Paddle BassersPaddle Bassers Kayak tournaments may have different rules than powerboat events, but the objectives are the same: fun and fish.
By Pete Anderson
Anglers, their sunglasses perched above their hat brims, milled around the parking lot. They were in groups of three or four. Some leaned against vehicles and scuffed their shoes across the pavement. Others sat in the shade of tall pine trees. After eight hours of casting under bluebird skies and warm spring sunshine, many devoured snacks and chugged cold drinks. They all took turns asking about the other anglers’ days and responding with their own tales of bass caught and lost. Laughter comes after most of the stories. The scene looks no different than any weekend bass tournament, but that was about to change. One by one, they brought their catch to the tournament director. Instead of dripping bags filled with five-bass limits, these anglers presented smartphones and digital cameras.
Most of the anglers at this weigh-in are members of the Hardcore Kayak Fishing Team, a tournament club that calls Charlotte, N.C., home and the lakes along the Catawba River – Wylie, Mountain Island and Norman in particular – their playing fields. The rest are guests from other clubs, some traveling a couple hours from Greensboro, N.C., who are taking their turn on reciprocal invitations to tournaments. They met at Hunt Fish Paddle, a tackle shop and kayak dealer in Lake Wylie, S.C., this particular March day, when it was earlier, colder and darker. Each drew a playing card from a standard deck, the tournament director noting which one. During the course of the day, they photographed each bass, stretched out on a measuring board next to their playing card, which identifies the bass as being caught in this tournament. At the weigh-in, the tournament director reviewed each picture, double-checking the measurement and jotting down each angler’s biggest bass, up to five. The winner has the most inches, and the totals sort the field. On this day, it took four bass that measured a combined 57.5 inches to win. Big fish for the day was 17.25 inches.
When someone mentions bass tournaments, thoughts turn to 20-foot fiberglass boats with 250-horsepower outboards slicing small wakes across quiet coves in dawn’s early light. But the truth is there are many tournament anglers who compete in smaller fiberglass, aluminum and even inflatable belly boats. Joining their ranks is a growing contingent of anglers who paddle kayaks. The narrow boats date back about 4,000 years, when native people living along the Bering Sea and Artic and northern Pacific and Atlantic oceans hunted from ones framed with whalebones and covered with animal skins. In the 1950s, inflatable and fiberglass kayaks were introduced. Manufacturers switched to the molded plastic versions popular today in the 1970s. And they’re getting more popular each year.
The Boulder, Colo.-based trade group Outdoor Industry Association estimated that 7.8 million Americans – 2.8% of the population – paddled a kayak in 2008. That was up from 1.6% in 2006. Some of that increase can be credited to me and my wife, who first dipped a paddle on a guided tour of Roanoke Sound on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. We were surprised at how easy kayaking is, from getting into one without getting wet and paddling a good distance while navigating a headwind. We found the kayak stable – much more than a canoe – and with some paddle coordination, easily maneuverable. They also are relatively inexpensive and easy to transport – most hitch rides to the water on top of cars, or as some of the Hardcore anglers do, in the bed of a pickup truck. And maybe best of all, they don’t use any two-cycle oil, gas or ethanol treatment. They’re a great option for people of any age to get out on the water. “We got guides,” said club president Tim Stewart, of the Hardcore membership mix. “We have 15-year veterans and we have people just starting out.” The club formed about 15 years ago, when seeing someone casting from a kayak – and many times a kayak itself – was an oddity. Now they are everywhere. In fact, just a few miles north of this tournament weigh-in is the U.S. National Whitewater Center, where U.S. Olympians practice on man-made rapids and visitors can rent kayaks to paddle the Catawba River, Lake Wylie’s main tributary.
This Hardcore tournament was a multiple launch event. After the competitors checked in, they could travel to any launch ramp on the lake, but needed to back by 3 p.m. Besides the boats and how the bass are scored, there are a few other differences from traditional powerboat tournaments. Trolling is allowed in kayak events, but this club limits the number of rods dragging baits to two. Umbrella rigs are OK, too. Most kayak tournaments are eight hours long. And some leave from a single ramp. The range for kayak anglers is about 3 miles, Stewart said, depending on weather conditions and how much paddling they want to do.
There are different kinds of kayaks, including two-seat models and the single-seat ones that are used in tournaments. Those can be separated into two groups. The first consists of the sit-in kayaks – SITs. They resemble the original kayaks, where the hull comes up around the paddler, and are often used in saltwater and whitewater. They are usually faster but less stable than the other style, sit-on-top kayaks. Sporting a wider beam, SOTs are stable enough for an angler to stand in. They are the most popular option among tournament anglers. “I’d bet 90 percent of kayak fishermen are in a SOT,” Stewart said.
