The 2017 Kayak Bass Fishing National Championship was an event I had been chasing for two years. Qualifying for this event was especially challenging for me due to a number of deployments throughout the summer and fall of 2016. The KayakTournaments.com online trail awards one qualifying spot for the state of North Carolina for its Angler of The Year program. I finished 9th out of 31, but the anglers above me consisted of names such as Cory Dreyer, Jamie Denison, Jimmy Houser and Larry Anderson. The North Carolina AOY program was stacked with legitimate powerhouse fisherman, all of whom had qualified previously through other KBF sanctioned events. So, through some miracle, the qualifying spot rolled down to me sitting in 9th place. Needless to say, I was out of my league and felt slightly intimidated by the fact that I shouldn’t have really qualified for that event if it had not been for the roll downs.
Regardless of the daunting task of competing against over 360 of the top kayak anglers in the country, I based my preparation on analyzing the lakes depth charts, using Navionics software, and reading into over five years’ worth of fishing reports for the historical periods of three weeks before the tournament dates and three weeks after to get an idea of consistent patterns. This tactic proved absolutely invaluable as it really helped me pick a spot I knew could produce good five-fish limits on consecutive days and not burn out after day one.
I pre-fished for four days leading up to the National Championship, and I started off at the Ken-Lake Marina. There were a couple of different lake features I wanted to target, and that launch had access to all of them. Day one ended with about twenty bass caught all in the 9 to 13 inch range, but more importantly it gave me confidence in my lure selection, and I noted where in the coves I was catching fish. (Marking those fish led to a major breakthrough after day three).
On day two, I launched from a ramp a few coves south of the 68 bridge. I landed a 22-inch beast at first light on a tandem willow Strike King spinner bait, the fish crushed it as it came over the drop off about twenty feet from the bank. (Another note for day 3) I worked my way south into a few coves and old creek beds and ended up again with about fifteen fish averaging 9 to 13 inches, I gained more confidence in my first two days fishing -this huge lake has produced over two dozen bass, but more importantly, I marked the fish I caught and noted their positions for my analysis before the two competition days.
For day three, I changed up my launch location and set out in Sugar Bay, on the east side of Kentucky Lake. Sugar Bay is a very popular spot and within an hour of sunlight I counted six kayakers and over twelve bass boats in that bay. I fished it for about three hours, but quickly realized that this spot would be ineffective during competition days and on the weekend due to a huge number of kayaks and boat traffic. I packed up and moved north to a much harder-to-access launch. I piddled around and caught about four fish averaging 13 inches and marked their positions. Then around 3pm, I stumbled across a spot that looked very promising. It had everything – sharp drop offs, a ton of deep water and a spawning area in the back of the cove, but more importantly it has a ton of jetty material, or rip-rap that has a consistent sloping drop off. (Remember that for later).
Day four was the last pre-fishing day, and was forecasted as severe thunderstorms throughout the day. I launched from my Day two spot as it was very close to my cabin I was staying at with a group of friends, and I had caught a large fish a day before the Heroes On The Water Big Bass Brawl had started. My only intention was to target big fish in that area. The weather ended up holding off until about 2:00 PM and I didn’t have any luck catching fish big enough to enter into the big bass competition. I stayed away from my day three spot to save it for competition as I knew there was more there than what I saw.
The night before the competition was a funny night at the cabin; we rented two cabins and had about twelve guys total. All of us were digging through our charts and pre-fishing information to determine where we would fish. I was very torn because day one and day two produced great numbers of fish on the southern shorelines in coves running east to west, but day three had larger fish in an area that ran north to south but had similar bottom features and lake structure. I took a chance and committed to my day three spot. I knew there had to be bigger fish active in the morning that were less active when I pre-fished it at 3pm. This decision, or at least a commitment to that tactic, paid off in a huge way. All week I had been throwing finesse baits hoping that the weather system that hit the night before competition would produce fish on those two competition days.
