Sabine airboat ride goes awry

Take it from someone who knows: This week's Sabine River Challenge presented by STARK Cultural Venues is going to be an adventure. I got a bird's eye view of the Sabine last September. That's "bird" as in "like a coot" – flapping furiously and pedaling an invisible bicycle inches above the water surface.

The Sabine is no place for amateurs, like me.

I would end that September day Wile E. Coyote cartoon style – leaving a body silhouette in some Sabine River marsh grass – tossed from an airboat, quick as a booger flicked from a grade-schooler's finger.

So why is this tale in any way noteworthy? It's a reflection on the "home field advantage" of bass tournament fishing. As most long-time followers of the sport know, the closer you live to a tournament site, the less chance you have of winning. No one seems to know exactly why that is.

Bass tournament statistics compiled over the years have proved the lack of home field advantage in bass fishing, unlike the edge it gives almost every other sport.

But the Sabine River appeared to be the ultimate exception. It's not just about knowing where the fish live here, it's about knowing how to get around the shallows of this massive Louisiana Delta river system.

On the surface, it seemed like Dennis Tietje of nearby Roanoke, La., had an inside track at the Sabine River Challenge. Tietje, in his words, "cut his teeth" in these swamps. But any idea of Tietje playing on his home court sank during practice Monday, along with his outboard's lower unit.

"I hit something – hard!" Tietje said.

This tournament is going to be a challenge, for every single one of the 100 anglers.

However, absolutely do not take this as criticism of the Sabine River tournament site. These guys are pros – as in Elites. They've been everywhere, man, and they've seen everything. There's an element of the unknown here that should provide the ultimate quest for the best bass fishermen on Earth. That's a good thing.

This might represent one of the starkest challenges in Elite Series history. It's the utmost do-I-stay-or-do-I-go event. From the Gulf of Mexico to Toledo Bend Dam, the options are almost limitless on the Sabine. And from the countless cypress knees to a few freshly-tossed car engine blocks, the obstacles are unlimited and unforeseeable as well.

So let me tell you my Sabine River story. As part of an assignment for, photographer James Overstreet and I are forced to go duck hunting outside the state of Arkansas every season. It's an annual Br'er Rabbit tale: "Oh please, Br'er Fox, don't throw me in that briar patch."

Last September we scheduled a blue-wing teal hunt in Louisiana with Tietje, who sat out the last Elite season with a medical hardship (neck surgery). That teal hunting trip ranks among the best waterfowl hunts Overstreet and I have experienced. Well, other than the heat and the mosquitoes and the fire anthill I set my shell-bag and water bottle on – in the dark – our second day in Tietje's father's rice field, it was simply a blue-ribbon day. (Why do I always come out of these blue-ribbon days with the red-ass? It's "The Wright Stuff." Just ask Overstreet.)

Killing a limit of blue-wing teal in mid-September in a Louisiana rice field is as easy as falling off a unicycle. At shooting time Saturday, we could hear shotguns blasting across the delta. But before firing a shot, we made certain Overstreet had enough daylight to shoot photos. And after the shotgunning began, we made certain that Tietje's 12-year-old son, Logan, had the first opportunity to fill his five-bird-limit. Thirty minutes later, five of us sweated and swatted our way back across the rice field levee to our air-conditioned vehicles.

We still had a whole day to kill, doing something other than killing teal. Tietje had planned a full menu for his Arkansas guests. It included an airboat ride on the Sabine River with a veteran airboat captain. Since I'd never been in an airboat, I was enthused.

It proved to be a real eye-opener. After two hours of scooting through the shallow Sabine, holding my iPhone in front of me, shooting video to the point of battery exhaustion (see footage from our ride at the bottom of the article), I put my phone in a pocket and, seated in the high seat next to Capt. Sally, hung on for the final ride. (Yes, our pilot was female and she had a female friend with her. But don't let your mind run wild. Capt. Sally's husband started the afternoon with us.)

Our captain did no daredevil driving. The breeze felt refreshing on an otherwise sultry, still day in southern Louisiana. As we headed back to the launch ramp, cruising at half-throttle, the boat slid sideways during a 90-degree turn in a suddenly narrow river channel. Capt. Sally eased off the throttle. There was nothing to fear. We'd glided over more intimidating terrain all afternoon.

Then, suddenly, I was airborne. The airboat had come to an abrupt halt, while skidding sideways.

Being the smart-ass hillbilly I am, I've been thrown out of much nicer places than a Sabine River airboat (and several not as nice). But never have I exited any place with such unprovoked swiftness. Riding high in an airboat one second – bam! Flat on my back in a swamp the next.

There was the usual stunned moment of silence that occurs after an accident. Like every car wreck I've been in – and I've experienced more than my share – there was the aftershock, when everyone is trying to figure out what-the-hell-just-happened?

The four people remaining in the airboat quickly did the one-two-three-four thing on one hand and realized "the thumb" was missing. Heads swiveled until they spotted me, lying on a bed of green marsh grass that was as soft as a feather mattress. Under me were no cypress knees, no waterlogged tree chunks, not even a snapping turtle or a cottonmouth. In fact, there was so little water beneath me that the cell phone in my front pocket didn't get wet.

"Even the losers get lucky sometimes," in the words of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

It had taken significant force to torque me out of that high perch and plant me 5 feet from the boat. One of my Velcro-snapped shoes (I love those Zekos) was another 5 feet away from my body.

Shortly after I was spotted, thrusting both hands in the air with the "V" for "victory" sign while still prone in the swamp, four people began laughing so hard they almost peed their pants. (Me? I figure I peed my pants somewhere between the airboat and the marsh grass.)

So that's the Sabine River challenge in a "nut" shell: How will the Elite Series pros manage this massive, unforgiving shallow river system over four tournament days in a bass boat? Play it safe and stay close to home, or roll the dice and run for glory?

Home field advantage? Nope. Not here. Not anywhere these expert bass anglers gather. The bass don't let it work that way.

As for B.A.S.S. officials, they are taking no chances. "The Wright Stuff" could throw a monkey wrench into this event. I've been fitted with one of those new high-tech electric dog collars. No observer-boat rides for me. Overstreet, you're on your own this week. Any step I take outside a 100-foot perimeter of the weigh-in stage will be, in a word, shocking.

Below is a video Steve Wright captured during his Sabine River airboat adventure.



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