I started preparing for the SD on Lake Norman right after the State Championship in October. I put more time in reading fishing reports, watching You Tube videos and studying my Navionics Lake Map App than for any tournament in my life. It paid off, this time.
I arrived in NC at the motel around 8:30 pm on Thursday night. I had a note book in the dash of my boat with the first three days of practice laid out. Where I would fish and techniques I would be trying. Boy did that get blown to bits, quick, fast and in a hurry.
Friday morning dawned cloudy with a light breeze. Perfect top water morning, or so I thought. My plan for the day was to catch them on top water on the rip rap in the back of Davis and then find them schooled up on the many shoals I had marked. I spent the first two hours throwing five different top water baits. Two bluegills and a short strike from a bass was all I had to show for my efforts. I graphed shoals, fished rock piles and points until about 1:00. Finally gave up and started fishing the deepest docks I could find. 30 minutes into this and I had three keepers in the boat. Fished a lot of shallow docks, nothing. Went out to the shoals and spent another three hours graphing and fishing. A few shorts. Went back to the same dock area and finished out a limit of spots. About 12 hours on the water, fished docks for about three to catch those five keepers.
Saturday still cloudy with a good breeze. Barry Ward rode with me and we put in at the 150 bridge. I had decided to start in the left fork of Stumpy with top water. It just looked good on the Navionics Map with the channel on the right side with lots of docks and it would be shaded. In the first hour I had 3 keepers on a Splashit and Barry had two on a sort of wake bait with a spinner on the back. (Still don’t know what the heck it was) Called Jerry Smith and he had caught one short fish on a buzzbait. Told him about the Splashit and he started whacking them. I spent the rest of the day skipping (or trying to) jigs under docks. The most productive docks were the ones with 18 plus feet of water in front of them and lots of poles. There was absolutely no doubt when you had a bite. Pick it up and your line would be out under the boat or way back under the dock. Those spots fight like they are crazy. I also managed to catch a 25lb. flat head out of a brush pile in 18′ of water on a jig and a 10lb blue cat under a dock on a white swim jig. I ended up with a double limit for maybe 10lbs. Not what I wanted but a good start.
Sunday cloudy and still with a breeze. I had decided to fish Hicks creek, the State Park and the river. Couldn’t buy a bite on top water around the docks but could get bit on the jig around docks. Went to some of the lay downs along the State Park and had multiple keepers on the jig. Would throw it to the base of the laydown, swim it back and when I hit a limb I would drag it over and kill it. That’s when they would slam it. Left this and ran up the river to the next bridge planning on trying to find some fish on walls or somewhere other than docks. Nothing on the walls but caught a 2lb 10oz spot on a big snag along the river. Fished laydowns along islands, docks behind an island, nothing. Went back to the laydowns in Hicks and whacked them again. Had 12 to 15 keepers for the day and maybe 12lbs. Now I have found something I haven’t seen anyone else fishing. Maybe if I can expand on this I could have a shot at this thing. Brian Hickey started pushing me in the Team meetings and even in the mornings before we left to find a backup pattern to those laydowns. Excellent advice and I am glad my hard head listened. At the Team meeting that night Jerry Smith told everyone he was catching what he called “Pole Dancers”. Pitching to the wooded poles, feeding line and catching suspended fish. After that everyone referred to fish caught by the poles as “Jerry’s Pole Dancers”. Funny stuff.
Monday still started out cloudy with a good breeze. Dillon Rager, our 16 year old KY High School State Champion went with me and we started in Hicks. Brian Hickey and Chad Rice had caught them on a wake bait so I had stopped the night before and bought two at Gander Mountain. Didn’t know how to throw it but decided to give it a try. We started down the laydowns in Hicks and it didn’t take long to find out they wanted the wake bait. Caught an 18″ fish and then the biggest spot of the week, about 3.25lbs. Sat down and took both hooks off of the bait so I wouldn’t sore mouth anything. My next bite was a multiple. The fish hit about 5′ from the boat and there were three of them, all looked to be 17/18″ long. One would grab it and pull it down until I took it away from him and then another would do the same thing. A little ways down the bank and another good one grabbed it. Some of the fish were on flat mud banks and some were in tree tops in 18′ of water but it appeared they were coming a long way to get it so it didn’t matter. Just throw it. We fished some more of the trees with that jig and I shook a bunch more off. Went to the docks on the other side of the creek with the jig and the same thing. After talking to Brian I had went to a 1/2 oz. jig under those docks. On the initial skip you would either get bit on the fall or the first couple of bounces. I could not get bit dragging the jig which is how I like to fish a football jig. This swim jig they wanted bounced 6″ off the bottom. Thinking they were being attracted by the sound, I started putting rattles on my jigs. My bites picked up considerably. So, two things I had added to my pattern today. Go to a heavier jig to get to the bottom quicker where most of the bites were coming from and add rattles to get their attention. Keep refining my presentation and expanding my pattern. Now I have built some confidence. I can catch then on the laydowns and on the docks. I had fished other creeks but it seemed Hicks had better quality fish than any other place I had fished. A lot of the Team members were catching fish on a shaky head but, if I could get bit on the jig, then Mr. Shaky would not get wet.
