I qualified for the 2011 State Team as Angler of the Year for the 2010 MBFN Tournament Trail along with Walt Lechert who won AOY on the Co-angler side. During that tournament season, I won the Upper Bay #1 and the Nanticoke event, came in third at the Potomac event and seventh at the Upper Bay #2 event.
Since I qualified early, I hoped to get an early jump on getting to know the water where the 2011 Divisional would be held but New Jersey took a while in finalizing their plans. It was pretty late in the fall when the Delaware River popped up as one of the potential sites and I took a trip up there just in case it ended up being the tournament location. The fish were already getting close to their winter patterns, but I at least got to see the river and get a feel for where the fish would be moving as the water temperature fell. It also gave me a chance to experience the extreme tidal swings on the Delaware River.
After my fall trip to the Delaware River, I only made it back up there one more time before tournament practice started. I sold my boat with the expectation that the new one I ordered would be built in plenty of time to practice and fish in the Divisional. The delivery kept being pushed back and at the last minute it became clear I would not have my new boat in time for the tournament. I qualified for the State Team as a boater and the dealer offered to loan me a boat for the tournament, but I did not feel comfortable using someone else’s boat at a place I really didn’t know that well. I had to contact Roger to give up my boater’s spot, which I really didn’t want to do since I thought it also meant giving up my shot to make the National Championship.
Once I knew I would not have a boat for the Divisional, my first call was to Brian Trieschman who qualified for a boater spot on the State Team by being the highest point finisher in the SQT series. I fished with Brian on the 2005 State Team in Maine and knew that he was someone with whom I would be comfortable sharing my practice time with. When I explained to him my boat situation and that I had to give up my boater spot, he didn’t hesitate to let me practice with him for the tournament. Practice for the Divisional is complicated because the boaters and riders are competing against each other, so I wouldn’t have blamed him at all if he wanted to practice by himself. I am very grateful he gave me that opportunity. We worked very hard together during practice and he gave me a chance to cover every area I wanted to make sure I covered prior to the tournament. Thanks to him, I felt like I was going into the tournament prepared the same as if my boat had been delivered in time.
Tournament day finally arrived and with it a deluge of rain. There had been a hurricane a few weeks before that made the river pretty ugly, but the rain during the tournament took things to a whole different level. There was serious flooding to the point of almost cancelling the tournament, but they ended up sending us out. On day one I drew a boater from Delaware. He was not on any fish after practice and gave me the option of controlling the boat for the whole day. It provided me the opportunity I needed to get off to a good start in the tournament because I was able to cover all of my areas and really get a feel for what was going on with the river. He didn’t have any electronics on his boat, which complicated matters, given that pretty much everything is underwater at the apex of the Delaware’s severe tidal flux. I tried fishing my best main river spots but those areas were ruined from all of the rain and mud. Two of my areas holding fish were off the main river and maintained decent clarity despite of the flooding. One of the spots was about a ten mile run downriver from the launch in Burlington, NJ and the other spot was about a forty mile run downriver. Because of my draws for the rest of the tournament, it turned out that day one was the only day I would get to fish both of those key spots. My day one bag left me in second place overall and boasted lunker for the day.
The second day I fished with a local from New Jersey who knew the river really well. He had a small boat and didn’t have a large enough gas tank to make the run down to my preferred spots. The Tournament Director had also instituted a 35 mph speed limit for the second and third days due to the massive amounts of debris on the river from the flooding. The fishing conditions were exceedingly difficult. After the day two weigh-in, I had a 7 ounce lead over Ryan Kephart, for qualifying as Maryland’s representative to the BASS Federation Nation National Championship. With the horrible river conditions and early low tide, I knew the fishing would be exceptionally tough again and that catching them early in the day would be critical.
I drew a Pennsylvania angler as my boater on day three whom I convinced to let me take the front of the boat the first half of the day. He did not feel comfortable making the forty mile run, considering the debris, so I was again confined to catching my fish from a spot closer to the launch site. My boater took us out on the main river for his half of the day but the water was too sullied and we had no further success. We managed to drive back through the massive debris fields with the boat still intact to wait for weigh-in. Though I was unable to get to my second spot the last two days of the tournament, I was comfortable with what I caught, knowing that Ryan would have to catch some really good fish to pass me. It turned out that the fishing was so tough that my third day weight was just a bonus and I qualified as Maryland’s representative to the BASS Federation Nation National Championship with an 8th place overall finish in the Divisional.
