A Carolina Trail: Diary of a Kayak Fishing Season
by Henry Veggian
We imagine our lives before we live them. We make plans, we envision outcomes, we mark dates on calendars and we look into the future like a stoned teenager looking at clouds in the sky. 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 year.
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. One year you go all in, another 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” and actually catching that fish.
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? What could go right?
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, and that was in 2015: I was going to fish every CKA tournament, 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. Nor 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. I 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 revise, expand, and add to those blog posts so as to create this diary of my season, which, when it ends, will have spanned 8 CKA tournaments.
My 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 more, 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.
Adapting to change is a tournament angler’s condition. Weather and fish are always moving. Sometimes events, dates and lakes move, too.
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.
My place in standings: 1st overall
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 Mark Patterson and Joe Komyati on the lake. Both are experienced anglers, so I kept my ears open and my mouth shut. We chatted. Then, Joe mentioned that someone on the lake, perhaps a boater, had caught a fish on a topwater bait. 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, while 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.
My place in standings: 2nd overall.
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.
My place in standings: 1st overall.
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.
CKA Tournament 4
Badin Lake Shootout
May 22, 2021
Tournament Conditions: Partly cloudy skies, and a light Southwest wind.
Temperatures at 5:30 am: low 50’s (air), high 60’s/low 70’s (water surface)
Estimated Costs for entry fee, lodging and gas $200.
Pre-fishing today (Tuesday, May 18) did little to instill confidence. I launched at the north end of the lake, with the intention of scouting the rocks below the dam. An old man told me the White Bass were biting around the bridge. His old dog licked my hand while I was loading my gear on my kayak.
Fishing produced few bites or clues. I had two bites, early. The first was a small bass that smashed a topwater lure in about 3’ of water near the second island north of the ramp. I noticed a bass boat fishing along the north point, about 75 yards away. They left shortly after arriving.
A second bass missed the topwater lure near a seawall. It was also in about 3’ of water.
I then crossed the lake and fished a flat, saw a big Gar and spooked another fish, then fished the island below the dam. I cut back across to the western shore, fished that deep water, and finally arrived at the rocks beneath the dam. Shad were spawning on the concrete below the dam gates, but I did not catch any bass on topwater, crankbaits, jigs or worms. I pedaled back, fished a big cove, and went to the ramp.
While reviewing video of the day, I noticed the seawall was made of stone where the second bass hit the lure. Unfortunately, there are few stone seawalls in this area.
I decided not to pre-fish Friday, and as of today (Thursday) I have not yet decided on where I will launch on Saturday.
After some consideration and debate, I decided start fishing around the islands at the launch.
The plan showed promise at the start, when I stopped immediately after launching near fish that were chasing shad. After a fruitless first hour, however, I landed an 18.50” bass behind the second island near the bank. I was pedaling and casting, and watching a point to my right when the bass came up from near a laydown on my left. It wasn’t a hard strike, but the fish was pinned well. This fish was on the other side of the island from the fish I caught in practice. I fished the area for a minute then left for the little seawall.
In hindsight, the catch gave me false hope regarding topwater fishing. I also suspect I should have spent more time around the second island, where I caught two fish, than where I had been early near the first island.
When I reached my seawall, there were no fish, and the lake was by now busy with boats. So I proceeded to the back of the first cove, fishing docks and laydowns without a bite.
The back of the cove split with a creek arm to the right and a shady area to the left. An abandoned dock caught my attention, and a fish came out and missed the Pop-R. I paused, tried casting a different lure to the spot, but without a follow up bite. I then turned my attention to the shadiest area.
This was where my hunch about bigger fish proved true, with disastrous results. A wooden seawall on the far shore. An overhang, and a submerged brush pile. And a nearby corner for an ambush point.
I made the cast to the wall to imitate a falling frog. I popped the lure 2-3 feet, and a wake came out from under the brush pile. The strike wasn’t hard, but it was a heavy fish when I set the hook. It turned and shook, partly emerging. It felt good. It made a run, turned, and started to jump.
The bass didn’t come out of the water completely. It was too big. Judging by the size of its head and the weight, this was a fish in the 21” range. It came up, shook hard and went down, I still had it on the line. Then it turned, the line went slack and the lure floated up alone.
Every angler knows the feeling. Your hands shake, your stomach turns and you have a moment of terrorized panic. You can’t believe what happened, but it did.
Here come the bass boats. Two, then three. I leave the cove. I knew then that even if I catch other bass, my day is over, because bites are few and far between. I talked about not losing hope in my last post. I lost hope.
I fish without a bite, crossing the lake, and back, for another 4 hours. By noon, my casting arm feels weak, my elbow hurts and I can’t wait to see my house.
And so at tournament number 4 – the halfway mark of the season – I finally had a really bad day. But after the first event I resolved that I would fish every CKA tournament of the season. I committed to practice, study maps and weather patterns, and invest time in securing points I needed to win the AOY race. Prior to today, I was averaging 187 points per event. Four other anglers had a slightly higher average over two events. Two of them earned few points today, but two others earned good points. The main threat is now averaging 7 points more per event than I am over the best 3 of his first four events. While I am still in 1st place, his average is much higher. In the CKA points system, we drop our lowest score after the 5th event. I will have to place in the top 5 at the next tournament in order to cut into his lead, and hope he has a bad event, too, that lowers his average. He has already dropped one event, so he has little margin for error. He must have strong finishes in two of his last three events.
