Following the Arrowhead: Fishing the 2019 FLW-KBF Cup on Lake Ouachita

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I will speak more directly for a change. No quotes from great poets or philosophers. The Professor will step aside, and the angler will be alone. I’m going to discuss teamwork, I’m going to discuss the current state of the sport of kayak bass fishing and I am going to talk, most importantly, how I changed my approach tournament fishing this season. I’m going to discuss it because I have placed in the money in 10 of the last 14 events I fished. In one of the other 4 I won 1st place in a charity tournament, and in the other 3 I was in 4th, 3rd and 13th place respectively.* It is the best winning streak of my 8 year career in kayak tournament fishing, so I obviously did something right, and I want to share it because some of it runs against logic of what we are “supposed” to do.

But first, Rick Clunn. When Rick Clunn talks, I listen. I don’t listen to imitate but to interpret what he says. Why? Because experience contains wisdom and that guy has experience spilling out of his pockets. But his experience does not apply to me directly. He fishes boats, I fish from kayaks. I will never win what he has won, or fish how or when or where he has fished. So when I listen, I ask, “How does this translate to me, if at all?”

After Rick Clunn won the Bassmasters Elite event on the St. John’s River this year, he sat down and discussed his approach to his game. He explained how he recently went back to the drawing board and reinvented his technique. Some of that discussion is in this clip, but not all of it. He said, in summary, that he broke down his approach and rebuilt it from scratch. So I asked “How would I do that?”

And so I went to my notebooks and maps, and I realized it was the notebooks and maps themselves that were the issue. I was putting them ahead of the actual conditions on the lake, and committing to decisions before I even saw the water. Economists call that the “hot hand” theory of finance. It’s a gambling metaphor: it is the mistake of thinking that what worked before will work again. But it also doesn’t mean the opposite will work. In fishing, anything can work at any given time. Every event is unique. And that was my realization: “patterns” are not something you can commit to beforehand. There is no blueprint. You have to be versatile and fish with the lake. Let the water tell you what to do, where to go, how to fish.

Now, don’t throw away your maps and log books. I still look at them, but differently. Now, I ask questions. The most important question is “where does the arrow point?” I start asking it before I get there, but I keep asking it as I pre-fish. The arrow is constantly moving. When I have enough evidence, I take a calculated guess. The fish are here today, but where will they be tomorrow, when we push off and begin paddling and casting? I can’t resist: The Art of War says to attack your enemy where they are not prepared. Now, humans can trick you, and they may seem unprepared only to set a trap. Fish don’t do that. They never know you are coming. But will they be there?

That was the biggest question for me at Lake Ouachita. The FLW-KBF Cup was an inaugural event, and most of the top kayak bass anglers showed up. It was the toughest field ever assembled because everyone in it had won at the highest level of competition. I noticed that normally composed anglers who had “been there before” were on edge. We all wanted it, and we wanted it bad.

I traveled to the lake with my longtime friend and rival Shelly Efird, a KBF Trail Champion and top 5 angler at the 2016 KBF National Championship. We fish slightly different styles out of different rigs. He is a long time Hobie angler and I am a loyal Wilderness Systems paddler. I recently bought a Radar 135 with a Helix pedal drive, and this was my first big tournament in that boat, with only one month of practice in it under my belt and new electronics (more about that later). It was a 16 hour trip for us to the house on Lake Hamilton, where we stayed with two other accomplished KBF veterans, Cory Dreyer and Jody Queen, as well as up and coming angler George Nemeth from Ohio. Having stayed together on many previous trips, we discussed our prefishing, and were generous with information, poring over maps around the living room, tying baits and discussing the lake.

But it was my first time traveling with Shelly and we were both confronting a new lake. I gave him the keys. I said “You pick the spots.” And he did. In 4 days of pre-fishing, he chose every ramp. When we launched, he went one way, and I went the other way. That may seem crazy, but I simply trusted him. It was a gut call, and it worked out well. We both found fish every day, and at the end of day 1 he was sitting in 10th place and I was in 11th place.

