A Carolina Trail: Diary of a Kayak Fishing Season
by Henry Veggian
We imagine our lives before we live them. We make plans, we consider outcomes, we mark dates on calendars and we look into the future like a stoned teenager looking at clouds in the sky. There, we project our dreams, and see what we want. If you are a daydreaming angler (who isn’t?) you spend winter months, seeing lots of big white fish up there, then you turn to your calendar and plan your fishing.
I am a tournament angler, sometimes. And every year I sit down and review the schedule of national, regional and local events. I consider work and family and expenses, time of year, lake types, etc. Every year results in a different plan, and usually that plan is scrapped about halfway through the season. You go all in, you cut losses, a pandemic happens, etc. Reality and imagination rarely align – when they do, it’s like paddling into a cove, seeing a nice lay down and turning to your buddy and saying “I’m gonna stick a 9 pounder off of that old tree.”
So you make a plan, and it changes at some point during a season. My plan for 2021 changed after my first event.
Committing to an Angler of the Year (AOY) race was not in my plans. When I made my fishing schedule for this year, I determined I was going to focus on my local trails, pop in to a few select national events and basically fish for fun as we all waited for our pandemic fortunes to improve. But then everything changed, and I set a new course.
I reviewed my schedule one bright Tuesday morning in mid-February and decided to load up my kayak to go fishing. My half-hearted intention was to scout Shearon Harris ahead of the Carolina Kayak Anglers (CKA) tournament that coming Saturday, February 22. The truth was that I really needed to get away from my computer and clear my head. We were in between cold fronts and I had the day off. What could go wrong?
The result: by inferring some clues from the deep end of the lake, I won the tournament in a most improbable way – by catching a single, big bass. At that moment, I decided I would commit to something I had done only once before, in 2015: I was going to chase points and try to win an Angler of the Year (AOY) title with the club. As I noted, that chase was not in my plan for the season. Neither was this diary.
After the first event, I documented the tournament in a blog post for the Jackson Kayak Fishing team. I also wrote a separate diary entry, which is below. did not submit an article for the second CKA tournament (the Burlington Bash), but did have my field notes. I did write one for the third event at Kerr Scott but it wasn’t posted, so I revised it for this diary. I then decided to create this diary of my season, which, when it ends, will have spanned 8 CKA tournaments, by keeping notes on all events. As of June 9, 2021, I have four entries completed, notes for the 5th, and I will post them all after the end of the 5th event. After that, I will post a new entry during the week after each tournament.
My primary, early goal was simply to describe the routines, strategies and tactics, as well as the psychological and financial commitment involved in making a conscious effort to win an annual crown in competition. What I ended up with is something different, as you will see.
CKA Event 1
Feb 23, 2021
Tournament Conditions: Nasty. Post-Cold Front, with clear skies, and a strong Southeast wind.
Temperatures at 6:30 am: 29 (air), 49 (water surface)
Estimated Costs for entry fee and gas $75.
Why do I do this? That was the question that kept going through my mind. Every time I asked it, the answer changed.
The CKA tournament directors changed the event date from Saturday to Sunday to avoid icy road conditions in the area. I can see the conversation now, smart phones lighting up with message alerts, the debate, the pros and cons, the decision making process. In the end, the rationale was “safety first.” It’s the right call, always, but I am also sure the debate was as painful as the sting of the cold air.
Air temperatures were in the mid 20’s at launch time, and the water temperatures weren’t much warmer. I gambled and headed east, away from the main lake, where I figured everyone would be fishing blade baits for the late winter bite. I was right – most anglers wasted their day out there, from what I gathered.
The only reason I didn’t join them was because I had tried that approach earlier in the week, and failed. The only fish I saw were dead shad being picked off the surface by gulls at the south end of the lake. Now, heading east doesn’t answer the question “Why do I do this?”, but it explains what I didn’t do, so far as fishing is concerned.
I inferred, based on a few small clues, that some bass might be moving shallow. It was a long shot. And it was a long way to where I figured they would be. I pedaled nearly two miles to get there, and the wind was picking up and blowing into my face. Wind chill is real.
When I reached my area, I had a look around. I found ice, an otter and some ducks. The first two are always a bad sign for fishing. So I backed away, and noticed the water temperature warmed dramatically in a small area, from near freezing to where it was in the rest of the lake. My brain was waking up, the sun was warming me, and I started thinking. I remembered I was in a tournament, and the old problem solving skills began to come back to me. That is also why I do this.
Transition zones. Flats. Angle of the sun. Wind direction. The creek channel. I was thinking and pedaling. I was in the moment. I decided to make what fly fishermen call a “natural presentation.” That is to say, I wanted the bait to appear like it was drifting in the wind current. Fortunately, that was the same direction as the water current. So I set a course, angled to the bank, to cover the channel and the flat. That was the transition zone.
