The Kayak Bass Fishing Open & Invitational have quickly become the “Super Bowl” of freshwater kayak bass fishing, boasting a total of over 110 anglers from 15+ states with the top 60 anglers in the US competing in the Invitational this year.
I enjoy fishing tournaments, but am no means a “hardcore” tournament guy. I am really more of an expedition sort of kayak angler who loves wild adventure, and capturing those adventures on film. However, tournaments are fun so long as you have the kind of demeanor that doesn’t let competition ruin the enjoyment of fishing. For me, it doesn’t, and I enjoy fishing in the bigger tournament events throughout the country and trying to make a few smaller events when I have time. Later this year on the salt side of things I’ll be fishing the Jax Classic (Jacksonville, FL) and then the Gimme Shelter tournament in California as well. I’ll also fish a Southern Kayak Anglers tournament or two back on the freshwater side of things and possibly some IFA tournaments. However, this Kayak Bass Fishing event is no doubt one that is a “must make” for me every year from now on. So, allow me to share my experience with this event.
First off, Chad Hoover and the entire volunteer staff did a great job putting it together and gathering sponsors for the event. They really deserve a hand for their efforts. The “official” event/s lasted 4 days, with the first 2 days (Thurs/Fri) being the “Open Tournament” on the Santee Cooper lakes in SC; the Open had a separate winner (Andy Thompson) and prize package but it allowed anglers to qualify for the Invitational if they had not already. There are many other ways anglers were able to qualify for the Invitational, such as through winning other tournaments throughout the year or being atop online challenge series on KayakBassFishing.com. Others were Invited based on some things they had been able to accomplish within the sport and Chad acknowledged that it is called an “Invitational” and he invited whoever he wanted to if he felt they deserved it in some way. He was even nice enough to have a little fun at the Open and allow 4 random people who were skunked on the final day to be pulled out of hat and get an invite to the Invitational Tournament. After all was said and done, 60 anglers tried to get some sleep on Friday night for what would be an interesting Saturday and Sunday at VIP Adventures, where the Invitational was held.
For many people this was their 3rd or 4th day in a row of kayak fishing and you could tell this might just be a test of attrition! The alarm clock went off at 4:45 and we were all on our way to the water. The first day of the Invitational we split the group of 60 up into 2 groups of 30 with group 1 fishing on “lake 5″ and group 2 fishing on “lake 6.” Mid-day we would all switch lakes. I started on lake 5 and immediately went to a spot that I had noticed from aerial photography looked pretty good. I was throwing a watermelon red Z-MAN FattyZ, on a power split shot rig (1/4 oz weight) across the point I had scouted. I felt the weight come up against some brush or a stump and I put some more force on it to pull it free. It pulled free quickly and as soon as it jerked free from the stump a huge fish grabbed it! I set the hook with my Daiwa Certate (yes, the same one I threw in the saltwater on “The Silver Rocket”) reel and Cielo 7ft MH bass rod and the fight was on! BRIEFLY! Yes, the fish came loose and all that was left was a GIANT BOIL in the water where the action could last be seen. I yelled pretty loud and I’m pretty sure everyone on the lake that morning felt my pain or laughed because we all “know the feeling” and for some reason its not funny when its you, but when its someone else its kind of humorous! I sure hope I didn’t disturb Adam Harbuck and Ryam Mcdermid too much, as they shared this small cove with me for a brief part of the morning.
I couldn’t cry over spilt milk so I just kept fishing. Ryan, Adam and I all started catching smaller bass, but none of them were near the size of that first one so I decided to toss them back (which can be suicide since I hadn’t photographed any yet and of course catching “another fish” is never a guarantee!). It had been about 10-15 minutes and I was patiently letting the “spot” where the big one was rest in hopes that she would return and I would get one more chance at her – although, in the back of my mind I know the chances are SLIM that a big smart fish like that bites again after just being hooked briefly. Eric Hughes turned the corner and was literally about to float right over the spot so before his kayak disturbed, while he was still 20 feet away from it I made a cast with a Z-MAN Chatterbait (sexy shad) and within one crank of my Daiwa Zillion the big fish NAILED IT again! I screamed, “There she is, that’s her, she bit again!” as the fish’s head breached the surface for Eric, Adam, Ryan and I to admire. The head was enormous and I knew I needed to land this fish in order to make the top 15 and move onto the final day of the Invitational. Sure enough I got her to hand and let out a big “Woo hoo!!” She went 23 inches long, and I’ll get to how much she weighed in a minute.