If that isn’t crazy enough, I have another bit of news: I fished both days of the tournament without electronics. For everyone thinking that electronics are essential, think again. It’s the second time in 4 years that I cashed a check at a large KBF event without turning on a fish finder. In those events, I watched the water and the bank, the clouds and the wind instead of a screen.

Now, I’m not Luke Skywalker. But I do have 40 years of fishing experience under my belt, and I can read water like a fly fisherman. Before I get to specifics, let me simply say that Shelly and I worked as a team. I trusted his decisions and he trusted mine. We fished different styles and rigs, but that was a strength instead of a weakness.

Now, the details. During our second day of pre-fishing, the Helix pedal drive on my Wilderness Systems kayak made a difference. I was pedaling along a shoreline, fishing points and brush piles, and paddling into coves. I had gone 1.5 miles and the heat was going from morning breeze to brick oven.  I rounded a point and I saw something in the distance. I knew that I had to check it, so I did. If I had still been paddling my old Tarpon 130X, I might have turned back, so as to not wear myself out. I followed a hunch.

Twenty minutes later, I called Shelly and informed him I had caught 3 big keepers in 3 consecutive casts. He told me to back off and look around. I found more fish. We decided to leave the spot alone.

Two days later, we returned. The lake was being drawn down but there was rain on the way. We figured it would even out and keep the fish in place, in that 5-8 foot range where I had found them. The arrow was pointing to that spot. Additionally, we had found more fish in nearby shallow water, on a different bite.

As I noted earlier, I was letting the lake tell me what to do. I had made a similar call in June at the KBF Trail on Lake Chickamauga, when approaching cloud cover on the night before the event made me choose a different ramp closer to shallow water. But our decision on Lake Ouachita was not a last minute gut call. I found the spot on Tuesday, we checked it Thursday and we fished it Friday.

We fished a combination of patterns, but my main pattern was primarily a crankbait bite. 7 of my 10 keepers were caught on a crankbait I brought to the event as an afterthought, a Rapala X-Rap (Purple Shad). The other 3 I caught on a Rebel Pop-R, in shallow water. I also threw a Red Line Lures Tailkicker, a tailspin bait that I discovered at the National Championship, using it as a search bait and to make long casts that covered more water. I also fished a half ounce jig on occasion in practice, but abandoned it. It was a lure I expected to fish more, but I kept with my recent approach, and did not try to force the issue.

I can’t finish this without saying something about kayak fishing’s first appearance on the big stage. By finishing in the top 10, I had access to the staging area where the pros lined up. I watched the production and logistics of the event with a careful eye, too – the wiring, the road cases, the stage and banners around town. I also noticed the spectacle of it all, and how multiple entities worked together. KBF worked with FLW, the sponsors worked with the fishing tournaments, the Arkansas tourism bureau worked with everyone. It was impressive, to say the least, and I learned a great deal. We all did.

Something emerged from that blur of wires and screens, and that crowd of cheering fans and those people getting things done behind the scenes. When I first began fishing national tournaments, I was skeptical. I wondered if the sport would grow too big, too quickly. There have been bumps along the way, but after seeing how well this event was produced, I saw which way the arrow is pointing.

Our arrow is pointing to the future. It is the job of each and every veteran angler to educate newcomers to what we do. I’m convinced now that this is going to outlast us all. One day we will all look back at this decade as the watershed moment when we turned a fringe hobby into an internationally recognized sport. Yes, it will be more commercial at the highest level, but that will also make it more sustainable, both as an industry and as a sport. It will also be more accessible and fun. I believe that everyone fishing the event, working at the event and watching it from their phones and home sensed it: we can do this. It’s about reading the conditions and adapting to them rather than forcing the issue. It’s about teamwork and gut calls, too, and making plans from what we see rather than from what we want. If we follow that arrow, it will take us all where we want to go.