The other main threat has earned good points in the past two events. He has no margin for error, having begun his season with two events that earned few points. Others have also emerged of late who have a high statistical chance at victory. They too have no room for error. In theory, nearly every angler in the top 25 has a shot at winning the title, but some are closer than others, and all of them can’t afford mistakes.
The hot summer days have arrived, however. No more cold fronts. Grinding for points, dodging boats and jet skis, fishing error-free, and making the most of the early bite are going to be critical. And every one of those anglers feels the pressure too.
In the overall points, I am in first place through 4 events, with one low score to drop. I am averaging 187 points per event over my best three scores. Regardless of what happens at Falls during event number 5, I must reconcile with the fact that several anglers will hang around all season and will not be eliminated statistically from the hunt, and that I must close the gap that separates me from the top averages. I may be in 1st, but I am really somewhere in the top 5.
After returning from Badin, I looked at Falls Lake, the site of the next tournament. I have selected places to scout over the 3 weeks before the tournament, and will fish the entire lake from end to end.
One cannot enter battle hoping to avoid injury. Attack knowing that you will be hurt, and be resolved to advance nonetheless.
My standings in AOY race: 1st overall, barely.
Primary Lures: Rebel p-60 Pop-R, Live Target Bait Ball Crankbait, Stryker Jigs Swim Jig.
Water covered paddling and pedaling: 3 miles.
All text ©2021 Henry Veggian
CKA Tournament 5
June 19, 2021
Tournament Conditions: Light wind. Lake is up slightly, stained water near creeks, clear at the main.
Temperatures at 5:30 am: Warm af
Estimated Costs for entry fee, lodging and gas: $50 (I won a free entry last season and used it on this event, so the costs were all for fuel as I fished the lake 5 times during practice).
This entry is so long that I divided it into a pre-fishing section and an event diary section. It describes some crazy decisions, and how I found my spot, as well as the results.
I began studying maps of Falls Lake 4 weeks prior to the CKA tournament and I started fishing the lake 2 weeks prior to it. I normally would not undertake the work this early because conditions change in a month’s time, or even in a day. But three reasons convinced me to take a different approach.
First, of the big three local lakes (Falls, Jordan and Harris), Falls has been the toughest nut for me to crack. I had a 6th place finish there in a CKA event in 2016, but nearly all my other tournaments have been busts. I’ve even fished it a few times from a bass boat, too, without much luck.
The second reason is because I have two tournaments on the lake in the span of 7 days. The first is on June 12th, for KFL, the second is CKA on the 19th. I am using the additional tournament opportunity to scout and eliminate water as well as locate productive patterns and areas. The challenge is unique: I won’t be able to rely on a single spot for both events unless I find a real mother lode. That’s unlikely, given the boating traffic and fishing pressure on the lake this time of year.
Finally, this CKA event is an important one. Motivated to redeem myself after a bad day at Badin lake, I need a top 10 finish to stay alive in the AOY race.
I divided the lake into types of water and topography. Targeting main lake launches for the first tournament (with KFL), I resolved to check deep water and also see if any of the smaller creeks are holding fish. In the week leading up to the CKA event, I will check the main tributaries. Recent rain has swelled them, so there is no point checking them now.
On Tuesday, June 8th, I pre-fished a long arm at mid-lake. I found bass near rip rap, and also in smaller creek channels and along the bank. The lake is slightly above average pool for this time of year, and with more light rain and cloudy skies in the forecast, this should keep the fish where they are all week. I had success with topwater, and that’s always a good sign. Nonetheless, I am preparing to look for deeper fish in summer patterns, so the Carolina rig and deep crankbaits are ready, too.
I also decided to not force the issue. Pre-fishing went well, and I will fish the KFL event from the area I checked. Team fishing is different – we are sharing information, and the emphasis is on communication. That’s a change from singles events, where you have to guard your information. Based on this difference, I decided to collect information, work with the team and save energy for next week, when I would scout new areas.
There was some rain before the KFL team event. It brought Falls Lake up about 6”, and since I was fishing a big cove with a creek channel, I wondered how it would affect the bite. After launching, I checked the bridge area before heading back, and landed a 13.50” near where I landed one in practice. Heading back to the creek, I landed another 13” bass, also on a point where I had pulled the lure away from a fish in practice. I was feeling that the bass had not been bothered by the rain.
And that was true – they hadn’t been. The baitfish, however, were bothered. They had cleared out from the main area I selected and gone deep. As a result, I burned two hours in a fruitless search for shallow fish. I headed to the main lake, and there I changed approach, fishing deeper water around bait. No luck. With one hour left, I went into another creek and landed more small bass, on top. The bigger fish had all left for mid-lake, or were chasing deep schools and hard to pin down. I caught plenty of bass, but they were all too small.
Looking ahead to the CKA event next week, the weather is stable. The lake is high, and the water will clear as sediment settles. There will be greater light penetration and fish will feed shallow early, then go deep. So the key, I hope, is to find shallow feeding areas near deep water, and be prepared to fish shallow early and deep later. But “deep later” means boat traffic, so it’s a bad idea.
Monday June 14th: I pre-fished the deep end of the lake, at the dam. I launched early and had 3 bites in 4 hours. Boat traffic was very light, and I had the deep areas to myself, so I targeted road beds, rock and humps at mid-lake, just to see if there was any action. There wasn’t. This end of the lake feels like the bass are still in a post-spawn mood, as they are at the edges and points of coves in mid-depth water.
