Sunday, September 11, 2011

Feeling the pressure.......

This past Saturday marked a first for me - a kayak only tournament sponsored by River Bassin'.  The proceeds from the tournament went to fight ALS (aka Lou Gehrig's Disease).  I entered the tournament in the Kayak Bass Fishing sponsored lake division, since I had fished Smith Mountain Lake on 3 previous occasions.  My plan for the day was to hit the docks and any shaded banks with submerged structure.

The plan was a good one until I learned a few days prior that the lake was now at 3-4' below normal levels.  That meant that my planned target areas from past visits were now in 6-12" of water in most spots.  It also exposed a number of targeted structure areas that no longer held fish, since they were now exposed and no longer below water.

The day started off later than planned, because I had my son with me for the adventure and couldn't bring myself to wake him up at 4am after falling asleep only 7 hours earlier.  I went ahead and got the van loaded with all of our hotel items and got myself ready for the day.  He woke up on his own at 5:30am, and we hit the road by 6am with a quick stop for gas and some light breakfast fare.  We make it to my planned launch to find the top water bite rather aggressive with a few stripers chasing baitfish in the shallows, including one massive blow up that my son spotted and resulted in a look of shock and awe.

I unloaded all of our gear and parked the van.  As we paddled out past the shallow launch, I noticed the onset of a headwind at the mouth of the cove.  I decided to avoid this windy situation and moved in between some boathouses for some targeted top water with the Pop-R and some shakey head fishing along the pilings.  After a few casts, my son wanted to fish a little knowing that any fish he caught would be ineligible for the tournament, since he wasn't entered this time.  After a few minutes, he makes an errant cast that lands in the back of someone's boat and promptly gets snagged on the inflatable tube sitting in the cabin area.  It's situations like these that make me pat myself on the back for preparation.

I always carry with me a small pair of heavy duty bolt cutters (a tip learned from Jim Sammons).  The bolt cutters are an easy way to quickly remove a hook that buries itself past the barb, whether it is in a fish's eye, gullet, your life preserver, your fishing pants, your arm or leg or in this case, an inflatable wave riding tube.  A quick beaching of the kayak on the rocks and a quick trot into the boat house along the dock walk, and the barb was snipped off and lure/rod combo retrieved.  Only damage done resulted in a lost jig head on his beetle spin which was quickly replaced.

We re-launched and headed over to the eastern banks to fish the rocks and submerged trees, since the water was still slightly warm and the fish appeared to be somewhat active.  I had four presentations rigged and quickly learned I had left the most critical one at my house - the lipless crankbait rod I had purposely tied on two nights prior to the trip.  Oh well - lesson learned.  I still had a rod rigged with the trusty spinnerbait that I could use.  I started tossing that towards shore but couldn't buy a bite.

I switched over to my favorite technique for locating bass holding tight to cover - a shakey head with a small profile soft plastic in a natural color like a green or brown.  The lure of choice for this was a Confidence Baits Floating Bird in Dark Brown rigged on a 1/4oz. Draggin' Head pioneered by Jeff Little of smallmouth bass fame.

I was throwing this little beauty using my trusty 6'8" St. Croix Mojo Bass spinning rod (Wackey Style model) and my Shimano Sienna spinning reel.  I was spooled up with 30lb. Power Pro hi-vis yello braid and a 15lb. P-Line flourocarbon leader.  I was getting several bites but no serious takers.  I retrieved it slow at first by dragging it across the submerged tree limbs and branches.  When that resulted in no takers, I also hopped it subtly, vertical jigged it and at times fished it a like a fluke with short, quick twitches - nothing serious just a couple short strikes.

Still getting bites but no serious takers, I figured I was at least was in the right ball park as far as lure selection and presentation.  I also had another presentation I started to use just in case - a jig-n-craw setup in 3/16oz. size with a small 3' craw trailer.  I chose the pumpkin brown color, since that is the color that appeared the most natural when bounced along the bottom in the clear water.  I had no takers at all, so I switched back over to the Floating Bird.  We approached one boat house that had a huge opening between the pilings and looked like a prime ambush spot - lots of shade and positioned at the mouth of the cove on a submerged point.

I used a slingshot cast to propel the lure underneath the boathouse almost to the other side and allowed the bait to fall naturally - like skipping a rock when you were a kid.  I gave it a couple small hops and felt a solid bite.  I reeled down and set the hook and immediately knew I had a good one on.  I saw the fish turn and run for the pilings but was able to steer him clear.  I thought for sure this one had a chance at getting me the big fish of the tournament if I could get it to the kayak.  As I maneuver the fish clear of the boathouse, I feel the tell tale signs of the fish spinning and I know what the fish is - a dang catfish!!  Not the hawg I was expecting to be sitting in that ambush spot.

