GROVE, Okla. — Billy Lemon is undoubtedly the current "bass master" of Grand Lake O' The Cherokees, site of the 2013 Bassmaster Classic. Seven days after Cliff Pace won the Classic in February, Lemon caught a new lake record largemouth there. It weighed 12.28 pounds.
Lemon is no one-hit wonder. He and his partner, Corey Smith, won the highly-competitive 294-boat Nichols Marine Team Series tournament March 3 on Grand Lake with a five-bass limit weighing 24.45 pounds.
The next week on Grand Lake, Lemon won a Walmart Bass Fishing League Okie Division tournament there. The Sand Springs, Okla., resident calls Lake Tenkiller his "home lake," but he obviously knows how to catch bass on most Oklahoma waters. On May 18 he added to his 2013 string of victories by winning the BFL Okie Division event on Fort Gibson Lake.
Billy Lemon might be the hottest bass tournament angler flying under the radar.
Tejmohan "Tej" Sawhney is undoubtedly the most enthusiastic bass fishing fanatic I know. He's what some might describe as "eat up with it." Bass fishing passion to this degree isn't found just anywhere, and the corporate headquarters of Walmart in Bentonville, Ark., seems an especially unlikely place. Throw in the fact that Sawhney, Walmart's senior fine jewelry buyer, was born, raised and educated in India, and you add another degree of implausibility to Sawhney's story.
In a string of unlikely circumstances, I met Sawhney a year ago at the Walmart Children's Miracle Network benefit tournament on Beaver Lake. We had communicated by phone and email about getting together for a fishing trip several times over the past 12 months.
And I met Lemon in a food tent outside the BOK Center on the last day of the Classic. The BOK Center doors weren't open to the public yet, and I'd walked outside to kill some time before the weigh-in started. Lemon and his daughter happened to sit across from me at a long picnic table, and we struck up a conversation. We didn't even introduce ourselves, just started talking bass fishing.
One week later, when I heard a new lake record largemouth had been caught at Grand, I looked up the story on the Internet. There he was – the guy I'd met at the Classic that day – and only then did I learn his name.
One happenstance often leads to another in life, but that seems especially true in the sport of bass fishing. It led to me spending half a day in a boat with Billy Lemon and the other half in a boat with Tejmohan Sawhney on Grand Lake in early April.
And what a grand day it was, including a lesson on umbrella rig fishing from Lemon, punctuated by a 7-pound-plus largemouth. The Alabama Rig bonanza continued in Sawhney's boat that afternoon. After landing a 6-pounder, Sawney danced around the deck of his new Legend boat like a boy with a new BB gun on Christmas morning.
"Cowboys, Indians and A-rigs, there's the title for your story," said Sawhney, as we drove back to northwest Arkansas late on a Saturday afternoon.
That sounded about right to me. If you want to learn something about umbrella/A-rig fishing or how to quell bass fishing fever when stuck in the middle of New York City, stay with me here. Billy Lemon and Tej Sawhney have some stories to tell.
But mostly this is a story about how bass fishing brings together people from around the world and all walks of life. See photos from our day on Grand Lake.
"If these guys could use that A-rig out here right now, they'd be tearing it up," Lemon said after we started that conversation in the food tent outside the BOK Center on Feb. 24, the final day of the Classic.
He knew, of course, that umbrella rigs are banned from the Classic and Bassmaster Elite Series events. He was simply stating what was producing best in the frigid waters of Grand Lake at that time.
I asked Lemon that day which umbrella rig setup he preferred. His answer was Yum's Yumbrella outfitted with Gene Larew Sweet Swimmer swimbaits.
Although I was surprised a week later when I heard that a new lake record bass had been caught on Grand, and astounded by the fact the guy who'd caught it had been the same person I'd visited with outside the BOK Center, it wasn't a shock to learn how Lemon caught that fish – on a Yumbrella rigged with Larew Sweet Swimmers.
Through a series of bass fishing contacts, I got Lemon's phone number, learned the details of his catch, and we had a good laugh about our chance meeting at the Classic.
Classic champion Cliff Pace would appreciate Lemon's reaction after he caught the 12-pounder that day. Another angler in a nearby boat offered to put it on a set of scales. Lemon said he didn't have time for that; he and Smith were trying to win the tournament, and it was going to take more than one big bass to do it.
He was right. Their 24.95-pound total took first place by only 1.24 pounds.
Lemon stole the show that day when he brought the 12-pounder to the weigh-in stage.
"We kept the weigh-in going, but he must have had 50 or 60 people back there taking pictures. You'd have thought an alien landed," Tournament Director Stan Honeycutt told Kelly Bostian of The Tulsa World.
One big bass, however, doesn't make a tournament angler's career. Maybe the 43-year-old Lemon has reached the magic "10,000-Hour Rule," as detailed in Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling book, Outliers. The big bass simply signaled the start of Lemon's recent success.
