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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.