Regardless of the style, there is a lot of time put into rigging rides. Anglers don’t stop the do-it-yourself customization at a few rod holders. It runs from decal decorations all the way to electronics that would rival the most plugged in powerboat. Run with a small 12-volt battery, the kind used to power the toy cars children motor around driveways in, kayak anglers use graphs, scans and GPS to find bass. Most of the tournament kayaks are 12- to 14-feet long, each angler selecting a size after debating his or her personal speed and stability requirements. Inside, anglers can carry five or more rods and enough tackle to stock a small store. But they need to take into consideration what they pull from the stash because some presentations work a little different from a kayak. A Colorado-bladed spinnerbait, for example, has enough resistance on the retrieve to pull a kayak around. “Even a 2-pound bass will tow you around,” Stewart said. One angler in this tournament shared a photo at the weigh-in of a giant catfish that spun his kayak 180 degrees.
Stewart said kayaks shine in water bigger boats can’t reach: “You can paddle them under trees or over them to access water other boats can’t – or launch them where others can’t.” Kayaks are stealthy, too, giving anglers the upper hand in spooky bass conditions such as clear or super-shallow water. But getting to the fish is only one of their benefits. “As far as a specific technique, I’d say trolling would definitely be one, because you are always going trolling speed,” he quipped. Many kayak anglers keep a trolling lure handy, which they drag when moving between spots so not to waste fishing time. Kayaks also provide a great perspective on dock fishing. Many powerboat anglers have to kneel or lean over to get low enough to skip lures far under docks, where the unmolested and biggest bass always seem to be. Kayak anglers are already down there. “Once you get used to it, it’s super easy to fire one parallel to the water and way back in there,” he said. “Sometimes I go behind and under the dock walkways, which a bass boat can’t do. ‘Yaks’ are great for going over thick grass and lily pads to use a punch bait. That’s stuff you wouldn’t get a trolling motor through.”
Tournament fishing is only a portion of what Hardcore is all about. Like powerboat clubs, its members schedule fun events, too, including dedicating a day to chasing panfish. Members donate their catch to the Carolina Raptor Center in Huntersville, N.C., to feed the birds of prey that are recuperating there. The club also holds a big tournament in the fall that’s limited to 53 kayaks – the number of playing cards in a deck. The members put their own spin on it, like their kayaks, each year welcoming back a longtime supporter, who starts the morning by playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his electric guitar lakeside. But they aren’t the only ones who like to put on a big kayak bass tournament.
Adam Fillmore is hosting Kayaks and Greenbacks, a two-day tournament on Lake Wylie that was slated for the end of March. He’s also the owner of Hunt Fish Paddle, where Hardcore held its weigh-in. “I got into it by accident,” he said of kayak fishing. It happened during a trip to the beach, where there was no bank or pier to fish from. So he borrowed a kayak from a friend. Its stability surprised him. “Now I stand up in one and pitch jigs.” Anglers will be aiming at a big prize in his tournament, which boasts a $30,000 payout with $10,000 going to the winner with a full 200-kayak field. About a month ahead of time, he had almost 75% of it filled. Participants were coming from as far as Tennessee, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania. Each paid a $150 entry fee.
Back at the weigh-in, all the pictures have been checked and the payout, built from $25 entry fees, has been distributed to the top-finishing anglers. As tackle is broken down and kayaks secured for their rides home, the stories continue. Questions about the next tournament and where some are going for a meal and a few cold ones fly about. They’re directed to “Capt. Ron” or “The Enforcer” or “Young Blood.” Stewart – or “Stew Rat” – said nicknames are an important part of the camaraderie that keeps the club fun. “Very few are picked. They are generally bestowed by someone else for a reason,” he said. “We actuallyrequirethat you supply one with your sign-up for our annual tourney in October. It’s just part of the fun. It really stems from the fact that in the early days most of the communication was on fishing forums, and many people were known by their screen names more than their real ones.” But times are changing and, to some degree, so is the club as it brings in new members and interacts with other clubs in the Carolinas. Those who cast for cash from kayaks have come together in small groups but not a national one, like B.A.S.S. chapters have B.A.S.S., that holds televised tournaments with lots of cash. At least not yet. But if that day comes, he doesn’t think it will affect Hardcore. “We’ll be here, doing our thing.”
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