As Gladwell wrote, there seems to be something about 10,000 hours. It's the difference between innate talent and experience in the role of success, and experience wins – 10,000 hours of it. Gladwell cites examples ranging from Bill Gates to The Beatles.
Maybe Billy Lemon has hit that mark in bass tournament fishing. He's been a B.A.S.S. member and a bass tournament competitor since he was about 20 years old. But the 43-year-old father of two admits he'd just about given up on his dream of being a full-time professional bass fisherman until this recent run of success.
"In the last three or four years, I'd started thinking that I was getting too old to do this," Lemon said. "But winning that Nichols event and two BFLs has helped build my confidence back up."
Lemon's success has allowed him to buy a new Ranger Z521 boat with a 250-horsepower Mercury outboard, so he'd definitely geared up for the big stage. He was fishing in it when he won last week at Fort Gibson. And the recent success has allowed him to commit to fishing the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open Series as the next logical step in his dream.
Tehmohan Sawhney caught his first 5-pound bass with the help of his wife, Nandini, shortly after he came to the U.S. seven years ago. It was caught from Lake Atalanta, an 800-acre lake in Rogers, Ark.
"My wife grabbed the line and dragged it in," said Sawhney.
It marked an unlikely beginning for a bass fishing fanatic, especially one who grew up almost halfway around the world in India. Sawhney, 36, was born in the hills of Pune, but spent most of his life in India's capital city of New Delhi, where he graduated from college specializing in industrial design.
Sawhney was working for Walmart in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, when he was offered a position at corporate headquarters in Bentonville.
He left Lake Atalanta that day after releasing the 5-pounder and gaining some bass fishing tips from local youngsters who were fishing nearby in a boat. That's when Sawhney realized he needed to upgrade from the $40 spincasting combo he was using. Soon after, Walmart executive Gary Green took Sawhney under his wing and educated him about the intricacies of bass fishing.
"I learned all the talk from Gary," Sawhney said. "I'll never forget the first day we went out on Beaver Lake in his boat. He said, 'Son, this is a bass boat.'"
Then Sawhney met another Walmart employee, Drew Barnes, who had grown up in northwest Arkansas and was an experienced local tournament angler. Barnes was in the vehicle with us on that drive from Rogers to Grand Lake in April.
It was Green and Barnes who helped Sawhney endure a potential roadblock in his growing passion for bass fishing: Walmart moved some of its corporate retail offices to New York City in 2008, including the fine jewelry division.
"I'd come back to Bentonville four times a year to fish with Gary and Drew," Sawhney said. But he also learned there were bass to be caught much closer to Manhattan – like right in the middle of it, in Central Park, and in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.
"I met some backpack fishermen," Sawhney said. "I started learning from them, and catching 3- to 5-pounders in Central and Prospect Park. My go-to bait was a Texas rigged Senko."
That's how Sawhney caught his biggest smallmouth to date – a 4-pounder that he caught twice off a spawning bed in Prospect Park.
When I met Sawhney a year ago, he was practically walking on air. Walmart had moved him back to Bentonville, and he'd just spent a day on Beaver Lake with 2012 Bassmaster Classic champion Chris Lane, as part of the Children's Network Benefit Tournament.
Tejmohan "call me Tej" Sawhney is one of those people who never met a stranger. He likes to talk, particularly about bass fishing, as we'd done many times over the phone since our initial meeting.
So when the opportunity arose to combine Sawhney, Drew Barnes, Billy Lemon and his friend, John Soukup on a day at Grand Lake, Tej was all over the idea.
The first thing you notice about Billy Lemon, even when bundled in a foul weather jumpsuit, is that his 6-foot, 240-pound body is stacked like a weightlifter's. When asked about it later that day, Lemon said he'd recently set a new personal record in the bench press – 435 pounds. That's no misprint: four-hundred-and-thirty-five pounds.
"It's something I started after high school," Lemon said. "I had a friend that was really into it. I've been doing it so long now, it's just part of an everyday deal."
Plus, Lemon added, "I like to eat."
But mostly Lemon likes to bass fish. And he has raised a son who likes to bass fish, too.
Lemon and his longtime friend John Soukup were practicing for the next Nichols Marine event on this Saturday – one month after Lemon caught the 12-pounder in the previous one.
John Soukup has worked as a volunteer organizing high school bass fishing clubs. Lemon's son, Levi, was the president of one of the first clubs Soukup started.
"My son is about as eat-up with it as I am," said Lemon about Levi, who turns 21 years old in July.
Lemon and Soukup were having a pretty good practice day when I arrived about 8 a.m. that day.
"I've got something to show you," Lemon said, as he pulled a 5- and a 4-pounder from the livewell before releasing them. The umbrella rig pattern was still going strong.
