Homecoming Kings

RICHMOND, Va. – As Elite Series pro Kurt Dove prepared to launch his boat on the first day of the 2013 Bass Pro Shops Northern Open on Virginia’s James River, he experienced a sense of déjà vu. This same waterway was the site of his first Federation tournament, almost exactly 20 years ago.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge – or down the river, as the case may be – since that first event. After building up his skills on mid-Atlantic waters, Dove fished the Elite Series from 2006 through 2008, then took a break and moved to Del Rio, Texas, where he set up a successful guide service. As a result of his stellar performance on the 2012 Northern Open circuit he returned to Elite Series competition this year and will continue to fish the Northerns, even if that means plenty of windshield time. He estimated that the drive from Del Rio to Richmond pushed his Tundra’s odometer forward somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,700 miles.

“My track record is good in the Northern Opens,” he said. “I want to win the Angler of the Year title. I was close last year and I’ve had a number of top twelves the last couple of years.”

In addition to familiarity with the waters, he’ll have family at weigh-in. Another compelling reason for him to come back is that Virginia is a home base of sorts for his title sponsor, BK Racing, the first true “Basscar” partnership of the type that’s seem like an obvious pairing for years.

“It’s all about team BK,” Dove said. “Having a big title sponsor has meant a lot as far as recognition and opportunities. When you’re part of a team you’re noticed a lot more, and the fact that it has allowed us to align with B.A.S.S. sponsors like Toyota is great.”

The “us” he referred to is fellow team member Paul Pagnato, also fishing this week’s Open as a boater. Pagnato had a shorter drive to the James, as he still lives in northern Virginia. Despite their geographic gap in between tournaments, the two anglers work together before and during the events to maximize their performances. “I couldn’t ask for a better teammate than Kurt Dove,” said the aspiring Elite Series pro.

This event is also a homecoming of sorts for Elite Series pro Charlie Hartley, a noted Ohio River rat. Prior to blast-off he could be found on the inside of the last dock before the main river at the Osborne Landing marina, the same spot where he’d been parked this time last year, as well as the year before that.

Hartley believes that the rain that has plagued this region over the last several weeks will work to level the playing field. More heavy storms are expected later today, so the existing premium on finding pockets of clear water will be magnified.

“The mud takes away the local advantage,” he said. “You don’t want to have to learn the whole river. Everyone’s making the long run and this means you only have to learn that one creek. I’ve been here three years and I think I’ve learned it pretty good.”

Kelly Pratt, who won here in 2011 and finished fourth last year, agreed that the limited but well-known clear water areas will pack competitors on top of each other. “They had three or four inches of rain up here, but in Williamsburg we had nine,” he said. “That trashed the lower end of the (Chickahominy) and all of the James.” Accordingly, in order to maximize the benefit of his decades of river experience he plans to push all of his chips to the center of the table and make a bet that goes against the grain – he’s going to fish in the mud.

“I don’t think I’ll see anybody all day,” he said. “The same as two years ago, the same as last year.”

Will the finicky and weather-addled largemouths be able to find his lures in the chocolate milk?

“If you put it on their nose, they’ll bite,” he said.

While locals like Pratt, former locals like Dove, and repeat visitors like Hartley would seem to have a leg up on newcomers, there’s a contingent of western pros fishing this event who hope to prove that assumption wrong. Some of them, like Justin Lucas and Elite Series pro Kevin Hawk, have left the west for states like Alabama which are more central to national tournament trails. Others, like Californian Bub Tosh, made the coast to coast long haul to get here.

Tosh explained that there is a rationale behind his decision to traverse the continent to chase little green fish. “I want a chance at fishing the Elites,” he said. “And I’ve heard that B.A.S.S. is coming to the west in 2015. That lit a fire under me like no other.”

Tosh and most of the other westerners have tidal water experience, most notably on the California Delta, but he noted that the James is a different animal altogether.

“This is a very dangerous place. On the Delta, there is harder current, so it’s not silted in like it is here. You can run freely there and there are more backwaters which serve as nursery areas. The pits here are small. That’s probably why the Delta has more big fish.”

Tosh tried to get into the Central Opens, which would have required far less time in the seat of his tow vehicle, but when he ended up on the waiting list he did not hesitate to transfer his deposits to the Northerns.

“It was not my first choice, but it is the choice for me,” he said. Looking out on the number of boats crowding the small boat basin, he added that “On the west coast we don’t get high numbers like this. This is just so much more exciting.”

After Saturday’s weigh-in, a winner will be crowned and assuming he or she meets the other requirements that winner will proceed to the 2014 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Guntersville. Will it be a local like Pratt, a “foreigner” like Tosh or a hybrid like Dove?

“Two locals have won here, and quite frankly I expect a third,” said Dove, not quite answering the question as to whether he still considers himself a local. He did note that during practice he fished some areas that drew first drew his attention 20 years ago.

“Yeah, I hit some of the same stuff,” he said. “I caught a few small fish, but I won’t be going back to them.”

At Amistad, his adopted home lake, the “tide” is currently 60 feet low. That still leaves upwards of 30,000 acres of fishable water to choose from. On the James and its tributaries, he said, the decisions are no less difficult, although the fish may be less migratory. “It’s all a matter of finding little subtleties, those small little ditches and guts and separate little estuaries,” he said. “But on tidal waters the fish pretty much live where they live.”