The difference a year can make.
A hot humid August afternoon at DeGrey Lake in Arkansas 2011. Fifty miles away on Lake Ouachita the FLW pros were battling it out trying to reel in a hot Scott Martin at the Forrest Wood Cup. The National Guard Junior World Championship – a side-show maybe? Not for the family members of the 84 young anglers that represented 42 participating states in two age groups. NGJWC emcee Hank Parker was relaxed and looking well-groomed and he was very easy to approach by anyone near the stage. In the mobile bleachers some parents sat under the shade of umbrellas. Together they formed a small amphitheater and the water tanks were lined up under colorful tents awaiting the bags to be weighed.
Just before 2pm an announcement was made that the young fishermen would be coming in soon. Parents were instructed not to approach the boats. They were going to beach on the grassy shore on the bank closest to the tanks. While I stood on a hill looking out into the lake a woman gripped my arm. She was the mother of one of the youth and we became friends early that morning when our kids blasted off. She could barely stand the tension. How would her son do this day?
My son Tristan earned the berth for the younger age group representing Oregon. His best fishing buddy Nick Chin was a year older and he won the older age group in the same season. It was a dream opportunity for two best friends. They had been in the state’s bass fishing youth competitions since they were 11- the first age they were eligible. Standing on the hill Tristan wasn’t looking for me nor did he have a keen interest in what to do next. I was pretty sure I knew what that meant. I ventured down closer to the lake’s edge and through his sunglasses our eyes met. He shook his head no, no fish.
Next season, June 2012, and a thousand miles north and west, we wished for Hank’s feel good humor again and for the grandeur of the NGJWC. For the BASS Western Regional at Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming the truck pulling the stage had broken down. The host state Wyoming loaned their converted ice cream truck for ceremonies. There were tents and flags. Folding chairs on the dry gravel. We had arrived inside the 5mph with just three minutes to spare. Close call that possibly jeopardized a big moment. In the livewell there was a limit!
At DeGrey, the lake was closed for a week before the tournament. Zero practice. At Flaming Gorge, the youth were allowed to practice during the state team’s first two days of competition for the adults. Tristan and I made the 1100 mile tow without his older age group partner, Jacob Wall from Medford Or. He would fly in a day later to Salt lake City. This was Tristan’s third regional or world championship and Jacob was 2nd place in National High School team competition the year before. All of us were first time visitors to this immense high desert reservoir, and it was up to us to make it work. Jake and Tristan had ten other state competitors to beat in their respective age groups and advance to the BASS Youth National Championship. It would be a dramatic day.
Speaking to a group of over a hundred bass anglers at a seminar recently I thanked those that had volunteered as boat captains for the youth. Many had been volunteers for several seasons. The excitement of seeing a young angler putting a fish in the boat in competition is irresistible. The youth league in Oregon was formed when two qualifying tournaments each were held to determine the berths for the TBF Junior World Championship and the BASS Western Regional. Two age groups: 11-14 year olds, and 15-18. For the qualifiers we separate father-boat captains from their sons. On the water coaching is not just frowned upon, it’s disallowed. This is competition for the youth. Older age group competitors are matched with a younger age group, but they spit time on the trolling motor and for choices of waters to fish. Boat captains merely drive to the spots selected by the young anglers, and they look out for their safety. Naturally boat captains of the winning anglers are proud- despite having nothing to do with their success!
At Flaming Gorge at the regional level, everything changed. Not only was I boat captain, I was coach. Same as Bruce Boche can’t be in the line-up on game day, but he can be on the diamond during practice if he chooses. Catching fish to help these kids was a challenge I was up for, but not greatly successful. After day one we sat in on the state team huddle at the hotel. Not a lot of new information, but those that spoke about the fishing in Utah talked about the 40 mile ride back across a lake swept by afternoon desert winds.
Jacob arrived that evening and we went to dinner. He had done research on the web, and combined with our information the next day’s practice was his to plan. A 17-year-old with all the resources and most of the skills of a veteran adult angler. We felt confident we could find winning fish in Wyoming waters. He decided to run up lake in the Green River basin and the trolling motor was his for the day. His maturity was no surprise. I had been Jake’s boat captain in several state qualifiers previously. He and Tristan continued working together for the entirety of the day. It didn’t matter our overall lackluster success, they became a Band of Brothers on the water.
That evening’s state team huddle we openly asked for assistance. Our team’s weight added to the state team’s weight and there was a boat on the line for the top total weight by state. We were advised for a limit, go to the narrows in Utah and fish jerkbaits. 45 miles- and we had found beds in Wyoming! With a few fish on them! The boys would have stayed up all night prepping had I let them. They decided to fish the beds first, but leave enough time to run to Utah if necessary. Flaming Gorge has a no cull rule- what goes in the box, stays in the box. Jake’s first smallmouth was a no doubter 3lb he dragged off a bed with a tube. Then we were on our way to scenic Utah.
There the reservoir is transformed. Open flats and brushy tapering points give way to steep walls clear water and chunk rock. It was time for jerk baits and Oregon Pro Nick Fitzsimmons advised the boys hardest jerks possible and then even harder! The area delivered as promised and keeper fish were going in the wells. Jake got to three and he thought about his fourth fish- a keeper. One more and he was done- no cull. Then there were exciting double hook ups and many undersized fish. Tristan got to four and he was stuck. And now it was early afternoon. I fist pumped when Jake twice threw back keeper number five. He still had time to catch a bigger fish. Win or go home was his attitude.
I looked over my shoulder wondering about the 45 miles back to the ramp. I’m experienced running in huge water on the Columbia River back home. Was it going to be enough? Now both anglers were stuck on four. We decide to go back to a productive point planning that it would replenish. Tristan breaks off his most productive jerkbait. There are minutes to go now and he ties on another jerkbait that’s not the same but close. He’s angry, and he jerks the bait vigorously. “Fish on!” he shouts! It’s his fifth keeper- he’s done it! We’re prayin’ for Jacob but another bite doesn’t come. I don’t want to risk Tristan’s chance. The altitude is high enough to greatly affect the boat’s performance. Tristan kneels down on the bow so I can get on plane. All good- until we exit the narrows.
Winds only blow in one direction, but why the waves on the main lake went every which way can’t be explained. Harrowing sideways deflections off the peak of waves. I can’t let up. We rock sideways then jump the next wave and the engine hits the rev limiter when we get airborne. THUD we come crashing down on the next wave. I want to tuck into shore, but obstacles are plentiful and they are not marked. Around every point we hope to see the ramp in the distance. I get a glance in on the clock. It’s going to be close. The livewell pumps are running and the bilge pump and I keep my hotfoot buried. We make it and we come off plane. We check the fish and crack open bottles of water while we idle to the dock.
The boys are bagging their fish and we’re listening to the weights as they are being called from the scale. A Washington high school senior Nik Autrey weighs in 12lbs. Jake with four isn’t close. We hadn’t heard anything about Tristan’s age group until we were at the tanks. Only a few other limits weighed in. Emcee Jon Stewart calls Tristan’s name and says “He’s got a limit!” Tristan holds them up and cameras snap. He loses by 12ozs. Jacob’s four fish were enough for 3rd place in the older age group. Jon gave me the microphone and I could barely hold back the tears. Tears of pride for the game these boys had as young competitors. I said “Jon, these boys left it all on the lake this day- and I mean all of it!” The gallery cheered.
I drove west into the setting sun that evening. The experience as Oregon’s Youth Director brought a tired, sun burnt smile. I was a father that had passed on the gift of fishing to his son, and to his friends. The boys clutched their trophies. Exhausted, they were asleep in their seats.