Best story of the AOY Championship?

by William Frazier

(Forwarned: Have tissues ready.)

Sunday as Brandon Palaniuk checked in, he reached in his livewell and pulled out 3 rubber ducks. I let it go for a second but it became obvious he was spending more time caring for the rubber ducks than his fish.

So... I asked.

Brandon is one of the incredible young anglers that have entered our sport in the last few years showcasing the sports open, inclusive personality. You do not run into this guy when he is not ready and enthusiastic to be with and talk to fans.

Brandon said was fishing a dock on Chatuge when a little boy came out and started talking to him. Brandon was particularly asking him about whose giant inflatable yellow rubber duck water toy was parked beside the dock. The little guy said it was theirs. Apparently he was excited and suggested he and his brother would like to fish with him. Brandon explain why that could not happen and went on about his day.

But, when he came back the next day, the little guy gave him the three rubber ducks. He told Brandon they were Brandon, his brother and him. So, they got to go with him anyway.

Yay Brandon!

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Tharp breathing easier now

One cast, one fish. That's what an entire season can come down to on the last day of the AOY Championship. Randall Tharp may have just guaranteed himself a Bassmaster Classic berth with a 4-pound, 10-ounce bass at 2:17 p.m.

Tharp was on the verge of missing the AOY top 35 cut for an automatic berth. He came into the tournament 33rd in Angler of the Year points. Tharp was in 32nd based on the Day 2 standings at Chatuge. And he wasn't having a good day today, languishing in low 30s with a limit weighing about 6 or 7 pounds.

Then - boom - one cast, one fish and Tharp's in great shape. That 4-pound, 10-ounce bass, according to BASSTrakk, allowed him to cull a dink, give him 11-8 for the day, 30-15 for the tournament and move him up to 21st place in the BASSTrakk standings.

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A pair of two-bass tales

If you were watching “Bassmaster LIVE” shortly after 1 p.m., you saw Roy Hawk hook up with what he thought was “a toad." But as Hawk got the "big bass" near the boat, he realized he had a pair of 2-pounders on his topwater lure. Hawk landed only one of them. He thought the second one simply came unhooked, but a closer examination showed the-one-that-got-away left with one of the treble hooks on his topwater lure.

“The split ring broke,” Hawk said. That can happen when two good-size spotted bass are pulling in opposite directions on a lure.

Earlier today, when James Overstreet, Gettys Brannon and I were following James Elam, we saw him land a nice keeper, then throw something back in the water that looked like a fish. It was puzzling. We didn’t get a good look at it, but whatever he threw back wasn’t nearly as big as the bass we saw him swing in the boat.

When Overstreet was working up his photo galleries from today, he was able to solve the mystery. As you can see from the enlarged image above, Elam, like Hawk, hooked a double on a topwater lure. The result for both anglers was the same - one decent keeper in the boat.

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The James Gang is out

James Overstreet decided to turn his pretty head and "Walk Away," so The James Gang is off the water. (I apologize for the ancient rock reference that only people 50 and older will get. Couldn't help it.)

Seriously, it was an interesting morning. In the snapshots of the day we witnessed with first James Elam and then Chris Lane, it appears Lake Chatuge's bass might be in more of a feeding mode, possibly due to 50 Elite Series pros being off the water yesterday, maybe due to the broken cloud cover today, or the combination.

The previous two days of the tournament, angler after angler mentioned the bite that heats up on Lake Chatuge about 10:30 or 11:00, then continues through check-in time at 3:10 p.m. Lane said it was more like 11:30 or noon when his topwater bite picked up Friday, when he weighed the big bag of the tournament so far of 18 pounds, 5 ounces.

However, today Lane looked at his watch after landing a 4-pounder for his fifth keeper, looked over at us, smiled and said, "Ten-forty-two."

If the high-sun pattern from the first two days of the tournament continues today, Day 3 may end up being the best day of the event.


Boat Driver of the Year

We’ve decided to go ahead and award the 2018 Toyota Camera Boat Driver of the Year champion a little early. The TCBDY award is for the guys who spend three or four days ferrying Bassmaster photographers and writers around Elite Series tournaments in search of great photos and stories.

