Monday, March 17, 2014

My 2014 KBF Open - Santee Cooper, SC

Much like last year, I was undecided about whether or not to fish the Kayak Bass Fishing (KBF) Open for quite some time.  It meant taking a couple days off of work, battling guys with way more knowledge of the lakes than myself, and being away from Mary May and the dogs. But in the end, the challenge to compete with some of the best kayak bass anglers in the country and chance to potentially land the fish of a lifetime, were just too much to resist. Plus I am moving north in May, so I knew it would be my last chance at a national level kayak tourney for quite some time (I'm already booked for the Kayaks 'n Greenbacks weekend).  So, after work on Tuesday I packed up and headed to the Santee Cooper Lakes in central South Carolina.  It was an event full of ups and downs both for me and the other competitors I talked to.  Thankfully, I stuck to my plan, got some decent bites, and pounded out a solid finish in the field of 120 anglers.

Some backstory to the entire trip was that we were without power for 5+ days right before I left for prefishing.  In fact, during the first 36 hours of the outtage we were literally trapped at our house due to all the trees down in our driveway and lane.  It finally came back on about 18 hours before I left and I was frantically scouring over lake maps and aerial photography. I knew the recent ice storms were scattering the fish and delaying their major push shallow to spawn.  And like usual, I elicited the advice of friends Bill Kohls and Will Petty.  Will also hooked me up with a friend of his named Carl Carson, a local angler who helped immensely in terms of breaking down parts of the lake where only a kayak could fish.  This was tremendously helpful, because the FLW-Rayovac series was having a 200 boat tournament there at the same time, not to mention the countless local tournaments, and recreational boaters that were all over the place.

For those of you not familiar with Santee Cooper - it is made up of two huge lakes. The upper lake is Lake Marion and the lower lake, connected by a diversion canal, is Lake Moultire.  Marion tends to fish better early, but when Moultrie turns on, it absolutely explodes with big bass.  In my opinion, the two lakes hold some of the strongest, meanest lake largemouths I have ever caught.  I arrived to find much of Marion muddy and cold due to heavy rains and flooding further up the system.  But reports were that the fishing in Moultrie was very, very slow.  So I went all in on Lake Marion and hoped that Moultrie would stay cold.

Anglers made the trip from all over the US, including Maine, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi.

The format was a 2 day event.  On day 1, you submitted your longest two bass from the day.  On day 2, you submitted your longest 3 bass.  Then the angler with the longest overall 5 bass stringer won.  I suspected before the tournament that a 20" average would win and that a 17" average would put you in the top 10.  It turns out, that estimate was pretty darn close.


Rumors around the lake were that fishing was as slow as it had been in years.  There were FLW-Rayovac guys who had been on the lake for a week and not boated a keeper.  That was slightly overwhelming to know.  So most of my practice was 'run and gun' in areas I thought would be most productive.  Things got off to a rough start, when I found out that my fish finder battery had gone bad over the winter.  I would be without electronics for the entire event.  But I started in a small,  backwater area on the north side of the lake where I caught 4 very short fish (11" range) in about an hour.  I decided to keep it in the back of my mind as a plan D.  It turns out that I wouldn't ever need to get quite that desperate.  My next stop was the back of a creek arm that looked fairly secluded and potentially difficult for bass boats to enter.  Within 10 casts I had a 16" largemouth crush a Premier League Lures spinnerbait in submerged grass.  Side note, if you haven't tried the Premier League Fade Blade spinnerbaits or double blade buzzbaits - you need to because you will catch more fish on them.  About 30 minutes later, I landed a 19" fish on a black chatterbait - also in submerged grass.  I realized that I was on to something, but I could tell that the pattern was wind dependent, so only a few very small areas were actually going to produce.  Content with what I had found, I headed to another creek, repeated the pattern, and landed another solid fish - around 17". 

This 19" bass slammed a chatterbait in practice

From that point on I was content with doing minimal fishing and mostly just look for spots where I could replicate the pattern.  But just before dark on Wednesday I made a paddle into a secluded cove and within 10 casts I landed 3 solid fish in the 15"-17" range.  I had found my plan A.

On Thursday I checked a few similar pockets, but none produced quite as well because they didn't have nearly as much brush in them.  I did find about a 4-5 lber starting to set up a bed as well as a bunch of 15"-16" buck males starting to clear beds for the spawn.  The problem was that the big female was in the middle of nowhere and the area around where she had set-up was unproductive, so I had to rule her out of my plans.  I checked one more crazy backwater creek arm with mixed grass and lily pads, but it was uneventful other than seeing more big gators than I have ever seen outside of a zoo.  At one point, I counted a dozen over 8 feet cruising the banks and channel in front of me - including one that was as wide and long as my 12' by 33" Malibu Stealth kayak.  At that point, I quickly pulled a U-turn and considered it a wash.