On Tuesday, I went to explore the river. I fished it for 2 hours and caught some smaller bass, but in the last 30 minutes I changed my approach. That’s when I dialed in a pattern: the lure, the lure color, the depth, the locations, and the retrieve. Once I determined it was actually a consistent pattern, I left a puff of dust as I cleared out of there in a hurry.
Like last week, I found my fish on Tuesday. I will return to the river on Saturday, and hope the fish will too.
I was a nervous wreck for the rest of the week. So I did something crazy. I called Joey Sullivan and asked him to join me. I explained that I had found a great spot away from the main lake traffic, and that I would enjoy the company. His reply was cautious, and he wondered if I was setting him up to kill him.
I explained that I was inviting him because he’s my friend. He didn’t buy that either.
Finally, I told him where it was, and he agreed to consider it. Several dozen texts later, as well as a 45 minute Zoom call for map review (he insisted on it), he was persuaded.
I should add that Joey and I rarely talk on the phone, and we rarely fish together. We roomed twice together at KBF National Championships and only fished the same area one time. He tends to take off and go his own way if you launch with him.
We do however text one another on a daily basis. Our exchanges are a torrent of half truths and fisherman’s lies. On any given day, I text him early to determine his location, he lies and says he is fishing, I ask follow up questions to determine if it is true, determine it is in fact not true, and vice-versa. On weekdays he often claims he is blasting schoolies at Jordan, launching at Santee Cooper, pounding bigs at Harris, etc. He is in fact at work. The exchange has gone on like this for years, and feels like the writers of Seinfeld wrote a sequel to Full Metal Jacket.
But Joey was right about one thing. I did have an ulterior motive. He is not in the running for AOY. He is also on a hot streak, with a win, 2nd place and 3rd place in his three most recent tournaments. So I reasoned that if we both beat up the spot, and we both placed high in the standings, we could push down some other anglers in the overall points. In essence, I was recruiting him to play defense. And I was so confident in the spot, I wasn’t worried that he might catch all of the bigger fish.
And to make sure he would show, I accepted his challenge of a side bet: whichever one of us finished highest in the standings would graciously accept a new P-71 Rebel Pop-R from the other. And when it comes to side bets for free tackle, nobody is more motivated than Joey Sullivan. I knew he would stay out of my way, catch fish and fish like hell.
Somewhere in the thousands of texts he sent me during the week, he conclusively agreed to meet me at the launch. A part of me still wonders if he will show up.
Tournament day. Finally. When I arrive at the launch a few minutes late, Joey is there. I look at my phone and he has been texting during the wait. The first thing he said was “I was beginning to wonder if you lied the whole time and went to Ledge Rock instead.” We unloaded our gear and launched. He went downstream, then turned around and followed me upstream, passing me. I fished topwater baits, and occasionally pitched the chatterbait. I was saving the latter for the sunnier hours. It was going to be a hot, long day.
I landed 3 small fish along a bank near a small creek channel, and only two were keepers. I continued, and landed another shortly before catching up to Joey. It was also a keeper, another small fish. Joey caught a small one, too, and already had three, including a good one. We reached some grass. There, I caught my fourth, and he had his fifth. I peeked at the leaderboard, and we would both be in the top 5 if we posted them, with Joey in first place.
Here is where we parted ways. Joey decided to turn back, and I continued upstream. I reasoned there were bigger fish in some of the deeper pockets and holes, and Joey said he felt confident in catching more in the stretch where we had fished. We were both right, the difference being that Joey landed his best bites, and I only landed one of mine.
Because topwater was producing, I kept fishing it. I filled my limit and then culled my first fish by 9 am. While passing a pool, I noted a small pocket near a laydown. I made a cast and a nice bass of about 17” smashed the lure. It headed for the laydown, I pulled hard and pedaled back to turn it, but it was too late. The fish used the tree to shake loose.
I kept fishing without a bite for about one hour, and then I saw some rocks. On the first cast, an 18.75” smashed the bait. I netted her for a 9” upgrade. She appeared to be a post spawn fish, with a ragged tail, confirming my earlier observation that some fish were still in that phase. But these were the quality fish I was looking for. I then hooked a 17” on the next cast, but she jumped and threw the bait. I caught a few small fish near a riffle, and began working my way back. I had 2 miles to paddle and 3 hours to fish.
I began working the chatterbait at mid day, without results. I was surprised at first, then dejected. But I was persistent and stayed with it.
Pitching it into a shady overhang, I hopped it once and felt a bump. I picked it up and the line was moving. I set the hook and now the kayak started moving. My brain told me this was a very big fish. It stayed on the line for about 20 seconds, and then it was gone. I have no idea how, after being attached for that long, it came loose. It didn’t jump, it didn’t roll, and it didn’t shake. It simply left.
Checking the clock, I would have to hustle back to fish my last chance spot. I also needed to upload my limit but my signal was weak. I paddled, pedaled and dragged the boat until I saw Joey, calmly fishing a lay down near a bend. His rod arched and a fish jumped. It was the upgraded he needed to reclaim first place. I didn’t know where I might be in the standings, but I reasoned somewhere in the top 10.
With minutes to go, I lost one last fish of about 13-14””, right at the net. That fish would have placed me in the top 10. I ended with 11 the place, which matched the average of my three best tournament scores this season. I had the big bites to win it, but didn’t land three of them.
But I did land the limit I needed. Only 11 of the 52 competitors did so.
