddy river. It wasn't chocolate milk brown, but it definitely did not coincide with our strategy of fishing plastics through the down timber that littered its banks. So off we went to stop #2, but it looked eerily similar. Stop #3 looked a little better, but a little too shallow for our liking. Then we headed further south to the Ocmulgee River. To our delight, it was clear and clean. We decided to launch the kayaks and check it out, agreeing that if we caught a couple keepers we would fish there on tournament day. Well, the keepers never really appeared, but we landed some short fish and saw a few fish in the 15"-17" range. We put the gear back on the car, started it up, and were as puzzled as ever. First, why was the darn check engine light still on and second, where were we going to fish the next day?!
About 8 miles down the road we spotted an area off the road that looked awesome. It was labeled as a creek, but after inspection, it was clearly a creek arm of Lake Jackson and was off limits for the tournament. To make matters worse, when we got back in the car the "Low Tire Pressure" light was on. At the rate we were going, my dashboard was going to look like a Christmas tree by the end of our trip. Thankfully the car was acting normal and we stopped repeatedly to check the tires - only to find that each time they all looked fine. Finally, at around 5 PM, we stopped at one final destination. It was cloudy as well, but the river was much different here - covered in boulders and bedrock instead of wood cover. Within 20 minutes Bill landed a 14"-15" shoalie and I hooked and lost a monster shoal bass, which is where my tale tomorrow will begin. Let's just say, the fish convinced me to buy a hook sharpener and sharpen all my hooks that night. It was then that we decided this was our tourney day spot. And to top it off, when we got back in the car the check engine light was off. We took it as a true sign that we should fish that spot the next day!
We booked it to Atlanta and got to BPS to catch the second half of the captain's meeting, get our identifiers, and chat with some of the other anglers. Knowing we had to head south for the night, we didn't stick around for the post meeting dinner. In hindsight, this was a very wise choice, because as we were getting on the highway to head south, our tire went flat. I had checked before we left Bass Pro Shops and they all looked fine, but there we were with a flat on the driver's side rear. Knowing that my spare is essentially a donut, we got into planning mode running through all the "what if?" scenarios. After all, it was 8:30 PM on a Friday night - where would be find a place open. Better yet, how were we going to get south, fish enough tomorrow to give ourselves a chance, and get back to Atlanta for weigh-in? We took turns changing the tire and making calls. Thankfully, my amazing girlfriend Mary May came through - finding the only place in that area open until 9 PM on a Friday. We called the shop and told them we were on our way. Bill and I both admitted we had never changed a tire so fast. In fact, we forgot to crank up the cable that holds the spare under the Escape, so that clanged down the road behind us for about 7 miles.
We pulled up to the shop and the staff, admittedly tired and ready to go home, were nothing but helpful and kind. We helped them fix the tire and get everything back on the Escape. It turns out I had a leaky valve, which was easily replaced. The manager said we didn't owe them anything, but would appreciate it if we tipped the younger guy who had helped us out. We didn't have any cash - literally $0 - but we noticed he had a Bass Pro Shops hat on. We asked him if he fished much and he said yes. His dad and buddy both owned boats and he spends a lot of time on the water. We told him we had no money for a tip, but asked if we could give him a few lures. He said that would be awesome, so we parted with a few crankbaits and called it even. He told us it was the best tip he had ever recieved, which made us feel a lot better about the whole situation! By 9:30 PM we were on our way, again, and for the first time since 11:30 AM, my dash was clear of warning lights!
We prepped our gear, sharpened some hooks, and crashed that night. We awoke at 4 AM, packed the car, and headed to the river. Upon arrival, we realized we were extremely early and regretted not getting the extra 40 minutes of sleep. But we got everything ready and came up with a plan. We decided we were going to wade all day through the rocky section of the river, but place one of the Coosas at the top of the stretch where it resembled a flatter, wood filled Piedmont flow. This meant a 1/3 mile portage, so we left anything that was extra weight behind - including the seat. Around 5:45 AM we hauled all the gear to our starting locations, put the yak in the woods, and got set up. We were casting about 10 minutes after the official start of the tournament.
Armed with my Carolina Custom rod in the first light of the GA morning
We went about 30 minutes without a strike and we were both a bit worried. We figured to both have limits on topwater baits because the areas we were fishing looked great. I knew the topwater bite was not going to win it for me (a sentiment Bill later shared), so I knew I needed to change tactics. Before I did, I threw my R&S Baits Chatterbuzz along an eddy seam and it was fish on! A solid 14" bass nailed the bait and would be my first fish of the day. It was a shoal bass that measured 14".
My first fish of the day...and first shoal bass!
