If we can keep it on the ground when we put that hammer down, we’ll be weigh-in bound and were flyin. We got our wake in the wind, let it all hang out again, cuz how we gonna win if we aint tryin.
I sang those lines; slightly edited to our situation as we ran back to the launch site. No one could hear me over the sound of the wind in our ears, and the roar of the Merc bringing us in. Less than 10 minutes to go was the only thing on our minds, and maybe if the fish were still alive.
My partner and I headed out to the Des Plains River for the last Friday of spring break. This was our final opportunity to prefish for the tournament we had the following day. There was a greyish cloud cover that appeared to stretch over the whole river. It gave us an opportunity to fish in a low pressure situation where we could get the most bites out of our favorite spots. Sadly we came up short and even during our stop at a last minute spot we only caught a few dink bass. The weather was supposed to be sunny the whole day of our tournament and we knew it was going to be a grind.
That night at around 11, I got a text. My partner told me that the person who was going to fish instead of me had bailed the tournament. This was great news for me, because I was going to fish the tournament with the best guy on our team. It also made me a nervous wreck, as I stayed up anxiously deciding what I was going to do. There was one repeating thought in my mind…”what if I don’t catch?”
My buddy gave me a ride to the tournament the next morning as we discussed the facts. In order to qualify for our series Classic, each boat had to catch around 2 fish. I was confident my partner could do that, and maybe I would be able to scrap a few and add to our total weight. I knew that I had a good tournament the week before, catching 2 fish on a hard day to get a 4th place finish. Still, I was nervous and had just about nothing on my mind other than getting to the launch. The rest of the ride there, I found myself lost in thoughts of not being good enough. All there was to keep me from having a panic attack was the humming sound of the highway and Eminem rap from the speakers.
When we arrived at the launch site it was still dark. The headlights of the trucks and SUV’s dropping boats in the water illuminated the gravel parking lot. There was a slight glimmer that shined on the water, revealing the small gusts of wind the cold April morning blew in. As I dressed in raingear to break the chilling wind, I was called over with my team to discuss who was fishing. I was originally supposed to swap places with my buddy who had driven me to the tournament. Instead I was told the news I had read the night before. I was fishing with the best angler on my team.
The next thing I recall is sitting in the back seat of the boat. It was nearly 7am. Our coach had drawn a good launch number, and we would be going to the spot my partner and I had caught fish the day before. The national anthem played as thoughts raced through my mind. I was anxious as ever and could not afford to miss the Classic cut. Soon, we were watching boats take off, and after a short wait, we were next. We heard our boat number, idled out to where it was safe, and took off.
The short run to our spot ended with surprise…no one was on our spot. We quickly dropped the trolling motor and got to work. I was throwing an Storm Arashi Flat 7 and my partner was wacky rigging a senko. I kept thinking we needed a fish immediately to get something going. A long 25 minutes later my partner hooked up on a small largemouth. I quickly grabbed the net and made sure he did not lose it as he flipped it into the boat. We bumped it and itwas barely 12 inches. Still a keeper, but it would have to be culled in case we had a shot at a good position. Our first keeper was caught at 8:01am. I soon switched to a Texas Rigged Berkley Pit Boss in Junebug. That was a great decision.
We continued to flip the area we had been fishing and slowly expanded where we fished as well. I had a small bite but did not hook up, which made me second guess my approach. I flipped my bait under a small dock and left it there for a while. Suddenly my line swam to the left, and I set the hook with excitement. I worked the fish near the boat and it swam under, when it came back up my partner netted it. I was astonished to see it was at least a 3 pounder. Normally in the river, the bass are slightly undersized. This was a kicker if we had seen one.
We continued to fish and spoke with ease as we had definitely qualified our boat for our series Classic. Our coach told us that they had only finished 2nd several years before in a regular season event. That event, the two anglers had caught a staggering number of fish and had culled countless times. We joked that this would be the winning tournament for our team. Shortly after my partner hooked up again. I grabbed the net and on his Texas Rigged Compact Craw he caught a decent fish weighing around 1 1/2 pounds. A minute later I hooked up on one about the same size. We landed it and realized we could be looking at a top 5 if we kept this up. My coach told us we would need another kicker to secure a spot there. Two minutes later I flipped next to a no wake sign post. I had never caught anything there and I was just trying to get my bait in the water. Then I hooked up and fought this fish to the boat. When we netted it we realized it was the kicker we needed, roughly 2 1/2 pounds to add to our total. It also filled our 5 fish limit. We checked the time and it was a around 8:30am. We had caught all those fish in under half an hour.
