A tale of above average

I’m a terrible tournament angler. I was a boat captain for my son, Austin, when he fished for the Oak Mountain High School team. All four years of his career, he and his partner never cracked the Top 20 with me at the steering wheel. My biggest tournament achievement occurred when Austin and I fished a 10-man team derby at Alabama’s Lay Lake and finished second. We walked away from that one with almost enough money to pick up a celebratory Whataburger on the way home. Still, most of the tournaments I fish, I bring my 8 pounds to the scales just to release the bass before weigh-in, knowing my efforts would land me in the bottom half of the standings. All that said, I do love fishing in a derby.

My regular partner, Austin, moved to Texas after graduating from high school. So, I went a long time without entering a tournament. Finally, I got the itch to compete.

After all, there is something special about putting your money where your fishing knowledge is: nervousness, anticipation, the fun kind of stress. I learned of a club tournament being held on Lake Mitchell, just south of my home in Birmingham, Ala., and wrangled a friend of mine, Dave Burnett, into fishing it with me.

I went to practice the week before the big day. It was awesome. Just about every secondary point I stopped at in the main river, I caught bass. This was going to be my best derby ever. When I arrived back at the ramp, I walked up to a flat tire. Awesome! Usually something like that happens on a tournament day. Like when I knocked off my lower unit at blastoff on Lake Martin. Or when my outboard exploded halfway up the river on Neely Henry. Or when I put the plug in the wrong hole at launch and almost sank my boat before the national anthem played.

Of course, Mother Nature decided to throw quite a curveball. Between the time I put a spare on my truck and when we launched for the tournament, 4 inches of rain had fallen. Plus, the weatherman was calling for a cold front and 20-mph winds during the event. For the first time in months, the weatherman was right. It was brutal.

I’m not sure if it was the high, muddy water, or the change in pressure, or the crazy current or the postfrontal conditions, but all those fish I found in practice were gone. We caught four keepers and had the fifth on three different times, most notably a 3-pound largemouth that jumped off boatside. On paper, it was a terrible day. However, what we did have was a killer adrenaline rush every time we set the hook. We had about 12 great ideas and modifications to our baits and presentations based on the new conditions. Of course, they didn’t work. But, with each new effort came new enthusiasm and expectations. We certainly learned the lake better and found areas we hadn’t fished before that may be good next time. And we were able to spend eight hours deepening our friendship (nothing improves a bond more than being terrible at exactly the same time).

So, we pulled up to the weigh-in with, yep, 8 pounds. I was ready to release the fish boatside when I overheard that fishing was really tough for everyone. Optimistic, we bagged our bass and toted them to the weighmaster. We ended up second-to-last place. Evidently, their “tough” and our “tough” were two very different animals.

As I was bobbing in the boat, waiting on Dave to slide the trailer in the water, I heard him yelling. I looked up at the ramp. He was waving his arms. I idled closer. “Uh, James, your truck battery is dead!”

I took a minute to consider the issue. “Awesome!” I replied. Usually, that type of thing would have happened before heading to the lake. This turned out to be an above-average tournament for me after all.