I ventured to the Bassmaster James River Northern Open hoping for redemption. My three previous Open tournaments at the James were abysmal. Even my practice days there had been woeful.
I arrived at Chickahominy Riverfront Park the week before the tournament and set up a tent camp. I needed extra time to get in tune with my boat, tackle and, especially, my casting.
Life’s curveballs had allowed me to fish only three mornings in 2015 prior to leaving Ohio for the James River.
I invested most of my practice time fishing wood cover in the Chickahominy River and caught bass with more regularity than in past trips to the James. I also caught a number of bass over 3 pounds.
Several heavyweights also engulfed my Scum Frog while fishing the Chick’s lush pads fields. I didn’t set the hook, but some of those bass would run several feet before jumping and spitting out the bait. One of those maulers looked to be a 6-pounder.
My plan for the first day of the tournament was to fish the pads for the initial 2 to 3 hours while the tide was high. I was hoping to stuff one or two good bass in the livewell and then go to wood cover and fill my limit as the tide dropped.
My partner was Donnie Bell, a local angler who knows the James River well. He had practiced with Elite Series standout Jacob Powroznik, a Virginian who is always a threat to win on the James.
Bell bewildered me when he said that he and Powroznik had gotten 30 to 50 bites on each of the three official practice days. For me, 10 bites in one day on the James is cause for a champagne celebration.
When tournament director Chris Bowes called our boat number, 183, we got in line and went through the boat check. I idled away from the dock, put the hammer down and flew around the first bend as fast as my 1999 Mercury 150 XR6 could push my old bass boat.
Then the motor shut down. The James River Jinx had struck again.
I restarted the engine and jumped the boat back on plane. It immediately shut down. After a few more attempts, I checked the squeeze ball. It was sucked flat. Fuel was not flowing through to the engine.
What made this even more frustrating is that this is the boat I’ve been working on for my “How to Keep Your Bass Boat Alive” series of articles and videos in B.A.S.S. Times® and on bassmaster.com.
I had replaced the fuel lines and the squeeze ball with new ones the year before. I had also rebuilt the fuel pump and added a fuel water separator to eliminate the very type of problem I was experiencing.
In near panic, I cut the fuel line, bypassed the fuel/water separator and connected the line directly to the gas tank. That didn’t fix the problem.
I put the boat on plane and eased back on the throttle. The outboard would push us along at roughly 30 mph without shutting down. About halfway to the Chick, the squeeze ball opened and we were able to run at full speed.
We had lost an hour of the crucial early morning/high tide bite by the time we got to the Chick. I got three blowups from bass that never engulfed my frog. Bell caught two keepers casting other baits to the edge of the pads.
It was time to fish wood cover. I headed toward one of three creeks on the Chick that were on my hit list.
Then the engine bogged badly. The squeeze ball had sucked flat again.
We stopped at a marina and spent the next 90 minutes or so working on the boat. We checked the fuel pickup in the gas tank. It was clear.
I bought another squeeze ball and swapped it with the one on the boat. The boat ran perfectly the rest of the day. Problem solved.
The question now was, do I go to my fish in the Chick or to Bell’s fish that were on the way back?
I knew it would be a challenge to catch five bass from my backwater spots with the limited time left. Bell’s comment of “30 to 50 bites a day” was ringing in my ears.
It seemed I had a better chance of filling my limit on Bell’s fish. I might also learn something new about fishing the James.
We flew out of the Chick and wound up in a very narrow and very shallow creek that was at the tail end of a slow, outgoing tide.
Bell was casting a wacky rigged-worm with no weight to the edge of a submerged grass line along the bank. He soon caught three bass, only one of which passed muster.
I was fishing a Texas rigged Strike King KVD Finesse Worm, one of my favorite baits, with a 1/16-ounce sinker. I couldn’t get a sniff.
“Your bait has to float with the current to make these fish bite,” Bell said.
I dropped to a 1/32-ounce sinker. That made the difference. With time running out, Bell caught two more small keepers. I also boated two bass that made it to the livewell, one of which weighed 3 pounds.
Bell’s three-bass co-angler limit weighed about 5 pounds and kept him within range of cashing a check. My bass weighed only 4 pounds and quashed any chance I had of a strong finish.
My second day partner, Michael Barton, is a young angler from New York who had caught only one bass the first day. We were literally and figuratively in the same boat, needing a big catch.
After passing through boat inspection, I jumped the boat on plane and sped around the first bend.
Then the motor shut down...again.
The James River Jinx had morphed into a curse. It was the same problem as the day before.
I idled back to the ramp and consulted with the Mercury support technician. He told me I had taken the appropriate steps to run down the problem. He suspected that the pickup tube in gas tank was the issue.
I cut off the bottom of the pickup tube, strapped a tungsten sinker to it and stuck it back in the gas tank.
The first hour of our fishing day was lost. When I put the boat on plane for the second time, I noticed that Barton crossed himself. I knew exactly how he felt.
We rounded the first bend. The outboard balked again. There would be no run to the Chick.
We limped to the Appomattox River and spent the day fishing anything between the two outer bridges that looked capable of holding a bass. I caught three small keepers. Barton lost a huge bass right at the end of the day.
The engine ran even worse on the way back. I could barely keep it on plane and wound up 4 minutes late. The 4-pound penalty I incurred surpassed the 3-15 that my three paltry bass weighed.
When I returned home, I took my boat to Schwarzel Marine in Hockingport, Ohio. John and Blain Schwarzel are the best bass boat mechanics I know. It didn’t take them long to determine that the problem was, indeed, the pickup tube in the gas tank.
It was sucking air between the aluminum fitting in the top of the gas tank and the plastic tube that extends into the tank from the fitting. Ethanol had eaten away the adhesive.
John Schwarzel custom made a pickup tube of a copper line soldered to a brass fitting. It solved the problem and will never again allow air in the line.
I hope the James River Jinx doesn’t follow me to Oneida, the next stop for the Bassmaster Northern Opens.
Click here to see photos from Mark's adventures at the 2015 Bass Pro Shops Northern Open #1.