"A lot of guys are catching them on jerkbaits," Lemon said. "To me, if they're hitting a jerkbait, they'll hit an A-rig."
One thing about fishing with an unsponsored bass tournament fisherman is that you'll find out what he truly has confidence in, not what he's paid to say he's got confidence in.
Gene Larew Lures has long been an Oklahoma standard. The company celebrated its 30th anniversary of the Salt Craw during the Bassmaster Classic in February. And Lemon has long been a fan, not just of Salt Craws and Sweet Swimmers, but also of Biffle Bugs and Hoodaddies. He was flipping flooded bushes with a Hoodaddy when he won the BFL on Fort Gibson May 18th.
Like he did with a lot of folks, Lemon got the company's attention with the 12-pounder in February.
"I didn't have a deal with them until that lake record," Lemon said. "They've been awesome to me. They're paying to get a table mount replica made of that fish."
"That fish" – the 12-pounder – came from the Duck Creek area, where Lemon and Corey Smith were alternating between three points. Lemon's exact setup was a Yumbrella with 1/8-ounce Larew High Tides jigheads and 3 1/2-inch Alabama shad colored Larew Sweet Swimmers.
"I think they've got a better action than other swimbaits," Lemon said of the Sweet Swimmers. "They're not too big, and they're not too small. I've just got a lot of confidence in them."
From day to day, Lemon thinks there are some subtleties to fishing an umbrella rig that many anglers don't understand. Some days you have to "just crawl it across the bottom." On other days, Lemon will rig it with just hooks, no jigheads, and retrieve it just under the water surface.
He always fishes it, and everything else, on Shimano Curado reels and Shimano Cumara rods, with a 7-foot, 9-inch "heavy" model being particularly suited for throwing A-rigs, he said.
And, no, he doesn't have a "deal" with Shimano.
"I've got an old Curado that I've had for 15 or 20 years," Lemon said. "It works as good today as the day I bought it."
On this day, the 1/8-ounce jigheads and Sweet Swimmers fished slowly around boat docks were the A-rig ticket. The water near the Twin Spillways area of Grand Lake was clear and 50 degrees. Lemon speculated that some anglers might find bass on beds in the warmer water up the lake, but he wanted the cooler, prespawn conditions.
It seemed like the perfect game plan, especially when Lemon capped the morning by landing a 7.19-pounder on his favorite umbrella rig setup.
Lemon speculated that he and Soukup could have weighed a five-bass limit near 30 pounds by the time they left at 12:30 p.m.
By that time, I was in Sawhney's boat. Barnes has enough tournament experience to know that we didn't need to be anywhere near where Lemon and Soukup had pre-fished that morning, just out of courtesy. So we moved to the dirtier water in the mid-lake area, and the bass were hitting umbrella rigs there, too.
I threw everything possible to prove that something other than an umbrella rig would produce a bass that day on Grand Lake. And I failed to do it.
But that didn't prevent me from having a most memorable day. When you're around veteran tournament fishermen, as when covering the Bassmaster Elite Series, you can forget just how exciting it is for someone less experienced to catch a big bass. Tejmohan Sawhney reminded me of it in grand style that afternoon. When the world-traveled, 36-year-old Walmart executive hooked and landed a 6-pounder, you would have thought he'd just picked the winning PowerBall numbers.
Fifteen minutes after the fish had been released back into Grand Lake, Sawhney said, "Ooh, that felt good. I can still feel his teeth on my fingers."
Billy Lemon isn't about to quit his day job. (He and Soukup finished 17th the next day in the Nichols tournament at Grand Lake.) He's long been employed as an "inside salesman" by Webco Industries, a major steel tubing manufacturing and distributing company that has its corporate headquarters in Sand Springs.
Since winning two tournaments in a row on Grand Lake and catching the 12-pounder – all on an umbrella rig – Lemon has proven it's the angler, not the lure, by pitching and flipping his way to the win at Fort Gibson.
"Finesse fishing is probably my strength," Lemon said. "But I think I'm pretty good at everything. I like to throw a (Norman) DD22, too. My weakness is probably being able to really take advantage of the electronics available today."
So, even at age 43, the dream is still very much alive for Lemon.
"I've built up a lot of confidence, in the last couple of months," Lemon said.
That's the thing about being a professional bass tournament fisherman — age doesn't limit your ability as much as experience enhances it, i.e., the 10,000-hour rule.
As for Tejmohan Sawhney, he started late, but he might make it to 10,000 hours in record time.
"Are you busy in July?" Sawhney asked me recently.
I pointed out that there wasn't a single Elite Series tournament scheduled in July.
Sawhney, excited as usual, said, "My wife and daughter are going to India in July. Just come up here and move in with me. We'll go fishing every day!"
Sounds like a plan, Tej, that sounds like a very good plan.