Text and Photos © Henry Veggian 2019

  • The post originally stated that I had been in the money in 10 of 12 events, but I forgot to take into account 2 on-line monthly challenges.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Human Patterns: The Kitchen Mystery of Lake Chickamauga

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If you can find the pantry, you will find the hungry bass. Think about the first hour of your day. At some point, you went into the kitchen and ate some food. And you followed the same hallway to reach the kitchen, and ate at your favorite chair, drinking coffee from your favorite mug, etc. Now, if you were a bass on a big lake like Lake Chickamauga, you would know that, at this time of year, that bay has frogs and bugs in it, and that point has a ball of shad on it, or that lay down is a good ambush point to wait for a meal to swim by it. Wind, thermocline, pressure and light are other factors, not to mention moon phase, water temperature,  and water levels. They are the basic ingredients of fishing.

Most anglers know this as “pattern fishing.” Roland Martin famously defined a “pattern” as follows:

“[a pattern is] the exact set of water conditions such as depth, cover, structure, temperature, clarity, currents, etc. which attracts fish to that specific spot and other similar spots all over the same body of water.”

A pattern in this sense is a web of changing phenomena. Understand the pattern, and you will find hungry fish. Why? Because fish are creatures of habit. But we are too. And one thing Mr. Martin left out of his puzzle is the human element of the pattern, and the things we learn from other anglers. Here is the story of the puzzle I figured out on Lake Chickamauga prior to the KBF Trail and Pro Series tournaments held there last week. Continue reading

“Seasonal Heat”: Temperature, Strategy and Tactics at the 2019 KBF National Championship

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A big storm is rolling in as I write this. There is thunder in the distance, so the yard work I neglected for fishing is out of the question. The sky is darker than a crow feather, the air is yellow with pollen and only a fool would venture outside. It’s the sort of dramatic weather that makes us paddle hard and fast to reach safe harbor.

Experienced anglers know that weather plays a large role in influencing how fish feed. To some, it is equal to or even more important than moon phase, or the animal’s biological clock, or even bait selection. But where can we draw the line? How subtle can it be? Does the sky have to look like a Hollywood special effect to make us think how weather impacts a bite? No – Sometimes the smallest margins make the biggest difference. Continue reading

The Big Picture: Behind the Scenes at a Fishing Photo Shoot

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One day last summer, at the height of the best topwater and deepwater bites of the year, I received the call asking me to attend a photo shoot and to be a representative kayak angler for an article in Wildlife in North Carolina magazine. My first thought was “I’m gonna stick a state record at the shoot.” It was a selfish impulse, but an honest one. Who wouldn’t have it? I could lie and tell you I smashed ’em, or that I lost a big one, or that as soon as it was over I went to another spot and landed a biggun. All anglers are liars, anyway, but there are witnesses in this case. Here’s what really happened at the big photo shoot: I caught a skunk. Zero bites. Not even a wayward Bluegill.

Maybe I’ve been fishing for too long and the sun’s worn through my skull, but I just don’t care if I don’t catch fish. I’m just grateful to be alive and that’s usually enough to make my day. But the article attached to the cover shot in this post represents our sport so well that it made me grateful for something far more important, something much bigger than the little thrill of seeing my grizzled mug on a magazine cover or the disappointment one might assume when looking at a cover that is, in some way, a reminder of a bad day of fishing. I’ll come back to that point…

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Recent Product Reviews

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I struggle writing in  this genre, but I enjoy it, too. Here is a sample of recent product reviews I wrote. Let me know what you think!