Tuesday still cloud cover and breezy. Mike Tester fished with me. Started down the laydowns again with the wake bait. Had two pretty quick try to take it away from me so they were still on that pattern. Left the laydowns and expanded to other docks. Shook off a bunch, had two that hooked themselves and hooked a couple. It was getting time to sit down and rig everything for the next day so I decided to bust the next fish that bit. Sorry when I did because it was over 2lbs. Pulled up under a shade tree, dropped my Talons, rigged up and got everything ready for the first day of the Southern Divisional. I have what I feel is a strong laydown pattern and these docks are getting better each day but I still can’t get bit on shallow docks.
Wednesday dawns clear and fog is sitting over the lower end of the lake. They let us go and I have a bad felling that something has changed. And did it ever. I drew Walter Ogle from TN and he agreed to let me go to my wake bait fish first. We shared the front of the boat all day and it worked out great. Spent 1 1/2 hours fishing the laydowns with the wake bait and had two small keepers and Walter had one on a buzzbait. The bite had changed. It was Walter’s turn to fish his water so we went deep in the same area. He caught two and the bite quit. We went back to my dock pattern and I finished my limit and culled a couple times. Lost one about 2.5lbs trying to swing him in the boat. Bone headed move on my part. Weighed in 8 lbs. 4 oz. for 5th place on the KY Team. Dillon was leading with 11 lbs. 10 oz. so I am 3 lbs. 6 oz. out of the lead. Not where I wanted to be but within striking distance. One of our boaters had an issue with his leg and had to stop fishing so that moved me from a non boater to the boater’s position.
Thursday’s weather is the same, high blue bird skies with little wind. I drew Lamar Middleton from FL and he agreed to let me fish my area and stay in the front of the boat all day. What a great guy and a true gentleman. I had a great time fishing with him and would love to hook up with him in FL some day. Back on the laydowns to see if they will hit the wake bait. I had one fish roll on it but that was it. Started pitching my jig and caught two small keepers and Lamar caught one. The fish had left the laydowns, just like Brian had predicted. Went to the docks and had a limit by 9:00. The fish from the laydowns had moved across the creek and were loading up on the docks. Lost a good one on a dock pole, another in brush and another I saw swimming the jig over a submerged boat lift (about 3 lbs.). Then caught a 3.5 on another submerged dock lift. Had two blacks to weigh in and had not been catching any up until today. I also started getting bit on shallow docks today. I concentrated on the shallow docks early then the deep docks when the sun got up high. At the end of the day I spotted an active bream bed behind a dock. Under the corner of the dock was a fish that appeared to be 3 to 4lbs. I got her to nose down on my jig once and then pick it up once, carry it out, but nothing when I set the hook. Marked her for Friday. After putting the wake bait down, I stuck with the 1/2 oz. jig the rest of the day. Some of the real shallow docks would see my 3/8 oz. jig but 90% of the time the 1/2 was in my hand. I weighed in a limit for 9 lbs. 15 oz. and moved into 1st place on the KY Team by 1 oz. less than 3 lbs. separated the top six KY Team members so it was going to be a shoot out.
Friday morning I woke up at 3:00 a.m. and could not go back to sleep. It was supposed to be cloudy with wind, so I am bouncing back and forth between sticking with the docks or trying the laydowns again with the clouds and wind. By the time I leave for the water, I am sick to my stomach and about to heave. I love public speaking and tournament time. The butterflies in my stomach get me fired up and the adrenalin running. But this is different. I am not sure I will be able to keep that Apple breakfast bar or my Advocare Spark down this morning. Not good.
I drew Richard Phillips from AL for the final day. Richard was on some fish on walls up the river on a shaky head and wanted his half of the day. My heart sank. I was confident that I could get a good limit on my dock fish but had no confidence in fishing bluff walls and points. He agreed to let me fish the first half of the day so I decided to start on the bank in Stumpy creek where Barry and I had caught them on Saturday. By the time we got there my stomach had settled down and when I started fishing I forgot all about it. I picked up the Splashit but the wind was too strong and the waves to high for it to be affective. I had tied on a buzzbait that Jerry Smith and I had designed for Barren last year, so I pulled it out of the box and started throwing it. It has a single clear triple blade on it. I removed the skirt and glued a Ribbit frog on for a trailer. Perfect for clear water as it makes very little noise but lots of top water commotion. Within the first 5 casts I had a good one grab it and come loose after pulling her 3′ or so. Looked to be 2 or 3 lbs. Lousy way to start. No more bites in Stumpy. Went to Hicks, straight to the dock where the good fish by the bream beds was the day before. Brian had told me to throw short of the fish, reel it back real quick then throw past her. I did and when the wake bait came past the corner of the dock, a huge fish exploded on it. I set the hook, started reeling and poof, came unbuttoned. My heart sank even further. The biggest fish I have had bite all week, the last day of the tournament and she comes unbuttoned. I made another cast back to the same spot, reeled half way to the boat and hear Richard yell, “There she is”. He had pitched a jig 40′ away to a lone stump and she had ate it. He fought her to the boat and I saw that she had another fish that looked to be 3 or 4 lbs. with her. I netted his fish and it weighed 6 lbs. 2 oz. largest fish of the tournament.
