Getting the jump on the James

I left southern Ohio for the James River the week before the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open is slated to happen there. From home, the James is an easy day’s drive.

It took me two long days behind the wheel to get there because I made a detour to Phoenix Bass Boats in Winchester, Tennessee. Gary Clouse, president of Phoenix, is loaning me one of his boats for the third year so I can compete in the Northern Opens on the “pro” side.

When I pack my F-150 for what has become an annual trek to the James River, I feel like the intro to the old Beverly Hillbillies sitcom.

The bed of my pickup and my passenger seat is loaded to the gills with rods, tackle, camping gear, food, clothes, a tangled mess of extension cords, gallons of boat oil, a laptop, my cameras, a coffee maker and more.

Come to think of it, that’s about everything I own. I have to keep the windows rolled up so the chickens don’t fly out while I’m speeding down the highway.

I arrived at the Chickahominy Riverfront Park just before dark. I pitched my tent, filled the air mattress, fluffed up the sleeping bag and looked out over Gordon Creek with mixed emotions.

I was elated to have the next 10 days dedicated mainly to fishing. (Hopefully 11 days should I hatch a miracle and make the cut.) I had fished only four days in 2013 prior to that moment, and that was from the back of the boat in two Bassmaster Southern Opens.

The downside was that I had been to the James for Open tournaments the past two years. I had yet to have a good day on this blasted tidal fishery. Not in practice and, certainly, not during the tournament.

On my first morning fishing the James, I worked my way to the back of a small, nondescript creek. When I went as far as I could go, I came across a slender young man standing on the bank.

“Are you fishing the Open?” he said.

I allowed that I was.

“You’re the first tournament fisherman I’ve ever seen in this creek,” he said.

I wasn’t sure how to take that. Did it mean I was smarter and more persistent than other anglers, or simply clueless.

The young man’s name was Zach Bruss. When I told him my name, he knew who I was.

“I just read one of your articles this morning,” he told me.

Well, who was I to leave a fan of mine standing on the bank. We made plans to meet back at the Chickahominy Riverfront Park ramp after he tied up some loose ends.

Since it was well before the official practice period, Bruss could fish with me. Not only is Bruss a bass nut, he works for B.A.S.S. as one of the Toyota Bassmaster Weekend Series crew. He would be leaving the next day to work a tournament at Indian Lake, Ohio. Small world.

Bruss knows the Chickahominy River well. That afternoon he showed me places I would never have fished on my own. We only caught a few small keepers and some shorts, but he constantly rattled off tips about how to deal with this maddening tidal fishery. If his advice helps me get the James River monkey off my back, I owe Bruss big time.

That night raindrops pelted my tent nonstop. It continued raining the next day. Scratch that, the next day was a constant deluge, thanks to tropical storm Andrea.

It was one of those days that, no matter how good your rain gear, you were going to be drenched to the bone. I was drenched to the bone all day. I’m still waterlogged as I write this, three days later.

I enjoy camping, unless it’s raining. That’s when everything, and I mean everything, is wet or damp and you can’t dry out. Adrea dumped 9 inches of the wet stuff in a 24-hour period. There were flash flood warnings. I worried that my tent would be washed over the bank into the river, with me in it.

Better weather followed, and I was able to shuck my rain gear cocoon and cast in comfort. And, man, did I ever need it. I came early to the James more to get in tune with my tackle than to get a jump on finding bass.

The James River is a shallow-water fishery. That puts a premium on pinpoint target casting. I’ve been on the water five days. My casting is coming around.

You know you’re in the groove when you see a challenging target and the lure drops in the pocket almost by itself. If you have to think about making the cast, you’re going to miss. It has to be automatic.

Even on a good day, my casting doesn’t compare to that of Elite Series pros like Ott DeFoe and Andy Montgomery. But I do feel more confident about putting a lure where it needs to be this time around than on my previous James River mishaps.

The ramp at the Chickahominy Riverfront Park gets heavy use from bass fishermen, including those who are practicing for the James River Open. One of those anglers, a young man named John, came to my campsite and introduced himself.

“You’re Mark Hicks aren’t you, the writer?” he said.

I was indeed.

“I’m a big fan of your blog. I just wanted to meet you.”

Very nice, and humbling.

That happens frequently since I began writing the blog for the Opens page of the Bassmaster web site. It’s that little picture that accompanies my blog. Now people actually recognize me.

It happened again yesterday, when a young Maryland fisherman named Matt Elliott moved into the camping spot next to mine. He’s also one of my fans. I’m beginning to get a big head.

Elliott is fishing the Open. He’s upbeat, on a low budget and happy to be fishing. We have a lot in common.

A good-sized local tournament happened at the Chickahominy Riverfront Park yesterday. The two biggest sacks weighed 16 pounds. The rest of the field didn’t fare nearly as well. Looks like it’s shaping up to be another challenging James River Open.

Yesterday evening I chatted with local James River ace Kelly Pratt. He won this event and qualified for the Classic two years ago. Last year he finished fourth here.

Pratt lives 10 minutes from Chickahominy Riverfront Park and knows these waters better than anyone. He’s laid back and friendly. I enjoyed hanging with him, but I didn’t care for his predictions regarding the river conditions.

Right now, the river and the creeks are stained from all the rain, but nothing outrageous. I believe conditions will improve before the tournament begins. Pratt tells me the muddy water upriver will wash down by the time the tournament begins and hinder the fishing.

Debris that has washed into the river, thanks to Andrea, could also make running the main river treacherous. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that no one needs to call BoatUS for a tow.

Pratt believes 12 to 13 pounds a day will be good enough to make the top 12 cut. I suspect he’s right. If I can do that, I’ll give that James River monkey a swift kick in the pants.