Kentucky Lake FLW - May 2003
May 9 -13: On the drive to Kentucky Lake, which compared to most, is a short 11 hours, I take the time to reflect and gather my thoughts on a game plan. I fished Kentucky Lake one time before, in the early 90's. It was a BFL Regional, held in late fall, and was brutally cold. The last morning of the tournament, the wind chill factor was 9 degrees. I remember going thru boat check, running my livewells, and seeing them freeze up. My steering cables froze, as did my rods to the deck of the boat. There was several rigs that slid into each other on the frozen ramp until salt was applied. On the run to my first stop, which was in 25 mph wind and waves, I took on several waves. My observer and I were a solid sheet of ice, my trolling motor was froze in place, and my casting deck was more suitable for skating that fishing.
I notice driving thru Tenn. that all the major lakes and rivers are flooded from recent rains. Douglas Lake is really high, and the flood gates are open on Percy Priest as I go by on I40. I hope the water comes up some on Kentucky Lake because I remember the lake being allot like Kerr Lake, with willows and buck bushes. If it turns into an off shore, ledge type post spawn deal, well, I can do it, but the advantage goes to the crankers like Fritts and Elias. Plus local knowledge will play a factor fishing deep. As I arrive at my cabin for the tournament, I notice that several trees are down and some debris from barns strewn about. A huge thunderstorm came thru, producing a twister earlier.
I spend the first 4 days of practice on Kentucky Lake. I found some area's I really like, with allot of willows and buck brush. The only problem, the lake has been rising fast. It has muddied up the areas bad. Its amazing how much the water has come up. The lodge owner posted a notice on our door from the TVA stating the lake will continue to rise, perhaps record levels. Places I first fished in practice, now are covered. The marina I was launching has shut down power, the parking lot is gone, as is all access to docks. You either have to launch your boat, swim to it, or have a buddy put in together. Its really amazing, campgrounds are under water, as is roads, peoples yards. The official ramp for the tournament is flooded, as is half the parking lot for 175 tournament rigs. My roomies and I ponder if they will cancel the event.
Its the last practice day, I will spend it on Lake Barkley. Lake Barkley is connected to Kentucky Lake by a barge canal. I have spend my entire practice on Kentucky, but with the changing conditions, figure I best look at Barkley. Even though I do not do well on Barkley, I like what I see. One, there is not as much FLW contestant traffic there. Two, the water seems more naturally stained, instead of the just recently stained condition from rains on Kentucky Lake.
At the pairings meeting tonight, talk is centered on the ever rising water and conditions. The tournament will go on as planned, with a "get in the water" best as possible, and a trailered weigh in since the parking lot is now a cement pond. My 1st day co-angler is from Indiana. I tell him we are just going fishing, doing what I do best, fishing shallow with spinnerbaits and a jig. During supper, a good friend of mine, who fishes as a co-angler is crying the blues, "Can you believe this, my pro told me he was going to fish a Carolina rig tomorrow. Just my luck, the water is in the bushes, and I will be fishing deep". I ask who is he fishing with and he comments "Steve Kennedy from Alabama".
May 14: I am boat number 3 in first flight. Its the earliest number I have had in years. Bad thing is, it means I will have a short day to fish. I think the afternoon flipping bite is better. Least I know I will be able to reach my first stop before anyone else. My first stop is a flooded cow pasture. The water is so high, I can actually idle right over the barbed wire fence. I begin with a Hawg Caller spinnerbait, hooking several non-keeper bass. A keeper in this tournament has to be 15". As the flights continue to blast off, more and more contestants have chosen the same small flooded pasture as their first stop. Soon the area becomes more crowded than I like, I decide to leave. The day goes by fast, having caught probably over 25 fish, with only 5 being 15" or better. I know I had to atleast put 10 or more on the measuring board, only to see them 14" - 14 3/4 in length, and go back into the water. Frustrating seeing a 2 + lb bass being released. On the run back from Lake Barkley, I notice a boat off in the distance, two people waving. I make a quick run to them, its someone in the tournament who has hit a floating log, damaging his prop and is dead in the water, needing help. He makes the comment that he has a limit, his co-angler has close to 16 lbs. Without help, he will not make it. No problem, I quickly give him my spare prop, while he tries to pass name, lodging info. I tell him don't worry, get your stuff running, get back to weigh in, we will worry about the other later. I found out the next day he made it in on time. Today I managed to boat 4 keepers just under 11 lbs. I had one fish around 3 lbs pull off my jig in the heavy buck brush that would have finished my limit. Considering the conditions, they really caught them better than expected, with me placing in 67th place today. Tomorrow, I will have to really pick it up if I am to get a check.
