Day One: I always make the trip to Beaver Lake Arkansas a two day travel event. Its about 16 or 17 hour drive, and if you do it in one day, you are so exhausted by the time you get there, you are behind already. I will meet Little E in Greensboro, from there we will travel until we meet up with Bump and Todd in Asheville at a Cracker Barrel. Our goal today is to atleast get far enough to be able to fish some the next day on Beaver. When we hit Knoxville, the traffic will come to a halt, a truck pulling a large manufacture home has turned over in the middle of I40. Bump and Todd have gotten thru it, Little E and I become engulfed in a parking lot.
Once we get going again, Bump calls to say they are about an hour ahead of us. He also warns us to take the bypass in Nashville. By time we reach Nashville, the bypass, along with the Interstate are backed up for miles. Don't you just love travel on our major interstates? Good news is that Bump and Todd have found a hotel just beyond Memphis for us to hook up again. Its late into the night when we reach there, with me having arrived ahead of Little E. Seems he took a longer route there due to an missed turn in the construction zone before Memphis.
Day Two: Little E and I arrive at our home away from home, the Coppermine Lodge. I really enjoy staying here, its right on the lakeshore, with picturesque views of the lake. The first thing we notice is as reported, the lake is down, way down. You can see shallow humps everywhere, and as we crossed over the main road bridge leading to the lodge, the passage to the bridge by water was limited to a small creek like channel. Beaver Lake is alot like Lake Okeechobee, changes every year, from droughts to high water.
I've had some success on Beaver under severe conditions, like during the extreme high water, I made the Top 10 finals. We get our gear in our cabin and prepare to hit the water. The forecast this afternoon is for some severe weather to pass thru. It will hit just as I have made my way about half way down the lake. Lighting and thunder, gusty winds will run both of us off the water. We will use this time to prepare our gear and game plan. A quick run into town for weeks rations and supper, its off to bed.
Day Three: Typically, this event is won sight fishing. I'm not sure if they will hit the beds this time, least thats what I hope. The weather again will play a role today, the forecast is for severe thunderstorms, hail and possible tornado's. Today I start off down the lake, in the clear water, I mean clear. Visibility is almost 20 feet in area's. Good news, I don't see any beds. Bad news is that I don't catch much either, a small limit of spots. By mid afternoon, the skies will darken. I get a call from Little E asking where am I. He says that the weather is getting bad around the cabin. I look for a empty boat dock to escape the voilent storm. Another competitor has also found the same large dock. The storm hits with cold wind, sharp lightning and with such a heavy downpour, all we can do is stare at each other because the sound of the rain on the tin roof is deafening. The storm will pass as quickly as it came.
As soon as the storm passes, I will only have a few hours to practice before I have to rush back to the cabin. Tonight I have to make an appearance in town for a "Meet the Pro" session. By chance, my good buddy Bump is also scheduled to work this autograph session. Its a fun event, something I enjoy doing representing my sponsors, like Pedigree. On the way home, it will rain and lightning again. Tomorrow, the plan is to go up river.
Day Four: Today my good friend and co-angler Matt will join me. He drove well into the night to get here in time to fish with me. He's an shakey head expert, but today's plan is to go after the largemouth in perhaps some stained water. This will mean heading way up river. When the fish are not spawning, a jig head worm always plays a major factor in the success of most. Most locals will tell you that you can't win the tournament solely on largemouth in the river. Maybe by getting a limit of spots and a kicker each day, but the river will bite you. And it has me before.
Matt and I begin searching for any slightly stained water we can find. This means running in and out of backs of pockets and creeks. The lake is low, and we see some amazing things in the exposed lake bed. There's alot of old house foundations, interesting rock formations, and even an occasional car. One creek we go into has legend that the entire town was swallowed by the lake. But now you can see what appears to be an old cement amphitheater, rows of rock columns, and elaborate man made structures.
As we round a secondary point, we see and hear a vehicle spinning mud, rock and water everywhere. A guy and girl have taken the Jeep commercial alittle to much to reality, they have driven it into the lake. Its a Jeep alright, not a boat.
This should be interesting. We pretend to fish around the area just to watch what unfolds. It don't take long for the couple to realize that they are not going to get out without some help, so they start up the shoreline. We figure they must have had alittle to much to drink and what we will see next pretty much confirms it.