In mid-April, I was having dinner with Rick Rowland at a restaurant in Wilkesboro. We were discussing fishing, of course. I told him about how I developed a new habit last year. Once a week, I would take a practice day on a random lake, and go catch a limit of five fish. I did this to adjust to the new CKA format that requires a five fish limit instead of three, but also because after reviewing 8 years of tournament notes, I noticed there were too many times when I didn’t fill a limit. It is the single most important element of tournament fishing: you can’t win an event or a title unless you catch limits.
Of course, I won an event this season without catching a limit, but that’s an outlier. Rick regarded me in that inscrutable way he has, when you can’t tell what he is thinking. He may have been thinking about what side he would eat first, or the event we were fishing on Kerr Scott the next day, or thinking about how, with five events left on the schedule, he would still do his best to beat me. Whatever he was thinking, he would do it. I’ve fished against him for too long. The guy is all business.
Heading into this tournament at Falls Lake, about a half dozen anglers had a good chance of catching me in the standings. Several of them had poor results at Falls. But Rick won the event, and it is his third consecutive tournament with a finish in the money. For perspective, Rick has now won 1st place more times than anyone in CKA history.
That’s what I am up against now. If I am going to win the AOY title, I will have to beat the club’s all time best angler. And that’s exactly how it should be. And I also suspect I know what he was thinking as we discussed fishing at dinner that evening.
If you focus only on winning every event, you will be disappointed. For perspective, only two NFL teams have ever won every regular season game, and only one of those teams – the 1972 Miami Dolphins – went completely unbeaten through the post season, too. Statistically speaking, it is nearly impossible to win every event in a sport. And in fishing, nobody has ever done it and nobody ever will, not at any level. The competition is too strong, the variables are too many and the chances of error or mechanical failure are too great.
Also, there is this: fish do not make mistakes. The concept doesn’t exist to them. If you catch one, the fish didn’t lose, and you didn’t beat the fish. All you did was exploit its predatory instinct, and then haul it in on a fishing line. When on that line, the fish will do everything it can to escape. And many will.
There are however other, more reasonable expectations. Consistency is one of them, and we hear a lot about it. Through five events, I am averaging 187 points in my best four. That is the third highest average on the CKA Trail. But Rick and Melvin Yang are averaging in the mid-190’s for their best three events, while my average is for my best four. That means that they have no margin for error – through five events, they already used up their 2 worst scores. And with 2 events remaining, they cannot risk a bad tournament. I can’t either, but if I did I would not be eliminated entirely. I have been more consistent, and that is why I am still in 1st place overall. Last year’s focus on catching limits in practice has paid off this season.
Additionally, the Sullivan gambit paid off. He won 2nd place and kept a few rivals down. By fishing different types of water in different ways, he freed me to explore upstream and swing for the fences. He kept the heat on the leaderboard while I looked for big bites. I found them but didn’t land them, but that doesn’t mean the strategy failed. It was the right decision. The tactics did fail, however. Could I have positioned my kayak better when I set the hook on those two lost fish? Probably. But they’re gone and it’s over. On to the next event.
Sports psychology is a funny thing. I could say that I am disappointed with yesterday’s result. I had the bites to win it, after all. But I still produced a limit and in doing so I held serve. By focusing on the big picture, I can’t say I am disappointed at all, particularly since my strategy was excellent and I remained consistent to keep the pressure on the other top competitors. It’s still anyone’s title to win, but I remain in first after 5 events. That’s never happened before.
Two regular season events remain. We drop our lowest score after the next event Lake Randleman. Depending on how that goes, I will either drop my score at Badin or the score from Randleman. Preferably, it will be the former score that I drop. For now, it is back to the drawing board: map study, pre-fishing and positive thinking.
I am also going to do something else: no more numbers. The standings won’t change between now and then, so there is no point in staring at the AOY leaderboard. We all know what we need to do: fish hard and figure them out.
Event standings https://tourneyx.com/leaderboard/standings/cka-2021-5-falls-lake
My standings in AOY race: 1st overall
Primary Lures: Rebel p-71 Pop-R, Live Target Popper, Z-Man Freedom Chatterbait.
Water covered paddling and pedaling: 4 miles.
CKA Event 6
Randleman Lake, July 31, 2021
Event : Lake Randleman
Date: Saturday, July 31, 2021
Tournament Conditions: Slightly overcast
Temperatures at 5:30 am: mid 70’s (air), mid 80’s (water)
Estimated Costs: $80 (entry and gas)
This event was originally scheduled for earlier in the season and I had it marked for July 10 on my calendar. I instead had a KFL event on that day. As I did at Falls Lake in June, I resolved to use the earlier KFL tournament to scout new water, so I fished the southern ramp, on the “boater side” of the lake.
Topographically, this end of the lake has long points, road beds and shallow flats. The bottom is mostly hard, with some areas of standing timber. Oddly, there is little rip rap around the bridge area. There had been 1-2’ of rain in the area prior to the event, so water temperatures were mild, in the low 80’s.
I planned to fish shady coves and then work my way to deeper water, timing my circuit around certain coves to the angle of the sun, fishing the south shore early, and looking for grass (of which there was little). Two big fish followed my lure in very shallow water, only to spook. The water at this end of the lake was much clearer than I expected. At mid-morning, I landed a 14.75” bass in a shady cove near one of the lone patches of grass I found. I then headed to deeper water armed with a C-Rig and some crankbaits.