So, an additional prize was to be given on each day of the Invitational for “heaviest bass.” I know, in a catch-measure-photo-release tournament how would they score the “heaviest bass?” Well, the guys from VIP adventures had a bass boat on each lake and if you caught a big bass that you wanted to put in the livewell to compete in the “live weigh in” at the end of the day then you just called them on the phone and told them where you were and they came over to assist. I definitely put this one in the tank and figured I had a good shot at the day 1 BIG BASS!
I did land one other fish in that first lake to fill out my two fish “virtual stringer” where the photo of the fish placed on a measuring board is what determines your overall score. However, I still wanted to improve my score. At the second lake in the afternoon I did the exact same thing – paddled straight to a spot that I noticed look good from satellite imagery. Sure enough, first cast with the chatterbait and I landed a 15.5 inch fish. Not huge, but definitely secured my spot for the final day. While I was taking my photo fellow Jackson Kayak team member Stewart Venable paddle right around me and into the corner and landed a MONSTER BASS! We definitely were in the right spot! The rest of the day was filled with a few smaller fish and now it was all up to the scores and “live weigh in” to determine who moves on to the final day and who will take home the BIG BASS award for the heaviest fish.
I have to beat Ryan Mcdermit who had caught a nice 5lb 11oz bass I believe. Sure enough my fish tipped the scales at 7lbs even. Only one angler was left to take BIG BASS on day one and it was team member Stewart Venable. They put his fat fish on the scales and it just fell short at 6lbs and 12oz, which led to me winning the day 1 BIG BASS award – pretty sweet! All you needed to do was be in the top 15 to move on and I ended the day in 2nd place, but the scores were all about to go back to ZERO for the final day!
On the last day I could barely wake up, remember my name, or function but I somehow made it back to VIP Adventures to start fishing. On this day there were 3 3 periods on 3 new lakes that were 3 hours a piece and the virtual stringer was moved up to, you guessed it, 3 fish instead of 2. There were 5 anglers on each lake per period and I was fortunate to get paired up with Stewart again. On lake number one, the biggest lake, Justin Carter (who finished 2nd in the Open and was on fish all week) and I went straight to the same area. Both of us fished hard, but couldn’t pull out any huge fish, but I did come away with an 18.5 inch, a 17-inch and a 15. Definitely needed to upgrade those bottom two if I were to even have a shot.
So, in the 2nd period we ended up on a clearer lake that was the smallest of all 3 we were to fish on this day. It had lily pads and much clearer water and just looked “bassy.” I paddled my Jackson Cuda 14 to the west side of the lake, which was out of the wind and immediately started a game plan to look for “bedding bass” given the clear water. Sure enough it wasn’t 10 minutes on the lake and I sighted a very nice size female on bed, with a small male hanging around. Chad Hoover was on the lake doing segments for his Kayak Bass Fishing show and producer Ken Whiting (who I’ve known for some time) was filming and following me in hopes of catching some action. I told him that “Oh, I see a big fish on bed, I’m gonna catch her, she’s a definite upgrade from my 15 and probably will go 19 inches.” Then, began the game of “patience” as I pulled off the bed, re-rigged a drop shot with a Z-MAN finesse wormZ and a 1/4 oz TX rig Flappin CrawZ. I threw the craw in first and sure enough, as expected the male bit. I quickly landed the fish and decided to put it on my fish grips and tie them up to my kayak so it couldn’t return to the bed yet. Then, came the much much more difficult part where I have to coax a much bigger, older and wiser bass into biting after it already is aware of my presence. The bed was hard to make a cast to so when she did finally return (after 20 minutes of just waiting) I decided to throw the drop shot rig so that when I did make that good cast I could just shake it in place until it frustrater her enough to move it off of the bed. Another 20 minutes of casting to her and I am having no such luck. She doesn’t like it, I can tell, but also doesn’t have any interest in removing it. Finally I get hung up on a limb near the bed on one of my casts and decide to switch to the Flappin CrawZ again because I sure didn’t want to paddle over there and scare her off again. This fish definitely did not like that craw actually laying on the sand of the bed and she finally BIT! The fight was on, and it was apparent that she was bigger than what I had thought too. Ken captured the moment well on camera and a minute later she was on the deck of the Cuda! I was pumped because patience is not my greatest strength and had any of the other anglers around me been catching fish I probably would have abandoned this tactic, but I figured if I just catch that one fish in that period it would be worth it. I did, and it was. She measured 20.5 inches and instead of putting her in the bass boat for the final day BIG BASS award Chad weighed the fish on the spot with a scale and we let both her and the male go back to their bed to surely have another good spawning year for the fish at VIP. She weighed 5lbs 8oz and took BIG BASS for the 2nd period of the day.