The guy is wearing only a pair of dark shorts. But instead of going off to get help, he proceeds to squat down and use the bathroom. I mean, only about 20 yards away is a thick patch of brush, which he totally ignores. Theres homes along the shore, and not to mention boats. One of those boats comes blasting up to the jeep, a guy gets out and then the boat leaves. I guess help has arrived. Soon, here comes this guy in a small truck with the boats trailer still attached. Matt and I both say that no way are they going to try and pull out the jeep with the trailer, but they do. Then, rocks, mud and smoke go to filling the air. I can't help but laugh and stay to see this ending, but we have fish to find.
The day will end pretty good. I find alittle deal working that even though I'm not getting many bites, they are quality fish. I mean quality fish for anywhere, but specially for Beaver Lake. In fact, Matt will catch one that will come close to 8 pounds. I have hope, but history is not on my side. But then again, 3 of those fish, even one, will equal a limit of spots down the lake.
The pairings meeting is tonite. This is the biggest FLW event on the schedule, next to the Jacobs Cup. We are in corporate headquarters of Wal-Mart, and all the major sponsors of FLW will have representives here, along with potential new sponsors for next season. Wal-Mart store # 1 is here, and you travel down Wal-Mart Blvd in town. You can feel the anticipation and excitement at the meeting. And its one of the best meals of the year, a full spread of some good food, compliments of Tyson, which also is headquartered in Rogers. I will draw a late number tomorrow and a co-angler from the area. When I tell him I'm going to fish the river, he shutters at the thought. He makes the comment that he has fished the lake alot, and never did well in the river. Its my only shot at making the cut.
Tournament Day One: We will awake to flashes of light and rumbling. The forecast today is for severe weather, with possible tornado's, and the severe weather is here. The plan is to travel to the take off area by water, which is an eerie feeling with lightning. My partner shows up, and off we go. The rain will let up some as we go thru boat check and sit back waiting for take off number. My co-angler suggest that perhaps I think about starting on a spot down toward the dam that he knows, trying to get a quick limit of spots. This requires going the wrong direction, and throwing a Carolina rig. I came here to Beaver knowing that after Pickwick failure, I was basically out of the Jacobs Cup. So my main focus is to make the cut here, and a limit of spots will not do it. Its off to the river when they call my number.
In route up river to my starting area, we will hit a massive downpour. Its all I can do to see my way, not too mention the pain of the rain drops. Having a late take off number has me alittle concerned that there might be someone already in my area. As I bring the boat down off plane, my concerns will vanish, there's nobody there.
It don't take long for the action to hit up. My first fish will be a nice plump 3 pound fish, and will come in the first 30 minutes. In fact, in the first hour, I will have 3 keeper largemouth in the well. I had hoped coming into the day to perhaps catch 2 or 3 good keepers by pounding the area all day. Things are way ahead of schedule. Everything seems to be working perfect, the fish are here, the weather is text book, and I'm fishing well. I've been concentrating on keeper largemouth, which has to be 15" in length, we are catching alot of short blacks between my co-angler and I. I look at each largemouth, quickly eyeballing if its a keeper or even close.
I will have a nice fat fish, that is obviously under the 15" size limit. My co-angler makes the comment if I need the net, which I decline. But as I hastily go thru my routine of mentally judging the fish, as I see it splash back into the water, my co-angler yell's, "hey, that was a nice keeper spot"! And he was right. In my haste, I had completely forgot that spots only have to be 12". This could be a disaster, as the tournament will come down to ounces for the cut. And I only have 3 fish in the livewell. But my major mental mistake will quickly turn into only a sidenote as I will quickly secure two more quality largemouth to complete my limit.
As today's weigh in closes, I will find myself atop the leader board, having hit the scales with today's largest limit at almost 17 lbs. I honestly didn't think I had that much weight. Most have estimated that the cut for the finals will be somewhere between 23 to 25 pounds, so that means that I will need around 8 pounds tomorrow. My goal is 10 pounds, I really want to make the finals.
Tournament Day Two: The morning will start off hectic. A good hectic. FSN wants to follow me this morning with a camera boat, also do a early morning on the water interview. We hook up before my blast off number is called, I show them on a map where I will be in case they get lost in the storm. Yes, storm. Again this morning, we are getting rain and some wind. The forecast is for some of the severest weather of the week to come in, they are calling for gusting winds, electrical storms with hail and rain. Bill Taylor announces to the field that incase of severe weather, we are allowed to seek shelter.
