PALATKA, Fla. -- Billy McCaghren says he has sight-fished in a tournament only once in his life. That doesn't matter. On the first day of the Power-Pole Citrus Slam, he says he's going to be looking at them because that's what he needs to do.
He pulls a notebook out and flips to a page of hand-written numbers.
"Each number here," he explains, swiping his finger down the left column, "matches a number here."
He then points to circles on a wide electronics screen that, essentially, is the dashboard of his boat. The waypoints are strung across the screen like big pearls on a necklace.
He goes back to the notebook: "The fish weights are here, this column." Two numbers, he says, mean that the spawning bed he saw in practice held multiple fish. Double digits means a lunker.
He smiles, hope in his eyes. Ten pounds and up is the class of bass that could win this tournament. And he had seen such fish.
For every Elite Series pro, this is a $100,000 tournament. For McCaghren, 39, winning would mean he could give up his job as a welder in his family's business at home in Mayflower, Ark., and concentrate on his fishing career.
Any size check will be welcome. He and his wife, Norma, a nurse, were surprised with her pregnancy relatively late in their lives. She's six months along now, due May 16.
"It's exciting, a blessing, but an added pressure this year," said McCaghren, a third-season pro. "I need to have a good year to keep fishing the Elites. If I do really well, I can turn it into a full-time career."
McCaghren's meticulous notes drawn up over three days of practice are the basis of his plan for the day — for all four days of the tournament, in fact; the sight-fishing bite is all he has, he says. He hasn't had time to develop secondary stuff, not really. Nothing, anyway, to the degree of the written analysis he's put together to guide him through the St. Johns River fishery.
A river system is a familiar playing field to McCaghren. He was raised on the Arkansas River. He won a Bassmaster Open in 2008 on the Red River, a victory that got him dreaming about becoming a Bassmaster Elite Series pro. He made the leap, coming in as a 2009 season rookie. In that first year, a third-place finish on the Mississippi River helped him into Bassmaster Rookie of the Year honors and a 2010 Bassmaster Classic qualification.
But this river competition is a sight-fishing contest. He accepted that fact early on, but it isn't his strength. His only other sight-fishing tournament was last season at Smith Mountain Lake, where he finished 46th.
And now he's at the docks, waiting for the signal to start the first day of another test of his sight-fishing skills. He uses the time to sort through his rods and rig a few lures. A photographer stops to say good morning."You running far today, Billy?" he asks.
"About 40 minutes," Billy answers.
"Oh, that's a long run," the photographer says, shaking his head.
The time is about 7 a.m. He pushes off the dock and positions a short distance away to wait out the half hour until takeoff.
He doesn't say much. His head is already in the contest. He watches the boat traffic, 99 boats bobbing within feet of each other, some with engines puttering. Although Elite pros handle a boat like they were born to it, that doesn't mean they aren't careful.
This early in the season — this is only the second or third event for most of these wrapped boats — no one wants ugly gouges. At the official's signal, a group of boats begins to move toward the checkout. McCaghren starts his motor and watches the procession until it is his turn to move up. He turns his head to check the position of the boat behind him.
"What number are you, James?" he asks the boat's driver, speaking no louder than in his usual soft voice."25," James Niggemeyer replies. McCaghren nods his thanks to Niggemeyer and noses in ahead of him. The Arkansas pro's draw was No. 24. That means 23 boats will be in front of him in the 70-mph race to the spawning beds.
McCaghren tugs the strings of his hood to draw the material into a circle around his eyes, nose and mouth. He tucks his hat under his thigh. Sunglasses on. These double as goggles; the sun is still low. Within one minute, he is through the official checkpoints and up on plane. Just as he'd told the photographer, his trip upriver takes 40 minutes. As he slows, the stack of waypoints on his screen comes to life under the low sun. This is a field of eelgrass covered by about 2 feet of clear water.
There are already a few boats on the flats. Some are not wrapped rigs, so are not Elite competitors.
McCaghren isn't paying much attention to other boats. He's getting out the push pole and moving to the bow. Careful not to cause unnecessary splash, he starts poling. The boat swings right, then left, responding to the alternating force of each push. Quietly the boat advances.
Within a few minutes, more Elite boats arrive. And more. About a dozen are staking out a claim to a piece of the flats.
McCaghren's trolling motor remains off. He often uses the mount as a step up for a better look into the beds. Like McCaghren, anglers are poling, and trolling motors are off. As if by agreement, no one speaks; the silence is eerie.
The water is clear enough to see to the bottom of the beds. These are sand-colored bald patches that randomly appear in the grass. Some are almost completely round, but not all. Floating masses of grass cuttings often obscure the view of what's happening below the surface. Sometimes McCaghren uses the Y end of his pole to brush the pieces aside.