For the first day of the KBF National Championship, I launched from the ramp at 4:55 AM, and paddled through the darkness to my fishing area I had picked, it was a gamble as I had only fished about 20% of that area before stopping early during pre-fishing to not over fish it. The alarm for 6:30 AM went off and I started fishing, the morning started out incredibly slow, the first 45 minutes netted 2 fish at 10 inches, not exactly what I was looking for. But between the hours of 7-8:30 AM I landed five fish from 13.5 inches to a whopping 21.5 inch 7lb beast! I knew I had a chance as at 9AM I was sitting in the Top 10 with a lot of fishing left in the day. The bite slowed considerably for the rest of the day and I caught decent fish but was unable to cull a 13.25 and 13.50 inch fish, and lost two quality 18 inch fish, which would come back to haunt me in the Final Standings. I finished day one of the tournament with 83.50 inches and in 62nd Place. The margin of length from me at 62nd and 5th place was 10 inches, in other words 2 inches a fish (Not Much).
I knew day two would be the difference maker in terms of whose spots could produce quality stringers on consecutive fishing days. I knew I couldn’t win, but my goal was to finish in the top 100 and I knew my spot still had quality fish ready to catch for day two. It started off great. I changed my presentation slightly and caught a fish on the second cast of the day at 6:31AM. By 6:45 I had a fish five limit with the biggest at 13.5 and smallest 8.5 inches, nothing crazy but I was ecstatic that the fish were so active. For the next hour, I struggled to catch a fish big enough to cull the 8.75-inch dink on my TourneyX board, I was one heartbeat away from panic mode as the bite slowed down and fish became less active just like the previous day. I made a game time change and switched back to my finesse approach from the day before and on the second cast landed a 15-inch bass. I knew I had found something in that approach and continued to work the cove over again using the new approach and within an hour had a 78 inch total that had me in the Top 5 for Event Total at 9am. I wanted to break 80 inches on consecutive days and I knew I had 4 hours to cull 2 fish. My culls were a 14.25” and a 14.50”. I worked into a new area of the bay/cove that I hadn’t worked the previous day, and over the next four hours I caught six fish, none of which were smaller than 15 inches. I was able to cull my two fish and bring my smallest to 15.50” and total to 84.75” The final day of competition I finished in 40th place with 84.25 inches. The big factor in my placement was consistency. Many anglers who were in the Top 25 after day one, struggled day two and fell considerably in the final standings.
Waiting on the announcements for final standings and prize winning placement was brutal. There was confusion with some aspects of the scoring system and the process of re-submitting fish and comparing scores across two tournaments ran until about 3AM the next morning, I did end up finishing in the Prize places in the Heroes On the Water Big Bass Brawl, I finished 19th of 294 anglers and won a brand new NRS Chinook PFD in a new color that had just been released – valued at $100.00. I also won two raffles, which is crazy considering I haven’t won a raffle in my life. I will be donating the one of the raffle items as well as some new gear that I never used to the Heroes On The Water program. If you aren’t familiar with them please check them out, they are a great organization that focuses on taking veterans and wounded veterans fishing to help them get through certain situations they are battling in life.
When the final announcements on placements came out I had been awake for 24 hours, and had done everything from fishing the one of the best bass lakes in the country, to hearing Gene Jenson sing wedding songs to Chad and Kristie Hoover, to seeing Mike McKinstry run around with a life size sasquatch. They called out 36th place, the bottom payout slot, at 168.50 inches, I knew I finished with 168.25 total and knew I had missed a paycheck by a quarter of an inch, a margin that one of those 18 inch bass I lost on day 1 would have catapulted me into the top 25. I was heartbroken in one aspect, but on another note I was incredible proud. I wasn’t even supposed to be there, I finished 9th in the North Carolina AOY program and somehow I came out and finished 39th out of over 360 of the best anglers in the country. I had hopes and goals of finishing in the top 50 but hopes and reality normally never cross paths. My persistence, analysis of marked fish positions, and translating those positions into patterns and new locations is what enabled me to finish this high.
In conclusion, this story is not over; my top 40 finish gave me an automatic qualifying spot for the 2018 KBF National Championship, which has a guaranteed payout of $100,000.00 for first place. I have already started studying what produced this year and translating that into a strategy for next year, and I am hopeful I can finish in the top 25 next year if I better target those structure points and lake features. Thanks for sharing in my memory of this event. It was quite a journey, and proves we should never count ourselves out—dreams are worth chasing!