Upon arrival at my starting area, I notice instantly that I will not be as lucky to not have company. A local boat is already working the area, along with another FLW pro in the distance. No sweat, I just need to settle down, concentrate on catching enough fish to make the next round, then I will worry about if I got enough to win. It don't take long for the first camera boat to arrive, and I won't disappoint them. I land two quick keepers on cue, along with several short fish. Another camera boat and FSN crew will arrive, climb into my boat and mike me for the interview. I continue to catch short fish as the engineers work on getting me wired. All the attention I am getting has made alot of boaters in the area realize who I am, and they too will come over to watch the action. I must say, they are all very respectful, keeping their distance and enjoying the moment, as I am. The interview will go well, with asking me questions like how I feel about my chances of making the cut, then perhaps winning the event. I quickly tell them "lets take one step at a time" since I still have work today.
I will land my third keeper as we talk. The goal of 10 pounds is getting closer, as I estimate I now have around 6 pounds. Soon, most of the boats will thin out, leaving only one camera boat and a couple of die hard fans watching. The bite has really slowed, so its time to make a move to a new area. I tell my co-angler of an area I need to go check as a back up. It will be good move as I will land my 4th and 5th fish to secure my limit and my spot into the finals. It also will come at an opportune time, as the sky will darken, the wind will blow and the lightning sharp. We are about to get hit with one of the worst thunderstorms that I have experienced on the water in years.
There is no doubt that we must seek shelter from this storm, and my co-angler is relieved with my decision. I will admit, I don't usually stop fishing during the tournament day, but with a limit securely in the well, being safe becomes priority one. We will sit quietly under a large dock, giving me time to reflect and ponder about tomorrow. Its a good feeling. I tell my co-angler when the storm lightens up, we are going to get close to the check in area, do not want to risk any unforeseen problem or another powerful storm. We are about 40 minutes away, and the area seems deserted. When the sky brightens, we take off for Prairie Creek. This move also proves to be a blessing. I will land a nice keeper largemouth on a Wart, culling my limit up to 13 pounds. My co-angler congratulates me on making the finals, its a great feeling. Its also something that I will store in the old brain if my river area falls, this spot might help put some needed fish in the boat.
I will end day two in 2nd place behind Craig Powers. I would have been happy with 10th place as we will zero our weights for the finals. An interesting sidenote, Craig Powers and I were 1 - 2 on several other occasions going into a final, like last season's Kerr Lake Stren Series. There, CP took the title by a mere 15 ounces over me, maybe this time I can turn the tables. If there is a topwater bite, CP is deadly. Its a great feeling, as we line up on stage while FLW introduces the final 10 to the overflow crowd.
Finals Day One: The day will start early. The night was short. We had a top 10 meeting yesterday, getting our boats assigned, meeting with the FSN production crew and our co-angler partner for today. My co-angler for today is from Texas, and he is very excited about making the finals. It was late into the night before I hit the sack, having to prepare to move my gear into the FLW Pedigree boat, answer press questions and do interviews. Interviews and your phone ringing off the hook is a good thing, it means your are doing well.
It doesn't take long to realize that this is not just your average local Joe tournament, its high profile and high tech. My morning will begin in the boat yard, where I am miked, then wired with a small camera under the brim of my hat. This also means that I will have to wear a large fanny pack that contains the working parts to the hat cam, a pack that will weigh almost 10 pounds. I got wires running up my back, down my front side, making me feel robotic. We get a full police, blue lights flashing escort to the lake, its an awesome feeling. Its also time to mentally prepare for the day. The forecast again will be for severe weather in the form of howling winds, up to perhaps 40 mph.
At the lake, things regain their hectic pace, with production crews running around making sure your camera gear works, or your boat gear is in order. One thing that really becomes apparent, you won't have much if any privacy. Not only will I have a camera mounted on my hat, there is one mounted on the trolling motor head, one on a follow boom cam, and a camera man on board. A technician, in his haste to make sure everything is working on the different feeds, accidentally steps on my rods laying on the deck. I scold him and he apologizes and goes on with the task. Unfortunately, when I get to my first stop, I will notice two guides have been broken.
