Locked out

MUSKOGEE, Okla. — Imagine the commuting nightmare of your morning drive getting interrupted by an unexpected roadblock. There is no alternate route between you and the office to make matters worse. The result is a lost day of productive work.

Today on the Arkansas River that happened to about 50 boats attempting passage through Webbers Falls Lock and Dam. The goal was reaching the bass-rich waters of Kerr Reservoir. Those 50 boats accounted for about one-third of the tournament field, making it a big deal.

Coincidentally, another 50 boats already made it through the lock, making it an even bigger deal. Anglers fishing lock-and-dam systems know all too well about the risks involved in playing roulette with the lockmaster. Such was the case this morning.

B.A.S.S. officials cautioned the tournament anglers about running the risk of being locked out of entering Kerr Reservoir, the next pool downriver from the launch site in Webbers Falls Pool.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to a good faith lock time of 7:45 a.m. The good intentions of both sides were interrupted by commercial traffic, which has the right of way when locks are needed to keep commerce flowing.

The Corps, of course, is charged with managing locks on the Arkansas River and many other rivers across the nation. Accommodating recreational traffic is a lesser priority, although a regularity on waterways popular with boaters.

How today’s unfortunate snafu unfolded began when a tugboat arrived at the upriver side of the lock chamber. Below were barges filled with cargo awaiting hookup with the tug.

The lockmaster allowed the early arrivers to lock downstream with the tug. They were on the fortunate side of the timetable. Another group of boats, about 50 more, arrived just as the first locking cycle was underway. To bring the tug and barges back upriver would take at least one hour of additional wait time, followed by locking through into Kerr.

That was too much wasted time for many of the upriver group, which included Randall Tharp, a Bassmaster Elite Series pro.

“My plan was to spend 30 minutes fishing in the upper pool and then lock down,” said Tharp, of Port St. Joe, Fla. “I was going to arrive just in time to get through the locks.”

Fishing the shallow backwaters for spawn intent bass was the idea, and Tharp wasn’t alone in choosing the strategy.

Tharp arrived at the lock to find himself locked out with the others.

“It was frustrating but what can you do?”

Tharp went fishing, choosing instead to salvage the day in the Webbers Falls Pool. Waiting for the cycle to complete left only four hours to fish the unexplored waters of Kerr.

“It’s part of the game, part of the risk you take and nobody can be blamed but me,” he said.

“Anytime you are going to lock through it’s a good idea to call the lockmaster, and confirm there is no traffic in the way,” he added. “I forgot to do that but it’s not like I shot myself in the foot.”

Tharp managed to salvage the day with 4 bass weighing 10 pounds, 6 ounces.

Why go there to all that trouble in the first place?

The answers have everything to do with the environmental conditions currently in play on the river.

The Webbers Falls Pool is filled with a maze of backwater bayous. Those are prolific spawning sites, although muddy conditions have all but eliminated sight fishing. Many of the best areas are exposed due to falling water in the already narrow, shallow pool.

Kerr is shaped more like a reservoir with more fishable area. Cleaner water and more aquatic vegetation are other assets making it a top choice this week.

More water, more bass and better opportunity are worth the risks for some. Just getting there can be the challenge.