Well now I am really sick. We make a few more casts then head to some shallow docks. Now I am flipping docks and throwing the buzzbait between docks. I catch a keeper on the jig, loose a huge fish that pulled me into a brush pile and loose another two plus on the buzzbait. I told Richard, “That’s the tournament. You can’t land one of the first five bites and expect to win.” The four fish I had lost would have been in the 13 lb. range. I said “Well it’s in Gods hands now. He has given me the bites to win and I blew it. Now I am just going fishing and if it is His will I will catch them, if not, I won’t.” Two casts later I catch a 2 lb. 2 oz. on the buzzbait. I didn’t lose another bite the rest of the day. At 10:00 I had my limit and at 10:30 it was Richards’s time to run the front of the boat and fish his water. We headed up the river and fished various points and walls. He caught one keeper and lost one in about three hours. I had told him that morning, if we had time, I wanted 10 minutes to try that dock fish that was with the big one he caught. With an hour of fishing left, we headed back down to the dock. I really needed this fish.
I stopped real short of the dock and jumped on the trolling motor. I wanted to go in slow so I wouldn’t spook her. The water around the dock and bream beds had muddied up, so I really didn’t have a lot of confidence, but was going to give it my best shot. I made two casts across the lone stumps then got lined up for the dock cast. A long cast past the dock with the wake bait, slow retrieve past the corner, and swoosh, she hammers it. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention something. On the way back down the lake from fishing the points, neither of us put a foot on my brand new $82 dip net and, when we hit a wave, it flew out and sunk. So now I have a good fish hooked, see that she only has one hook in the corner of her mouth, and no dip net. Richard runs to the front of the boat, lays down on his belly, and hangs both arms over the side of my Ranger. Sure glad for the flipping deck because the gunnel is only 2 1/2″ high. I ease the fish to the boat and Richard bear hugs her, lifts her up just as the bait comes out and sticks in his shirt at his neck. I reach down with both hands, get a strangle hold on the fish, pull her up, and head to the bottom of the boat. When Richard sits up, the bait falls off of his shirt to the floor. I culled a 14 1/2″ spot with a black that turns out to be 3 lbs. 13 oz., my largest of the three day event. I thanked God for the fish, thanked Richard profusely for giving up his body for my fish, and we head to the weighin.
I had one fish that succumbed to the shock on the way back to the scales so ended up with 10 lbs. 5 oz. for the day. I ended up with 28 lbs. 8 oz. and first place on the KY State Team. This will go down as the biggest emotional roller coaster ride of my life. The lowest of lows in the morning after losing four out of the first five bites, catch the good one late in the day and then pull off the win. Absolutely incredible. Brian Hickey finished second with 25 lbs. 11 oz. so Brian and I will be headed to the TBF Nationals next April. Wish us luck because this will be up against some real tough talent.
Lessons learned: Before this event I could pitch pretty well but skipping a bait was new to me. By the end of the practice I could put that 3/8 oz. jig 20′ back under the docks two out of five times. The 1/2 oz. not so much. (My reel with the 1/2 oz. has about 50 yards of line left after cutting away multiple back lashes) I didn’t own a wake bait and had never fished bream beds. The third thing I did was swim a jig through trees which was new to me. Everyone has flipped trees, but most of these fish were suspended in the trees, and if the water was more than 8′ deep, you were wasting your time letting the jig go to the bottom. Swim it to a limb, pull it over, kill it, let it fall 5 to 7′ and then swim to the next one. What a blast.
A big thanks goes out to Jerry Smith and Brian Hickey. Both of these guys had a feeling from Sunday night on that I was on the quality of fish to win this thing. Jerry kept telling me to stay with what I was doing and I would win it. Brian was crucial in helping me refine the pattern around those docks and finding a backup pattern to my laydowns. I can’t thank both of you enough. I am very fortunate to have friends like you.
While the State Team did not reach one of our goals, which was to win the overall tournament, we did reach another that I think is far more important and will stay with us much longer than a trophy or our names at the top of some list.
That goal was working together as a Team and building friendships that will last a lifetime. This was a very special Team. We laughed a lot, teased one another, and shared information, spots, techniques, baits, etc an experience like most of us have never enjoyed. Several of us have been on multiple State Teams so we told the new guys that if everyone works together, shares information, and is completely open, it would be one the best tournament experiences of their life. And this one proved to be just that. I have enjoyed building on existing friendships and making new ones. It was a bittersweet drive home Friday night. Elated that I had won, but sad that the experience was over.
What a special group of men who I now consider to be very close friends. I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to share these experiences with you guys. I look forward to seeing all of you at the State Championship in October.
It was also very special to have Donnie Keeton give me that big hug after the event was over. You got so choked up you had a hard time getting your congratulations out. So many great memories in such a short period of time.
I want to take this opportunity to thank all of our National/State Sponsors and my Sponsors: Ranger Boats, Yamaha Outboards, Renegade Marine, Denali Rods and a special thanks to iXL Elite Hydration. Without you this would not be possible.