I kept a hand on my rod as I pedaled, the other on my rudder control. I wanted to be sure the jig was bouncing off the bottom, but not to much. I didn’t want to drag, but hop, and as slowly as I could. I also wanted to feel the “humps” – small, submerged islands of grass, where I hoped bass would be waiting in ambush.
The strategy paid off on the first pass. When I landed the fish, I expressed some surprise. I couldn’t believe it worked. That’s also why I do this.
I put the fish on my Ketch board, and there was a bad shadow in the first photo. I had to turn the Bite FD into the wind and sun. I was pushed off my drift angle, and worried I would lose the trajectory (I did). The fish stayed in the net, in the water. The movements were coming back to me: set up the measuring board, have the camera ready, place the fish, take the shots, replace the fish in the net, check the photo, etc. It was coming back to me, the muscle memory of tournament fishing, the physical pleasure of the old movements. That’s also why I do this.
One fish. It wouldn’t hold up. I needed more. So I set course again, another drift. No bites. I tried to bounce the jig the other way on the next run, into the wind. No bites. Another drift. No bites. Now, here comes another kayaker. I’ll modify my approach, try a different angle – fewer long drifts that waste time, more casts. I’m on the clock now – I’ve got a fish on the board, and I need four more. The pressure is starting to affect my decisions. Why do I do this?
It’s halfway through the event, and I haven’t had a bite. I’m moving on to try a different approach. Maybe the sun has warmed things over there.
Nope. Two hours left. I’m still in 1st place. I’ll take a look around the bridge. Is this fish going to hold on for a win?
Ah look, I think that’s my friend Shelly Efird. And there is Rick Rowland. Uh oh, Shelly has a fish. He lost one, too. I need to keep fishing. One more spot to check before lines out. Hurry, hurry. Maybe one more fish will seal the deal. Is it getting hot? Why do I do this?
I’m at the ramp now. The standings are not visible. Where did I finish? I don’t know what will happen. At the very least, I may cash a check, or win big bass. I haven’t cashed a check at a CKA tournament since 2019. It would be nice. And besides, the points will be good. I need a snack to settle my stomach.
Why do I do this?
I went over to Eric Nelson. He’s a TD. I avoided the topic of the standings. It’s not cool to ask. We discuss the fishing, the bite, the weather. Am I looking for clues here, too? He’s playing it close to the vest. Too close, like he’s afraid of a tell. Uh oh. Something is up. I know how TD’s get moody when there is debate.
As it turns out, I’m paranoid. I over think things, a lot. That’s also why I do this – I like to think. Fishing is a problem that can’t be solved, but you try anyway. Sometimes it even works out.
I won. My bass held up, for 1st place and Big Bass. I take photos for the sponsors. Competitors congratulate me. I’ve been competing against some of these anglers for ten years and by now we’re like a family – you don’t get excited. You don’t go on-line and shout that your club is the best, the most elite, the most whatever. You handle it like adults. It’s fishing. It’s one tournament. That’s all.
It’s okay to have fun, too. I go home and am greeted with kisses and hugs. I pause to Sheik Myboutie on the walk going up the house, waving my check. I’m exhausted and ecstatic. That’s also why I do this – win or lose, there is euphoria at the end. You left your guts out there, but you’re hungry for more.
By the end of the week, I have reviewed my 2021 schedule. I’ve cancelled two or three trips, decided to change work plans and shift focus entirely to CKA. I’m going to have to grind through it all – the bad days, the misread clues, the rain and heat and bugs.
That’s also why I do this.
Primary Lure: Blue ½ oz. jig tipped with a Keitech swimbait.
Water covered paddling and pedaling: 4 miles.
CKA Event 2
March 13, 2021
(Photo Courtesy of Ryan Freeman)
Tournament Conditions: Cool. Clear skies, and a light Southwest wind. Temperatures at launch time: mid-40’s (air), 54 (water surface).
Estimated Costs for entry fee and gas: $75.
I don’t generally pre -fish the day prior to a tournament. It’s like holding the pages of a book too close to your eyes. And if you catch good fish, well, you won’t catch them again when you need them. Also, it doesn’t offer enough time to process the experience, and make decisions. You leave the water, and you go right back. It’s too much, too soon.
Sometimes you don’t have a choice. Competitors had 4 lakes from which to choose for this CKA event (Stony Creek, Mackintosh, Graham-Mebane and Cammack ) and I only had one day free to scout water, and it was the day before the tournament. So I went to Stony Creek hoping to sort it out and defend my 1st place position.