I marked some fish on a long point and worked them for a while, without luck. I then went into the standing timber, and also had no luck there. Finally, I fished the bridge area, and beyond it a way, without a bite. There were few laydowns at this end of the lake, and most bushes and trees were not close to the banks. If they were, they were in the sun early.
In all, the first day of pre-fishing went badly, even if our team won the KFL event. I decided I would return to pre-fish from the SW Park ramp later in the month.
On the Wednesday prior to the tournament, I launched at SW Park. The morning was still and hot. My plan was to go to the Groometown bridge, another area of the lake with which I was unfamiliar. It was a long pedal and took slightly longer than 30 minutes, and I was sweating through my shirt at the halfway point.
The bridge has a deep channel to the right and a wide flat to the left, marked with buoys beyond which you cannot cross. Some fish were chasing bait but I never caught one to determine if they were White Bass or Largemouth Bass. I marked fish in coves, but nothing along the grass, and after two hours of fishing I left feeling a bit dejected. Heading back to the main lake, I marked fish on points, and stopped to fish one, without luck. Other anglers who were out practicing also remarked that they weren’t catching fish. I scouted the creeks near the ramp, and there I had a few bites and landed one bass.
My conclusion: this is going to be an absolutely brutal tournament, one of those long summer grinds where a limit will go a long way. I am not in the mood for it. I’m tired of the hot days, I get bored when I have to fish slowly and that lake has never been good to me when it counts the most. In sum, my mindset is as pessimistic as it can be headed into this event, and I can tell I am going to be my own worst enemy. But that is tournament fishing, and I just have to gut it out and see what happens.
I started this diary with the sentence “We imagine our lives before we live them.” On the day prior to this tournament, I imagined life on tournament day, and it was a graveyard. But your imagination can create unfounded pessimism as well as false optimism. If you convince yourself you will find victory and then you don’t, it defeats your mindset and compounds the mistakes. And sometimes when you enter an event with low expectations, as I began this event, you will be surprised.
I woke up at 3:45 a.m., hustled to the lake and launched my kayak at the ramp by 5:20. I paddled a few feet and heard a low drawl. It was Marcus Smith greeting me. He asked “Are you going where I think you are going?” and nodded toward the creek. I nodded in affirmation. “Well, what now?” was the question.
We decided to share the spot. On the way in, we concluded we would work our way slowly to the bank, him fishing one bank and me the other. Where it narrowed, we would work different techniques to cover the skinny water. Stealth would be the key.
We began fishing at lines in, without success. But we were working slowly, and talking cross the creek. The pace and chatter helped me stay focused. At the first island, he went to the left and I paddled through the right channel. After a curve, there is a deeper hole, with several ambush points.
That’s where I had my first bite. I downsized my topwater selection to a small Live Target Bait Ball popper. It has a good pop, but it doesn’t make a big splash when it lands. It also has a small profile, so fish tend to eat it all. That first bass ate it all. Two or three casts later, I hooked fish number 2. And then a few more casts and I had fish number 3. “Here we go!” I called out.
Marcus entered the creek, and soon he had three fish, too.
And then I missed a big bite. And then I missed a small one. A few minutes later, I lost a bass that spit the hook at the net, right before entering the big pool where the creek begins.
At the pool, I could not find a bite. Marcus found one. I went back down the creek, and missed another blow up where I had caught my first three fish. Then I lost a second fish at the net. In the span of one hour, I had lost an entire limit worth of bites and hooked fish. I went back to Marcus, and he informed me he had landed a big one from the pool.
He left the area. I started to panic. It was mid morning and I needed two fish. I began to fight the urge to leave the spot. It was a small area, but productive. I re-assessed, and determined the fish had mostly backed away from the pool, and there were still fish to be caught. I had to stay and find them. But how?
I sang a song to calm me down. Sorting through lures, I took stock: the topwater bite was dying, I hadn’t had a bite on a worm or crankbait. I rummaged through tackle and found a 2” Storm swimbait. I thought ‘Why not?” I tied it on and began casting, and working my way back down from the main pool, to where I had caught fish earlier.
I was hopping the lure near the bottom, retrieving very slowly. I let it hit against every log and lay down I could see. After a few casts, I had a bite, and fish number 4 was in the net. Maybe I would get a limit. Arlie Minton entered the creek and we chatted a bit. I told him the fish were here, fish it with me. He went into the main pool. Near that middle section of the creek, I started casting around a large log pile where I had earlier landed my second fish. I let the swimbait sink, picked it up, and dropped it. Rinse and repeat. At the edge of the channel, I had my limit.
And that was all. I fished the final 2.5 hours without another bite. I went out to the main channel and fished a bit. It was getting very hot, and I started to fade. The adrenalin, the panic, the excitement had all drained me. The summer heat was taking the rest.
I was going to leave my guts on the water, and everything else, before this AOY race was over.
To stay alive against Rick Rowland’s charge up the standings, I desperately needed a Top 5 finish at Randleman. And I got it, finishing in 4th (Rick got 3rd). I’m holding on to 1st place by a thread, but the Sword of Damocles is not at my neck. I have 5 good scores; the rest of the challengers have 4 good scores. I can cull a lower score, and so can they, but they cannot afford one bad event.
One event remains prior to the Gate City Classic in September. This next event won’t determine much for me, but it will determine a great deal for the rest of the competition. Yes, it’s still anyone’s race, but after today I can fish loose and enjoy myself in the seventh and final regular season event. If you had told me that was going to be the case prior to lines in, I would have laughed if I hadn’t been so close to tears.
