Sometimes It Doesn’t Go Your Way by Justin Largen

Sometimes It Doesn’t Go Your Way by Justin Largen

November 21, 2022

The Bassmaster Kayak Series traveled to Pickwick Lake for the final event of the 2022 season. This tournament would determine the first ever Bassmaster Kayak Angler of the Year, and I had the official lead.  Bassmaster takes each angler’s best four finishes from the five-tournament season to determine AOY, so several of us were virtually tied.  One angler in particular, Drew Gregory, had only fished three events, but he had two wins and a 7th place finish.  With a decent finish here, he would be hard to beat.

I had visited Pickwick in the fall of 2021, but conditions were different this time around.  The lake was more than a foot low.  My practice plan was to check a few familiar areas and then cover as much new water as possible.  On day one, I spent a few hours driving and looking at ramps on the upper end of the lake.  I wanted to see what the water looked like and see how many kayakers were around.  I saw other anglers at each ramp, but none were particularly crowded.  The field seemed to be pretty spread out.  At one ramp, I walked the bank for a hundred yards or so and saw several fish.  They were relatively small, but it gave me some confidence.  Knowing that there were fish in the area, I decided not to launch.  I was pretty sure I could catch them, and I didn’t want to burn any during practice.

After leaving that area, I went to a familiar creek with clean water.  I checked a launch further upstream than I had been before, but the water was too low for me to float.  Surprisingly, I saw a few bass in the skinny water, so I launched at the closest legal launch and headed upstream.  When I reached a set of riffles that I couldn’t get past, I nearly gave up on the spot.  I had tried a few different baits and had no bites, but I decided to stand up and paddle for a bit, thinking I might spot fish or bait.  Sure enough, I saw some big gizzard shad cruising, and then a school of six or seven nice bass followed my spinnerbait out of a laydown.  They weren’t giants but looked to be in the three-pound range, gold for our tournaments.  After dropping a waypoint, I started back to the mouth, tossing the spinnerbait at similar-looking laydowns.  A few hundred yards downstream, a solid 17-incher ate the spinnerbait.  Another half-mile and I landed another 17.  That was all I needed to see.  I left without making another cast.

On day two of practice, I decided to cover all new water.  I chose a popular ramp and explored two tributaries, some main river structure, and a large grassbed.  I pedaled 12.5 miles and got off the water well after dark, but I didn’t find much to be excited about.  I caught a few fish with a walking bait and a couple on a buzzbait.  To my disappointment, the bites were scattered and none of the fish were over 15 inches.  One bit in a backwater slough.  A few others came along grass edges.  Ultimately, I eliminated this entire area.

On the third practice day, I explored a large tributary in the morning.  I hadn’t been past the mouth before, so I spent a few hours fishing my way to the back.  It wasn’t terrible.  I caught fish along shallow grass edges and on steeper bluff banks.  They hit a wakebait, spinnerbait, and chatterbait, but like the day before, fish were spread out and they weren’t the right size.  Nothing over 15 inches.  With half the day gone, I decided to check one final spot where I caught fish the year before.  It was on the other end of the lake, and I hated to waste an hour driving to the ramp, but it was necessary.  I wasn’t confident with anything I found on day two, and I didn’t think the fish from the first day would be enough for two days of competition.  I still needed a decent backup spot.  With the water low, the spot across the lake wasn’t it.  I did catch a few line burners on a shallow flat, but the area just wasn’t holding fish like it did a year ago.  I was bummed that the spot didn’t pan out, but at least I wouldn’t waste any time there during the tournament.

With practice over, it seemed like a no-brainer to start the tournament in the creek where I’d found quality fish.  I thought there were enough fish for at least one solid day.  On day two I would try the spot where I’d seen fish from the bank.  After catching a limit, I could go back to my day one area to try to upgrade.  Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned.