Then we got a lull. We didn’t catch for a while and decided to move spots. We packed up and ran for a good 5 minutes. We got up and instinctively checked the livewells to make sure the fish were okay. They weren’t. There was no water in the livewells and the fish were lying motionless on the bottom. I immediately thought to myself that they were dead. My coach turned on the water and the fresh water crept in. My partner fished as my coach and I attempted to revive the fish. I took the tank with the small fish my partner had caught and the decent one either one of us could have caught, they were basically cookie cutters. I began to circle the fish in the well and soon they began to breath and swim a little. I informed my coach that the little guy that we wanted to cull was not doing great, and he told me the same about the big one I caught. After a few minutes though, we realized there was not going to be a half pound deduction on any of the fish. They were all getting back to good health.
We ran back from the spot only having caught one short fish. On the way we stopped a few times since the livewell seemed to be draining. My partner had a great plan and we shoved rags in the drain pipes of the well. This worked well and we went back to our old spot. It was taken by a fellow team in the district and we had been informed they had caught a 3 pounder. We fished a spot nearby and I caught a short fish as well. We began scrambling, attempting to catch a fish to cull out our 12 incher.
As the day wound to a close we had not culled the fish and I had not been even dreaming of taking a top 3. We began our run back as we estimated the weight in the livewells. On the high side we had 10 pounds. On the low we had 8 1/2. I had caught 3 of the 5 fish and was really happy with my performance.
On the way I sang the lines of Texas Bound and Flyin’ from Smokey and the Bandit 2. It was the line “cuz how you gonna win if you aint trying.” that changed my opinion on the day. It made me believe we had a chance at a win for our team, and for us.
As the wind in my ears had subsided, we pulled in to hear sounds of disappointment, and of ecstasy. The 1pm daylight had brightened everything at the marina, revealing the massive yachts and all of the 38 tournament boats filling every empty space there was. My parents and brother had come out to watch us weigh in. I stayed with the boat as my partner went to see what the highest weight was. I soon called my buddy who had fished without any keeper catches and asked him what bags were brought in. I got some alarming news, he told me there was a bag about to be weighed that had at least 15 pounds in it. I was disappointed, but believed we could still have a top 3 finish. A few moments later he told me that some of the other bags about to be weighed had around 12-13 pounds. I thought the day had been rough for many teams, but apparently we had been doing poorly compared to other schools.
My partner soon came back with my coach. I had asked if we still had a chance to get top 5 and was astounded when I leaned the top school weighed in so far had brought in a little over 7 pounds. I guess my buddy had big eyes. We grabbed the weigh bags as my parents took pictures. We walked to the weigh-in stand and waited for our coach to run back and get our boat number.
All around me I noticed people staring and looking at our bag. I realized that we were going to win if we could weigh over 10 pounds. It was a remarkable feeling knowing that my partner and I could catch a good bag and not stare at someone else’s bag wondering how they did it.
Our coach came back and gave the director our flag. Then we weighed my fish for big bass. It was 3.31 pounds and big bass was around a 4 pounder so we had missed that. Then we weighed our total catch. The director said 10.52 and everyone cheered for us. I was on top of the world, and knew we had secured a victory as we lead by over 2 pounds. We took pictures and were congratulated by everyone. We estimated I had caught around 7 1/2 pounds of the total catch. I held my two biggest and my partner helped me out by holding his two plus my smaller one.
As fast as our smiles went on, they were off when the last school came in with a big bag. Everyone was quiet. Everything went still. I felt like all the air in my lungs was gone. We waited for the tournament director to say the weight. After the fish finally stopped flopping the scale read a little over 9 pounds. We had won our first tournament for the school. I was filled with ecstasy. We were all congratulated and soon we waited for the trophies to be handed out. From fifth place we waited and finally claimed our 1st place spot.
At the end of it all, when we packed all the weigh-in stands in the trucks, and all the pictures were taken; my partner buckled the seatbelt of our coaches truck to secure the trophy. He turned around with a big smile on his face. I was relived, and yet the happiest person in the world. I had caught fish and put the first win on my hopefully long list ahead of me.