Alton's airways

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – “You’re cheating,” the girl at the counter blurted upon learning of Alton Jones’ flight plan.

Jones was checking in with Central Flying Service to scout the Arkansas River for the Elite Series Diamond Drive there June 9-12. A man from another group setting out for an aerial view of the flooding on the Mississippi River overheard the exchange, and added his two cents.

“You’d need a long fish finder.”

Actually, Jones was equipped with a handheld GPS, video and still cameras, a notebook and the most important tool, his eyes. Afterward, Jones said “1.4 hours in an airplane is like 1.4 months on the water.”

And it’s not cheating.

“Tournament rules state we can’t be on the river during the off-limits, but we can fly over it,” said Jones, who even called B.A.S.S. tournament officials to make certain the impromptu trip was kosher. “What I did today is available to any of the Elite Series competitors who want to take the time and spend the money to do this.”

For Jones, it could be a small investment with a big payoff, something he can appreciate. When not fishing, Jones is day trading stocks. As his Apple stock climbed on the day, he did as well, soaring in a Cessna 172 as an investment in his long-range plan to become Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year.

Jones is tied for second place in the Angler of the Year standings, and wants nothing more than to add that title to a resume that already includes the 2008 Bassmaster Classic crown.

“With Angler of the Year on the line, I felt like it was important for me to give it my very best effort,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily translate to success, but usually good preparation leads to good things down the road.”

Jones had led the AOY standings since the second of the eight tournaments, but a poor showing on Lake Murray in the Evan Williams Bourbon Carolina Clash dropped him 19 points behind Terry Scroggins. He has two events to make up the ground and distance himself from Scroggins, Kevin VanDam, who is tied with him, and Edwin Evers, among others.

“My hopes are high. I’m looking forward to it,” Jones said. “It’s going to be a tough tournament no matter what, so any edge I can get I want to take advantage.”

Flyovers are rare indeed, but this is Jones’ second over the Arkansas River. He made a similar scouting flight for the Bassmasters Legends won by local pro Scott Rook in 2006. Jones finished 33rd in that event, but it was held during low water and August’s heat.

Water levels are dropping after flooding that sent docks from their moorings, and Jones wanted to see conditions for himself, not only to find likely fishing spots but to eliminate dead ends that would cost him valuable time in practice.

“The problem with a place like the Arkansas River, especially with the changing conditions, is all the water out there is not productive,” he said. “When you’re looking at a hole in a levee, you don’t know if it’s worth going in that cut and looking or not.”

Jones said he was specifically looking at water color in backwater areas and if those areas were accessible. He checked wing dams and dykes for holes and current and made note of vegetation and if there was baitfish in the areas.

“Some of the things that you can see in flood conditions like this, one, you can see where the water color changes and maybe it just gets a little bit better,” he said. “Which backwaters can you access by boat and which ones can you not. 

“And when you get in there, what kind of cover is in there. Are there weeds, some of the emergent vegetation, laydown logs? Maybe a hole in a dyke that’s allowing current.

“You know you can really see the current flow from the air. You can spot the little eddies in the summertime where those bass will congregate and gang up. And that’s all I’m looking for. I’m trying to give myself a better understanding of the river before I get on the water. This gives me a big picture, birds-eye view that just helps me learn the personality of the Arkansas River.”

Ever so often, Jones would open the window and take video, jot down a note and punch in coordinates on his GPS, which he will transfer to his boat electronics. Several times he asked pilot Dan Gallo to circle and fly in a little lower to better scope an area.

“I’m seeing some spots that would take me a long time to find in a boat,” he hollered over the plane’s engine. “I can go straight to them in practice. This is a huge advantage.”

He estimates it will save him countless hours on the water, time he’ll now be able to optimize during the three-day practice period before the event.

“Now that I’ve seen it from the air, and I know for a fact that when I enter into a backwater, it at least has potential,” he said. “This is going to make me much more efficient in my practice period. I can run straight to spots without wasting a lot of time in dead water. That should help me find a few extra key spots for this event.”

The day before his trip, Jones was talking with a friend in Waco, Texas, who said he was jetting that way and offered to drop him off at the Little Rock airport and pick him up on his way back from a business trip. Quick plans were made, and investing one day allowed Jones to come away with richer knowledge.

“I did learn a lot,” he said. “It’s amazing how much you can cover in an hour and half by air. Probably saved weeks of time on the water.”

With an AOY on the line, Jones is one angler who’s willing to spend a little in hopes of cashing in on the title and its $100,000 payoff.

“It’s important for me to do everything possible within my powers,” he said. “I don’t mind not winning Angler of the Year, but I want to give it my best effort.”