Then I decided to go to my most reliable crankbait for shallow water fishing - a Lucky Craft SKT MR. Within minutes I had an 11" and 14.25" bass in hand. Shortly after I hooked up an 11.25" bass on an R&S Spinnerbait. I fished our main area hard for another hour with only a couple small bass to show for it. Bill had moved a ways down river and so I decided it was do or die time. I knew that the long, flat stretch above the shoals we were fishing must be home to some big largemouths. But, I knew the climbing sun, heat, and murky water would not help my cause. Regardless, I headed to the car to grab my paddle and PFD and then to the Coosa. Armed with only the essentials, and no seat, I was on my way. I started flipping brush and logs with texas rigged worms and shakey heads, but was having no luck. Then I tried finesse worms - still no luck. Finally, I saw a rock ledge ahead. It looked like the place a nicer fish would hold. Unfortunately, after about 30 casts I had only a 11" spotted bass to show. I moved on to the next rock ledge, this one smaller, and again could manage only a small spotted bass.
The Lucky Craft SKT MR strikes again
I was beginning to get frustrated and a little down. It was getting very hot and I knew my stringer would not hold much weight in the long run. Mentally, I started thinking about all of the people that support me in the sport, especially Mary May, and I did my best to channel their energy. Suddenly, I was thinking - "never give up, never give up". After all, it was only 10:30 AM, but man was that 106 heat index taking its toll. I spotted a small rock outcrop about 30 yards ahead. I stood in the Coosa and launched my Lucky Craft crankbait. Midway back to the boat, the bait just stopped dead. I set the hook and saw the flash of a big fish. I fought the fish standing and made my way to the rock pile to land the brute. The bass, a 19" shoalie (or shoal-spot hybrid) came to hand with the crankbait completely engulfed in its mouth. My day/luck was quickly being salvaged!
Big shoalie (or shoalie hybrid) - check out the engulfed crank
I fished for the next few hours, and although I was regularly catching fish, they were all below 14". I headed back to the car to find Bill. He had a limit of about 39", but had struggled to find a pattern. Rather than fishing that stretch of river longer, we headed to another spot we had found the day before that had some similar rock ledges. After making the short drive, we hit the water. Within 10 minutes, Bill hooked a solid 14.5" bass to upgrade his limit by 4+". Not long after, I threw my spinnerbait under a tree in a side channel. No sooner did the bait hit the water, then it got nailed and I knew it was a nicer fish. It was ripping down river as fast as I could reel. As soon as I caught up to him, I lifted the 16" spotted bass to the shore and got a picture. It was a welcome upgrade to my stringer, but I knew I needed one more fish to truly compete.
A pretty southern spotted bass with R&S spinnerbait right where it should be
This was also the location that we saw a live armadillo roaming the banks. We had seen many dead along the road during our Friday travels, but had no idea how prevelant they were. He barely seemed phased by our presence and just kept on doing his thing as we did ours. Anyway, back to fishing...
Although I brought a few more fish to hand, including a couple around 14", I could not upgrade my limit any more. I was crossing my fingers, but knowing how many talented anglers were on the rivers and how many were GA residents, I would need some serious luck. At weigh-in, there were all sorts of mixed emotions. A couple guys had great days and others had some of their worst days in recent memory.
Drew Gregory and the crew set-up the ceremony in front of the tank at Bass Pro Shops and the awards ceremony began shortly after. First was the team division, and Bill and I were summoned to the stage as one of the top three teams. Our total of 63.75" helped us to a second place finish, missing first by only 0.5"! That helped us earn 90 points toward the "RiverBassin Team of the Year" and helps put us in the current lead with our 2nd, 1st, and 2nd place finishes in our three stops, respectively. First place was taken by Jason and Rachael Stutts with 64.25" - big congrats to the husband-wife team!
Another shot of the big gal - and my fairly horrible beard
Then came the individual portion. I was summoned to the stage as a top-5 angler. However, I had a weird feeling I wouldn't be up there long. Sure enough, I was right - I ended up in a tie for 4th place with 49.25". But, since my competitor's biggest bass was 19.5" and mine was only 19", I was bumped to fifth. The worst part was that my 16" spotted bass was fractions of an inch away from being 16.25". But hey, that is how tournaments go sometimes! I still walked away with a few prizes and felt pretty good about my performance.
Jason Stutts ended up taking first with 52", Tim Perkins took second, and Nawtou Ly took third. Congrats to those guy for a strong showing on a brutally hot day! My finish puts me in 2nd in the individual Angler of the Year race, which will culminate in September in Roanoke Rapids, VA. Until then, there are stops in KY, AL, and WI and I suspect I may get bumped down another spot or two in the AOY standings. But, hopefully our team standing holds up to the challenge. It is going to be a fun ride for sure. Until tomorrow, tight lines!