CKA Event Article: https://www.carolinakayakanglers.com/?p=5029
My standings in AOY race: 1st overall
Primary Lures: Live Target Bait Ball Popper, Storm 2″ soft Swimbait.
Water covered paddling and pedaling: 1.5 miles.
CKA EVENT 7
Lake Mayo, NC
August 21, 2021
Tournament Conditions: Post-Frontal, overcast
Temperatures at 5:30 am: 72 degrees.
Estimated Costs for entry fee and gas: $125.
I began pre-fishing this lake in mid-July. It is a new lake to me, and I just couldn’t resist it. Who can stay away from new water? I had passed on dozens of chances to fish the lake during previous years, but when I saw the lake for the first time on a clear and breezy Tuesday morning, I wondered what I had been thinking.
This lake is a different animal, and looks nothing like other Piedmont reservoirs. The topography is rocky and the water is clear and deep, like a mountain lake, but there is also more vegetation here, including hydrilla and other plants. The shoreline vegetation is also different, ranging from tall grass to bushes and young trees. There are laydowns in both shallow and deep water, probably because the soil is rocky and trees don’t hold well to it.
Pre-fishing on Tuesday, July 13th went well. I landed a small limit in a 4 hour window, including an 18.25” LM Bass that smashed a Pop-R in 3 feet of water on a point. The other fish were scattered and a bit random – one near shallow grass, another on a deep point, a third on a bank line in moderate depth, etc. I found standing timber, and also some creeks that have potential.
What I learned, most of all, is that this is a healthy lake, its shores have very limited residential development (unlike nearby Hyco, which is over-developed) and the lake’s higher elevation provides a cool breeze. This was important – with the exception of one bite, I noticed all my fish were oriented to wind current. I resolved to return the next week, before turning my attention to Randleman.
But I didn’t return before Randleman, nor did I get back to Mayo afterward. In fact, I went 3 weeks without casting a line or launching my kayak. I would regret the decision.
Missed opportunities – we dwell on them. Most of the time, they consist of lost fish. I tend to dwell on decision making, wondering if I should have fished to the left or right from the launch, or focused on points instead of long, steep banks, or if focusing on wind currents would have helped, etc. At Lake Mayo, I don’t think it would have mattered much. The lake was tough, yielding limited, scattered bites no matter what I did. But I can’t shake the feeling this event cost me the title.
Here is one decision that I was confident in making, even if it didn’t work out well. Because we had rain the previous day, I focused on a creek channel. I had most of my success this summer fishing such areas, and reasoned it would apply to Mayo. It did, but not to any great extent. Launching in total darkness, I pedaled to the west side of the lake and began fishing halfway up the creek. My first casts were to a shoreline where house lights and a dock might attract bugs and bait. I landed a bass there 15 minutes after lines in, but not another.
I then proceeded toward the creek, casting around points and grass. Mayo has strange banks – they can extend 3-8 feet, then suddenly drop into deeper water. Or they can be shear, dropping immediately. It was tough to see the contour in the dark but I had mapped it so I worked along.
Entering the creek mouth, I was fan casting and covering water. To my shock, I could not find a bite there, and marked few fish. Perhaps I should have gone to the left from the ramp.
In the meantime, I noticed few fish being posted. I had gone into the day with a “let’s wing it” approach, not overly concerned about AOY points or trophies. I don’t know why, but I didn’t feel the usual pressures. I was simply out fishing.
So I kept after it, and as I left the creek I missed a big blow up on my lure. I was moving along a shady bank. The fish blasted the lure, I briefly felt it, then it was gone. I kept moving, resolved to junk fishing. After losing some time in a cove, where a reel backlash and a broken rod distracted me, I returned to the shady bank and kept moving. There, I landed my second fish. If there is one thing to be said about Mayo’s bass, it is they fight like Smallmouth Bass. My second fish wasn’t big, but it ran like a horse.
I had a small fish follow a small crankbait to the boat, only to spook in clear water, and I alternated between top water and that lure for a while. I fished my way to the main lake. Another bass followed the crankbait to the boat and turned away. Should I have switched to a jerk bait?
Decisions – we make them. So do others. Some work out, some don’t. We review them, dwell on other decisions we might have made. They are other paths we might have traveled. Mine led me to a 32nd place finish today.
Now, all paths lead to the Gate City Classic, the final points event of the season. After leading the points race for several months, I have dropped to a tie for 2nd place. Rick Rowland has taken the lead, as every angler assumed he would. But it’s not a big lead – he also had a tough day at Mayo. Rick Morris has surged past a few anglers, and jumped into a tie with me for 2nd place. Finally, Ryan Freeman is in the hunt, in 3rd place. And so 4 anglers will have the best chance to win it all on the final day of competition.
After the first tournament in February, I made a decision – I would commit to this race with the intention of winning it. I knew it would be difficult, and there would be bad days and good days. The bad days were at Badin and Mayo. The good days were at Harris and Randleman. In between them, there were three other days where I finished 11th, 15th and 18th in the standings. We tend to focus on the good and bad days because that’s where the emotions are strongest, but those in-between days are the ones that really put me in this position. A few upgrades on those days, and I might still be in the lead, or closer to it. That’s an important thing I learned along the road.
But Mayo was a really bad day, because I had a good chance to extend my lead, and I didn’t.
