James River: Game on!

I'm writing this from a Motel 6 in Murfreesboro, Tenn. It's Thursday evening, the week before the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open at the James River.

I wheeled my F-150 down from Ohio today so I can pick up a boat at the Phoenix plant in nearby Tullahoma first thing tomorrow morning. From there, I'll drive straight to the James.

Gary Clouse, president of Phoenix Bass Boats, is generously loaning a Phoenix 721 Pro XP to me for the Northern Opens, as he did last year.

I'm thrilled to have an opportunity to run a 721 again. During last year's Northern Opens, I tackled 5-foot waves at Lake Erie and 3-footers almost daily at Oneida Lake. The Phoenix ate up those whitecappers and spit them out. It's a superb boat.

Besides being pumped for the tournament, I'm happy to take a break from P90X, a series of strenuous, daily workout routines. They turn you into a stud in three months or put you 6 feet under in three days.

By the end of the first week, I was beginning to believe I had one foot in the grave. The program stresses countless muscles you didn't know you had. I was gimping around stiff-legged like a spasmodic zombie in a low budget walking dead movie.

I've been at P90X for 7 weeks. I'm walking normally again. And, at 63-years-old, I'm making good progress. Why does someone my age subject himself to a physical fitness regimen designed to sculpt muscular beach bodies?

Despite my age, and my dwarfish 5-foot, 6-inch, 150-pound bag of bones, I'm still vain. Some people never grow up.

A big downer for this event is that my good friend Frank Scalish won't be at the James. He's taking a hiatus from his professional bass career to spend more time with his family. His kids are growing up way too fast.

One of the wonderful things about fishing a major tournament circuit like the Bassmaster Opens is seeing the bass gypsies you've made friends with. I'll surely miss Scalish's low-key, hilarious sense of humor.

I will be bringing a new reel with me to the James. It's black and red, made by Quantum and has the name Kevin VanDam scribbled on it. It's his signature 5.3:1 gear ratio cranking reel.

I got hooked on the reel while attending a media event last spring at Table Rock sponsored by Quantum and Tundra. Several Bassmaster Elite Series pros were there, including VanDam.

VanDam and I fished crankbaits for 45 minutes or so before getting to work taking photos. He offered to let me use one of his cranking outfits. He didn't have to ask twice.

After making only three casts, I was so impressed with the reel's buttery-smooth performance I heard myself uttering: “Which reel is this?”

“That's my reel,” VanDam said. “My crankin' reel.”

I simply had to have one. Back home, with one of the black and red reels in my hot, clammy hands, I tested it with several rods. I wanted something that would help me cast square-billed crankbaits accurately to shallow wood cover at the James.

The rod that worked best was an old Browning 6 1/2-foot fiberglass stick that's more than 20 years old. I still have three of them. They were my sweethearts back when I fished tournaments on the Ohio River.

When I fished the Bassmaster Open at the James last year, I concentrated almost solely on lily pads. They let me down. This time around I'm adding laydowns, docks, cypress trees and other hard cover to my hit list.

I also got burned last year relying mainly on two lures. A frog and a beaver-type bait that I was pitching into the pads. This time, I'm coming with all guns blazing.

The front deck of the Phoenix will have an arsenal of rods rigged with 10 or more different lures. High on the list will be a Rick Clunn RC2 crankbait and a 4-inch Ringworm, both made by Luck “E” Strike.

About the only things that won't be on my deck will be big-billed crankbaits and other lures and rigs for structure fishing. The James is a shallow water deal.

I'm hoping all of the rods will help me overcome my acute case of tunnel vision. I invariably get stuck on a few places and patterns I find in practice and fail to make necessary adjustments when the tournament begins.

Old habits are hard to break. Especially bad habits.

I put all my eggs in the Chickahominy River basket last time around. That's still an option, because the Chick is the best fishery on the James.

However, I intend to check out far more water during my practice days. I'd like to run with the tide. The challenge with that strategy is that I'll have to find bass at different locations up and down the James.

That's a tall order for a visiting Buckeye to fill in a few practice days. Time to put the computer away. It's game on!

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