May 15: We awake this morning to a severe thunderstorm. Great, all we need is more water. I am boat # 173 out of 175. I figure it will be a waste to go back to the flooded cow pasture, it will already be crowded. Instead, I am going to go make the long run to Barkley, concentrate on the area I had the most bites yesterday. Being in 67th place, I know I will need to really catch them better today to even have a shot at a good check. My co-angler partner today is from NY. I ask him how he did yesterday and he replies "My Pro's boat broke down, so we were very limited to what we could do". Then he goes into one of the most tragic stories I have every heard. A story that is becoming more and more common as the sport grows in awareness. His Pro partner tied off the mechanically broke boat to a navigational buoy just up from Moors, a very popular and heavy traffic area of the lake, so they could catch a ride in with another competitor to weigh in their days catch. When they went back to retrieve the boat for service, it was gone. First they thought that due to the rising, swift water, it may have come untied. No such luck. Someone had untied the boat, towed it to shore and with the high water, gone behind flooded trees. There they stripped the boat of all its equipment, tackle and gear. The local authorizes found it around midnight. I can feel for the pro, I have had everything I own taken from my boat at a hotel, it is not a good experience. What low life's would take advantage of such an opportunity? Unfortunately, this is becoming more common than not, a sad fact of our sport.
The morning gets off to a good start, I land a quick keeper on my Hawg Caller spinnerbait. I continue to run the flooded brush with the spinnerbait, landed several just short fish, and one more keeper. If I am to stay in the money, I will need to pick it up some, so I decide to go to flipping a jig, and hope I can catch a few big ones. My co-angler today can really fish, he is matching me flip to flip from the back deck. I admit, at first, this really starts to annoy me for him to be presses so hard to hit a target before me, specially since he has already landed two really nice keepers. But I block it out, or maybe better yet, use the added pressure to really fish harder. As the day progresses, I have 3 keepers at noon, not enough to stay in the money. Between my co-angler and I, we have caught atleast 20 short fish. It suddenly dawns on me that the better fish had been coming off a particular tree, tupelos. I begin to run to any tupelo I can find, and it starts clicking. I land a nice keeper, then another, and another. My co-angler has now secured his limit also. A check is looking more like reality. After a few more short fish, and one about 3 lbs that just comes unglued, I get the bite I need. A really nice kicker fish around 6 lbs. Its getting late, we are in the last flight, there is not another tournament boat in sight, I tell my co-angler we should start back in since we both have enough to get a decent check. Plus I remember one similar such tree that they seem to be relating to, close to the weigh in site I would like to fish.
When we arrive to the tree, there is several boats fishing near, all are fishing out with cranks or c-rigs. I pull into the bay, figure I got about 7 minutes to go. On my first flip, I catch a 15" keeper that will not help me. Time for one more flip. I ease the Rattleback jig next to the tree, my line jumps, I set the hook, and its a really nice fish, around 3 lbs. I flip it in the boat, cull out my smallest fish, and make it to check in just in time. Now I feel good about staying in the money.
Being we are in the last flight, it takes forever to trailer the boat to go to scales. By time I get it on trailer, find a place to park, I will be one of the last to weigh in. My roommate Chris E. walks up, he was in the first flight, "You got them"? "I think I got around 15 lbs" is my response. Little E makes the comment "good", you should get a good check. As I make my way to the scales, I notice I will be one, if not the last to weigh in, not by design of course. I have no idea what the money cut is, what the top 10 cut is. When I go on stage, Charlie Evans introduces me, tells my current position, which was 67th place and makes the comment "he will need around 18 lbs to have a chance at top 10". Top ten? This really catches me by surprise. I really don't think I have that, but I really never even considered the possibility I had a shot at making the finals for day 3 & 4. When Charlie puts them on the scales, the weight reads "17 lbs 12 oz". There is a live, running tote board (big screens on each side of stage) that immediately tallies your position. When it pops up, I am in 10th place ! This really shocks me as I walk off stage. My buddies all come up to me congratulating me, "you made it", the scales are closed. FLW officials begin calling the top 10 up on stage, it all happens so fast, I barely have time to even catch my breath. I will be fishing in the finals with legends Kevin Van Dam, Davey Hite, Gary Yamamota, and more! I call my wife, she and my two girls will drive the 11 hours early into the morning to be here. We have a tradition amongst the group of fellow pros I stay with, highest finisher buys supper. Tonight it will be me, and believe me, they hit me hard! Chris makes the comment "they just might have to set a record tab tonite". I don't mind, I have been on the other side many times, and enjoy the evening.
