April 22, 2011
Entering the Pickwick event, I had last year’s performance on my mind. In that event I patterned fish in the tailrace below Wilson Dam, but elected to start on another spot the first day of the competition—a decision I’ve regretted ever since. This year I was determined not to make that same mistake twice.
Before the event, BASS sent out a bulletin alerting the competitors to possible maintenance on the Wilson lock, and wanted to know if we would consider substituting the optional waters of Lake Wilson with that of Bay Springs, a small reservoir located 1 1/2 hours downstream from take off. A day later we received a follow up saying that Bay Springs was no longer an option and that BASS was working with the TVA to develop a lock schedule for Lake Wilson after all. Based on that information, some of us entered Lake Wilson with the hope of finding quality bass and less competition.
Years ago, I did well on Wilson by throwing a Rapala Husky Jerk along bluff banks and points, so I began practice by hitting those same spots. This time, unfortunately, all I could lure were big drum. The suspended smallmouth I was hoping for weren’t around.
From there, I headed upstream to Wheeler Dam, where water gushed from the turbines at accelerated speeds. Staying in position was tricky, but after a couple of hours I determined the sweet spots, catching smallmouth up to five pounds.
Satisfied with that, I moved to a couple of major creeks to see what I might find. I tried flipping and cranking docks, laydowns, and rocky banks, but all I caught were small blacks. So I moved back to the main lake and fished pea gravel banks with topwaters and shallow running crankbaits. I caught more fish, but not of the size or quantity I found below the dam.
That evening, Kenyon Hill called tournament director Trip Weldon for confirmation on the locking schedule. The call brought bad news. Trip informed us that the TVA would not open the lock until the third day of competition. We had just wasted a day of practice on non-accessible waters.
Switching Lakes, Not Gears
With the same tactics I used the day before, I headed to the tailrace on Lake Pickwick. My lure selection included a 1-ounce Hildebrandt Tin Roller spinnerbait, 1/2-ounce Swarming Hornet rigged with a Zoom Super Fluke body, and a 3/4-ounce football jig with Yamamoto Twin Tail trailer. The spinnerbait featured tandem silver willow-leaf blades with white and silver skirt. The Hornet was also white with a silver spinner and white Fluke body. The jig was crawfish colored with a green-pumpkin trailer. I got bit on all three fishing the eddy areas next to swift current.
One spot, however, seemed to be key. It was the corner of a protruding wall where the current wrapped swiftly around a concrete abutment. The shad were packed so thick there it was amazing. In a space the diameter of a garbage can, they clung to the calmer waters of a small eddy over twenty feet of water. It was an obvious feeding station for predator fish.
On day-3 I decided to check some areas downriver. The water was high and stained, and there were plenty of flooded trees and bushes to throw at. I knew the bass would be shallow.
I first checked the points leading into smaller mainlake pockets, cranking them with a DT Fat-3 and DT-6, both in shad patterns. I was confident that was the main forage, so I stuck with those colors.
I got bites from several gravel points, but the fish didn’t seem big enough. So I ventured into the pockets, alternating baits and techniques. I made short, underhand casts with a Chatterbait tipped with a 4-inch Swim Senko trailer, following that by flipping to isolated targets with jigs and soft-plastics. The bite was on and my confidence increased. But the spot below the dam remained solidly in the back of my mind.
When the tournament director called, “Bernie Schultz, boat number two”, I nearly fainted. I rarely get super early draws, and this was a time I felt I could really use one. I knew at that moment I would be the first boat to reach the dam, and I would have pick of all the sweet spots.
The next morning, as I left take-off, I still couldn’t believe it. I hammered down on the throttle and in minutes arrived at the quiet eddy next to the turbines. I calmly removed my running lights, unfastened the rods, and positioned the boat to make the first of many repetitive casts—all targeting the pocket of shad holding in the eddy at the corner of the dam wall.
About my third cast, I could see several tournament boats racing in my direction. A minute later, even more, and in a matter of minutes I was flanked by 15 other competitors, all jockeying for position along the same current seam.
I watched rookie Lee Sisson, one of the first to arrive, get physically shoved out of the way by veteran competitors. It was embarrassing. In fact, it was one of the sorriest displays of sportsmanship I can recall in my 25-plus years of tournament fishing.
