West coast cool meets East coast cold

GREENVILLE, S.C. – It doesn’t seem like it would be hard to find a man driving a bright yellow boat, wearing a bright yellow coat, waving a bright yellow rod.

On serpentine Lake Hartwell, it can be.

In fact, it was for me and Steve Bowman this morning. We waited at what we thought was the intersection of the only two ways to get from the Green Pond launch ramp to Skeet Reese’s expected starting point. We waited as seven or eight boats went by. We waited some more. We got in contact with our team tracking the anglers via BassTrakk and they told us he’d already gone by. We waited five more minutes before taking matters into our own hands and hunting down Reese, the 2009 Bassmaster Classic champion and 2007 Angler of the Year.

It was a good thing we didn’t wait any longer. As we pulled in, Reese caught a quality keeper, then he lost one, and then he caught number two. With 6 pounds 15 ounces in the livewell to add to his 20-02 from Day 1, he was well on his way to a big bag and a second Bassmaster Classic trophy.

And then the music died.

Bowman and I were committed to riding a thoroughbred all day, and Reese’s track record indicated that he would be a worthy steed.

Reese went hours without a bite, but BassTrakk told us that he was only a single three-pound bite away from reclaiming the lead, so we waited.

Reese waited, too. He was targeting specific spots, “fishing slow, quickly” as they say. Anyone who says that tournament bass fishing is not an athletic endeavor should’ve watched him today. With layer upon layer of clothing on his back, Reese must’ve moved 25 times, yanking the trolling motor up, hooking up his kill switch, and rooster-tailing away. It would have been easy for him to decide to abandon his plan and change things up but he stayed the course until it was time to head in.

More amazing than his pace was his attitude. He smiled and joked with his cameraman. His body language never betrayed any sense of despair. He even had a dog bark at him, but he refused to go Ike. That’s not to say that Mike Iaconelli doesn’t benefit at times from his emotion, but clearly Reese’s career modus operandi has been to roll with the punches. So we waited.

As we sat there, Bowman told me the story of the 1995 Bassmaster Classic, when Mark Davis hooked two fish on his crankbait as time ran out. One was a four-pounder and the other was a two-pounder. As he went to swing them into the boat they both came unhooked. The big one fell into the boat. The small one fell back into High Rock Lake. Had their fates been reversed, Mark Hardin would’ve won instead, Davis made history, becoming the first angler to win AOY and the Classic in the same year. Moral of the story – we’re almost always just a cast away, sometimes less than that, from changing the story.

There was no blogging then, so the tale of Davis’s two fish cast didn’t come out until a month later. That wouldn’t be acceptable in today’s climate of immediacy – we didn’t want to abandon Skeet only to learn that he’d whacked two five-pounders at the last minute. While next week’s Bassmaster television show will condense the winner’s activity into a neat and relatively brief package, the truth is that our sport tends to consist of long periods of inactivity punctuated by brief moments of action bordering on chaos. Having been there for many of those moments before, we didn’t want to miss one if it happened. If you’re going to push all of your chips to the center of the table on one angler, you might as well choose one who has shown a clear ability to close things out, like Reese. I’m sure Reese was sort of thinking the same thing, choosing to complete his day in a place where he thought he could win rather than scrambling to find something new or subpar.

Ultimately, all of our instincts proved to be wrong. Skeet lost two big fish early in the day that might’ve put him in the lead, and he never had a chance to redeem himself in the afternoon. It’s unclear if his pattern fell apart or if he just got on the wrong rotation. On a lake like Hartwell, with enough nooks and crannies, fingers and arms to lose a bright yellow bass boat, it’s possible that one of his competitors was on the same rotation and beating Skeet to his key spots. It’s possible that his hunches and instincts were off not by a mile, but by just a hair, enough to make the difference between the finicky cold weather bass biting or turning up their noses.

Despite the long dry spell, at 2 o’clock Reese told me that he still felt like there should be a bass in every pocket he fished. When a fish followed his bait out from under a dock, but would not commit, he did not become discouraged by the failure to connect, but rather lit up at the possibility that the fish were about to turn on.

On a gray, cloudy day, cold but not as cold as Friday, instead of cursing the darkness Skeet Reese chose to light a candle. It might not have been enough to light his path into the lead, but it drew him forward to Sunday’s final day of competition. He’s still less than 5 pounds off of the lead, one good Hartwell bite. That’s worth waiting for.