Tim Perkins sent me this gorgeous shot of his launch on Day 1

By the time 2 PM roled around on Thursday, I had my plan set.  I was going to start in the pocket where I got the 3 bites in 10 casts and then head to the back of the creek I caught the 19" fish and swing for the fences.  I wasn't entirely confident in the pattern and knew I would need a big kicker fish, but I was confident in being able to grind out a solid stringer.

I launched a little after 7 AM on Friday in air temps around 33 degrees.  I started throwing a Big Bite Baits Cane Thumper swimbait and a finesse worm around brush and on grass edges.  By 8 AM I had two fish around 16 inches, but I was really hoping to hang one over 17" before I moved.  About an hour later, I got the bite I needed.  It was one of those thumps that you are sure is a big fish.  It started ripping drag, but I could feel the line rubbing on a stump under the water and no matter what I tried I couldn't get the fish to come free of the stump.  Seconds later, the line snapped.  I was fairly crushed and a little rattled, but I re-tied and kept fishing.  Well the fishing Gods must have been smiling down on me, because 5 casts later I felt a tick on the line.  I set the hook as it screamed sideways toward deep water.  The fight was fairly short, albeit spirited, and I netted a 19.5" largemouth.

A great way to start off the day!
At that point I packed up, drove about 30 minutes to the creek arm, and launched again.  To my dismay, it was full of boats - 4 Rayovac tournament boats and 4 or 5 rec boaters.  Thankfully, no-one was in my main area, but there was no wind at all blowing on it.  So instead of the chatterbait I started throwing the Cane Thumper.  I missed two short bites and couldn't get those fish to eat a follow up bait.  I was worried the lack of wind had them acting finicky.  Then the bait got slammed again and I again tossed a worm back.  The line went tight and the bass immediately went airborne.  I wrestled the brute out of the weeds with my 7'6", all purpose Carolina Custom Rod and got him in the net.  The bass measured 19.25" and would give me a solid day 1 limit that I figured would put me in the top 10 and give me a chance to make a run on day 2.  So after another 20 minutes of fishing I decided to let that area rest until day 2 and headed for another area loaded with cypress stumps.

The 2nd fish in my day 1 limit

Some of the areas looked awesome, but I couldn't buy a bite.  It was a serious grind and I was a little out of it when I finally felt a bite on a Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog flipped to a stump.  But I lost focus and completely whiffed on the hookset.  The mental aspect of tournament fishing is often the hardest and execution is key...and that one hurt.  I moved once more before heading to weigh-in, but had nothing more to show for it.

Check-in was a breeze and while the judges did their thing, I showered, changed, and grabbed some food before heading back to hear the results.  Only 40 anglers caught fish on Day 1.  With 38.75", I was sitting in 5th place and 2" off Jeffrey Hall's lead.  Ron Champion took the big bass pot with a 24.25" beast and Tony Yang wasn't far behind with a 23+" pig of his own.  They were joined by Andy Thompson Jr. in 2nd-4th place.  I knew that one big bite would go a long way and just had to hope I would get lucky on day 2.

I didn't sleep very well that night as thoughts raced through my mind.  I decided I was going to sell out on my main spot for most of the day and hope that I could connect with a big fish at some point to vault me up the standings.

I again launched at 7 AM and headed across the lake to the other side of the creek arm.  Right off the bat, I could tell my bite was different.  I think the full moon pulled a lot of fish onto beds, taking them from an aggressive state to a much more subdued mindset.  I could tell by the bites I was getting that the beds were deep and fish were moving my worm without ever truly eating it.  It lead to a lot of short strikes and missed fish.  And not 30 minutes after launch, something went awry with one of my reels, which put it out of commission the rest of the day.  By 10 AM, I was in grind mode and my mind was starting to wander.  I had managed 3 bass, but they were all around 15".  Finally I got a good bite and a bass started bulldogging me to deep water.  When I finally got him to the boat, I could see he was the anti-kayak tournament fish.  Instead of being long he was short and extremely fat.  He measured only 16.25", but probably weighed over 3 lbs.  It was an upgrade, but not exactly what I was looking for.  Then around 11 AM it was like someone flipped a switch and they turned on.

This fat bass had my hopes up during the fight!


First I flipped my plastic way back into a bush - actually to a spot I had a lost fish the day before.  I pulled my bait over a limb and felt a tick.  I set the hook and yanked a solid fish airborne and out of the thick cover.  I could tell it was a solid bass and he put up a crazy fight, refusing to come to the net.  Finally, things were looking up when I landed and photographed the 18" chunk.

