River smallmouth bass in the company of tournament fishing history
I’m enjoying the benefits that come from writing and promoting a book about fishing. I’ve learned many new things by interacting with other anglers and visiting new places; some I’ve written about on my Blog site. But what I enjoy most is meeting new friends and hearing their stories about past fishing experiences. I recently met an interesting gentleman at one of my book signings who has become a good friend. His name is Bob Barker, a pleasant, soft-spoken man with a fascinating background in the world of angling. Bob was the Federation/Conservation Director for the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society during much of its early years; the organization that introduced tournament fishing in this country on a grand scale. Ray Scott founded BASS in 1967 in Montgomery, Alabama with goals of creating a tournament trail and promoting and perpetuating recreational fishing as a pastime. Ray also directed the society in various conservationist efforts related to fishing and outdoor recreation, a true pioneer in our sport. Bob Barker worked at BASS, known today as Bassmasters, from 1975 until 1985 with the primary responsibility of recruiting bass clubs from across the country into the federation. As affiliates, each club sent representatives to fish in a series of tournaments that led to the Bassmasters Classic, the Super Bowl of bass fishing. After exchanging several e-mails, Bob and I set a date to go check the smallmouth bass fishing in a local river. Though I was eager to catch some bass, I was equally anxious to hear the stories my new angling partner would tell.
Early that morning, we took a long drive up Tennessee’s Holston River in dense fog to a place I thought would hold some post-spawn smallmouths. It was a long, cold drive of the white-knuckle variety with frequent quick turns to miss exposed rock and shoals. Running a shallow river with a jet-drive outboard is always exciting, more so when you’re driving some else’s boat and can’t see shallow areas until you’re on top of them. When we arrived at our destination, after only two minor collisions, I felt like I’d just chugged three shots of Espresso. As we began casting, I regained my composer, my heart returned to a normal rhythm and I asked Bob how he became involved with BASS. He recounted his background as a pharmacist in Danville VA, Secretary then President of the Virginia Bass Federation, and an invitation by Ray Scott to join BASS. As the fog lifted and air warmed, I became relaxed and our conversation grew lighthearted as Bob recalled memories of past tournaments, behind-the-scenes high jinks and bass fishing legends Tom Mann, Roland Martin, Bill Dance, Rick Clunn and others. He was most complimentary of Hank Parker and Woo Daves, among my greatest fishing heroes, and held my attention with stories about Charlie Campbell’s expertise with a topwater lure and Ricky Green’s ability to find big bass.
As we talked we caught a few small bass on topwater lures, though we soon decided the fish weren’t yet active enough to hit them well. So I changed to a fluke-style soft plastic stickbait, Bob to a small shallow-running crankbait, and the search for strikes continued. I can’t recall the moment in angling history Bob was sharing when he was interrupted by a rod-bending smallmouth, but our conversation soon changed; especially so after he caught several more good bass along a short stretch of shoreline. After the fourth fish, I replaced my soft-plastic stickbait with a shallow-running Rebel Wee-Crawfish crankbait and the fish-catching part of our day took off at a much accelerated rate. Leave it to a member of bass fishing history’s fraternity to choose the right type bass lure at the right time. We soon learned many smallmouths had finished spawning and were on the move. Shoals and other classic river structure held few fish but many places along shore where the current slowed held bass. Most large fish were long and thin with tattered, bloody fins and tails, confirmation that their post-spawn period was underway. Our conversation soon became focused on the smallmouth’s incredible strength and tenacity. In less than an hour, I’d fully recovered from the drive upriver and we soon lost count of how many bass we’d caught.
As the morning passed and the sun burned through the clouds, the smallmouths became even more cooperative. I continued to try my little topwater lure as the day passed and caught several fish on it including my largest bass of the day. But the slow steady retrieve of a
small crankbait continued to be the best choice for numbers and produced many two-pound class fish. So for those of you who love river smallmouth bass fishing, it’s time to go. Depending on where you live in the southeast, smallmouth bass may be about to spawn, moving toward summer feeding areas, or somewhere in between because water temperatures have warmed enough the fish are shallow and active. Visit a river near you soon and enjoy these aggressive, hard-fighting game fish. Use lures that cover various depths and retrieve speeds until the fish confirm you’ve made the right choice. And from an authority I know, shallow-running crankbaits are a good choice where water depth and cover permit. I enjoyed my day on the water with Bob Barker. He’s good company, a fine angler and enjoys fishing as much as I do. It just goes to show, you can make a good day of fishing a great day of fishing by sharing it with a friend and exceptional days have a way of building lasting friendships. I’m sure Bob and I will fish together again soon. Those feisty smallmouth bass kept interrupting our conversation so I want to hear more about Bob, the history of tournament fishing and the angling heroes who’ve brought so much to our sport. However, the next time we’ll take my boat and fish where I can see to drive.