Grand Lake: Know When To Fold 'Em by Justin Largen
The Bassmaster Kayak Series headed to Grand Lake on April 16th for the third event of the season. After two events, I sat in second place in the AOY race, so my goal was to secure a solid finish at Grand and stay in contention. Having seen lots of Bassmaster tournament coverage over the years, I was excited to visit this legendary lake.
I arrived at Grand on Wednesday afternoon. After setting up camp, I decided to spend the rest of the day checking a handful of ramps around the lake. The plan was to get an idea of water levels, clarity, available cover, and the number of competitors in different areas. Since I can only pedal my kayak up to about 4 mph, it’s much more efficient to get an overview of a lake via car. As you might expect, the water on the upper end was dirty, while the lower end was a little cleaner. I decided to split my time, spending one day in the clearer water and the other up the river.
Before jumping into practice details, I should mention that there was an unusual rule impacting anglers at the Grand. This rule prohibits kayaks that are less than 17 feet long from traveling more than 50 yards from the shoreline, unless they are within a no wake zone. Most fishing kayaks – mine included – are in the 12-to-14-foot range. This rule meant that offshore fishing wasn’t an option, and it could make traveling between spots time consuming. I’m not used to fishing with this sort of limitation, so I decided to look for narrower creeks and no wake zones, where I could move about freely.
I started near the dam on Thursday morning, in an area with several pockets and lots of docks. This section also featured a lot of rock and a few shallow laydowns. The other thing I noticed immediately was boat traffic. Bass boats were seemingly everywhere, and most were working the banks, especially the docks. I was shocked that there was that much fishing pressure on a weekday. It made a little more sense when some other kayakers informed me that an Angler’s Choice team tournament was underway. I learned that nearly 300 boats were participating in the tournament!
My initial gameplan was to fish moving baits, and I spent a lot of time working shallow and mid-depth crankbaits around rock. After several hours, I managed a small fish on a rocky secondary point but couldn’t duplicate that bite. I generated one other strike around a deep dock with a swim jig, then struck out with a spinnerbait on some windy banks. With the day winding down, I was losing confidence in the moving baits, and the boat traffic wasn’t helping my attitude.
Started to get frustrated, I pushed into a protected cut and picked up a spinning rod. I started slinging a weighted wacky rig around the docks and got my first bite within a few minutes. Not wanting to burn fish in practice, I had removed the barb and bent the shaft like a paper clip, leaving just enough wire to hold the worm in place. One small keeper managed to pin the mangled hook in the corner of its mouth, but I was able to shake off my other bites. I didn’t think these were the type of fish that could win the tournament, but it was a start. So, I dropped waypoints on every dock where I shook off a fish.
Friday was spent on the upper end of the lake, in the dirty water. Most of the area looked like chocolate milk, but I’d seen some interesting looking backwaters on Google Earth, including a small creek that looked like it had some cleaner water. I thoroughly worked a bridge and mile-long stretch of shallow buckbrush with a spinnerbait but only managed a lone white bass. Reaching the clearer creek, I pitched a small jig into every piece of wood I could find. I ended up getting bites from a few undersized spotted bass, but no keepers.
With a thunderstorm closing in, I cranked a mile-long, stretch of riprap with deeper water. This produced another small white bass. When I reached the end of the riprap, I decided to bail on the upper lake. I had zero confidence in the area, so I drove back towards the dam and looked at another ramp in the cleaner water. This area looked similar to where I fished the day before, but the creek was much wider. It could serve as a backup spot if my other docks didn’t pan out.
Tournament day proved to be a grind. I kept my Quantum Smoke spinning rod in hand nearly the entire day, casting a green pumpkin Missile 48 on a 1/16 oz weighted wacky hook. I got two few bonus bites early after stopping in a protected pocket on my way to the stretch of productive docks. Then, once I reached the docks, I quickly caught a pair of non-keepers. Fortunately, I caught a keeper spot on the next dock, before I had time to worry that all the bites in practice were shorts. I had a small limit by 9:30, then slowly started upgrading.
The fish were extremely shallow, even the spots, and the key docks were ones out of the wind. I would position the kayak on the shallow side of the dock, skip the 48 underneath the cables – almost every dock had them – and then deadstick it for several seconds after it hit bottom. Many bites did not come on the fall. Another key, every dock fish came from the walkway area. I was making multiple casts, one tight to the bank, one against the floating platform, and another cast or two in between, depending on how long the walkway was. It was still slow fishing, but by ignoring the slips and deeper edges, I was able save some time and fish more docks.
By 11:00 I had increased my limit to just under 70 inches. I was sitting inside the money but knew that wouldn’t hold. There was a lot of time left to fish. Also, Garrett Morgan, the AOY leader had already posted 78 inches. Having covered what I believed was the key portion of that creek arm, I needed to make a move. I’d covered the best docks; the remaining ones were windblown. Also, most of the fish I’d caught were small. More 12 to 13-inchers wouldn’t help my total.
I had to make a decision. Option one, work my way further toward the back of the adjacent creek arm and fish water I’d covered in practice. Option two, move out towards the main lake and fish new water. I chose option two. I didn’t have enough confidence in the other water I covered in practice. I hadn’t had many bites, and there were a lot of boats working the same docks.
Looking at my map, the unexplored area featured several cuts with docks that would be protected from the wind, so that’s where I headed. The first spot was a bust. I spent a lot of time in it but never had a bite. The next pocket was smaller and only had two docks, but after making multiple casts under the walkway of the first dock, I connected with a 16-inch spot. This fish added 3-inches to my total, putting me somewhere around 15th. After working the other dock and covering the next two cuts, there were thirty minutes remaining.
I decided to run to the next big cut, knowing there was only enough time for a handful of casts once I arrived., There was only dock close to the mouth, and I made the “right” casts to the walkway but came up empty. There was still some time left but no other docks nearby, so I made a cast to a bluff bank while looking for other targets. I wasn’t even watching the line, but when I picked up on the 48, I felt one moving off with it. The fish felt heavy, and it proved to be my best of the day, 17 inches. The timestamp on the photo showed that she bit with exactly 8 minutes remaining.
I was unable to pick off any more fish before time ran out, but the 17-incher had made my day. It added 4 inches to my total, giving me 77, good enough for 8th place and a check. Most importantly, it kept me in 2nd place for AOY, three points behind Garrett. I’m thrilled to still be in contention with just two tournaments remaining.
While thinking back on the tournament, struggling to come up with a specific takeaway or two, an old Kenny Rogers tune popped into my head. “Know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em.” I think those lyrics from “The Gambler” sum up my tournament at Grand. It wasn’t until I folded on power fishing during practice that I started to get consistent bites. Similarly, sticking with a finesse technique during the event, despite the weather, helped me to keep getting bites. Finally, deciding midday to bail on my primary area allowed me to make two big culls that propelled me 15 places in the standings. Put another way, I just made good decisions.
Thanks for reading. I hope this helps you on the water.