There is no feeling like the feeling you get right before the top 10 procession out. There is camera's everywhere, a helicopter hovering over us, and then the National Anthem is sung. As each pro is introduced, we idle out to begin out day. I can already can tell I will have several follow boats, along with camera boats. I prepare for a wet run up river. The forecast today is for clearing skies, and winds up to 40 mph.
My first stop will find a couple local boats fishing the area, with several within sight of me. I let the wakes from all the follow boats settle before I begin fishing. The day starts quickly again, as I will land a nice keeper quick. Its not long, my co-angler will land a really nice fish and when I net it, he begins yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs. I mean you can literally hear it echoing in the hills. I politely tell him that I can understand showing emotion but we don't need so much to bring every local in the area attentions to us, or me, since I have one more day planned to fish here. He is not too happy with my response to his actions. There's emotion and there's going overboard for the sake of a camera at my expense. Things get back to fishing, with me having to occasionally ask my co-angler to not throw in front of me, sometimes even as much as 30 yards ahead. I really don't think allot of it, perhaps he is still jacked from the catch, until he starts throwing in front of me off my backside. I again will ask him to show me some sportsmanship and common courtesy I deserve by being on the front of the boat. You can tell he is copping an attitude. The area seems to have given me all it has to offer, so I tell my camera crew and co-angler we are going to make a little run to an area I have saved for today.
By now, the wind is howling, making for a bone jarring run to the area. Its my co-anglers responsibility to make sure my camera boat is still within sight, which he does. I really don't expect much traffic in the new area with only 10 boats left, and there's not. I slowly approach the visible cover I plan to fish, make a cast and start fishing. My co-angler blisters a crankbait by my backside in an effort to reach a nice brushpile next in my sights to fish, to the point his line is just off my shoulder. In an instant, he calls for the net as a 4 lb bass jumps out of the water. I will net the fish for him and instantly jump on him for again casting so far ahead of me. He begins one of the loudest, arrogant speeches I have every heard from the back of the boat. Stuff like he has a right to fish anything in front of me as long as he is casting on the opposite side of me to "I can't tell him not to fish", in which I reply, "I haven't ask you not to fish, just not cast with all your might to purposely reach something in front of me. Show me some common courtesy and sportsmanship deserved for the position I am in".
Again, he blast me about how he paid his entry fee and how he can do this and that. I try my best to settle my thoughts and regain my concentration on the task at hand, win a major tournament. But its hard to concentrate in this wind, must less the occasional sarcastic remark, "Can I fish that" or "Are you done fishing here" type crap. I've had enough, I blast him with, "OK, you can either get rid of the attitude or", but before I can finish, my camera crew steps in to remind us that its still a long day and we need to get back to winning a tournament. Upon that, my co-angler will make one of the most profound statements of the day to the camera crew, and one that pretty much sums it up. He says, "He's just like every pro I fish with, they all whine when I catch a fish"! I turn, look at my camera crew with one of them "Imagine that" looks. Sometimes a guy can't see the forest for the trees.
OK, back to fishing, and time to make a move. I got one more area to try before it will be time to head back end. Even though we have not gotten along, I do not want to risk being late with the rough water and make my co-angler late. He has the winning weight on his side, I'm sure. My next stop, we will hook up with another camera crew who has an innovative camera that will allow them to film beside my boat and even under the water. Just on cue, I will land my best and last fish of the day before I have to make the long run back.
Back at the launch area, we are quickly loaded onto our trailers, fall in line with the police escort to Wal-Mart in town. Its been a trying day, one of the toughest days mentally I have ever had on the water with wind and such. All I can hope for is to still have a shot at the win tomorrow. Its so hard to catch up on this lake, but even so, I still feel that a big bag, like the one I had the first day is a possibility.
When we arrive at Wal-Mart, you can tell it will be a good crowd on hand. We are quickly instructed to bag our fish, move into the special holding area behind the giant stage. From here, you can hear the crowd being drawn into a frenzy. The co-anglers will weigh in first. It doesn't take long to realize that my prediction my co-angler has won comes true. He will win in a landslide. Its now the pros turn.