He stops, stares for several minutes, then stows the big stick. With his toe, he pushes a button in a panel mounted at the bow. His dual Power-Poles whir at the stern. Their booms drop and praying mantis legs jut out and grab the bottom. As if a massive hand descended to quiet it, the boat locks into place.
Finally, actual fishing has begun. After just a few flips, he swings and misses. Repeat. He goes back to it, not ready to give up on this particular fish. Nine minutes later, the bass takes the bait again. This time McCaghren wins. The bass goes about 4 pounds on his digital scale.
His relief of getting a nice one into the livewell is almost palpable. Of all the boats within sight of McCaghren, he is the first to boat a fish.
He is on the move again, poling in search of another occupied bed. He soon sees one. Power-Poles down, he flips a giant gray-flecked tube bait, the same bait that the 4-pounder sucked in. After a few pitches, he swings and the big bait zings through the air. After a few more knocks, he gets a definitive answer. The bass surfaces, but suddenly the bare line is waving in the air. Bass and bait are gone
McCaghren says nothing. Later he guesses it was a 6-pounder.
Back to the bow, he repeats the sequence over and over again: push pole, Power-Poles, pitch. When he spots a larger female on a bed, he studies her for several minutes. If he likes what he sees, he neatly stows the push pole, deploys the Power-Poles, and goes to work.
This is hard work. The sunlight gets stronger and starts to warm the air. Better light is also sharpening McCaghren's visibility into the grass and beds.
At 9:25, he gets another bedder to take his bait, a small Zoom Craw, watermelon red. He lands it and weighs it: 3-12, the digital scale tells him.
The comment comes from a nearby Elite boat. The joke makes McCaghren smile. He's got almost 8 pounds in the livewell, and it's still early. Not bad for a riverman who doesn't do much sight-fishing.
But the action shuts down. When he spots a spawner, he offers everything on the deck to it. He's used the craw, the big tube, two smaller tubes —one stark white — and a small worm. At one point, he even tries a hard stickbait, but it snags so much grass he can hardly work it.
Fish No. 3 doesn't come until almost 11 a.m., and it's a disappointment. A 1-3, but a pound is a pound, and it goes into the box. No. 4 is 12 minutes later, a 2-13. Better. But not where McCaghren needs to be, and he knows it.
At noon, fish No. 5 appears. This is a better bass than the previous two; it's just over 3 pounds. McCaghren now has about 14 pounds in the livewell.
Greg Vinson poles in close enough to exchange a few words. McCaghren asks Vinson if he has any 7/0 hooks to spare. Vinson says he has none.
The two pros push off.
McCaghren is poling much more than he's casting. At 1:10 p.m., he spots a bass on a bed.
"It's a big one," he whispers, four of the few words he's taken time to speak all day.
First he fobs the big gray tube into the hole. No go. After a few more tries, he switches to a smaller size plastic, a craw. Then to a bigger green tube with red gills, and the magic happens. It bows the rod, and McCaghren reels it to the side of the boat as quickly as he can. He lips it. It is a beauty.
The weight of the fish is 7-plus on his digital scale. He culls his dink, then puts the 7-pounder into the livewell. His weight has suddenly jumped into leaderboard material: about 21 pounds.
His hands are shaking.
"I just happened to see her nose up high," he said. Only now does he take a break, his first of the day. He wolfs a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, slugs down a sports drink. In less than five minutes he's hefting the push pole again.
It's 1:24 p.m. He has about two hours of fishing left before he has to head back for the 4 p.m. check-in. He doesn't let up, but nothing much more happens for him. A 2-8 doesn't help him cull a 2-13, so the new catch is released. The next bass isn't worth weighing; it obviously isn't going to beat the 2-13.
Jason Williamson comes within earshot. He says he has a 10-pounder.
"If it ain't, it's close. Biggest one I've ever caught here," he says.
At 3:15, he's still at the bow, searching for his own 10-pounder. But by 3:21, the thought of being late for 4 p.m. check-in nips at him. He takes his seat at the wheel and idles out of the grass flat into deeper water. There, for a few heart-stopping seconds, the engine won't throttle up. He reverses, works at it a minute, and the engine responds.
About 10 minutes out, he zips by a wrapped boat tied to a buoy. No one's in it. Turns out, it was Chris Lane's boat, which he had to abandon after hitting unidentified floating debris. It's the type of thing that can happen on a river.
This river has been kinder to Billy McCaghren. The proof was his bag of fish, which weighed in at 20 pounds, 11 ounces, for seventh place.
Beginner's luck? Maybe, but this sight fisherman in the making did it again on Day Two, posting 15-11 to improve two places in the standings. He is easily inside the top-50 cut, where payout is guaranteed. Just as good, he has worked out of his dry spell without checks.
It gets better for him: on Saturday he makes it to Sunday's finals at 11th place, with 44 pounds, 4 ounces, worth of bass taken while sight fishing, the technique he's just learning to master.
Sunday, he will be fishing for $100,000. Can the riverman do it?