The key to qualifying for the Nationals was spending my time in areas with the best water clarity. I knew from practice these areas held concentrations of fish and really hitting those spots during the right tide windows was important. The water levels were abnormally high at all tides due to the flooding and adjusting to those variables aided my success. All of my fish came from vegetation, either submerged grass or spatterdock. The day one lunker engulfed a shaky head worm but the rest of my keepers were caught with a swimming jig.
Fishing with the State Team is always such a great experience. It creates even more motivation to try to make the team again. Even though it is an individual competition with a lot on the line, it is also enjoyable competing as a team. Both the weather conditions and fishing conditions were miserable for nearly the entire event and I was so impressed with how hard everyone worked to try and represent Maryland well.
I would like to thank my roommate for the event, Walt Lechert. We had fun commiserating that if we ever had to put our rain suits on again it would be too soon. Walt also reminded me every night to not back down on my plans for the fishing days and to stick with what I thought I needed to be doing out there on the water. It was a good reminder that definitely helped pay off in getting to the Nationals. I would also like to thank Brian Trieschman again. It really meant a lot for him to open up his boat and practice time to me and give me a chance to practice the way I wanted for this tournament. As tough as it was to give up my boater spot, I am very grateful for Brian giving me the opportunity to still get prepared and be successful in the tournament. It is not easy to qualify for the State Team and there is a reason Brian has qualified so often. I’m confident we’ll see him in the Nationals soon.
The turnaround time for the BASS Federation Nation National Championship after the Mid-Atlantic Divisional was really very short, considering its location half way across the country, on the Ouachita River out of Monroe, LA. Shortly after the Divisional was over, the Ouachita River would be open for a three or four week window and then off-limits again until the official practice. I was able to find some tournament results and saw that 10-12 lbs was pretty solid there. I also could see that there would be a lot of water available to fish in the tournament with oxbows, creeks, and bayous all in play in addition to the main river itself. From the launch ramp we were allowed to fish lock to lock, which was about 60 miles to the north lock and another 60 miles to the south lock. One of the main bayous, Darbonne Bayou, added another 30 miles or so of fishable water off the river. It was a lot of water to cover and it turned out that I still would not have my new boat in time to try to cover it before the off-limits period went back into effect. Not having a boat was really going to impact my practice options. I didn’t want my boat situation to spoil my chances to fish in the Bassmaster Classic, so I scrambled around and was able to make arrangements to fly to Louisiana and pre-fish for three days.
When I arrived for pre-practice the water level was about normal for the time of year. The water levels fluctuate significantly throughout the seasons there and I was amazed by how tall the pilings were to account for the rainier seasons, allowing the floating docks to rise. Water clarity ranged from a tannic stain in most places to very muddy back in the shallow bayous. The dry fall also meant that there was no current in the river. That was a little tough to get used to at first, since it looked like an Eastern Shore river without the vegetation or tide. The lack of current added a twist to the fishing because the fish didn’t need cover to break the current and would just as likely suspend or relate to structure like lake fish. Another twist was navigating the myriad of stumps. They were everywhere as soon as you left the main river. Many of them were just below the water line, so it made traveling any distance off the main river very slow going and bumpy. Even though I only had three days down there, it was a productive practice and I learned a lot readying for the tournament. Because the tournament weights are so low there, I expected the fishing to be tough with few bites. I met or exceeded the 10-12 lb target weight on all three days and was excited to get back down there for the official practice and tournament.
Since the boats are provided to all of the competitors and the 1200 mile drive would add a few days to each end of the tournament, I decided to fly back down to Louisiana rather than drive. Pulling into the boat yard and seeing all of the matching rigs lined up really made the significance of the event stand out. Loading all of my gear into that brand new boat and organizing it to be efficient in the tournament was a chore that took a few hours, but was such an amazing opportunity. Official practice for the BFN National Championship is very limited with only two eight-hour days. We launched in the mornings in boat order at our official start time and had to check-in at our official “weigh-in” times as a rehearsal for the rest of the event. The BASS Staff did everything for us; all the competitors have to think about is getting their gear in order and catching fish. It was tough to try to cover the expanses of water in two time-constrained days, but luckily conditions had not changed much from pre-practice. The temperatures had stayed pretty consistent and there was no rain to affect the water levels, current or clarity. The only change I did notice was that the schools of shad in the creeks were much farther back than during practice, but that was to be expected with autumn advancing.