The catfish put up a nice fight and certainly scared off anything else in the immediate area, so we moved on towards the mouth of the main cove and were promptly greeted by a stiff headwind.  We moved left of the cove towards my next target area - a wind blown main point with visible structure still below the recently receded water line.  I opted to switch over to the spinnerbait first to see if there were any active feeders.  I targeted the end of the main submerged tree by bouncing it off the tree branches on the retrieve but no takers.  I move my casts further in towards the bank and cast the lure into a pocket that had visible submerged main branches creating a pocket that looked "fishy".

A pretty good cast and couple twitches of the rod to get the willow blades moving, and I was promptly greeted with the tell-tale double chomp of a largemouth bass.  I set the hook and immediately feel the kayak surge towards the fish.  Big fish on for certain.  A couple quick jumps confirm what I thought - a hoss or as Mark Zona says all the time on ESPN - a biggun!!  I had him halfway back to the boat when he makes a tarponesque leap and twitch, and I can see I have him hooked dead in the roof of the mouth.  I had good leverage on him and lowered the rod to prevent him from tossing the lure from his mouth.  Almost got him......and SNAP!!!  Line break - say what?  How in the world did he snap a 15lb. flouro leader?  The momentum of the fight combined with the wind at my back pushed me over to where he snapped the line.  I look down and see the reason for the lost fish - a recently downed tree that had fresh sharp edges and contributed to me losing a quality fish.

Such is life - not the first fish I have lost, nor will it be the last I am sure.  You always hear the fishing adage and words of wisdom that if you are not getting your lure snagged or hung up, then you aren't fishing in the right spot!!  Well, I confirmed that one right there.  I kept working the cove nevertheless with nary a bite to be found.  What made the lost fish more painful is that he spent the next 15-20 minutes jumping out of the water left and right trying to get the spinnerbait out of his mouth.  Dang fish - grrrrrrrr!!!  Oh well, I told my son to always keep your head up and just keep trying.  Persistence pays off, right?

I was getting pretty worn out fighting the wind and the lack of any action as the sun rose high above our heads, so I beached the kayak in a small shallow spot at the back of the cove and pulled out our lunch.  My son waded around in the shallow water stirring up the muck while munching on his sandwich.  I ate mine as well, and I decided to change a few of my setups around.  I tied on my favorite small spinnerbait, and I re-rigged the wackey style rod with a heavier round shakey head and just a brown/orange colored soft plastic craw.  Once I was done with my sandwich and the retying of the lures, we made our way back towards the launch to fish the shaded side of the rock covered banks with overhanging trees.  I knew we needed to be off the water by 2pm in order to not be rushed and to have enough time to load up the gear and kayak and make the drive back to the check in by 4pm.

I found a target rich area that had several submerged trees in deeper water away from the banks.  I tossed the craw away from the banks first to try an target the fish at the end of the structure.  Nothing.  I worked the craw closer to the banks but still nothing.  I then cast the craw up onto the bank, then started a short hop retrieve mimicking the action of a crawdad fleeing from prey with sharp twitches of its tail.  I let the craw fall and felt a subtle tap.  I waited a brief moment to avoid losing another fish to a short strike.  I love the hi-vis braid, because even subtle hits are magnified when the fish swims away with your bait.  I saw the line begin to swim away and set the hook - fish on.  Nothing big, but still a keeper per the rules of this tournament of an 8" minimum.  A few short runs and the first fish of the day that counts is in the boat.  I put him on the Fish Grip that I have tied to the kayak to let him swim freely while I got the measuring board and identifier out to take a photo.  End result - a spunky little 11 1/4" bass to put on the board - nothing to write home about but at least no skunk.  Here is the photo my official cameraman (aka my son) snapped for me.
If you look over my left shoulder (right side of the photo), you can see how much shade the trees were providing on the shallow banks even at high noon, making it a prime target area in the crystal clear water for the day.  I kept working that area knowing that the submerged trees had to hold more than one fish.  I found another taker and hooked him but he was able to get off by swimming into the tree and managing to get the lure hung up.  I knew I was onto some form of a pattern of fish tight to cover but still aggressive.  I continued to get bit with several instances of the fish biting hard and ripping the claws off of the soft plastic crawdad but no more were landed.

2pm came all to quickly, and I was forced to resign with only one fish to record.  We make it back to the tournament check in with 6 minutes to spare, albeit after getting caught behind every pokey person in the state and caught at every red light!!!  I know that if I could have landed those two fish that got away, I would have had a chance to win the individual angler and big fish awards.  I ended up placing 6th out of 10 individuals in the lake division.  The winning total I believe was only 33" for the two fish he landed with a three fish maximum.  Oh well, it was fun to say the least.  My son had fun taking photos, we caught a couple fish (albeit one not able to be entered), we won a couple raffle items, met some new faces like Jeff Little and Drew Gregory, we spent time together on the road in a hotel for the first time, and we got to fish - not too bad of a weekend if you ask me.

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