If bass fishing tournament success was determined by the value of your boat, Joshua Butts and Justin Rivers might have finished dead last in the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series Wildcard tournament on Lake Barkley.
Instead, the duo from Wallace State Community College near Cullman, Ala., put pride aside, determination first, and patched up a 25-year-old Bumble Bee bass boat in ways so mechanically desperate it became humorous en route to their meant-to-be victory.
“Before we left home we had to replace the water pump on our 1991 Johnson to get it runnin’,” said Butts. “Then, look here, we lost the wheel bearing on our trailer tire and we’ve got half a pop can duct taped on there as a bearing buddy,” chimed-in Rivers with a grin wider than the Tennessee River.
The team caught their 15 pound limit from an underwater ledge located 26 miles up the lake from the launch site – a lengthy run in the best of bass boats – but Butts and Rivers’ boat didn’t have a seat cushion. Age had taken its toll; the seat cushion became detached and blew out along the highway on a recent trip. So Rivers rode on a throwable seat cushion in the passenger’s seat, located just in front of a dry storage box whose lid was not attached to its hinges.
“Check out my battery posts, man, we lost the wing nut, so we had to zip tie the cables to the post,” Butts proudly pointed out.
“You wanna see the best one?,” Rivers asked with an inquisitive grin. “Get a picture of this, man, it’s a soft plastic swimbait that we stuffed in the livewell drain hole to keep ‘em full, because we didn’t have a plug.”
Most of their fish came from an underwater ledge where the depth rolled from 6 to 15 feet using a 3/8-ounce swivel head jig tipped with a plastic crawdad. The Quantum reel Butts used was old and beaten to a point the model number could not be recognized on its sideplate.
One good keeper came on a Strike King 5XD crankbait – but not a new and shiny one, of course. Instead, it was tied to a fishing line that Rivers dredged up from the lake bottom. He polished the scum off it, cast it out, and caught the fat keeper on it.
Former Carhartt Bassmaster College Series champions Matt and Jordan Lee were among the very first to trade congratulatory man hugs with Rivers and Butts near the downtrodden fiberglass boat parked backstage.
The Lee brothers are from the same town in which Rivers and Butts attend college, and their father Bruce actually donated some travel money in an effort to help Rivers and Butts experience the same soulful goodness that his sons have garnered through the college fishing experience.
“We’re pretty much responsible for all of our gas, hotel and food expenses to fish in these tournaments, so every little bit like Dr. Lee gave us helps,” said Rivers.
“Look man, we’re just poor boys, I’m a welding major, working a landscaping job to get me through college, and Justin works on a cattle ranch,” said a prideful Butts. “My granddaddy was a coon hunter, he’s the one that got me started fishing. He passed away two weeks ago, and I kind of feel like somehow he had a hand in this win, it was definitely meant to be.”