My big fish on day 2

15 minutes later I got another good bite, this time throwing a swimbait on a secondary point.  I killed the bait near a stump and felt it get hammered as soon as I began reeling again.  This time I had a 17.5" bass and another solid upgrade.  I knew I only needed one more bite to be where I wanted to be to be able to move and sell out for a giant.

Fish #3 of my day 2 limit

My thoughts were racing, debating whether to stay in the area and hope for one more good bite or move to another creek arm.  I thought about the 4-5 lber I knew about on the complete opposite side of the lake.  I thought about the giants I knew lived in the back of grassy stump fields not quite as far.  But I decided to try and ground it out where I was - hoping there was a giant lurking nearby.  It was becoming one of the toughest mental tournaments of my life.  Around 12:30 PM my bite slowed down and the swimbait bite was non-existent.  I tried one last thing - dragging a shakey head (aka - the northerners Carolina Rig) to try and cull out my short fish.  I immediately caught two small fish on it in the middle of the channel off a rocky point.  Then I got a good bite.  It was a bedding fish, as was evident by the way the fish bit, set up in about 10 feet of water.  I set the hook and the fish ran hard for the channel.  Seconds later the bait popped free.  It was crushing.  Based on the quick look I got at her, that fish would have upgraded my 16.25" bass by at least 4". 

The rest of the day was absolutely dead.  I couldn't buy a bite and around 2 PM, hit a super low point.  I threw a long cast and my bait got snagged on a stump on the fall.  Since I was cooking in my long sleeve shirt and Columbia shell, I decided it was a good time to take off the shell to cool down.  I reached around to stow it behind me and re-zippered my PFD.  As I did, I was hit with an intense stomach cramp.  I couldn't even lean forward without being overwhelmed by the pain.  I leaned back to try and get it to stop, but as I did I saw my rod flip overboard.  I tried to grab it, but the pain was just too much.  Finally the cramp went away and I re-focused.  I grabbed my longest rod, which happened to have a lipless crank tied on, and began dragging it on the bottom.  It barely reached the bottom, but miraculously, I was able to snag the line and pull up the rod.  At least something finally went my way.

I also managed to avoid the Santee trifecta of danger - gators, water moccasins, and red wasps.  I saw all three on my final day (the red wasps were out in force), but thankfully always at a safe distance.

Obligatory gator shot from practice, albeit not a great photo of this 9 footer

I kept grinding until about 3:45 PM before finally waving the white flag, crossing my fingers, and heading for the weigh-in.  I had no clue how others had done, but figured I was going to be in trouble if the lower lake had turned on.  But as I stood around eating hot dogs (courtesty of BooneDox), I was hearing that lot of other folks also had frustrating days and a lot of big fish never made it to the boat.

Chad (Hoover) and Chappy raffled off all sorts of rods, paddles, and gear before they finally got to the final results.  The top 15 was loaded with talented anglers.  10th place went to friend and fellow North Carolina angler Cory Dreyer with 81.75" (just shy of my 17" average estimate).  As each place after was announced, my heart lept a little.  I was in the top 8, then 7, then 6, then stomach was churning.  Finally, 4th place went to fellow river rat and RiverBassin champ Tim Perkins with 89.25".  Then came the announcement of 3rd place with 90.5", followed by my name.  I was overcome with excitement after all I had been through.  2nd place went to Andy Thompson Sr. with 91" - just a half inch more than my total.  1st place went to Jeffrey Hall, who smoked everybody with 100" - matching the 20" average I predicted would win.  A huge congrats to him and all the other competitors for doing well in tough conditions.

The final standings

My finish earned me $1100 cash, a new Wilderness Systems Ride 135 Advanced Angler with rudder kit, a YakAttack BlackPak with custom engraved 'trophy' lid, a collapsable YakAttack visicarbon pro light, a few RAM products including rod holders, a KBF Open shirt, a limited edition HOOK1 license plate, and various other swag from PowerTeam Lures and HOOK1.  Chuck Wrenn also hooked me up with some PowerTeam swag on the side, which was extremely generous of him.  PTL has certainly earned my business, particularly when I restock my box with smallie baits before moving north in May.

Posing with the big man and the new Ride

After taking pictures, shaking hands, and shooting the bull I loaded up the new kayak and winnings and headed back to NC.  I finally got home a little after 2 AM, showered, and crashed aroud 2:30.  I had been awake for nearly 24 hours and nothing could have been better than lying in my own bed with my arms wrapped around Mary May and the dogs passed out on the floor after one heck of a day.