The job comes with a fair share of verbal abuse dished out by the curmudgeons who make up our talented team. Points are awarded for driving skills, ability to insert humor into the occasional unpleasant situation, and the quality of food brought along for passengers.

Jeff Southards of Murphy, N.C., has topped the field in the 2018 TCBDY race. He has been the camera boat driver for Thomas Allen (in the photo that’s Southards on the left and Allen on the right) and myself this week. His boat driving skills have been top notch, his humor superb, but honestly the food has taken him over the top. So perhaps we should give the award to his wife Stacey. She made us delicious sandwiches every day, including sloppy joes, smoked turkey, and barbecued pork sandwiches. He had points deducted for hitting a rogue wave, but the Ding Dongs offered with lunch more than wiped that out. The prize package includes a Bassmaster 50th anniversary pin, one free blog post (you are reading it now), a ride in my Toyota Tundra, and a promise of friendship for life.

Here’s more from Southards:

Why did you sign up to drive for us? “I love bass fishing.”

How many tournaments do you fish a year? “How many weekends are there?”

What do you do for a living? “Commercial refrigeration. Me and my business partner own Amos Refrigeration. We have 110 employees.”

Do you have children? “Four. Amy, Axel, Nolan and Makayla.”

What have you learned from the pros this week? “That they’ve fished all my spots. I do want to fish with more determination like they do.”

Has Justin Lucas missed any good spots? “Armstrong Cove.”

On a scale of 1 to 10, how much of a jerk has Thomas Allen been this week? “He’s a 10 (unusually good behavior).”

On a scale of 1 to 10, how much does Thomas deserve a raise? “9.5.”

What kept you from giving him a 10? “He hasn’t told me he’s taking me to Iowa for a deer hunt yet.”

Spohrer finishing strong

Gerald Spohrer struggled in his rookie season on the Elite Series, finishing 87th in the AOY standings. That surprised those who had followed his career. But he has shown his true colors this season. The Gonzales, La., angler came into the AOY Championship ranked 19th, with a Classic berth assured.

But he’s not slowing down. Spohrer was 6th entering today, and he’s has had a good morning. He just culled up. But he said the best should be coming soon.

“My better fish don’t bite until after noon,” he said.

Spohrer came into the AOY with a game plan of simply ensuring he didn’t lose ground in the rankings. He’s on pace to gain a little.

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Lane's topwater affair

“I started throwing a classic (Smithwick) Devil’s Horse when I was a kid,” said Chris Lane. “My daddy and granddaddy taught me, my brothers Bobby and Arnie that was the way to go. I’ve loved topwater ever since, fish it whenever I can.”

Topwater is indeed the way to go this week. In a couple days you’ll see the photo gallery put together by myself and Andy Crawford of the top lures used this week at Lake Chatuge. You will see a topwater bait in every photo. 

Lane has a special affinity for topwater, having designed a model for River2Sea that bears his hame. It’s the River2Sea Chris Lane Top Notch, a noisy topwater with a curled lip that emits a giant bubble trail and spitting action. A plastic prop adds sputtering action, and the lure can be worked at variable speeds. The Florida pro also is using a River2Sea Whopper Plopper, originally designed for muskie fishing and embraced by bass fishermen. The soft, pliable tail rotates on the harness and creates bass (and originally muskie) alluring rumbles at variety retrieve speeds and depths. 

Lane also is atop the BASSTrakk leaderboard with 43 pounds, 8 ounces.

Lane putting on a show

Chris Lane has lit up in the last 30 minutes. He caught his third fish just after we arrived. Then he had to lift No. 4 over a dock cable. The capper - a 4-pounder - elicited a trademark “Pow!” scream from Lane. It blew up on his topwater bait on the other side of a laydown. Lane had to yank the fish out of the brush, then play it a little more carefully back to the boat, hence the “Pow!”

Lane just had a bass following his lure that took his breath away. But it wouldn’t commit. He turned around and said, “That was ol’ big.”

Lane is ahead of the pace he set Friday when he sacked 18-5. He only caught 6 fish, and most of his weight came after 11:30.

“If I could have landed the 6-pounder I lost, I would have had 22 pounds,” said Lane, whose 18-5 bag included a 2-pounder.