When I check in, I am given a bag that has the National Guard logo on it. Its a privilige given to the days leader, to be able to carry the pride and glory of the National Guard to the stage with your fish inside. I am proud to be able to honor our men and women who give so much for me to have this right to fish for a living. Its a long walk up to the stage, one I take the time to enjoy. Not often do you get to be in a position that I am in, leading the tournament, knowing you have enough weight to move on into the final 10 to fish for $200,000.
One by one, we will take the stage, depending on our current standings. I will be the next to last pro to weigh in. It becomes apparent, that even though I struggled today, I was not the only one under the windy conditions. Its the smallest bag I have weighed all week, but it still will put me in 4th place, and within striking distance. I still got a shot.
Some quick autographs and press interviews, then its off to a make shift studio where we will shoot some still shots for the TV show and also do some promo's to be used in the show. Still, like stated before, its overwhelming, a high production undertaking by all. It will be late into the night before I am finished at the boat yard preparing my gear for tomorrow, grab a bite to eat, and crash for the night. Some last minute phone interviews, a couple well wishes from my friends and family, and a short sleep.
Tournament Day Four: The morning again will start off hectic. And alot colder. There's a bite to the air, with temps falling near the freezing mark. And there's still that stiff wind. Another early morning of prepping for today's adventure, being rigged for the same camera's, and a couple quick morning interviews and thoughts about the final day. Its off to the lake by police escort again. Only this time, its only me and my driver. I turn on the Sirius radio, find some good Classic rock, which just happens to be Van Halen, turn up the volume and enjoy the ride to Prairie Creek.
Today, all the attention is on the 10 pros left. You can feel it in the air, as the land camera's film everything, helicopters film from above, as does these huge boom cam's. It's maybe 34 degrees, or it could be 94 degrees, I would still get that cold shiver up my spine as the National Anthem is sung.
One by one, we are introduced, untied from our mooring dock, and lead in procession out for the weeks final chapter. I am miked to were my follow camera boats can record my every word. It also helps to communicate with them without having to shout.
As we are idling out, I can't help but remember that area behind Prairie Marina I culled that last keeper largemouth the second day of the tournament. I inform my camera crew that I will turn around at take off, and run into the back of Prairie. I can tell they are alittle surprised at this move, having been with me the last couple days. But I have to bust a big bag to realistically catch the top guys. Its the last day, its not often you get in position to win a major tournament like the Wal-Mart Open. Did I mention there's a little prize of $200,000?
When I get to my new starting location, I idle up to the bluff bank to be greeted by two Buzzards roosting on the ledge. I make the comment to my crew, "Perhaps an ominous sign"? As I begin fishing, the birds stand at attention, unfazed by my presence. I'm sure it makes for an awesome back drop as my line goes tight and I set the hook, play the fish along the side of the boat, and net the first keeper of the day. The birds take flight as I shout, "Git out of here, I'm not dead yet"! I get a little standing ovation from my small group.
Soon my camera man tells me there is something wrong with the recorder in the fanny pack on my hip. He gives me two choices, I can continue to fish, perhaps even move up river, without the hat cam, or I can allow him to call for a technician to come out and fix the problem. I tell him to make the phone call. It seems like forever, well, atleast two more calls to direct the FSN crew to my location, before the problem is fixed. As soon as I get the "problem solved", I instruct everyone to prepare to make that long run up river.
Its just me in the boat as I run up river. My cameraman has chosen to ride up with the follow boats to secure his gear and also not hinder me. Even though I am on my own, it is my responsibility to make sure my camera crew stays within sight of me. If I loose them, I can't fish and I can even loose my current catch. I got mixed feelings as I run, should I stay where I started or take the chance my area is spent or even covered up from a local tournament. I know I have made the right choice, its there that my only real chance exist. As I and my boat procession come to a stop in the area that has produced so well for me all week, you can see all in the area take notice of our arrival. And they all give me the area without hesitation or asking, showing some of the most sincere appreciation of my weeks work. I can hear them cheer and asking the camera crew how my day is going. Unfortunately, my day is not going well. Even though, I still know that only one bite can equal the entire limit of spots most down the lake are fishing for.
I try and stay focused, knowing if and when that bite comes, I need to execute. I'm grateful to my camera crew, they stay out of my way, out of my ear, and out of my mind. My camera boat driver occasionally announces the time I have left to fish and time left to make it back to check in. I am grateful for his gesture, it helps me do nothing but fish, no looking at the clock. I can still hear him say, "3 hours to fish, 45 minutes running time".