May 16: Today I will be fishing from the Lawry's boat. Even though my title brand sponsor is Hellmann's, Lawry's is also one of my sponsors because both are owned by Unilever, the parent company. This season, Lawry's is the brand name used in the finals, where Hellmann's maybe next season. None the less, I am proud to be representing each. We met at the Wal-Mart, place our days gear in boat, then driven to the lake in matching Chevy vehicles. Its an exciting time, being escorted by police as the top 10 boats, 10 camera boats all make their way to the lake. The blast off proceedings begin with pro introductions and interviews. Then the national anthem is played. I get chills as I stand at attention in my Ranger boat, the crowd and press applauding. A helicopter hovers over us filming. It will follow us at water level on the run down. Exhilarating ! Time to get serious. Everyone started back to zero today, its anyone's game.
Today, the final 10 co-anglers will be fishing for their title. My co-angler is from Missouri. When he ask me what I am doing to catch fish, I make the comment flipping and fishing shallow with spinnerbaits. I can tell from his reaction, he is not to happy at this, specially when he makes the comment, "No Carolina rigging"? He has caught all his fish to make the finals fishing a rig. Sorry Charlie, won't happen with me, I'm beating the bushes. My decision today is to start again on the tree pattern, and hope it is still happening. Only draw back is that yesterday, I really beat my area up hard thinking I was fishing for just a check. Hey, I'm just going fishing. There will be a camera boat that has to be with me at all times, filming me from start to finish. I go over a map, showing the driver my destination. "Stay with me" is my last comment as we take off.
The lake has really risen overnight, with debris everywhere as I run down. Its like a big wet obstacle course, one that I am more worried will take out my camera boat following me. Without it present, I cannot fish.
Upon arrival at my starting spot, the picnic table I had been using for a reference in completely under water. I decide to tie on a Lunker Lure buzzbait, hope to catch a few early morn keepers. The tactic works, I immediately get a keeper. After several shorts, and clearing skies, time to see if my tree pattern is working. Unfortunately, today I cannot make the flipping bite work. I think the rising water has moved the fish off the outside trees. I switch back to the Hawg Caller spinnerbait and catch another keeper. The day goes by fast, with several short fish, but only 4 keepers. I had a really nice fish bite my jig around a tree late in the day that wrapped me around a limb and broke. It would have been my limit.
Back at Wal-Mart, the tent is rocking with fans. I make a quick cell call to my wife, she has just crossed the Tenn./Kentucky line, it will be close if she and my girls make it in time. I motion for Robert Vanderson, one of the FLW staff, who like all, is always so eager to help. I tell him my wife and kids are about 15 minutes out, and if she has to search for a parking spot, will not see me on stage. Robert says give me a description of her car, call her, tell her to come around to the restricted area behind the tent and I will let her in the service area. Thank you Robert, you are the man........again.
I bag my fish, go into the holding area behind the stage. The other top 9 pros all have on their poker faces. I figure I have around 11 lbs, probably not enough considering how they had been catching them. My camera man comes up to me, he says he got some real good footage with me on the water today. When I finally go up on stage, I have time to scan the large crowd. To my amazement and joy, I see my wife and two daughters smiling faces. I really wanted them their to share this. I have made the top 10 before, but they have never been able to attend. My weight is just over 11 lbs, placing me in 6th place for tomorrow. Not as bad as I thought, but it will be a hard row to hoe to catch the top 2. Steve Kennedy is on the load and leads with 23 lbs. Remember earlier, I had made the comment a co-angler was crying the blues because he drew someone Carolina rigging, well, he later changed his tune to "Steve Kennedy will win the tournament Carolina rigging".
After a quick briefing with my camera crew for tomorrow, a couple interviews, I finally get to spend some time with my family. After a good meal together, some last minute changes in tackle and gear, I try and get some much needed rest. My fingers are so sore and cracked from taking so many fish off the hook, I can barely tie a knot. Its a good hurt.
May 17: Some really bad storms blew thru last nite, dumping more rain and high winds on us. Really was hard to sleep. My wife and girls want to come to the blast off ceremonies and wish me luck. Its really messy, and I tell them not too. We will have a very short day today, due back in before 2. The weather forecast is for more rain and wind. As we ready our gear, prepare the police escort to the lake, most are quiet, lost in their thoughts and game plan. The rain has stopped, I make the comment to my driver that I wish I had not told my family not to come to blast off, he ask where I was staying.