Sixteen boats all lined up rail to rail, each making the same cast upstream, then retrieving their lures down with the current. Lines were frequently crossed in the mayhem. If it weren’t for the treatment Lee Sisson received, the image would have been comical.
As soon as the onslaught began, the anglers bowed up on heavy fish. Unfortunately for most, they were the wrong species—drum and white bass, with a few catfish thrown in. It wasn’t exactly a surprise either. All who practiced there knew the area was overrun with rough fish.
Two hours later, I had one small largemouth, which was the case for most of the others as well. The crowd slowly dwindled to a half-dozen boats. With reluctance, I too left the dam and headed downstream for my back-up areas, thinking I would return in the afternoon and try again.
Starting in one of my better pockets from practice, I could see that the water level had fallen. The bass were still there, but the bite had changed. When I did manage to get a strike, they wouldn’t take the bait. I missed the first four. It was aggravating, but I could see that each of them were too small to matter. So I backed out and started casting to the front of the bushes, hoping to score on any females sitting slightly deeper.
By alternating the square bill with the Chatterbait, I immediately caught my limit. Not big, but the monkey was off my back. I culled for an hour or so, then reverted to flipping, hoping to hook up with a big female. By that time the sun was high and the water had begun to warm. I figured the fish would move back up, but no luck. Two hours later, I had essentially the same weight, so I packed up and headed back to the tailrace hoping to improve my catch with kicker smallmouth.
Upon arrival, I could see that the flotilla was back, and in my starting spot sat Keith Poche, a second-year rookie on the tour. When I maneuvered into position, it was clear he wasn’t going to share the spot. That puzzled me. Why would he block my access? He knew I was the first boat there that morning and that I allowed others access.
I quickly figured it out—Keith had a good bag and was defending the spot!
Unable to upgrade, I headed to weigh-in with a small limit. There I learned that Keith and Davey Hite were the tournament leaders. Both had more than 20 pounds by making the same cast to the corner of the dam wall—the spot where the school of shad were so tightly packed.
Just like last year, I had found the right spot but didn’t stick it out. My gut felt like I just ate an undercooked Happy Meal.
The tables had turned. I was now boat 98 and the last to reach the dam. I plowed in, taking position between Davey Hite and Keith Poche. It was awkward and I didn’t like it. When I made my first cast to the corner of the wall, Keith started in on me, begging for some slack. He said he had a chance to win and to please back off.
Being that it was the second morning of a 4-day competition, his claim of having “a chance to win” didn’t mean a lot. That, and the fact that I was there before him on day-1 made it very difficult to back off.
Davey never said a word. In fact, he was actually cordial about it.
After a few minutes, I reluctantly drifted out of position, relinquishing the spot to the two leaders. Moving slightly downstream to an open area, I boated three smallmouth, none of which was larger than two pounds. An hour later I decided to head downriver to finish my limit on largemouth.
I stopped along a row of docks and private boat ramps—a place where I had caught them on low water the previous year. Using the square bill with short, rapid fire casts, I targeted each object as it came within range. In minutes I had my limit and was culling. The highlight of my day came when I scored a nice 4 1/2-pounder from the corner of a small boat ramp.
Even though I caught more than 20 fish that day, I was unable to reach the money cut. My tournament was over.
When it was all said and done, Davey Hite won the event and Keith Poche finished fourth. And they did it on the very spot I started on. Talk about humiliation!
My hat’s off to both of them, they stuck it out. Davey said the bite never happened before midday, and that he too nearly gave up on the spot several times. But because he didn’t have a whole lot to run to, he stayed and waited them out.
Fishing is all about timing. You can find the best spot in the lake, but if you’re there at the wrong time, it doesn’t really matter. So far this season, my timing has been impeccably bad.
During the Pickwick event I was invited to stay with my traveling companions Peter Thliveros and Kenyan Hill, at the home of the Barnette family: Gene, Peggy Sue, and Peggy’s mom, Jimmie.
Man, do those people know how to cook!
Each night was a feast…like Thanksgiving! Peter T and Kenyan both can pack away some serious groceries, but even they couldn’t keep up with the meal plan the Barnettes had us on. I’ll bet I gained more weight than I put on the scales during the tournament. Southern hospitality at its finest.
Thank you Gene, Peggy Sue and Jimmie!