Now, it’s all history. There is one event left in the regular season, and I have new decisions to make. Which lake will I fish? Should I practice on familiar water, or seek out new spots? Should I take chances or stick with routine? What about conditions – what will I decide if we remain in this late summer pattern? What other variables are in play? We are in hurricane season, and it’s been a factor before this time of year. What of the Covid-19 pandemic? Will it affect lake hours and launches? There is a lull for a few weeks in which to think, review and decide, a time to either dwell on the past or move into the future – or more precisely, a time to decide on a future.
My standings in AOY race: 2nd (Tie)
Primary Lures: Rebel P-71 Pop-R, Live Target Crankbait.
Water covered paddling and pedaling: 2.5 miles.
Gate City Classic
Sept 18, 2021
Tournament Conditions: Mild and Sunny
Temperatures at 7:00 am: 70 degrees.
Estimated Costs for entry fee, launch fees and gas: $100.
I did not fish the first edition of this event, which is the season’s grand finale for the Carolina Kayak Anglers club. But I have not missed it since 2015, when I finished my season on a strong note and placed 11th overall in the AOY standings, punching a ticket to the KBF National Championship. The rest is history – I won my first big check as a result of that qualification, then had my best CKA year yet in 2016. Lake Mackintosh is a lake that holds a lot of good memories, but it is also a lake where memories can cloud the reality of the water.
I normally do well in this event, fishing the same areas every year. This year, I need better than “well.” This year I need a big limit.
I set out to study a new area of the lake on Tuesday, September 7th. I picked the day because the conditions most closely would resemble what we see on tournament day: bright and sunny. With a stable weather pattern next week and a warming trend, I reasoned the lake would be similar, and the fish would most likely be where I found them, too.
It was a long pedal to the area I selected, and at first it produced nothing. But then that changed: I found fish, and good fish, too. After catching two keepers, I left the area and continued upstream. I was loving and casting, watching my screen. I kept expecting the water to get shallow, but it didn’t: the channel remained uniform for a good mile. I picked apart some structure, fished some rocky areas, and kept going. At a certain point, a lay down blocked my path, and I turned around, but even though the creek had narrowed it remained fairly consistent in depth. By the time I left, I had caught a decent limit and I had the distinct feeling that I would have the two primary areas I found to myself on tournament day.
Confidence is a cornerstone of pre-tournament psychology. I haven’t felt this good heading into an event since the event at Falls in June. Here is the reasoning for that confidence:
I found good bites and dialed in two patterns. The weather will be predictably stable. Lake Mackintosh can be difficult when the water is clear and there is a high pressure system hanging around, and that’s what we will see that weekend.
We are also ten days from the event. The lake will be closed for 4 of those 10 days. There is only one weekend in that time frame, so the lake may be pressured for two days but the distance I travelled probably deters competitors from venturing too far from ramps. Why? Because the lake will open at lines in – anglers will launch and start fishing.
My plan is to launch and pedal directly to my spots without stopping, a rod in hand to pick off schooling bass if I see them along the way (I managed a few in practice on the way back, at mid-day). Otherwise, straight to the primary areas.
I’ve been grinding out CKA tournaments since February. I’ve traveled about one thousand miles back and forth across North Carolina. I pedaled and paddled over about 50 miles of our lakes in practice and during events, and I’ve caught bass in every tournament. I’ve lost weight and sleep, celebrated with and for friends, and caught a lot of bass. I have yet to exhaust the money I won in the first tournament or exhaust my determination and energy to win the Angler of the Year title.
I have a plan. Dates and times are set. Now I only have to execute the plan, fish one last tournament and hope that the variables I can’t control go my way.
I arrived at the ramp early to find 4-5 vehicles on line. More arrived every few minutes. Last I looked, the number of registered anglers was over 50. The more anglers, the more fish would be caught, and the more the points would be spread around. This was good news – it increased my chances that a strong finish would help me win the title. I need to beat 2-3 anglers by at least one place, but in order to catch up to Rick Rowland and beat him I needed to beat him by several places. If I finished below 4th place, I needed to beat him by at least 9 places. If I finished 3rd, by 6 places, 2nd by 5 places, and 1st by 4 places.
Here is how my day went, hour by hour:
Hour 1: pedaling to the spot. Only one other angler of the dozen or so was near me for the first 15 minutes. It was will Lambert, and he took a left turn at mid lake and start fishing. I continued pedaling. A handful of bass boats passed me along the way, and it made me nervous because they were moving fast.
Hour 2: I reached and passed the first bridge. I made a few casts while moving, and noticed that several bass boats had stopped to fish just above the first bridge. That was a good sign. I still had a while to go, but one of the bass boats turned out to be a crappie fisherman. It was Justin Faircloth’s brother. I kept pedaling and arrived at the area I planned to fish at about 8:20 am.
The fish I had found in practice were there. I landed an 18.50” bass on topwater. Minutes later, I landed a 16.75” bass. I set up to fish the area in a clockwise pattern, fan casting. The fish were not schooling, but instead they were near bait and ready to chase on the surface. In both cases, they followed the lure 10-15 feet and then smashed it.
Hour 3: At the start of the hour, I had a big blow up but the fish was moving fast toward my boat. I reeled quickly but couldn’t catch up. When I did, I felt a big fish. It came unbuttoned moments later. I had finished the clockwise movement, and made a second pass, without a bite.
Hour 4: I continued up the lake toward my secondary spots. I passed one bass boat. They were beating the banks with plastics, with limited success. I entered a narrow section, and saw a fish schooling on bait, but didn’t reach it. There was a second bass boat. I picked apart laydowns now with plastics and a square billed crankbait. No bites.
