James River’s 600-pound gorilla

In my blog prior to the first Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open of 2013, I said that I felt confident about getting the James River monkey off my back. During my previous James River tournaments, I never had a good day, not even in practice.

This time around I did have some good practice days. I went into the tournament ready to boot that James River monkey in the pants. I underestimated that little critter.

I limped to the scales the first day with one small bass in my bag. I was limping because the James River monkey had transformed into a 600-pound gorilla. (See my photos from James River.)

I have no excuses for such a poor showing. If nothing major in your boat breaks down, there are no excuses. My Phoenix got me there and back just fine.

This blog gives me an opportunity to kinda think out loud as I try to figure out where I screwed up. You get to sit back, enjoy my missteps and do some Monday quarterbacking.

What worked for me in practice was fishing a frog aggressively over lily pads. I found key short stretches where I could quickly get two or three bites.

And those bites included solid bass that would go 3 pounds or better. I was shaking them off but many of the strikes were far too vicious to be made by your average largemouth.

I did set the hook twice on two less than spectacular strikes. One produced a 4-pound bass; the other went well over 3 pounds.

The best action happened during the first two hours of the falling tide. I could get eight or nine bites then and half of those bites would have tickled any angler fishing the James River Open.

Unfortunately, the tides were not in my favor. On Thursday, the first day of the tournament, the high tide where I was fishing in the Chickahominy River was around 5:15 a.m.

By the time I got there, my prime time pad fishing window would be more than half closed. I figured if I could get just two of those good bites early and scratch out three more keepers, I’d have a respectable day.

From what I had seen in practice, I knew a bag weighing 18 pounds or more was a real possibility. My plan was to fish fast, as I had done in practice, and hit as many of the best stretches as possible before the last 3 hours of the falling tide.

I knew the areas I wanted to fish had been pounded during practice, partly due to Tropical Storm Andrea. A week before the tournament, that nasty storm dropped 10 inches of water in the Richmond area in 24 hours.

The main James River and many of its creeks were muddy. That jammed most of the anglers into the Chickahominy, which had the clearest water.

I also knew I’d be fishing used water after the first 90 minutes of the tournament. I accepted the fact that bites would be harder to come by than in practice.

My first day partner, Donnie Meade of Richmond, Va., was an experienced James River fisherman. I’m sure he would have made better decisions than I did, but he was willing to let me make my own mistakes.

We hit my first three pad stretches without getting a sniff. I was covering water with a frog. Meade slowed down with a variety of soft plastic baits, but I was moving too fast for him to fish them as effectively as he would have liked.

Even so, I was hoping the bass would tell us which type of presentation they preferred.

A bass nipped my frog at the next stop and ripped off the legs when I set the hook. A few stops later I got one of the bites I was looking for. A bass that easily topped 4 pounds darted out from under the pads and sucked in my frog when it hit open water.

I slammed home the hooks. The rod bowed over, the bass parried and I could clearly see its wide side just under the surface. I could almost hear the bass growl when it slashed across the surface.

It dove again, putting a deeper bend in my rod. Meade was standing next to me, net in had. The bass was surely mine. Then the bait pulled out. My rod smacked Meade in the chest.

I did everything right, but the bass was gone. About 30 minutes later another bass shot out and nabbed my frog when it came off the pads. I hit the fish hard. I put heavy pressure on it, but it didn’t budge. The bait pulled out a few seconds later.

I caught the last bass that was willing to hit my frog. It weighed a meager 17 ounces.

I should have left the pads and gone to my backup cover, which was docks and cypress trees. But that cover held smaller bass than the ones I had found in the pads.

I stayed with the pads too long. We tried a variety of tactics, but couldn’t get them to go. By the time I resorted to wood, the tide had dropped too low for my stuff to be optimal. Donnie put a keeper in the boat and lost one about 3 pounds on a crankbait.

My partner the second day was Alabamian Mike Johnson, who is a videographer for Elite Series pro Timmy Horton. Johnson is also quite resourceful. When I lost water pressure on the run to the Chickahominy, he called Scott Beattie with the Mercury Support Crew.

Following Beattie’s advice, Johnson cut the point off a large fish hook, straightened it and used it to clean out the grass that was plugging the outboard’s pee hole. We lost only 20 minutes of fishing time.

A cold front made for a tougher frog bite on Friday. Only one bass assaulted my frog, a 2-pounder. It came off when it jumped.

I’ve come to believe that part of the issue with me losing bass was the frog itself. While fishing with this particular hollow bait, the points of the hooks frequently impaled the lure’s back. I had to check the frog often to keep the hooks exposed.

I now suspect that the hooks were sticking into the bait when I set the hook. If you have experienced this problem, please let me know how to overcome it with your comments.

I switched to docks and cypress trees earlier than on the previous day, but not soon enough. I caught two bass on a Strike King Pure Poison chattering jig dressed with a Strike King Rage Craw, and two bass on a Texas rigged Rage Craw.

My daughter Valerie drove over from Ohio to spend time with me during the tournament. It’s always great to have her rooting me on at the Opens.

I told her that I had to do my penance at the James River so that when I win one of the other Northern Open tournaments at Oneida or Lake Erie, I will be eligible to fish the Classic.

Oneida, here I come.

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