Last chance dashed at Erie

I went to Lake Erie a week ahead of time to practice for the final Bass Pro Shops Northern Open out of Sandusky Bay. I had wisely purchased BoatUS Angler insurance beforehand. See photos from Lake Erie.

On Monday, the first official practice day for the tournament, my outboard’s fuel pump died while I was in Canadian water 20 miles from Catawba Island State Park where I had launched.

BoatUS reps Cory Schenk and Kevin Holmes soon had the tow line of their Ann Marie hooked to my boat. They towed me back at 20 mph. Without BoatUS insurance, this tow would have cost me well over a thousand dollars. With the insurance, my payment was a sincere thank you.

During practice, I had found some mid-lake reefs west of Sandusky Bay in Canadian water that held quality smallmouth bass.

The bite was slow there but the bass were averaging around 4 pounds. Some of them weighed 5 pounds or more. I knew it would be a grind to pull a limit but these were the size bass needed to win.

It was choppy and windy when my co-angler Destin Demarion of Grove City, Pa., and I pulled up to one of my spots on the tournament’s first morning. I had to run the trolling motor full bore and stand on it constantly to hold against the wind and waves.

Demarion is a good stick and had put in time on Erie refining his drop shot presentation. He was third in the points coming into this event and finished on top after it was over.

While I was struggling to hold over the reef, Demarion boated five bass in less than 30 minutes. Then the fish shut off. Demarion’s three best smallmouth bass weighed over 13 pounds. He had one that would go 5 pounds, another that would go 4 pounds and a smaller fish.

After the flurry ended, I checked out Demarion’s drop shot rig. He was using a short leader, maybe 14 inches. My leader was closer to 3 feet. The long leader had worked well in practice, but it wasn’t what the bass wanted that day.

I shortened my leader, fished a sweet spot on a different reef and boated a brown one that was pushing 5 pounds. We hit a few other places and returned to where Demarion had caught his fish. No bites.

The plan was to hang in and scratch out a limit. However, after less than 3 hours of fishing, my batteries were dying. The boat has a 24-volt system and the batteries are 2 years old.

The batteries had held up through several long practice days, but I had never had to run the electric motor constantly on high speed as on this day. We had to abandon the fish and look for protected water.

We boated to the lee side of an island where I had caught smallies up to 3 pounds on a spinnerbait. By that time, my batteries were so dead that they could barely move the boat. They eventually gave out completely.

I had to idle to where I wanted to fish, kill the outboard, cast like a madman and do it all over again. I kept screaming to no one in particular: 

“I’m so blankety-blank frustrated.”

I managed to pull a limit. But even with the big bass from the mid-lake reef, I was shy of 15 pounds. My quest to win this tournament was dashed.

I drove myself, and my battered ego, back to my campsite at Catawba Island State Park. My spirits were lifted considerably when my daughter, Valerie, arrived there a short time later.

Val moved to Tulsa, Okla., a month before to take a job at a hospital there. She’s a registered nurse. She made the 14-hour drive to Erie to be with me at the tournament. Sharing the Open tournaments has been a wonderful experience for both of us.

North winds of 15 to 25 mph caused Tournament Director Chris Bowes to wisely cancel the second day of the event. The wind assaulted the tent throughout the night. I was never happier to not go fishing.

Val and I slept in. Hot, black coffee from McDonald’s on Catawba Island later brought us back to life. Now what to do?

The first stop was picking up fellow Bassmaster Open competitor Bryan Schram. Schram is a talented singer/songwriter/musician and our partner in crime at these events.

Our first stop was at a local restaurant for lunch. The overriding question was what do we do today? Schram suggested, half jokingly, that we go to Cedar Point, America’s number one rated amusement park.

Val was hesitant. It was cold and windy and the park would be nearly vacant. I pounced on the idea and convinced her that we should go. We did.

Unfortunately, we learned that the park’ off-season hours were 6 to 9 p.m. Schram and I had a tournament to fish the next day. A good night’s sleep took precedence over riding rollercoasters.

Val and Schram then decided that we needed to dine on sushi. I’ve tried it a few times without being impressed, but agreed to go along. The Nagoya restaurant on Catawba Island is known for its sushi, but we had a few hours to kill before it opened for business.

We killed that time at a nearby watering hole, the Thirsty Pirate. I entered the bar expecting bikers wearing eye patches and saying ahrr. Instead, we found a kind bartender named Alicia who introduced us to the Thirsty Pirate’s wide variety of beers.

It was hard to choose from the many beverages. Especially with names like “Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale,” “Thirsty Dog Old Leghumper” and “Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold.” Alicia recommended that we buy sampler glasses so we could savor several brews without getting wobbly. We sampled five of them.

From there we ventured to the Nagoya, the type of classy establishment that I rarely set foot into. Their list of sushi rolls was more extensive than the beer varieties at the Thirsty Pirate.

Val and Schram ordered five rolls of raw fish. Waitress Kim Johnson was kind, patient and helpful. She soon carried a platter of the most colorful food I’ve ever had brought to my table at any restaurant. It was a nicely done presentation. And it was, well, darn tasty.

My co-angler partner for the second and final day of the tournament was Paul Long of Sunbury, Ohio. Long is a bass nut and a professional chef who works 60 to 70 hours a week at a country club. His girlfriend bought the entry to the Open tournament as a surprise gift.

Long obviously has a winner of a girlfriend. This was his first major tournament and he was enjoying every second of it.

He failed to catch a bass on the first day. His partner, Jonathon VanDam, a former Northern Open winner here, had caught only three bass that day.

Since I was no longer in contention to win, my goal was to catch enough bass to cash a check and to get Long his first bass in an Open tournament. I figured I needed 22 pounds or more. That’s a tall order, but well within reason at Erie.

The weather laid down enough that I could easily fish my big-bass reefs. Unfortunately, my big bass were a no show. I caught four bass elsewhere, including one that weighed 5-2. I lost a few bass, but had nothing that would have pushed me over the 20-pound mark.

Long hung in all day and finally caught a smallmouth on a drop shot rig. He was happy to have it, and I was happy for him to have it. Even when things don’t go your way, it’s an amazing privilege to take on the challenge of fishing a Bassmaster Open. Long agrees.