On tournament morning, I had company in my starting spot.  Another angler launched in the same creek, but he planned to fish further back than I did.  I decided to start at the mouth and fish my way back to the special tree.  I started with a buzzbait and mixed in a spinnerbait for the first hour or so.  I switched to a bulky chatterbait for a bit, but moving baits just weren’t working.  At around 9:30, I ran into the other kayaker.  He hadn’t caught anything either, so he was heading back to the launch and changing areas.  Knowing that I would have the area to myself, I decided to stay.  There were quality fish in that tributary, I just needed to figure out how to catch them.  With the sun getting higher, I decided to slow down.  I started pitching a 6.5” Missile Quiver worm around the laydowns.  I was convinced that the big fish were feeding on gizzard shad, so I chose Hillbilly Magic, a baitfish color.  I got my first bite, at 10:15.  That fish, a 15-incher, settled me down and reinforced my decision to stay.  I spent the next two hours pitching the worm to every piece of wood I could find, but I never got another bite.  With only a couple hours of fishing left, I tried skipping a stickbait around cypress trees.  When that didn’t work, I tossed a translucent popper into shade pockets.  Still nothing.  Short on time, I rotated through moving baits again, and finally got another keeper on a spinnerbait with five minutes left to fish.  It was too little, too late.  My two small fish landed me near the bottom of the standings.

After my tough day one, I wrestled with the idea of going home early.  I had blown my shot at AOY, but I wanted to be at the award ceremony to congratulate the winner, so I decided to fish.  My plan was to work at a more relaxed pace, try to catch a few fish, and stay clear of anyone who was in contention.  I went to the creek where I’d seen the fish from the bank and started with topwater baits.  I ran into another competitor after about an hour.  He fished there the day before and was sitting inside the top ten, so I gave him plenty of space.  I went back the way I came, pushing further up the creek and out of his way.  As I moved upstream, I eventually located some fish.  I caught a 14-inch spot on the buzzbait and later had a few fish follow without committing.  As the sun got higher, I started seeing fish holding around logjams.  I used spinning gear to make longs casts to these fish with a weightless, Texas-rigged Missile 48.  For whatever reason, I had trouble hooking them.  I watched one engulf the lure twice, and I missed it both times.  Thinking my drag was too loose, I tightened it and promptly broke the line on my next hookset.  After retying, I missed two more fish.  Both times I watched the bait disappear completely and felt pressure before I swung, but they didn’t connect.  I was fishing my usual setup, but something was off.  I saw several more fish that afternoon, including a giant spot, but I didn’t catch another keeper.  I ended the day with a single fish and finished the tournament 54th of 80.  Drew, on the other hand, fished great, won his third event of the year, and took the AOY title in convincing fashion.

Pickwick served me a big dose of humble pie.  It was by far my worst Bassmaster event of the year.  As the sting of the bad tournament wore off, I spent a lot of time analyzing my performance.  My execution on day two was an obvious problem.  You can’t expect a good finish when you don’t capitalize on the bites you get.  Equally problematic, I didn’t make the right adjustment when I was missing fish.  I never tried a wacky rig.  I was reluctant to throw an exposed hook around all the snags, but that was a mistake.  Sure, I might’ve lost a few baits, but I would likely have landed a few more fish too.  What about day one?  Do I regret staying in that creek instead of moving spots?  It might sound silly, but I think staying was the right decision.  That area held quality fish and it was the only place where I was confident that I could contend for a win.  The strategy was solid; it just didn’t work out this time.  That’s my other takeaway.  Sometimes things just don’t go your way.  No matter how well you prepare or how hard you work, you don’t always catch them.  When it’s not your your day, you’ve got to keep your head up, tip your hat to the anglers that did well, and just move on to the next event.  

As much as I’d like a do-over on Pickwick, the bad tournament gave me a greater appreciation for the good tournaments earlier this season.  It really was a blessed year.  I had three top-10 finishes, including my first win, and I finished 2nd in the AOY standings.  I hope to back it up with another strong year in 2023.  Thanks for tagging along for the journey.

-Justin Largen