I left the FLW Tour event at Grand Lake in Oklahoma and drove 19 hours straight through to the James River in Richmond, Virginia for the first Bassmaster Northern Open of the 2013 season. It’s always exciting to start a new series with a fresh slate, but at the same time I knew that the Northerns would be a challenge. I’d never been to either the James or Oneida Lake (the second stop) and with limited practice time it was going to be tough to beat the locals and the guys who’d been there before.
Launching at Osborne Landing for my first day of practice, the James reminded me of Grand Lake – high and muddy, with a lot of floating logs and debris. Conditions like that shove most of the field into small areas, wherever there are pockets of clean water. That makes it tougher on first-timers like me who don’t know the key little spots within the spots.
On the first day of practice I just rode the James itself, trying to understand how it laid out and looking for promising areas. I never made a cast. On the second day I went to the upper end of the Chickahominy River tributary and immediately felt at home. The available cover, the water color and the water clarity all fit my style to a tee. At that point, without much time to learn a whole system, I committed myself to the upper Chick. That proved to be a good decision, as that’s where most of the top finishers fished, including the winner.
The first day on the Chick I put together a 12 to 15 pound limit pretty easily, and felt like I was narrowing down key areas and key bait choices. The next day the weather changed but the fishing stayed strong. There was abundant sunshine and not a bit of wind, but I kept on flipping docks, grass and pads and I’m sure I had at least 25 or 30 bites, including one fish pushing 10 pounds, which is huge for that river. That success made me lock down on the Chick even further. I put all of my eggs in that single basket, partially because it had been good to me, but also because I had no time left to explore anything else. Of course tidal water always has all sorts of changes, some major, some subtle, that can affect the outcome of any tournament.
On the first tournament morning I made the long run down to the mouth of the Chick, and then all the way up to the top of the river without incident. My Phoenix and Mercury combo got me there easily and comfortably. Once I sat down in my key stretch, though, something was wrong. I’d been flipping pad stems with a Senko to get all of those bites just a day earlier, but on tournament day they didn’t want it. I’d also caught a few on a Lunker Lure swim jig out off the edge of the pads, but that didn’t produce, either. With a long run each way, that only left me with about 5 hours to fish, which prevented me from exploring more. I didn’t know what changes to make, so I fell a couple of bites short of my limit.
It was frustrating because a poor first day left me out of the hunt. All I could do was go back to what I thought were my best areas and put my head down and flip. I knew the fish were there. I just had to make them bite.
I got a lot more bites the second day and I had a chance to put together a pretty decent bag, but once again I couldn’t fill out a limit. I brought four small fish to the scales and finished way down in the pack. I was done weighing in at 4pm and by 4:30 I was in the truck headed back to the camper in Dayton, Tennessee. At 1 am I rolled up, exhausted, but done with this brutal stretch of tournaments.
While I certainly wasn’t happy to do poorly at the James, in another sense it freed me up. With the terrible finish I don’t have a realistic shot of making the Elites through the Northern Opens, so I’m going to skip Oneida and Lake Erie. That’ll allow me to focus on the Central Opens. I finished 6th in the first one of the year at the Red River and now I can put some serious time into the remaining two. The Ross Barnett event will be a challenge, but it’s one that I welcome. The next one is at the Arkansas River out of Muskogee, Oklahoma. I was there once before for a PAA tournament and I did pretty well on the first day of competition. I didn’t adjust sufficiently on Day Two, but I still ended up with a decent finish. More importantly, I feel like I learned some things about that river that’ll benefit me this time.
7 fish, 10-03