I chose this lake over the others for several reasons. First, I didn’t trust certain lake wardens to open shop early enough for us to load in and launch (this proved true of one lake, which opened late). Now, opening late was not a huge factor – at this time of year, the early bite isn’t great until the water warms a bit. But I had a long way to pedal to my spots, and needed the jump.
I had fished Stony creek 2 years ago, at a similar time of year. It had produced good limits for other anglers and although I had not caught a fish, I found water that was compelling enough to revisit. To reach it, I had to travel over two miles up the lake, to where it is basically a small river, with some minor tributaries.
I set out and immediately ran into some friends on the lake. We chatted and exchanged some ideas about lure colors, retrieve speeds and the like. Then, one guy mentioned that someone had caught a fish on a topwater bait, perhaps a boater. I took notice. I had tied on jigs and crankbaits and finesse rigs. I would be sure to have a topwater lure the next day.
At a certain point, the other kayakers turned back, but I kept fishing up stream. Right before they left, I hooked a large Chain Pickerel, and took it as a sign. Pickerel spawn in colder water, and this was a post -spawn fish, feeding at a time when pickerel chase bait. Was there bait in the area?
I entered a shallow section, and found some lay downs below an S bend, and here I got my clues: the bass were on ambush points, right on the main current lines. Like the pickerel, they were waiting for food to drift by, rush out and grab it. I also caught a few bass while trolling a small crank bait back to the ramp – confirmation that the bass were indeed ambushing prey from behind rocks, trees and other small structure. I put my rods up and stopped fishing.
The topwater lure I eventually selected was one I had never used. It was from Boo-Yah, and it was a popper with a small lip. If you paused it and jerked the rod, it would pop, but if you retrieved the lure it would dive about 1 foot or so, and swim erratically. I chose the lure because it could cover both surface feeding fish and shallow areas that held structure and fish that might not come out for a surface lure.
I had also recorded video from practice that day, a new tool in my arsenal. I watched the footage of my catch after the first event and took note of my drift speed, location and reaction time. When reviewing today’s footage, I noticed that I was passing small creeks.
On tournament day, I set out and made it halfway up the lake, then started fishing. I caught a small bass, but forgot the minimum length for CKA submissions was 8”, and mistakenly threw it back. It was near a creek, and it had grabbed a small crankbait near a shallow log above the first bridge on the lake.
A few hundred yards upstream, I noticed a small cut with a backwater. It was too shallow to paddle into, so I grabbed the topwater lure and made a cast. I landed a small bass, measured and took a photo, then landed another on the next cast. I decided to wait to upload the fish, because there was another, longer creek slightly ahead. There, I landed a somewhat longer fish. I wasn’t going to win with these fish, but I was going to fill a limit.
The next mile or so of water did not produce any fish, and there were no small creeks. But when I reached the next bridge, I landed another bass on a crankbait, this one also small. A large fallen tree blocked my way to the dam, so I turned back and went into a long creek. I began to worry I would not fill a limit, but I was pleased that my decision to tie on topwater and shallow diving crankbaits was delivering fish.
Within the first 100 feet of that creek, I landed a half dozen small bass, some worth miniscule upgrades. They all hit the topwater lure, most often when I was retrieving it. In this way, I had filled my limit two-thirds of the way through the event. I decided to fish my way back and look for upgrades.
I switched here to a deeper diving crankbait, and stowed away the topwater. My reasoning was that I had not fished the lower water column, and wanted to search it for fish. Sure enough, fellow competitor Keith McGee was around the first bend, and he caught a decent bass in somewhat deeper water. I grabbed my cranking rod, tied on a new bait and set to work casting and retrieving and occasionally trolling through some spots.
As I rounded the next bend, I came on a flat that held structure, and a bass smashed my crankbait. It turned out to be my biggest fish of the day, and my final upgrade.
My best fish of CKA Tournament 2.
Later, when reviewing catch footage, I noticed that my retrieve was a bit fast, and it should have been slower, as I fished my way back.
The final result: an 18th place finish, and valuable AOY points. When the Angler of the Year points were tallied, I had dropped to 2nd place overall behind Dontrell Sullivan, one of the only other anglers to catch a fish at the previous event at Shearon Harris.
Small fish don’t win big tournaments, but they do earn you some points.
The first bump in the road – the season is truly underway.
Primary Lures: Boo-Yah “Prank” Crushed Bone Popper, Rapala SRS-5 crankbait.
Water covered paddling and pedaling: 5 miles.
CKA Event 3
W. Kerr Scott Reservoir
April 17, 2021
Tournament Conditions: Post-frontal. Clear skies, and a light Southwest wind.
