A Game of Decisions by Justin Largen
Lewis Smith Lake hosted stop four of the Bassmaster Kayak Series. It’s a 21,000-acre lake with a whopping 500 miles of shoreline. Most of the lake is clear with steep banks and a riverlike feel. There are also numerous feeder creeks, and lots of ramps, making it perfect for a kayak tournament. Smith is known for spotted bass, but there is also some good largemouth habitat. Water temps were in the low 80s, so I was expecting fish to be in post spawn or early summer mode.
On the first day of practice, I rode around with teammate Lance McWhorter and checked out a handful of ramps. We both like to power fish for largemouth, so we were hoping to find habitat that would suit our strengths. Satellite images are great, but there’s no substitute for seeing the water in person. We found that the clearest water was on the main lake, and there was some dirtier water in the backs of creeks.
I chose to start my pre-fishing in Lick Creek and liked what I found there. As I got further back in the creek, there was some nice largemouth habitat. There were laydowns, bluff banks, docks and some nice shade lines. The prettiest cover was all the way in the back. There was a forest of flooded bushes in depths ranging from 1 to 7 feet.
I removed the hooks from a plopper style bait and used that to comb the creek. I got a lot of bites and felt good about the creek. As I was leaving, around dusk I ran across a school of big spots. One came up and blasted my topwater and there were at least four big ones with it. I ran into another pod – or maybe the same fish – several hundred yards down the bank. They were swimming tight to a bluff bank. The water was clear enough that I could identify them as spots, and one was huge.
On day two I tried to find fish on the main lake. It was a much tougher day. I caught a few 15-inch spots that were suspended under docks with a 3.5 Shockwave, but bites were few and far between. Later in the day I wandered into some backwaters and caught a few small fish on a neko rig, but I knew these were not going to give me a chance to win. The dock talk was that everyone was catching small fish. It was a struggle finding those bigger bites. By the end of the day, I ruled out fishing the main lake.
I was torn on day three, needing to explore new water but also wanting to check Lick Creek again. I decided to explore a new area, and it was probably the most enjoyable day I had. I found a remote ramp and didn’t see another competitor all day. I explored a small creek, drawing several good strikes with my topwater plug. I also made a few casts with a frog and accidentally hooked a 15-inch largemouth that had an absolute giant swimming with it. When I ventured back out to the mouth, I got a few bites around deeper docks. I felt good about my pattern, but I wasn’t overly confident in the quality of fish in that area. It was a good plan B.
That night Lance and I discussed tournament strategy. He had been in Lick Creek earlier that day and told me that it was a little crowded. This was helpful info since there had only been one other kayaker in the area when I practiced there. I decided to start in Lick, even if it meant fishing in a crowd, because it was the most productive area I found. It held quality largemouth and spotted bass, and I hoped it could sustain the pressure. If Lick didn’t pan out, I planned to pack up and move to my remote creek.
I was grateful for Lance’s intel when I got to the ramp. There were 8 kayaks there, and I heard rumblings that several boats had been in the creek for a tournament the night before. I probably would have been spun out if I wasn’t already expecting a crowd. When launch time arrived, the anglers dispersed a little, but several boats headed toward the back of the creek. So, I decided to start a little further out, on some hard cover where I’d gotten bites in practice. I threw my plopper – this time with hooks – and methodically worked further into the creek. I caught my fist fish, a 20.25-inch largemouth, as I reached the first stretch of flooded bushes. The fish was gigantic compared to what I’d caught in practice, a great start to the day. A hundred yards down the bank, I caught keepers two and three from the same bush. I was working the outside edges of the bushes and throwing the plug into any lanes big enough to sneak those trebles through.
It felt good to have three fish, including a kicker, in the first hour. I assumed the topwater bite would last late into the day, like it had in practice, but I went the next hour without a bite. As a few bass boats rotated out of the back of the creek, I worked my way further in. The action had been fast and furious in practice. Fish were busting bait on the surface, and it didn’t take long to get bites. Tournament day was a different story. There was no surface activity, other than the occasional gar breaching.
After making a fruitless pass through the best stretch with the plopper, I decided to make a change. I’d been watching the bass boats and kayakers, and they were all working the outside edge of the bushes. There were thick, shallower bushes that no one was messing with. So, I maneuvered right into the bushes and started throwing a Missile Mini Swim Jig with a Shockwave trailer into places I couldn’t put the plug. I started with translucent colors that imitated a shad or blueback. That was the pairing I had thrown in practice, but after a few casts it didn’t feel right. So, I switched to a different jig and trailer combo, the same jig in Ike’s Secret, with a Mini D Chunk trailer. I wanted to mimic a bluegill, and I also wanted the extra lift from the D chunk in the shallow water. The change paid off quickly. Within 20 minutes I finished my limit.
My best five measured just under 80 inches, giving me the early lead. I believed 80 inches would be a competitive total, but it would take at least 85 to win. When I started that morning, I wasn’t confident that I could catch much more than 60 inches, but now I had bigger aspirations. The early 20-incher and a solid limit made me a little greedy. I knew that I was in position to contend for the win. I wanted 85, and with three fish under 15 inches, I had some room to grow.
Over the next hour I caught two more fish and culled to just over 80 inches. Then, a little before 10:00, I had another 16-incher eat the jig in a shaded bush. I couldn’t help celebrating when she came over the side. The fish put me in 2nd place, with a total of 81.75. By now the bass boats were gone; the party was down to me and two other kayakers. As the sun continued to climb, I made a few more passes through the area but couldn’t draw any more strikes.
I had been debating leaving Lick Creek and driving to my other area for much of the morning. I knew it was an hour-long drive, not counting load/unload time and the time it would take me to pedal back to the ramp. I knew I needed to leave before noon to give me adequate fishing time. I also knew there was at least one big bass in the other creek, but I wasn’t confident that there were others. Many of my practice bites were lackluster. I was worried that they were predominately small fish that wouldn’t help my stringer. So, I decided to stay in Lick and explore new water closer to the mouth. Well, I didn’t get another keeper bite the rest of day. It wasn’t for lack of effort. I alternated between the jig and the topwater, even mixing in a neko rig. Eventually, I made another run toward the back of Lick. I even spotted a big one sitting in a shade pocket, but I couldn’t get that fish or any of her friends to play.
I think it’s fair to say that I made the wrong call. I should’ve gone to the other creek and spent the last two hours chasing unpressured fish. Still, with the information I had at the time, I don’t think staying was a bad decision. It was logical plan that just didn’t work. Hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to armchair quarterback a play after you know the outcome. So, while I’m not beating myself up for not leaving, I do wonder what might’ve happened in that other creek.
The Lewis Smith tournament reminded me that competitive fishing is a game of decisions. One move can make or break your day. Had I made a midday move, I might’ve caught a few more fish and jumped a place or two in the standings. On the flip side, I could’ve driven to another ramp in the morning when I saw the full lot. I would have completely missed out on the action. Similarly, I could’ve stubbornly stuck with the topwater plug all day and never finished my limit. So, while I’m a little disappointed with my afternoon showing, I’m happy with my overall performance at Smith. I’m grateful for a 5th place finish, a check, and the AOY lead with one event left. Life is good.
Thanks for reading. I hope this helps you on the water.