All in all, I think the 2014 KBF Open was a tremendous success - giving away over $20,000 in cash and prizes (the most of any freshwater event ever).  Chad, Chappy, Aaron Dryden, Jason Austin, the Meiers, the HOW folks, and the other volunteers did an amazing job.  I can not thank you all enough for your kindness, helpfulness, and generosity.  It at least appeared to go off without a hitch and I think we all walked happy eager to fish more KBF events.  The event also raised a pile of money for Heroes on the Water, which probably yielded the loudest applause of the night.
One of the sweet new HOOK1 logos
Another note is that after everything was announced, Chad cleared the air about last year.  After already making numerous apologies online, he again shouldered the blame for everything that went wrong in 2013.  Most of the issues revolved around the KBF Invitational rather than the Open, but suffice to say all of the loose strings (financial and otherwise) from last years events have now been settled.  I told him last summer that life isn't about the mistakes we make, but how we respond to them.  Saturday night, I commended him for how he handled everything - admitting his mistakes, learning from them, and making it right.  It was clear how much time and effort he put into this years event and he deserves a big kudos for proving the haters wrong.  If you have heard the negativity and rumors, they have now officially been squashed.  Go fish future KBF events, which will have some of the biggest cash payouts and prizes of any freshwater kayak tournaments.  Also, if you are a northerner, start getting in Chad's ear about having a KBF tourney in the north - Champlain, Susquehanna River, Potomac River, etc.!

Tons of credit goes to this crew right here!  (Picture taken from Chad Hoover's Facebook)

Thank you to everyone for all of your amazing support throughout the event - Mary May, Bill, Carl, Will, and the many others.  Also a huge thanks to Brett Hinson at Carolina Custom Rods, Malibu Kayaks, Crack of Dawn Paddlesports, Pure Fishing Inc., Columbia, and Smith Optics for the amazing gear that helped me put fish in the boat all week.

Here is the Kayak Fish Magazine article about the event and I am sure others will be out soon as well.  Until nex time, tight lines!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Smith Optics Backdrop Sunglasses - Fishing Review

About a year and a half ago I found myself without a good set of polarized sunglasses.  My previous pair had managed to fly out of my hands and into the depths of a dirty, cold river.  After pouting, I decided to start doing some research.  Of course there was an army of Costa fans, many of whom purchased what they consider to be a status symbol as much as a pair of fishing sunglasses.  And there were plenty of folks with an allegiance to Oakley, Hobie, Solar Bat, Spy, and others.  But after digging one company really stood out - Smith Optics.

At the time, Smith hadn't really blown up in the kayak fishing scene like they have today.  But they were the favorites of many trout and inshore guides who often rely on their ability to see fish to get their clients hooked up.  One particular guide service, whose name is escaping me, gave detailed reviews of about 12 different Smith models, listing the pros and cons of each.  With the help of that site and some online reviews, I settled on the Smith Backdrops, which are part of their evolve series.  The evolve series is comprised of "environmentally considerate and renewable materials", which was part of what made them stand out to me.  The Backdrops have large lenses with great coverage, but they also aren't so big that I can't wear them in public without looking like an insect.  Coverage is basically how much light/glare the glasses can keep out as well as the angle and size of the lenses, which widen your field of view.  The better the coverage, the more you see.

I chose black frames with copper mirrored polarchromic lenses.  The Smith polarchromes and polarized and basically change tint depending on how bright it is.  So on darker days, they get lighter and vice versa.  This has proven to be a huge perk when on the water.  Now the 'Chroma Pop' lenses are available and I am eager to try them out as well.  Combined with black frames, very little light gets in.

                                                                   The Smith Backdrops doing work!

Unlike so many fishing products that don't live up to the look or hype, the Backdrops certainly do.  I wear them religously on and off the water and even went so far as to buy a strap to keep them secure around my neck when not in use.  They have helped me to easily spot trout in the clear waters of western North Carolina and central Pennsylvania and also allow me to see underwater structure when chasing largemouths - even in stained water.  In one particular instance I was in a tournament on a windy, cloudy day.  I was paddling and just happened to catch a glance of a black tail moving down the shore line.  I flipped my worm in front of the fish and proceeded to land my biggest fish of the day and helped me finish in the top-5.  I will not say that my Smiths are the only pair of glasses that would have allowed me to see that fish.  But I will say that a good pair of glasses can go a very long way.  Honestly, I couldn't be much happier with my Backdrops.

If you don't have a good pair of polarized sunglasses for fishing, I highly recommend checking out Smith Optics.  I believe they provide the best mix of quality, performance, and affordability.  If you have any questions about them, feel free to give me a shout.  Until next time, tight lines!