Pulling into this little flat surrounded by exposed rock formations, I work my crankbait down the shoreline when I connect with what I instantly know is a big fish. The fish runs straight under the boat, forcing me to race back to the back of the boat to catch up. After a few nervous moments, the big fish comes into the boat. "Here's one for Team USA"! as the crowd shows its appreciation. My camera boat driver announces 15 minutes to fish, 45 minutes to get back". And I remark, "15 minutes to still win this thing"! I got 3 good fish in the tank, one big bite could make the difference.
I got one more place with the amount of time left that I think will produce that huge fish. I can still picture that big fish Matt caught during practice, that's all I need. Its a big dock, and I move the boat into place behind it to flip my jig. I can hear the crowd saying, "man this is the place". But unfortunately, it will not be. My camera boat driver says, "5 minutes to fish, 45 to run". Its 2:00 PM, I'm due in by 2:50. Time to go. But as I idle out, away from the dock, my boat suddenly jerks back, like someone has thrown a lasso on the engine, preventing any forward progress. Panic sets in as I can't figure what's happened with little time to spare. I hear a guy in a boat that has been watching say, "I think you got the wire that supports the dock to the shoreline wrapped around your prop"! As I trim up the engine, its obvious he is right. My camera crew yell, "grab your fish, jump in our boat and be gone"! But I take the time to try and free myself. In one quick and satisfying instant, I get the wire to spring free. Off I go, as the crowd cheers. No time to spare, no time to coast in, its full throttle ahead. As I near Prairie creek marina, a helicopter will swoop down and run just above the boat. An awesome view. I will pull into Prairie Creek marina with only minutes to spare. I look back at my camera crew, grin and say "How's that for dramatics"? More than I needed myself.
Everyone is quiet as we load our boats one by one. Robert Vannerson, from FLW, is up on the dock harping the different boats up next, "Castrol! Tyson! And Pedigree"! Time to go. The ride to Wal-Mart is an experience in itself. The streets and intersections are lined with well wishers. As we arrive at Wal-Mart, you can tell its a standing room only crowd, the parking lot is full, with vehicles parked along the streets and adjacent fields. The first thing I hear as I exit the Tow truck is, "Bag'em up boys"!
We are led into the holding area behind the stage. Our bags are solid black, so no one knows what we have. Some last minute instructions from Bill Taylor, the playing of the National Anthem, and we are introduced one by one to the huge crowd. We each take a position in a boat on stage, place our days catch in its livewells and prepare for the shoot out format. The 10 th place guy starts the highly anticipated weigh in. His goal? To beat the current leaders weight to stay alive. One by one the latter part of the field fails to take the lead, until we come to Darryl Robertson. The bar has been raised.
I'm next to center stage, with needing just over 6 pounds to take over the lead. I know I got it, but I also know it will take the only three fish I have. They are three good ones, weighing more than the limits of the guys already eliminated. As I place my second fish into the basket, Charlie tells me I need 2 more pounds. I reach in, pull out a nice 5 plus fish to the roar of the crowd. I take a small walk around the center podium, showing the fish and acknowledging the crowds appreciation. Man, what a feeling. I know I don't have enough to win, but the remaining pro's don't, nor does the crowd. It will cycle around to me before the crowd realizes I have tallied my total catch for the day. A short interview with Charlie Evans about the week and my tactics, and its off to the back of my boat to become a spectator. It gives me time to realize just how close I came to my goal coming here. A win, not points. I came within just 2 bites of winning.
After the weigh in, there's allot of well wishers, alot of press reporters with questions, and alot of time to reflect on the moment and week. My wife calls me to say she is proud of me. Due to the long drive, she was not able to come watch me live, but thanks to the live internet fed, was able to watch. 4th place ain't too shabby.
The next couple days I will stay over at Beaver Lake to participate in the Children's Miracle Network Fishing Tournament, representing my great sponsors like Ranger and Pedigree. In between today and the event, I get to do my best Otis Redding, sitting by the dock of the bay at Beaver Lake. Its been a long week, deserving a long power nap.
Skeets Custom Rods Jeffrey Thomas signature series 7'6" flipping stick