This has been one heck of a week here in Little Rock. At times I’ve thought of it as a complete nightmare. One that, if we can possibly make it past Sunday evening, we’ll forget it and move on.
Of course the Elite Series, happening in my hometown, is what I’m talking about. In spite of the fact that the site was arranged for long before I came aboard, I still took responsibility for all the things that kept going wrong. I even thought the flood was my fault, and told most folks how sorry I was.
But here I sit on Monday morning with the dust having already settled, and wondering if this possibly wasn’t one of the most interesting bass fishing tournaments in recent memory.
This so called nightmare actually started 30 days ago when Oklahoma and Arkansas had record storms and rain totals. The Arkansas River was ending up with most of those totals that were making their way through the state and on their way to the Mississippi River.
Fellas, you should have seen this river. There was water everywhere. And 100 percent of it was red mud with floating debris everywhere.
We started looking for a new site for the event, and that was not an easy chore.
How about moving to Kentucky Lake, or one of the Alabama reservoirs? That’s no good, we’ve been to those spots too much.
Well, what about Ouachita in Arkansas, or another spot in Oklahoma, Missouri, maybe Mississippi?
Oh, wait a minute, they’re just as bad off as the Arkansas River. All of Central USA was flooding.
So the Corps of Engineer tells us to be patient and the river will shape up, and it does.
However, two weeks before the event, storms hit again, more flooding occurs, and now not only do we not have a plan B, but we’ve lost our window to move if we did have another spot.
Once again the Corps tells us to be patient, and sure enough when official practice starts, the Arkansas River is safe and fishable. I breathe a sigh of relief until midway through that first practice day when someone shows me a picture on their phone.
It’s Denny Brauer stuck on a sand bar. Due to the flooding, lots of the water has changed the contour, and it’s still muddy enough that you can’t tell exactly where you’re going. So our anglers are not only looking for fish, they’re looking to find their way back to the launching ramp at the end of the day.
I decide against going to the ledge of one of the tall Little Rock buildings, and the first day of the event is kind of uneventful. Fishing is tough, but we knew that would be the case. The weigh-in crowds were small and we expected that as well. Gosh, it was 300 degrees at weigh-in time. What should we expect?
Day Two seemed to go fairly smooth as well, although locking into other pools and getting back on time was a bit of a problem. Fishing is still slow, event crowds small, but we’re surviving – or at least I thought we were.
The next morning, headlines in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sports section point out that two of our anglers are fussing over some fishing territory down in the Pine Bluff pool. Fussing is putting it mildly and this is something that happens from time to time, but the anglers are supposed to go to tournament officials. Not the paper – in my home town.
Then to make matters worse, another article, in that same paper, talks in detail about problems that the anglers were having with the locks. They were really fussing. Once again, fussing is an understatement.
Oh my, if I can only get to Monday. On Saturday, KVD shows up at the launch ramp with two flat tires on his boat trailer. How that happened, I didn’t ask, but he’s launching on rims. Other than this, everything appears to be normal.
So now we’re down to the last day, when only 12 fish. Reports are coming in and fishing is once again slow for most. However, lots of fans have spent the day around the expo and weigh-in area, so it looks like a big crowd will take in the championship weigh-in. Now it’s an hour till the boats check in and things are still running smooth.
Then Trip Weldon, tournament director, gets the phone call that stuns everyone.
There’s a barge in the lock between Pine Bluff and Little Rock and the majority of the field are locked out, will be late, disqualified, and lose their weight.
Denny Brauer, who went into the last day leading by 10 pounds, could possibly get a goose egg for the day and lose. Gerald Swindle, John Murray, Billy McCaghren, Kevin and Jonathon Van Dam, Greg Vinson, and Jason Quinn were all in the same boat, so to speak.
Now here’s where the whole thing turns around for me. This is the place where the nightmare turns into something I’m so proud to be a part of.
The barge is finally out of the lock and the boats are inside. If everything goes perfect, they can get out of the lock and be in Little Rock in 20 minutes – it’s 15 minutes to check-in, though.
As I understand, this is where angler Timmy Horton takes over and starts working, by phone, with the lock master to hurry up the process.
They all at that point get organized to make sure Denny was in line to be first out of the lock with everyone and everything out of the way.
Gerald Swindle would talk later about how proud he was to be a part of that group.
Two hours earlier they were competing furiously with each other, even at each other’s throats. But when they saw the lock was closed, they immediately bonded together and went to work to make sure that Brauer got to Little Rock.
Well Horton has Brauer up front as the gate begins to open. Swindle is right behind, pushing Denny’s outboard with the bow of his boat, helping get him through as fast as possible.
I was actually in the crowd of people in Little Rock, looking down the river, at the 3 check-in time – and no boat in sight.
Now they start losing weight for every minute they’re late, and Denny has about 13 pounds in his livewell.
Aaron Martens is in second place, fished in Little Rock, and checked in on time. He will win if Denny is about 12 minutes late.
Three after – no boats are coming.
Four minutes after, and in the distance we see ‘em coming. That’s the good news. The bad is that Denny Brauer’s boat is the slowest, and he’s now bringing up the rear. Six minutes, and several boats have checked in and at seven minutes after, our hero D.B. has crossed the line, and will end up getting about seven pounds of his total for the day, and become a Bassmaster champion for the 17th time.
Good grief, what a stressful 30 days. Wouldn’t have missed a single one of them.