Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be in the boat with one of fishing’s elite pro anglers? How would he be as a person? What secrets of the sport could you learn? Are those boats they have really that cool…that fast? Are they really that good at what they do or just lucky? The questions are endless. Well I just returned from fishing as a co-angler in the Bassmaster Southern Open Series second tournament of the season on Alabama’s Lake Wheeler and it was quite an experience.
It was an experience that was well worth the money and time spent, the long drive, and every single raindrop that fell on me…and it was alot of raindrops. I pulled my boat the three and one half hour drive from my Dover Tennessee home to Decatur Alabama on Tuesday with plans to get in a couple days of practice prior to the tournament kickoff on Thursday. My two days of prefishing were uneventful as I located only small fish. The numbers were plenty but the quality wasn’t there. Entered as a co-angler I would not have any control of the boat or fishing locations and could only hope the pro I drew out as my partner each day would be on fish and that I would have the opportunity to catch them. The water temps were in the low to mid 70’s and the lake was very slowly falling from about 6 inches below summer pool. The overall conditions of the lake were fairly good. The fish seemed to be mostly in a post spawn environment with a few nice fish still on the beds. Water colors in the middle and upper lake areas would prevent sight fishing with any consistency, but the lower end might provide some opportunity to those hunting the late spawners.
Wednesday night at the pre-tournament briefing and pairing I was humbled by the number of fisherman and the many “big name” anglers moving about the room. It was exciting just being close to some of the guys I regularly watch on Saturday morning TV…Timmy Horton, Aaron Martens, Mark Menendez, Jason Quinn, Chris and Bobby Lane, Gerald Swindle, Terry Scroggins, and the list goes on and on. I hoped I might get drawn out with one of them for the learning experience. The meeting lasted a couple hours, pros and co-anglers were paired up for the first day, strategies were discussed, and over three hundred hopeful fisherman headed back to their boats, trucks, campsites, and hotel rooms to make last minute adjustments to gear and tackle and prepare for the 5:45am takeoff Thursday morning. This would be a three day event with only the top 30 pros and co-anglers fishing on the final day after the cut. The top 50 on each side would take home a check. This was the second of a three event season with the nearly 200 professionals competing for spots on the 2010 Bassmasters Elite Series Tournament Trail and their slot in the 2010 Bassmasters Classic.
I drew out Tennessee pro Jim Butler for my first day partner and met him at the boat ramp at 4:30am full of excitement and anticipation. Jim has been fishing with the Bassmasters since the days of the Invitationals and joyfully told me stories of experiences he had in the past with guys like Paul Elias, Guy Eaker, and Denny Brauer…some of the sport’s legends. Leaving the takeoff as boat number 91 we headed down the lake to the vicinity of the power plant. Jim brought the boat off plane and intensley eyed his sonar screen. I watched it too but tried not to be too obvious. Jim grabbed a marker buoy from the bottom of the boat and as we crossed an abrupt depression in the lake’s bottom he tossed the buoy over the side, looked over at me…looking at the sonar screen…smiled real big and said “what do ya think of that?”. I liked what I saw and within minutes we were throwing soft plastics out into the open searching for tugs and ticks. We both alternated between Texas rigs, Carolina rigs, and crankbaits. I would put my limit in the livewell by 8:30am and Jim as well shortly there after. Jim would eventually decide to spend the entire day on the spot and we would both cull several fish before 12:30pm. The action was fairly fast up until then when things slowed down. We ran back up the lake near the check in point and fished a few grassbeds but could only manage small fish. We would both weigh our limits and after day one I stood in 83rd place. I was only ounces out of the money cut and a pound and a half out of the final day fishing cut. I was quite satisfied with the days events. I had learned alot from Jim throughout the day and more importantly I had made a new good friend. Jim treated me with great respect, put me on the fish, and really did whatever he could to make sure I had a shot at a good bag of fish and a chance to make the cut going into day 2. The lessons learned from the back of his boat will be extemely helpful in my quest to make it in the tournament angling world.
Day 2 dawned with wind, thunder, lightning, and rain…causing an 1 hour delay for takeoff. I didn’t care though, I had drawn out with Elite Series angler and former Angler of the Year Aaron Martens for my second day of fishing and was very excited about what the day might bring. I linked up with Aaron across the lake from the takeoff point at a less crowded ramp. We waited out continued onslaughts of rain, lightning, and thunder through the delay before finally braving the short run over to takeoff. We idled out past the no wake buoy as boat number 81 before Aaron hammered the throttle in the direction of downstream. I had spoken with Aaron the night before and he had been very courteous, professional, and helpful…giving me advice on what rods to bring and what baits to have ready to go for the locations he anticipated fishing. As we tore through the driving and painful raindrops, I was still unconcerned about the sting and was more thrilled to be riding in the “Megabass” boat with one of the sport’s best. As we approached our first spot we could see several boats in the area with one directly where Aaron had planned to start. As we approached, Aaron politely asked to cut through, permission was granted, and we trolled through the drain tunnel under the highway. As we exited the other side Aaron threw right and I threw my Strikeking spinnerbait left. I connected with my first keeper on my first cast. A short time later and Aaron had three fish in the livewell and I had two. We left the area for some grassbeds nearby but had no luck. A short time later more severe storms moved into the area and we were pinned to a nearby bank for a couple hours. As the lightning cleared the area…but not the rain…we fired up the big engine and headed back up the lake. We would spend the rest of the day rotating between several grassbeds near the railroad bridge. The action was off and on all day long. I was impressed with the pace Aron fished and his ability to effectively cover the water. Although I knew I would be lucky to pick up any fish behind him I was still not discouraged. I fished hard all day but admit I spent much of my time watching his technique. One of the greatest parts of my day with Aaron Martens was his willingness to share with me information on what he was doing and why he was doing it all day long. He rarely stopped talking while fishing and was always explaining. It was an incredible learning environment. I not only learned directly about fishing but also about boat set up, gear and equipment, fish care, and time management. Aaron was right on top of every aspect of the day from his bait presentations to knowing exactly how much weight he had in the livewell. He would adjust his presentations to how the fish were reacting, keying on subtle changes in their activity and agressiveness. He kept precise track of the fish in his livewell enabling him to cull fish quickly and effectively and get back to casting. I learned about the use and great asset of powerpoles…the hydraulic shallow water anchors you see on nearly every tournament circuit now. This equipment allowed Aaron to position his boat so that he could fish an area effectively and precisely…even in high wind conditions. If he had a fish swirl and miss his bait he could put the poles down and stay on that particular spot and thoroughly fish it with different tactics and baits until he boated that fish or was sure he couldn’t. I boated a four plus pounder on the Zoom trick worm I was twitching through the grass. I was twitching it simply because that is the way I have always fished the bait. Aaron explained to me the effectiveness of the technique was because it mimmicked the shad that were spawning in the grass…as they twitch through the weeds bumping stems releasing their eggs. Aaron would cull several fish throughout the day up to about a thirteen pound limit. I would catch my fifth fish at approximately 2pm. I was thrilled to have a limit and patted myself on the back for simply accomplishing that behind one of the greatest anglers in the sport. My five fish would add about eight pounds to my first day stringer leaving me eleven ounces short of the money and about two pounds out of the top thirty cut in 59th place. I spent Saturday morning back in my living room in Tennessee watching the Elites on TV instead of fishing the final day. However I was not upset and am very satisfied with the experience I had at Lake Wheeler doing some back of the boat bassin’. I would recommend giving this a try to anyone who has the opportunity. I will be heading to Barkley Lake in Kentucky next week for my next tournament and I already can’t wait to get back out on the water…in the front of the boat.