Hour 5: This was the halfway mark of the tournament and I had only caught 2 fish. The best of the secondary spots did not produce any bites. I kept looking, and soon I found the bites. A large school of bait was in 5-6 feet of water. I landed a 12.75” bass on the crankbait, and a few casts later I landed a 13.25” bass on topwater. At the middle of the hour, I pitched a jackhammer near a lay down. I felt a tick and the line moved fast. I reeled to catch up and set the hook. Moments later, a big bass clear the surface, a good 18” fish with a big belly. It stayed hooked, swam down and came back up. This time, it spit the hook when it jumped, a slow motion nightmare, backlit by the sun. I knew in that instant that I was in trouble.
I fished some more there without luck. I turned and began heading back, and noticed some ugly clouds.
Hour 6: Shortly after noon, I filled my limit with a 12.5” bass. It grabbed my crankbait as I trolled back to my primary area. When I reached that area, I began fishing the pattern I used in the morning, without success. I uploaded my photos as it began to rain. I took cover, and noticed I was in the top 10 in the standings, ahead of all of my competitors, and a spot or two ahead of Rick Rowland.
Hour 7: I needed to upgrade, and badly. I kept fishing as it rained, and when the rain let up, I began fishing back toward the ramp. With slightly more than one hour left in competition, I got a big bite on topwater – a 17.50” bass. It was in an area I had not fished before, a flat off the main channel. The event standings were down, I uploaded the catch and kept casting.
Hour 8: Don’t think about the fish you lost. Don’t think about the variables. Just fish, and don’t hurry any bites. Put every bite in the boat. I was moving slowly back toward the ramp, casting and pedaling, stopping momentarily. At 2:45, I landed a small upgrade – a 13” bass. At 2:50 pm, another bite, but it was too small a fish. I made a few last casts. Lines out.
As I pedaled to the ramp, I knew it would be close. I had a limit of 79” – it wasn’t great, and I had missed two big fish. I also knew that if there were not enough anglers between me and Rick Rowland, it wouldn’t have matter anyway. All I could hope was that a) Rick had not upgraded and b) that the late limits that came in were shorter than mine but longer than his.
I drove to Get:Outdoors with a feeling of relief. It was over, and out of my hands. When I reached the lot, I took a moment to review the season in my mind. A big fish and a victory. A few small limits. A bad day. A better day. A great day. Another bad day. Today. My top five scores were: 1st place, 4th place, 11th place, 15th place and 18th place. I was hoping for top 10, and in the best-case scenario a top 5 finish today. I knew I had the fish to win it but a few got away, and I did get one big upgrade at the end. Did other limits come in?
The tournament directors announced the day’s standings. I had taken 10th place. But was it enough?
They proceeded to the Angler of the Year points. “In fourth place, Shelly Efird. In third place, Rick Morris. In second place – this was close – Henry Veggian. The difference was 6 points. Rick Rowland is the 2021 CKA Angler of the Year.”
Everyone applauded. I congratulated Rick. I was in a familiar place: Rick, Shelly and I have a long history of finishing in the top 3, the top 5, and so on. In fact, the first time I ever won money in a fishing tournament, Rick, Shelly and I were the top 3. But this was a new place for Rick. He had finished as runner up in the AOY race on several occasions, most recently last season.
He really had to earn this one. He battled back after two dismal tournaments to finish in the top 5 on 4 consecutive events, winning one of those. His 7th score at Lake Mayo left the door open for me, and today he finished in 17th place. Today was my turn for a comeback and I almost pulled it off, erasing more than half of the points deficit. But I came up a few points short.
Two bites – that was the difference. If I land one of those fish, I move into the top 3 for the tournament and I win the AOY title. That will be a tough meal to digest. The image of that big bass throwing my lure will hang around for a while. But that’s what fish do sometimes – they beat the angler.
One of the revelations of this season has been the video camera I bought. I keep it running for as long as the batteries allow, and when I return home I review the footage. I analyze my casts and hooksets, evaluate boat positions or how I play a fish, and I also take notes on spots I missed. Learning from mistakes and building on good decisions – and being able to replay those moments – has helped me to improve as an angler. That’s why I had my best year with the club.
Sometimes the camera just captures a moment. It did that yesterday at the Gate City Classic. I only remembered it while reviewing footage and photos. As I fished, I felt a presence. Dense trees lined the shore. A large King Snake had crossed the lake a few hundred yards back. Whatever it was it was in the trees, and I knew somehow to look at one tree, on one branch.
The Great Horned Owl was perched on a branch at mid tree. It had me dialed in for a while, I guess, perhaps attracted by the sound of my lure. It was only 15-20 feet away from me. I could see the tufts different colored feathers around its ears, some dark, some light. As I drew even with it, the owl lit up and flew into a higher tree across the creek. It was backlit by the sun now. It was keeping an eye on me. It stayed there for a while, and I tuned and took a photo. I fished up the creek. When I returned half an hour later, the owl was gone.
Final standings in AOY race: 2nd Overall
Tournament Standings: https://tourneyx.com/leaderboard/standings/cka-2021-8-gate-city-classic
Primary Lures: Rebel P-71 Pop-R, Live Target Popper, Live Target Crankbait, Z-Man Jackhammer.
Water covered paddling and pedaling: 6 miles.
Final AOY Standings: https://www.carolinakayakanglers.com/?page_id=5067
All text and photos © Henry Veggian 2021