Recovering From A Bad Start by Justin Largen

Recovering From A Bad Start by Justin Largen

March 24, 2022

The BASS Kayak Series kicked off the 2022 season on legendary Lake Fork on February 5th and 6th.  When I visited the lake for the first time a year ago, I had my best tournament of the season, so I was pumped for this event.  However, it set up to be a very different tournament this year.  The tourney was scheduled a month earlier and the lake was more than six feet below full pool.  Perhaps the biggest variable was some nasty winter weather.

An ice storm hit Texas on Wednesday night, dropping air temps into the teens and leaving the roads a mess.  I got into town on Wednesday afternoon, set up camp, and hit the water for a few hours of practice.  I spent that time in a popular creek, throwing a jig around standing timber, but I never got a bite.  The heavy rain started just before dusk and temps started to drop.  As I was getting off the water, a few people staying in RVs convinced me that tent camping through the ice storm was not wise.  I’m glad I took their advice, because conditions got bad.  My entire second day of practice was spent in a hotel room, waiting or the storm to pass.  This wasn’t ideal, but at least I wasn’t freezing.  I tried to get back on the water on Friday, but it took longer than expected to remove the ice from my vehicle, kayak, and the gear I’d left at the campground.  When I finished, there was a strong wind blowing, and air temps were still in the teens, so I decided my time would be better spent on tackle prep.

When the tournament started, air temps were in the teens and water temps were in the mid-forties.  These were far from ideal conditions, especially for Texas, but I was grateful that the sun was finally out and there was virtually no wind.  My plan for day one was to fish a new area, focusing on deeper water.  I opted to start on a bridge and the adjacent rip rap, hoping the deep fish would be less affected by the weather.  After cycling through a drop shot, jerkbait, lipless crankbait, and Carolina rig for a couple of hours without success, I bailed on the bridge.  I moved to a nearby pocket with lots of timber, working the outside edge with the same lineup of baits.  I finally got my first bite, a two pounder, on the Carolina rig in 14 feet, near a main lake point.  I worked that area thoroughly, repeating the same cast, then changing casting angles and even mixing in a jig, but couldn’t by another bite.  I eventually moved on to other stretches of timber and spent the rest of the day dragging the ball and chain.  I never had another bite, ending the day with a single 16-inch fish.

            I was disappointed with the day, but somewhat encouraged when I saw the leaderboard.  A few folks had put together impressive stringers, but nearly half the field had zeroed.  I sat 66th of 150 anglers, better than I expected.

My mindset going into day two was to just get bites and try to have fun.  I rigged several spinning rods and committed to finesse techniques, thinking this would give me the best chance at a limit.  It also wouldn’t hurt to be doing something different from the crowd.  While rigging I remembered seeing a turtle on the surface in the afternoon.  I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now I wondered if fish were suspended in the trees.  I had been working the bottom all day.  Maybe I was fishing under them.   

Day two started cold again.  Air temps were sub-freezing when we launched, but water temps were hovering around 47 degrees.  I decided to launch in a new area and start in a protected pocket.  I started with a Missile Baits 48 on a 1/16 oz weighted wacky hook.  It wasn’t something I’d ever fished in water that cold, but I thought a slow fall might trigger fish if they were suspended.  It paid off on my fourth cast.  An 18-incher bit in 14 feet of water.

            I focused on those deeper trees for about an hour and then moved to the shallower trees in the pocket.  I mixed in a few casts with a Missile Quiver 4.5 rigged on a 3/16 oz Warlock head, and that produced a small keeper.  After probing seemingly every tree in the cove with the finesse baits, I moved to a shallow, adjacent pocket.  It was only 7 feet in the channel. I thought this was probably too shallow, but the cove was positioned to receive direct sunlight for most of the day, so I fished it anyway.

There were two trees in the pocket that were much larger than the others.  All were about the same height, but these had a much thicker diameter.  I caught my third keeper, a 17-incher from the base of one of those trees, in 5 feet of water.  Moving to the other tree I hooked my fourth fish, but it came off halfway to the boat.  That was a pivotal moment for the day.  While I had some choice words for the fish, I didn’t allow myself to unravel.  Instead of melting down, I immediately cast back to the same tree.  While the 48 sank, I talked to myself.  I knew how tough the fishing had been and that losing a keeper could cost me, but I told myself that I was figuring things out.  I’d get more bites.  When I picked up on the line, a 17-incher was holding the worm.  That fish was significantly bigger than the one I just lost, and it gave me another clue: key trees could hold multiple fish.  Now with four fish on the board, I was confident that I’d fill a limit.

After moving on to the next pocket and coming up empty, I kept covering water, skipping the smaller trees and focusing only on the thickest ones.  After a long stretch without a bite, I came on a gnarly tree that was bigger than anything I’d been around all day.  It was in 8 feet of water, had two big arms and a thick trunk.  The line tightened on my second cast to the tree, and I leaned into a much bigger fish.  She hung up in the tree briefly, then swam out slowly.  When she realized she was hooked, she surged for deeper water.  I backed off the drag and let her run, trying to guide her away from the smaller trees.  It felt like I was fighting an open water smallmouth, and I regretted my 6 lb line choice.  After an eternity of runs and surface head shakes, she finally came to the net.

My limit fish was 22 inches and weighed 8 lbs.  She was the biggest bass I’ve ever landed on spinning gear, and they could probably hear me yelling on the other side of the lake.  By the time I took a few selfies and retied, my Hobie had drifted 50 yards or so from the big tree.  Remembering the tree from earlier in the day with multiple fish, I eased back to the gnarly tree and made a cast to the other side.  A 20-incher grabbed the 48 on the way down.  After another stressful fight, she came to the net and upgraded my limit by 7 inches.

            After making a few more casts to the tree, I ventured another quarter mile or so down that shoreline without success.  With the day winding down, I opted to head back to the cove where I started and see if any of the trees reloaded.  I finished out the day within a few yards of the ramp.  My best five fish measured 95 inches, all on the 48 in Superbug.  It was the 6th biggest limit of day two, and every fish was caught with spinning gear.  More importantly, the big day vaulted me from 66th to 18th overall, just inside the money.

There were three lessons I took away from Lake Fork.  First, don’t’ be afraid of light line and spinning tackle.  The adjustment to a light wacky rig made a huge difference in this event.  I think the slow fall of the stickworm triggered inactive fish that were not interested in more standard winter presentations.  My second takeaway was a reminder to pay attention to details.  Simple things like remembering that turtle on the surface and noticing that the thicker trees were holding fish made a huge difference.  My last lesson was a reminder to never quit.  I could have mentally checked out with the tough conditions, especially after the poor showing on day one.  I also could’ve had a letdown after losing what would’ve been my fourth keeper on day two.  Fighting to maintain a positive attitude allowed good things to happen later in the day.

Thanks for reading.  I hope this helps you on the water.