Jay Wallen had momentum going for him as he launched his kayak for the 2017 Hobie Bass Open. His stellar kayak bass tournament record had included two third-place finishes in the Hobie Bass Open on Kentucky Lake already.
And Big Mo carried him to the summit. He topped the 115-man field at the Catch-Photo-Release event, earning a $4,000 winner’s purse and a trip to the Hobie Fishing World Championship 7 event, held last month at Lake Vanern in Amal, Sweden.
Wallen returns to Kentucky Lake this weekend (June 2-3, 2018) with hope and well-earned optimism as he defends his Hobie Bass Open crown. The Pikeville, Ky., native has invested a wealth of tournament time on the sprawling waters of Kentucky and Barkley lakes, and calendar and conditions cater to his preferred approach to these renowned reservoirs.
“Working the ledges is the ticket to these waters at this time of year, and ledge fishing is my favorite way to fish,” says Wallen.
“Ledge” is another term for the drop-offs of the Tennessee River channel and its tributaries. Following the spawn, masses of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass gradually retreat to this prime structure to feed on roving schools of shad.
“A lot of guys like to fire up a school with a deep-diving crankbait. A swimbait can go with that, too, because you can control its depth,” says Wallen. “But my favorite ways to catch ledge bass are with a jig or a large worm, Texas- or Carolina-rigged. There’s just something about feeling that bite.”
These “go-to” baits give him a shot at bass even when the fish are not in a mood to chase down faster-moving baits yet will continue to produce when fish are active.
“I like fishing slow, and I like fishing deep,” explains Wallen. “A lot of guys don’t have the patience or the feel, and you really need to pair those up to make jig or worm fishing work for you. There are not many things I’m patient at, but fishing a large bait on the bottom in deep water is one of them.”
Critical gear and tackle
At last year’s championship, a 12-inch worm Texas-rigged behind a 1/2-ounce bullet sinker got his ledge bite going. The bite transitioned to a 3/4-ounce football jig on Day 2. He trailed his jig with a Zoom Fat Albert soft plastic, dipping the tips of the tail with a garlic Spike-It dip. He fished both with sensitive G. Loomis rods.
“When I’m fishing in the 15- to 20-foot range, a 1/2-ounce jig slows the fall rate and seems to work better,” Wallen assesses. “But as the bite gets tougher, as the sun is up and the fish hold tighter to the bottom, I prefer the 3/4-ounce jig.”
Kayak fishing was once synonymous with shallow water techniques. No more. Kayak bass angling’s exploding popularity and tournament activity has created a corps of versatile anglers who, like Wallen, are equally comfortable fishing shallow or deep.
Wallen knows he will have to share the company of others crowding the top of the leader board when he works deep-water ledge structure, which ranges generally from 10- to 30-foot depths. Boat control poses the biggest challenge, especially in open water where reservoir winds and current can have critical influence on boat and bait. Wallen will rely on Hobie’s foot-controlled Mirage Drive for boat control.
“If it weren’t for the Mirage Drive, I wouldn’t be fishing out of a kayak,” he says. “I’ve fished other styles of kayak and drive systems, and I spent too much time controlling my boat and not enough time fishing.”
Of course, with the waters of Sweden’s Lake Vanern and the Hobie Fishing World Championship 7 still in mind, Wallen has new perspective on what it means to fish “deep.”
“Vanern is just a massive glacial lake, very deep and very clear, similar to our Great Lakes,” says Wallen of the lake where he competed in a slam format calling for the angler’s two best northern pike and two best perch each day. “The pike fishing wasn’t totally foreign to me, but fishing 80 feet down over 120 feet of water for perch was. I caught pike. I didn’t catch perch.”
A consecutive Hobie Open win would earn Wallen another trip to Hobie World Championship 8 and another chance to compete in an international field of anglers at a body of water as yet unknown, for a species as yet undetermined.
“Fishing the Hobie Worlds was a blast,” he recalls. “It is fun. I met a lot of great people. The fishing was truly secondary to everything else going on.”
He is anxious to compete in the Worlds again. For now, however, all his attention is on a repeat win at Kentucky Lake. It has been a wet spring for the impoundment with both water levels and water temperatures in frequent flux. Wallen expects higher than normal water levels to prompt more flow from the TVA – a good sign for ledge lovers.
All-important Plan B
With plenty of personal history with Kentucky and Barkley lakes, Wallen comes into the tournament with a back-up plan as well. Despite the illustrious ledge reputation of the reservoirs, expect plenty of fish to come from shallow cover and structure, too.
“We will find some fish up shallow feeding,” says Wallen. “Kentucky Lake has so many bays and creeks that, if the main river gets blown out because there is just too much current or wind, you can get onto the ledges on the creek channels.
“And, at the same time, you can’t overlook shallow water opportunities. Early in the morning or if it gets cloudy and overcast, we will definitely have a topwater bite. Somebody will benefit from that. To me, those are bonus fish. Any fish I can catch shallow in the morning amounts to work I don’t need to do later in the day.”
What will it take to win at Kentucky Lake?
Wallen’s win last year took a two-day, six-fish total of 115.5 inches. He edged Joshua Stewart of Waverly, Ten., by an inch and a half. Stewart, who also took second place at this year’s KBF National Championship on Kentucky and Barkley lakes, no doubt will have Wallen in his sights this weekend.
Still, Wallen has good reason for optimism. He is riding momentum again. He hopes to continue his hot – but not too hot – launch to the 2018 kayak bass tournament season, which has included a second place finish at the KBF Open on Santee Cooper reservoir, a fourth place at the KBF Trail event on Lake St. Clair and a third place finish in a KBF Trail event on Kentucky Lake.
“I’m having a really good season,” he says with a sly grin. “I haven’t won an event yet…but that’s just because I’m saving my best for this weekend, at the Hobie Bass Open!”