ANDERSON, S.C. — After 30 years of fishing the West Virginia B.A.S.S. Nation, Willie Adkins Jr. will finally get to fish for a national championship.
Adkins caught a limit of bass weighing 10 pounds, 8 ounces Friday on the final day of the TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Southeast Regional at Lake Hartwell to secure the victory with a three-day total of 34-13, earning $5,000 and a spot in the 2021 TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Championship.
“I’ll never ask for anything else. I don’t care if I ever make the Classic, this right here tops everything for me,” Adkins said. “I probably won’t do it again and I’m going to eat it up.”
It was a moment Adkins thought he may never experience — for a number of reasons.
On his way to a tournament three years ago, Adkins was involved in a car accident that broke his left arm. Not only did the car accident leave doctors worried his arm may need amputation, Adkins also discovered he had Stage 4 kidney cancer and surgery was performed to remove one of his kidneys.
“The boy who hit me saved my life. The doctors told me I wouldn’t have lived six months if I hadn’t found out,” Adkins said. “They said I would lose my arm. I went to get a second opinion and the doctor told me he would see what he could do and he fixed it. Now I’m back fishing again.”
When he received the winner’s trophy from Tournament Director Jon Stewart, Adkins hoisted it above his head with both arms, celebrating more than just one victory.
When Adkins arrived at Lake Hartwell, his plan was to fish shallow water, similar to the style he fishes back home in West Virginia. To his delight, he was able to find some spawning activity in those shallow areas.
“I live to fish for bedding fish,” Adkins said. “Anybody who knows me, if I can find them I can catch them because I love to fish that way. I’m going to have a heart attack one of these days on the front of that boat trying to catch a fish off the bed. It is so exciting to see a big fish grab your bait.”
Throughout the week, Adkins targeted the spawners with a craw-imitating bait as well as a lizard. On the second day, he used a spinnerbait to target windy points around the main lake when the wind picked up in the afternoon. Adkins also gave credit to one of his co-anglers, Sam Nowalk, for helping him figure out Lake Hartwell.
After placing third on Day 1 with 13-6 and first on Day 2 with 10-15, Adkins began the final day targeting bedding bass and filled out his limit about three hours into the event throwing a floating worm around docks.
Around 10 a.m., Adkins noticed a group of spotted bass schooling in the middle of the lake and proceeded to make several important culls that improved his Day 3 bag.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “I looked out in the middle and these big spotted bass started coming up. I ran out there with a big spinnerbait and caught two 3-pound spotted bass.”
With just a few minutes to go, Adkins said he lost a fish that he estimated to be about 3 pounds and thought he lost the tournament.
“But I didn’t need it,” he said.
Adkins has a long scar on the back of his arm from surgeries to put replacement bones in his arm. While the cancer has not yet been beaten, Adkins said he is going to continue to fight the disease as long as he can.
“I’ve still got it. I’m still fighting and it’s not going to get me. I don’t care, I’m not going to give up,” he said. “I’ve fished this B.A.S.S. Nation for years and years and never even came close until this year. That boy saved my life in that car wreck and he gave me this, what else could I ask for?”
After barely making the Top 20 cut on Day 2, North Carolina boater Michael Belter jumped from 19th place to second on the final day with a limit weighing 14-2 to improve his three-day total to 33-12, earning himself a spot in the Nation Championship.
After failing to key in on any herring spawn during practice, Belter said he decided to fish for largemouth during the event.
“I didn’t even get my limit the first day,” Belter said. “I only had four fish because I was focused on catching largemouth. I was getting a lot fewer bites that way. But, this isn’t a points tournament and you have to catch as much as you possibly can, and I thought that would take largemouth.”
He did, however, start each day by fishing a buzzbait around a shad spawn he found along some riprap bank. From there, he moved to shallower pockets with docks.
On the final day, Belter filled his limit around 9:30 a.m. fishing a Dave’s Tournament Tackle HD Swim Jig under boat docks. Later in the day, he caught several fish off a bed that helped him cull his smaller fish.
“When I went to the docks Day 1, I couldn’t catch any on a swim jig. I got some fish to swipe at it, but couldn’t catch any,” he said. “Yesterday, I got a couple to swipe at it and then I could throw a Senko and catch them. Today, the first one I went to I caught a fat, little 12-incher and then I caught the big one. From there, I caught four more keepers.”
With a Day 3 bag of 11-11, South Carolina native Bryan Gunter finished third with 33-4, punching his ticket to the championship after boat issues almost derailed his day.
Gunter rotated through multiple topwater walking baits trying to capitalize on the herring bite on shallow points. On Day 1, Gunter caught five bass and only seven on Day 2, filling out his limit in the last hour both days. On the final day, he caught eight total fish, but they had the size to help him pull off a Top 3 finish.
In the process, Gunter traveled approximately 60 miles each day searching for high percentage areas.
“I skipped a lot of points that probably had fish on them, but I stuck with what I thought were high percentage points and what I thought was a high percentage bait,” Gunter said. “The largemouth I caught were postspawn. A lot of the spotted bass I caught were likely postspawn and were waiting for the herring to get there.”
Jody Belcher took home the co-angler victory with a three-day total of 20-2, catching 6-13 on the final day to give the West Virginia Nation team a sweep of the top spots in the tournament. Belcher was emotional after the victory remembering his late father and what he meant to his fishing career.
“This is pretty awesome,” he said. “This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and it means a lot to me. We’ve got a great team.”
The top finishers on the boater and co-angler side from each state earned a spot in the 2021 TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Championship to be held Nov. 3-5 on the Ouachita River in Monroe, La. The winner of that event will qualify for the 2022 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk on Lake Hartwell.
This week’s tournament was hosted by Visit Anderson.