James River Bungle

I had never fished the James River before the recent Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open there. Now that I’ve been to the James, I can’t wait to go back--for revenge.

I can’t blame the boat I fished from for my dismal 92nd place showing. When I left Ohio for the James, I first drove to Phoenix Boats in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

That’s where I picked up a top-of-the-line Phoenix 721 ProXP. Phoenix president Gary Clouse is graciously letting me use this rig for the Bassmaster Northern Opens.

I towed the boat straight to a Holiday Inn in Virginia. I shared a room with South Carolinian Brett Mitchell, who also fished the James River Open as a boater.

I spent my first practice day in the Appomatox River. It was a short run from the official launch ramp, and it wasn’t likely to draw many competitors. Most of the field would make the long run to the Chickahomony River, which yields more bass.

I hadn’t fished from the bow of a bass boat for nearly a year. My lack of efficiency with the electric motor would have been comical had I not been seriously trying to find bass.

When you tune into a bass boat, running the electric motor is done almost subconsciously. I had to focus much of my attention on steering the boat, which hindered my casting accuracy.

I made my way far up the Appomatox, fishing laydowns, docks and whatever pads I could find with Texas-rigged plastics, shallow cranks and jigs.

I got zero bites. On the way out of the Appomatox, I got stuck on a tidal flat in the middle of the river. I had to jump in and shove the boat around for 30 minutes to free it.

The tidal flat incident bummed me on the Appomatox more than the lack of bites. I was seriously stressed about damaging the boat. I left the Appomatox and never returned.

I joined the crowd at the Chickahomony the next day. The Chick was easy to run and has copious lily pads, docks and cypress trees.

I practiced in the Chick for three days. I managed about six bites each day by fishing pads. I wasn’t dialed in, but I believed I could pull limits on the first two competition days.

My primary baits were a Booyah Boogee Bait (a chattering jig), a YUM Wooly Bug that I was flipping and pitching into the pads, and a SPRO Bronzeye Popper Frog. Mitchell, my roommate, had been catch some 3- and 4-pound largemouth from the Chick on the Popper Frog.

My partner the first day was Marvin Stith of New Jersey. He has been fishing Bassmaster tournaments as a nonboater for several years and is one of the most enjoyable partners I’ve ever had. I say that because he loves every aspect of tournament fishing.

Stith’s enthusiasm was uplifting, but that wasn’t enough to put bass in the boat. I caught one on the Boogee Bait, another on the Wooly Bug and had a bass make a halfhearted swipe at my Popper Frog. Stith missed one on a Popper Frog. That was it. Major bummer.

I returned to the Chick the next day with a jovial partner named Robert Pelletier from Nassau, New York. His son John was fishing the tournament as a boater.

The day started overcast with intermittent light rain. I pulled two small keepers on the Boogee Bait. When the sun broke through, I switched to the Popper Frog.

I stayed with the Popper Frog most of the day because frogs generally catch bigger bass. After dropping the ball the first day, I needed a limit of fatties to finish in the money.

Six bass blew up on my frog that day. Four were aggressive strikes. I whiffed every one of them. Either I failed to execute properly, or the bass failed to execute.

I’m blaming the bass. I hesitated after every strike, reeled in the slack, saw no frog on the surface, and slammed back with everything I could muster. In each incident, the bass did not have the frog in its mouth.

With two hours left to fish, I switched to spinning tackle rigged with a 4-inch ring worm and a 3/16-ounce slip sinker. I had gotten one bite in practice by fishing this combination off the outer edge of the pads.

Over the next hour, I caught four bass on the little worm, including three that would keep. With a small limit in the well, I finished the day with the frog. Result? No more bites.

After the tournament, I learned that Kelly Pratt had won by fishing a Zoom Finesse Worm rigged on a 1/8-ounce Slider Head jig. Given the bites I had on the little ring worm, I’ll downsize if I ever get another shot at the James.

I’m looking for redemption at Lake Erie. I’ve fished it many times and I should be tuned into the Phoenix by then. While I was at Phoenix Boats, I toured the factory.