To catch up, or have a chance to move up in standings, I feel like I will need to make a change. Today, I plan on staying on Kentucky Lake even though I have fished Barkley the last 3 days. I know its a gamble to go to new water, one that could cost me but I am going to do it. I tie on a Lunker Lure buzzbait, plan is to throw it until the blades fall off. I just feel like with the additional rise in water level last nite, the cloud cover, the flipping bite will be gone for me. And I know no other bait to catch a sack like a buzzbait that I can cover more water with. I admit, I am somewhat nervous about my decision. I tell my camera crew of the change in location, I can tell by their faces, they are second guessing my decision. Today, it will be just me in the Lawrys' boat, but my camera man ask if he could get in the boat with me once we reach my first stop, I agree because he will not get in my way. Its kind of a strange thing, you have a camera man in the boat with you, I am miked for audio, but my comments are recorded in a boat that follows with the audio equipment. Each time the camera man has to switch tape or batteries, I have to say "Tape 2 or a number" so the audio boat knows to mark it. They also are in charge of logging my every catch with size and weight, movement on gps and area. This makes for some interesting moments during the day with the group of observers who follow me by boat and on shore.
Once we reach the staging area for take off, I see my wife and two girls standing there. The guy who had driven me to the ramp had gone back to our cabin and told my family that it was not raining at lake, if hurried could see me off. I thank him for such a gesture cause it was a calming effect to have them there. We each get one last TV interview on our thoughts and plan from Taylor Carr, FLW host. After a moment of prayer, the National Anthem is played, again I get chills. When my introduction is called, I ease out, giving my family one last good bye. The camera boat pulls up to me as I idle out, asking to give my thoughts and plans on today.
The run down the lake is short, there is a large group of locals tailing us, plus several press boats. My first stop produces several just barely short fish. The rain has started again. The buzzbait bite should pick up. My first keeper comes in the boat, just a keeper. I get a small applaud from the boats around me. It doesn't take long, I land a 4 lb fish on the Lunker Lure. The applaud gets louder. But as the morning progresses, my bite really slows down. I begin to doubt my decision to fish Kentucky Lake. After a brief move, several more shorts, I land my third keeper. A couple more boats pull up to watch, I hear one ask my audio guy how many fish have I got. He tells him "I'm not sure" even though he probably knew better than I in his log. I "thank him" under my breath, he yells out "Your Welcome". I am sure the crowd thinks he is crazy suddenly blurting out that. I hear someone whistling, I look to my right, there is a boat with two locals fishing ahead of me, in the direction I am fishing, one has landed a bass. I continue on, again I hear a whistle, the local has another, they yell "Hey buddy, look, you need to come over here"! I comment quietly to myself, "If you want to help me, don't be fishing where I am." I hear my audio man laugh behind me. As I get closer to the locals, I hear one say to my camera man, "Hey, you need to turn the camera around on us if you want to see how its done"! I make a low comment, "Pay you money buddy and then see how easy it is." Again my audio crew laughs off in the distance. Time to leave.
My next stop will produce another keeper, I now have 4. The rain has let up, the sun tries to peek thru. Please stay cloudy. About 2 hours go by before I decide to leave with one more keeper caught, securing my limit. To my surprise, my engine will not crank. I frantically check the fuse panel, the kill switch, battery connections, anything in my haste. It will not start. Good thing about this, I have a follow boat that I can switch to. After about 20 minutes of moving gear and fish into the back up, I'm on my way again. My audio man stays with the original boat until a service crew can be reached. About 30 minutes later, he comes into the cove I am fishing, seems the batteries had run down, a quick jump with cables, and he was running. He will stay with me in the boat, allowing it to run, so he can continue to log my activity and catch. As I work my way inside a dock, I hear several people cheering me on from the deck of a home. Its amazing how high the water is, you can fish behind docks, next to peoples mail box, basketball goals, flower gardens, and back steps. The people on shore ask me how I am doing, I comment "I got a limit, but I need a big fish, can I borrow your pet fish in here"? They laugh and say "He's in here, but please bring him back". As I work my buzzbait down their shoreline, I make one last cast beside the walkway from their dock, a big explosion suddenly makes them all jump. After what seemed like forever, I land about a 4 lb fish to a standing ovation.
Back at Wal-Mart, the crowds are big as we pull in the parking lot. We are informed to stay in our boat until the pre-show begins, then bag our fish, go to the holding tanks behind stage. My camera crew comes over to take off the remote mike. He remarks, "Ya know, I will be hearing that buzzbait buzzing by my head all night in my sleep. You must have made a 1000 cast with it." Several reporters gather around to tape my thoughts and get some insight to how my day went. None of our fellow top 10 know what the other has.
After some last minute instructions from Bill Taylor, we are lead on stage to a very vocal crowd. I dump my fish into the livewell in the stage boat, get comfortable in the seat. The lights are glaring and hot. I manage to find my wife and two girls sitting down in the reserved seating area. I make out my wife's nervous mouthing of "You Got Fish"? I give her the thumbs up. My limit will go on to way close to 15 lbs, putting me in 5th place. I also win the Energizer Award for coming from the furthest behind to make the top 10. That's a really neat trophy with the pink bunny on top. Its a great motto for this sport........."Just keep going and going and going."