Temperatures at 6:00 am: low 40’s (air), mid-50’s (water surface)
Estimated Costs for entry fee, lodging and gas $200.
Before the competition season begins, the road to any Angler of the Year title stretches past the horizon. What will the future bring? Only the fog banks ahead know. But if you fish with Carolina Kayak Anglers (CKA), the kayak bass fishing series that has produced several of the top names in the sport, then you can know this about the road ahead: you’d better bring plenty of water, because you’re going to sweat a lot.
But not this weekend. As had happened in nearly every local event this year, a nasty cold front blew in before fishing began. While I’m a northerner, I’m not a cold water angler. But for several years I’ve tried to learn new techniques, with mixed results. I’ve practiced with jigs in January and jerk baits in February, but never put it all together to start a season in a way that you have to in order to build a cushion. This year was different, however. I won the 1st event, and earned some good points by placing 18th in the next.
When I headed to Kerr Scott reservoir in the Carolina highlands, I expected a bust. It’s a beautiful fishery, its shores are scenic and its waters are clear and loaded with fish. But a cold front had shut off the pre-spawn bite and pre-fishing did not inspire much confidence. Once again, I broke my rule about pre-fishing on Fridays, met my friend Rick Rowland at a ramp, and set out to scout the north side of the lake. The morning yielded two fish: a small Largemouth bass that grabbed my crankbait in about 6’ of water, and a large Smallmouth bass that followed my lure to the boat, but didn’t commit.
At mid-day, I loaded out and headed to the south end of the lake. There, my fortunes improved. The water was warmer and I had a few bites from bass that were moving into spawning areas, which were primarily small coves. I also saw a bank angler messing with an area; when I left, I walked over to investigate. There was a bed without a bass on it, and a few brim nearby. It was a large area, too large for a brim bed.
I began my tournament day about 15 feet away from that bed, which was a short distance from the launch area. I reasoned that a bass had recently been pushed off the bed by the cold, but the warmer weather might bring it back. On the 4th or 5th cast, a 21.50″ Largemouth Bass tried to break my jointed crankbait in two. It was the second longest fish caught that day, and I thought “here we go, I’m gonna have a good day.”
And then I went 3 hours without a bite. This is when the nerves kick in. Other anglers fishing nearby also had limited success, so I knew I had to change my approach. Hopefully the warming water would improve the fishing.
It did. I’m an old salt, my Jackson Bite FD is a comfortable ride, and I know better than to lose hope. I landed my second fish around mid-event, then another a bit later. Then I had the fourth around noon, and I thought “just one more.” I caught my fifth fish with 90 minutes left and then, a miracle: I upgraded with 3 minutes to go. I didn’t have a great bag, but it was enough for a top 15 finish in a field of 68 anglers and more valuable AOY points.
As I’ve said before, tournament fishing is a marathon, not a sprint. You stack your points and work hard, with patience and resilience. There will be bad days ahead, I am sure, when I lose good fish or can’t find a consistent bite. For now, I am sitting back in 1st place atop the AOY standings. It’s not a feeling I have had this early in the season, and as the only Jackson Kayak Fishing team member who fishes the Carolina trails, I take pride in a strong early start.
This is also when the numbers begin to play a role. The AOY race spans 8 tournaments. The winner is calculated by his or her top 5 finishes plus the final season event. That means your top 5 of 7 scores count, plus the final (the Gate City Classic). To date, I have a 1st place finish, an 18th place finish and a 15th place finish, and I am averaging 187 points per event. 4-5 other anglers have a slightly higher average, but only counting two events. That is because the majority did not land a fish at the first event, and the angler who was in first place after 2 events skipped event number 3. In sum, I have a good average and much larger margin for error. My main competitors can only risk one bad day at this point. However, a competitor could catch fire and make a run over the last 4 events of the season.
The points total drops an angler’s lowest score after the fifth event, which is after busy Falls Lake in June. Next up, however, is Badin Lake.
A side note – I’m developing some pain in my casting elbow. It’s happened before in previous years, but this time is different. It shows up beyond the usual post-event soreness, and my elbow and arm are tiring out during events. I don’t know what’s down the road in this AOY race, but my plan is to hit a rest stop and recover for a few weeks.
Primary Lures: Rapala SRS-5 jointed Shad Rap, in yellow perch and crayfish (olive/green) colors. I fished it like a jerk bait, taking advantage of its suspending action and erratic tight wobble, to entice strikes. Most of my bites came shallow, in 2-3′ of water, but I did catch one deeper fish on a Norman Medium -N crankbait.
Water covered paddling and pedaling: 2.5 miles.
All text ©2021 Henry Veggian