  1. The Wilderness Systems Kayak Krate

https://shopgetoutdoors.com/blogs/get-outdoors-blog/review-of-the-wilderness-systems-kayak-krate

2. The Yak Attack Leverage Net

https://shopgetoutdoors.com/blogs/get-outdoors-blog/from-kentucky-lake-to-toledo-bend-fishing-overtime-with-yak-attack-s-leverage-net

 

Video

Memory, Fishing and Stalled Fronts: The May 2018 KBF Armed Forces Challenge

I’m writing this while sitting on a bench in downtown Raleigh waiting to meet up with a friend after a concert. It’s 11 pm and I am barely awake, having fished from sunrise nearly to sunset today, as well as the previous 2 days. This is a post about fishing and exhaustion and memory. There’s a little video evidence of what I discuss in the last paragraphs:

I should write this down before I forget. And when I say forget, I mean I am “wipe the memory slate clean, MIB gadget” tired. I fished for something like 30 hours this weekend and I feel like a tray of lasagna that’s been heated up one too many times. But there is something about exhaustion that can sharpen your focus, narrow down the world. That’s how I managed to jump back into 1st place late on Sunday. It didn’t hold, but that isn’t the important part.

First, congratulations to “Florida” Jerry Burdine and Matt Kasparek for besting me in the KBF Armed Forces Challenge this weekend. I also want to thank Jonathan Lessman and Richard McMichael, as we exchanged leads in a great dog fight over all 3 event days. I saw Jerry’s name high on the leader board every day, too, so he had to grind it out like I did. It was a battle, and he made the “leap” as I call it, with a great final day that put him ahead of the leaders.

This three-day event was not on my schedule because I had other plans. So I buckled down to improvise, adapt to a constantly shifting bite and fish through some bad weather. In the end, I landed fish on three different patterns, using a variety of lures. Day 1 was dominated by swimbaits and crankbaits, a chatterbait produced my best fish on Day 2, and day 3, well, you’ll see…

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Lead into Gold: A Review of Kenn Oberrecht’s “The Angler’s Guide to Jigs and Jigging”(1982)

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Lead into Gold: A Review of Kenn Oberrecht’s “The Angler’s Guide to Jigs and Jigging”(1982)

 

People sometimes ask me “Hank, why do you read these old fishing books?” My answer is “Shakespeare.” Awkward silence generally follows, or someone accuses me of being a professor.

Let me explain (that’s what professors do, after all). First, there is no such thing as an “old book.” Every book is new the first time we read it. And just like any other book, we ease into it, fit our mind to its author’s style in the early pages, slip into ideas and characters that it presents, etc. We all remember the first time we read Hamlet in high school. It was like learning a new language. If you stuck it out you were rewarded with a mighty drama about choice and regret.

Second, there is no such thing as a “fishing book.“ That’s just a phrase we use to describe writings composed by people who spend a lot of time holding fishing tackle around water. What we call “fishing books” are really just books that explain how a person thinks through a specific type of problem. The central premise of every fishing book is basically “How can I trick and catch a living animal that cannot directly be seen (most of the time).” As such, fishing books are really books about the art of tricking an aquatic animal. Or, if you prefer, books written by people who think too much about fishing.

Does thinking ever get “old?” I hope not. And what would life be without choices, or regrets? I wouldn’t want to know. For one, the fishing stories would be few and far between.

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A Bucketmouth for the Bucket List

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You may be wondering about the title. “Bucketmouth” refers to a Largemouth Bass, a big Largemouth Bass. A “Bucket List” is of course something we keep, checking off an item or two if we are lucky, or we endure. But there is more to this title. There were many options to consider as I drove through the scrub forest, swamp and farmland, watching the horses on ranches run and the slow rivers roll.  And it came to me then because I started thinking about the great Western films in history. I was thinking specifically of a little known Spaghetti Western by an Italian director named Damiano Damiani, a film called A Bullet for the General (1968). Set during a revolution, it is a film loaded with counter-revolutionary plots and surprises of all kinds. Damiani’s film is one of the best Westerns of its time, and it ranks high on my list of favorites. It’s a complicated film about complex people in crazy times, and as I came to the trail head of a complicated trip, it seemed to point in the direction I wanted to go as I tried to answer the question “How do I explain what happened on that lake?”

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