As fate would have it, the first morning brought a significant temperature drop and strong winds. After a formal launch reminiscent of the Bassmaster Classic, complete with lines of spectators on the shoreline, I turned my boat south to where I caught the largest and best numbers of fish prior to the tournament. My plan was to focus on main river locations and target larger fish by throwing topwater baits. Once I started fishing I could tell there were going to be complications with my plan. The winds were really churning up the surface of the water and even if the severe temperature drop wasn’t enough to turn off the topwater bite, the waves were enough to kill it. I still felt like I could catch enough weight to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic covering water with crankbaits and spinnerbaits, just as in practice. I got bites right away and throughout the day, but they were much smaller than during my previous days on the river. I sifted through twenty one fish to get the meager bag I took to weigh-in. Losing the topwater bite definitely hurt my overall weight and it would turn out that I would not catch a single fish on topwater for the entire tournament. The plunging water temperatures completely quelled the surface bite, even when the winds finally died down.
Although I was very disappointed in my weight from the first day, I knew I could come back, with it being a three day tournament. On day two I switched locations and headed north where I had located fish. I caught more fish as I worked my way up the river, ending up about forty miles north. I caught lots of fish on a Carolina rig, but again could not compile the weight I’d collected during practice. I was still not out of contention for a Classic spot going into the last day but knew I would need a big bag to make it. I knew that was going to mean getting bounced around like a pinball in the stumps, but I had a creek that I knew pretty well and was saving for just that situation if I needed it. I ran south in an extremely heavy fog and then climbed my way back into the creek over the stumps to get to the sections I wanted to fish. There was a competitor in my favorite area, but the other areas back in the creek were open. I had caught my biggest fish the first two days on a swim jig and I planned to throw that for most of the final day to give me the best chance at a big weight. I proceeded to catch four fish right away, but they were not much bigger than the main river fish I had been catching. When I pitched a jig up to a stump and watched my line swim off, I thought I was finally going to bring in a quality fish that I fought my way back through the stumps to find. When I set the hook and brought in the fish, it turned out to be a 12” spotted bass. I don’t know what that little spotted bass was doing all the way back in those stumps where the big largemouths are supposed to live, but I was definitely disappointed. I caught a lot of fish again that day and culled up a few times, but knew my weight would not be enough to get me into the Classic.
When they towed me up to the weigh-in stage the final day, the reality of the situation really finally started to set in. You certainly know you’re fishing for a spot in the Bassmaster Classic the whole time, from the launches in the morning, to the sponsor dinners, to the Dave Mercer weigh-ins, and hearing your music played for you when you come up on stage, but you have to concentrate so hard on catching fish and focus for so many days in a row on that, that the reality of the Bassmaster Classic spot sort of drifts away a little bit. That changed at that final weigh-in when I saw those six empty chairs on stage. That’s what finally broke the focus of catching fish and made the Bassmaster Classic finally seem so real. Whoever would be sitting in those seats at the end of weigh-in would be going to the Bassmaster Classic and be on ESPN.
I didn’t get to sit in the Mid-Atlantic chair for as long as I would have liked, but it sure did make me want to try again to get back. I was able to improve my weights every day, which was good, but I wasn’t able to match the weights I was expecting from practice. I think I did the right thing in trying to anticipate the fishing pressure, but I miscalculated where that fishing pressure would occur. There were many more boats in the main river than I was expecting and it definitely impacted the fish.
I would like to thank two of my competitors at the Championship. The first is Jay Salisbury, the New Mexico state champ. I had some boat issues in the middle of the first practice day and Jay took time out of his practice day to make sure I had everything squared away and would be able to make it back to the launch site. It was a really respectable show of sportsmanship given how short those practice days were and how valuable that time is that he gave up. I would also like to thank Chris Price, the Delaware state champ and our Mid-Atlantic representative at the Bassmaster Classic, for bringing all my tackle back from Louisiana so I didn’t have to play the shipping roulette that cost me one broken rod on the shipment to get it all down there. He made sure my tackle all made it back to Maryland in one piece. I was happy that if it couldn’t be me to represent the Mid-Atlantic division at the Classic that Chris was the one who did it. He is very deserving and went on to represent the Mid-Atlantic well by making the cut and fishing the final day at the Bassmaster Classic on the Red River.
I’d like to thank all of the BFN sponsors for giving us that opportunity and treating the competitors so well. I ‘d also like to thank the MD BFN for helping me with some of my expenses and for all of the volunteer work that goes into keeping our Federation going every year to keep that road to the Classic available to us. I was surprised and very grateful for all of the supporting texts, posts, and Facebook messages I got from the MBFN membership wishing me well at Nationals. Those meant a lot and I wish I could have brought in a little more weight to get a Marylander back in the Classic. I’d finally like to thank my family for all the support they give me in everything I do. My dad was able to attend the weigh-ins and be a part of the Championship activities and I am really glad I got to share all of that with him. Now, after getting a taste of success and getting so close to the Classic, I can’t wait to try again.