I still had a little over an hour to go on this lake and told Ken, “Now, if I can just find another situation like that I could do it again.” Sure enough, about 75 yards down the bank I spotted another bed, but this one was deeper and the pollen on the water made it hard to see the fish. However, I knew they were there and was determined to catch one to get rid of the 17-inch fish on my “virtual stringer,” which was now my smallest. This time the male was the only fish I saw, but it was a bigger one. I went straight to the craw this time and it didn’t take too long and I was able to catch the 19.25 inch male to knock the 17 off and increase my total again. Soon after, the period was over and I knew that I was doing fairly well, but still needed at least one more “big bite” to have a shot.
Lake #3 was more stained so the “sight fishing” was not going to happen, not to mention about halfway into the period some clouds rolled in. I figured this would be more of a spinnerbait, chatterbait kinda bite. Again Justin Carter and I paddled right to the same area but couldn’t really find the bite. I missed one on a spinnerbait but quickly abandoned that pattern and went back to the chatterbait because this lake was very full and almost flooding. What that did is make the overhanging limbs and bushes touch the water and it was difficult to get a spinnerbait up under them to the shore. With the chatterbait, so long as you put a soft plastic trailer on it, you can actually skip it underneath these limbs. I put a Z-MAN 4-inch paddlerZ on the back and began skipping it everywhere I could and fishing it off of main lake points that were adjacent to shallow spawning flats. I knew that not all the fish were spawning now, but they should at least be “near” spawning areas. Sure enough with about an hour left in the period my chatterbait got HAMMERED right at the boat! The fish came quickly to the surface, rolled and then went under my kayak digging hard and out of nowhere it came off! I guess my drag was set a tad tight because I was mostly fishing the bait deep in cover and wanted to horse them out, but that is what caused this fish to get off since it was so “green” right at the boat and I just never had a chance to loosen the drag because it all happened so fast. It appeared to be 8 to 10lbs and I’ll never forget the sight of it when it came to the surface.
I wasn’t happy, but I at least knew the pattern now and I reminded myself that just because I lost that big fish doesn’t decrease my odds of hooking into another one, and it actually may increase them if anything because I now knew to focus on areas that looked as much like that spot as possible. So, paddling fast around the lake I went to hit main lake points that were adjacent to shallower spawning areas. With about 15 minutes to spare I got the other bite that I so desperately wanted! She was trying to jump several times, but couldn’t make it due to being a big girl and due to me lowering the rod as much as I could so she wouldn’t! I got her in the Cuda and paddled a short distance across to the ramp to measure her and bring her to the bass boat to weigh in as the BIG BASS for the 3rd period. She went 21.25 inches long and was very fat! I tried to get one more before time expired but couldn’t make it happen. I was still confident in my top 3 bass and we packed up and headed to the “live weigh in” and ultimately the final results show.
My two big fish for the day ended up weighing 5lbs 8oz and I can’t even remember but I think my final bass that I caught at the end was close to 6lbs. Chad did a quick interview with me and let me know that I took BIG BASS in both the 2nd and 3rd periods and I was surprised to hear that given the tough field of competitors. At the same time I knew I fished hard and well and figured I was sitting pretty well at that point.
It was off to what would end up being our final “stage” area to announce the results from the day. So, Chad announces the finish from 15th place all the way up to the final two. Stewart Venable ended up representing Jackson well and finished 9th. All the way down to the final 2 and my name had yet to be called, along with “Fatback Herring” Tony Yang. So, Chad brought us up on stage and began the “drum roll” of drama explaining that this was the closest finish he had ever seen in any catch-photo-release tournament. Tony and I had landed the EXACT same length of our 3-fish! The odds of that have to be pretty outrageous…any math nerds out there feel free to leave those odds in the comments. Anyway, it came down to a tie-breaker, on who’s fish photos were better (according to the rules – mouth 100% closed, centered tail etc) and Tony must have had a suringe and anihthesiologist because he had them PERFECTLY on his board in his photos. Big congrats to Tony on the win and in the end I can’t complain much at all. I had the fish on that would have won it; I lost it. Plus, I ended up with the 2nd biggest fish of the entire week (only Brent Schnupp’s 24 beat my 23) and out of the 5 periods in the Invitational I was able to take BIG BASS in 3 of the 5. Plus, Ken, Chad and I got some great video for his Knot Right fishing show (NBC Sports) and to make myself feel better about not winning by such a close margin I reminded myself that if the event had been aggregate (like its moving to next year where day 1 and 2′s totals combine) I would have won by a fairly large margin. Yeah, its a stretch, but I needed something to cheer me up after losing in such a close manner and all in all I feel like I won in a lot of ways at this event even though Tony will have the title…for this year! I’ll be back!
To watch the full episode of how it all went down click below. The section on the tournament begins at the 11 minute and 23 second mark.