Shallow thinking

High School champs rely on past experiences in Louisiana bayous to secure wire-to-wire victory in Tennessee.

MCKENZIE, Tenn. — From start to finish Alex Heintze and Justin Watts held the lead at the Costa Bassmaster High School National Championship presented by TNT Fireworks.

Today, the Livingston Parish Bassmasters added a third consecutive 20-plus-pound catch and made the win official. After three days on Kentucky Lake the teenagers caught 66 pounds to win high school bass fishing’s most elite tournament. Their winning total included daily 5-bass limits weighing 20-10, 23-14 and 22-2.

How they won is just as impressive as the margin of victory. During summertime the lake is revered for its trophy bass fishing on main river channel ledges. Big bass school in deep water and are caught in abundance on crankbaits.

The deep diving lure never factored in the team’s strategy, nor did the lake’s signature ledges. Instead, Heintze and Watts relied on their fishing strengths in south Louisiana’s shallow bayous.

(To see photos of their final day on Kentucky Lake, click here.)

“We didn’t come here to fish the ledges so we committed to fishing shallow,” said Heintze, 16, a junior at Denham Springs High School. “The lake set up to fish shallow anyway with the water so high.”

The team’s first stop during practice ended the search for bass. Flooded shoreline habitat, the presence of baitfish and inundated ditches attracted enough bass to sustain their strategy for three days.

“The high water was the difference,” said Watts, 15, a sophomore at Live Oak High School. “Without it the fish wouldn’t be there and I doubt they will be tomorrow.”

He noted the water dropped overnight by 6 inches for the final day’s fishing. The predator bass hid in the brushpiles to ambush baitfish.

The team alternated between a tube jig and topwater frog. That choice was a black Spro Dean Rojas Signature Series Bronzeye Frog. A Strike King tube jig rigged Texas style with a 1/4-ounce weight and 4/0 Trokar hook completed the lure arsenal.

“I never thought we’d come to Kentucky Lake and catch bass like that on a frog, but we did,” said Heintze.

A zig-zig action with the frog was a must and mimicked the motions of the baitfish. The anglers alternated between the two lures to maximize time in the strike zone. When the frog success slowed they switched to a flipping presentation with the tube jig.

On Kentucky Lake the team struck early and success came quickly. All of the 20-pound limits got caught by 9 a.m. The team fished the same 150-yard stretch of shoreline, never going to 10 other similar areas.

“We thought of it but didn’t know if other contestants might be on the spots,” said Watts. “It didn’t seem like the sportsmanlike thing to do so we stayed in the same area.”

Louisiana teams claimed the top two spots in the tournament. Braden Blanchard and Cade Fortenberry, fishing for St. Amant High School took second place with 51-15.

The B.A.S.S. Youth Nation Junior Championship coincided with the high school tournament. The 26 qualifying teams from as many states competed for two days on Carroll County Thousand Acre Recreational Lake.

Aaryn Minyard and Hunter Meadows of the Oklahoma City Junior Bassmasters won the tournament with 28 pounds, 7 ounces. The entire catch came on Day 2 after the anglers failed to boat a fish on the opening round.

“We figured out late in the day that we should be fishing deeper,” said Meadows. “Today we caught our fish on a submerged roadbed sloping from 15 to 20 feet.”

The team caught fish on a 3/4-ounce green pumpkin Strike King jig and a Carolina rigged lizard. The rig was an 8-inch Zoom Magnum Lizard with a 3/4-ounce weight.

Bethel University, an event host, offered four-year scholarships valued at $20,000 each to Heintze and Watts. The scholarship offer was also extended to Jacob Bruener, who competed in the junior championship. Bruener, a student at Douglas High School in Nacogdoches, Texas, caught a largemouth weighing 11 pounds, 14 ounces, from Carroll County Thousand Acre Recreational Lake. The catch is under review as the new lake record.

The championship was the culmination of seasonal qualifying events. Competing was a B.A.S.S. high school fishing record of 134 teams representing 37 states and Ontario. Schools participating in the B.A.S.S. Nation High School Nation program were eligible to qualify two-angler teams to the championship. Teams also qualified through B.A.S.S. regional events and sanctioned affiliate tournament trails.

Teams competed for $94,000 in scholarships and prizes. Heintze and Watts are invited to compete in the Bassmaster High School Classic that coincides with the 2016 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro. The championships are next March in Tulsa, Okla.