As we leave the small town of White Springs, Florida, the spanish moss and pines thicken. Driving into the backlands of northern Florida towards Bienville, trees overtake the landscape, the Suwannee River meanders through the sandy flats and the excitement of competition and potential of big bass fill my mind. We enter the grounds and I notice rows of tall even-age pines that line the road. We see quick glimpses of Purvis Lake, caked with floating duckweed. The grounds are pristine. Anticipation is building. On our first visit to the Plantation, we tour the launches, talk strategy and locations, attend the pre-event captains meeting and head back to the hotel.
Day one at the plantation was tough, to say the least. We chose Lake 14 and a launch that wasn't much more than an overgrown flat. We figured the abandoned launch would deter the majority of the anglers. We arrived to 15 mph winds from the north, air temperatures steady in the 30’s and water temps falling into the upper 40’s. Not the conditions we expected for day one, especially when coming from the deep winter of NY. The water had a green stain to it and reached depths of up to 35 feet immediately off the shoreline. I suspect that this area would be dynamite during the hot summer months, however, not ideal for Florida bass fishing at the end of January. Despite the beautiful ecosystem around us, the fishing wasn’t great. I managed one small bass towards the end of the day. A definite blow to my confidence. When day one was over, we checked in, grabbed a burger and headed back to the hotel.
Day two, Kurt and I woke up at 4 am to 28 degrees and thick frost on the truck and gear. Being from northern New York, I welcomed the cold and knew it may provide a slight advantage. As we drove to Bienville, we tried to forget day one and mentally prepared for the next 9 hours.
After reviewing the pros and cons of the previous day, Kurt and I agreed that we needed to target clear, shallow water. We checked the Googles and picked a spot on Lake 14, the same lake we we fished day one. Based on what the map showed, the water in this new area seemed less stained. We hit the launch and geared up as quick as possible. We crossed paths with less anglers at the launch than we expected. I was quickly in my kayak and taking note of the conditions. 52 degrees and at least 3 feet of visibility; a solid improvement over yesterday.
Lake 14 is like no other lake, pond or water body that I've ever been on. The entire lake was created as a result of phosphate mining. At one point, the sandy soil was excavated. The groundwater was allowed to fill in the gaps and the area was manicured into hundreds of small coves and bays, all connected by narrow channels. The vegetation on the shorelines took hold and a completely unique ecosystem was created. With the help of my electronics, I made my way through the labyrinth towards a small channel that connected two sections of the lake.
Unfortunately, as I approached the channel, I noticed an angler in the spot where I planned to fish. Fortunately, that angler was Jeff Fader and he was currently dominating the entire field. Jeff was friendlier than expected and chatted with me for a few minutes. I wished him well, gave him plenty of space and then went to work. I’ve never been happier to see an angler sitting in my spot.
As I moved around the first bend, away from Kurt and Jeff, I grabbed the chatterbait rod and made my first cast. BOOM! I immediately hooked up and it was big. The fish pulled drag and ran straight for the cover of the bank. I worked it back and it dove under the boat. I pulled it to the surface and quickly scooped with the net. She was secure and she … was .... huge! I sat and silently shook for a minute or two and thought “Did I really just break my PB?”.
I prepared the board and identifier, gently lifted her from the net and set her down. She was 22 inches long. I grabbed the scale and grips and got a weight; 7.2 pounds! She broke my old record by ¾ of inch and 0.4 pounds. I kept her comfortable in the net as I swooned over her. She had the biggest lower lip I’d ever seen on a bass. I took several photos, gave her a kiss and sent her back.
I sat for a while. I thought about past personal bests, about my wife and family, about the time and energy spent to get to this incredibly unique fishery. It was an emotional moment that offered the idea that I can keep up with the best. I hope that idea continues to grow and flourish. I get all goofy when I catch a big fish. I’m actually proud of that weird fact about myself.
As the day progressed, the bite was spotty but the fish consistently hit the chatterbait and senko. When the moment seemed right I would throw a shaky head / 7” worm combo, a custom spinnerbait and a buzzbait. However, the fish seemed keyed on the slow fall of the weightless senko and the attraction of the chatterbait only. I was lucky enough to have a decent 84 inch bag of fish by 11 am. A vast improvement from where I was 24 hours ago.
An hour or two later, I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. As I fished my way around a blind corner, I came into view of Chad Hoover as he was interviewing Jeff Fader, who was now the strong favorite to win the tourney. I stopped, gave them plenty of space and tried to skirt around the view of the camera. I took a few casts and landed a 17 inch bass. Not the biggest, but an upgrade. Chad, still within view, took notice and asked if I’d be willing to do a release on camera. I happily agreed and released the fish towards the camera with a huge smile. I even gave it a kiss.
Chad and I shot the breeze for a minute or two. I told him that I felt all star struck because of the cameras and that I had gotten my new PB earlier today, 50 feet from where we were at the moment. He stopped me, got his cameraman into position and then asked me to repeat myself. I repeated the story into the camera. What a cool moment in time. I’ll admit, I was flustered a bit when in the spotlight and stumbled over a few words. We’ll see if that segment makes the final TV cut. Maybe.
We fished until the end. When it was done, I had 88 inches and placed 5th for day two and pushed myself from 51st place to 15th place. I was content knowing that I was able to comeback from a terrible first day and represent myself well on the next. Kurt and I broke down the gear and headed back to the HQ. When we arrived, we checked in and enjoyed a well deserved cold beer. We had time to walk around and discuss the day with anglers such as Matt Brannon, Ken Wood and James Engle. I introduced myself to Jay Wallen, AJ McWhorter, Ron Champion, Russell Johnson and Matt Ball because they're the best in the business and I aspire to be among them some day. I even met the Big Bass Queen, Jean Wilson. Jean was the nicest person I had ever met on the tournament scene. She thanked me for introducing myself and gave me a hug. It was an honor to have met her and the other kayak fishing superstars.
Up to this day of my life, day two of the TENvitational represents the peak of my kayak fishing career in many ways. I am thankful for having the opportunity to be a part of it and have already plotted new goals because of it. Even further, I’m now wondering where I’ll be in a year or two. I’ve signed up for the pro tour and can’t even understand the possibilities yet, but I’m super excited for all of it! As the president of a legacy KBF partner club, I can't wait to share it all with my group. Thanks Chad, for Bienville and the TENvitational, for the KBF, for the opportunity to compete at the highest level and all the hard work that goes with it.