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McKendree Bass

McKendree Bass

First Stop - The Cabela’s Collegiate Big Bass Bash Presented by Berkley

Tue, March 29, 2016

By Austin Chapman
Junior, McKendree University Bass Fishing team

I started my freshman year on the inaugural McKendree University fishing team in the fall of 2013. What started as a smaller team of only 10 anglers, is now a team of 20 kids just two short years later. We’ve improved every year. Our first year we finished 20th in the country out of 253 schools in the Cabelas’ School of the Year race. Last year, we improved to 8th out of 310 schools, and hope to keep moving up!

Our first major college tournament this spring was at Kentucky Lake in Paris, Tennessee… the Cabela’s Collegiate Big Bass Bash Presented by Berkley. This tournament is a bit of a change up in the lineup because it is a big bass tournament. Instead of bringing your five biggest bass to the scales, you bring in only your biggest bass to the scales during four different weigh in sessions throughout the day. Prizes go out to the top ten fish in each session.

This format changes how a lot of people attack the lake. Some people go out and fish like a normal tournament and hope to luck into a big one. Others try to target the bigger fish by throwing bigger baits using certain techniques and ways of fishing, or target an area that is known for holding big fish.

I came into the tournament wanting to target big fish by throwing big swimbaits. And when I say big baits, I mean BIG baits. I was looking to go out and fish for 20-30 hours and get one or maybe two bites. Some people might think that is crazy, but I know that when I get that bite, it is going to be the big fish that I am looking for. It typically takes at least an eight pounder to win this tournament (the winning fish this year was 8.35 lbs!), and double digit giants are certainly possible on KY Lake.

How big are these baits? Five inches? Six? Not even close. I am talking eight to ten inch swimbaits and these baits range from four to seven OUNCES a piece! These big baits originally got started in California. They are very realistic and the motion of these baits are almost as good as the real thing. Big swimbaits like this are made to be fished in ultra-clear water (15ft+ visibility) and fool the biggest, oldest, and smartest bass into biting.

When we got down to the lake to practice, I saw that the lake was a lot muddier than normal due to some spring rain and I knew that the big swimbaits were going to be out of the question because they require at least three to four foot of visibility to work. The gears started moving around and I knew that I was going to have to go from throwing something natural, to something loud, bright, and make a lot of vibration.

The first day was good fishing with terrible rain. I found some fish throwing a lipless crankbait around some rip rap points and had a few bites on a jig. With the water temperature warming up in the mid 50’s I figured that the fish were moving up from the deeper water to stage. I targeted textbook staging areas. These areas are where fish are coming up from their winter haunts to feed up for the spawn. Points next to river and creek channels are great places to start.
Day two of practice was a bit of a struggle. Heavy rains from the day before washed out creeks and made them look like chocolate milk. I was struggling. I knew that my plan from the previous day was not going to hold up so after an abysmal day of practice only catching two fish I knew it was back to square one.

For me, square one is map study. Before I go to any lake I study as much as I can about the topography of the lake. I look at the contour lines on maps to see where I think fish will be, read fishing reports, and look at tournament results for that time of year to get a general idea of what I want to do.

After a long night of studying the maps, I had decided to put all my eggs into one basket and decided to make a long run south to where the water was going to be cleaner and reports of a “dirty thirty”, an incredible limit of bass topping the scales over thirty pounds, was caught down there the weekend before. I had found a spot close to the river channel that was at the mouth of a big bay where there was a ledge that dropped from three feet down to sixteen feet in a hurry.

Tournament morning my number was called and I was off, making my near 25 mile trek down the lake to my spot. I made a stop along the way at a beautiful long tapering point that dropped off quickly that was covered in rock. After about a half hour of trying for a bite, we headed to the ledge. I found the drop off, and I started by throwing a Mike Bucca BullShad while my partner threw an Alabama rig. Since we were on the Tennessee side of the lake, he was using a 3 wire rig due to the law stating only three hooks are able to be used. We didn’t have a very productive first day at the spot but managed a few solid 3 pounders. Two other large tournaments were on the lake that day, and I had heard of a 9 pounder caught on the ledge. I could see a lot of fish on my Lowrance SideScan and there was also some grass up on top of the ledge.

When we pulled up on the second day, we were the only boat in the area. I decided to attack it with a regular approach since the big swimbaits weren’t working all that well the day before. I noticed the crushers on the fish were really red and I knew that meant crawdads were on the menu. I threw a lipless crankbait ripping it though the grass and right off the bat I was whacking them. Enough so that my partner switched up and in the first half hour on the second morning we had a 5 fish limit of bass in the boat that weighed over 20 pounds!

Even though we had a great stringer, we didn’t have any big fish yet. And in a big fish tournament, a bunch of three to four pound fish won’t take you anywhere. We decided to keep on fishing and it was just incredible. We caught 15-20 fish a piece and none of them were smaller than 3 pounds!! This school of fish was incredible. At one point, there were four different boats in the college tournament fishing this school, and all of the boats were less than 20 yards apart.  Everybody was very respectful, and I made sure that everybody could fit.

Around 10 in the morning I hooked into one fish that was mean. She immediately made a run for the deep water and then bolted to the surface, jumping three or four times on the way to the boat. I made the joke to my partner Brock, “This one thinks it’s a smallie!!” since they are known for their aerobatics. Little did I know, it actually was a smallmouth bass. She jumped one last time at the boat and that is when I realized what she was. In one quick motion, my partner netted her and set her in the bottom of the boat. That’s when I went nuts. Anybody who has seen me catch a big fish knows that I go crazy and channel my inner Mike Iaconelli when I catch a good one and this was no exception! “That’s the biggest smallie of my life!!!” I yelled. High fives and fist bumps ensued.

A few minutes later the camera boat showed up and started filming us. I told them once they got within earshot that they already missed the show. The camera man got in our boat, and we both held up our three fish that we were allowed to keep in the tournament for one heck of a picture.

Our “On the Water” pic featured on the Cabelas Live Blog during the tourney.

We caught a few on camera, and I decided it was time to run in and weigh a couple fish. I was a little late for the second weigh in and decided to weigh my smallie for the third period. I took her up to the scales and it read 4.32, a new personal best smallmouth!!! I was on cloud 9! I got to hold it up for the crowd and hear the claps and yells from my family and our crew of parents who follow us around to support us everywhere we go.

The McKendree tailgating crew!

It was an amazing tournament even though I didn’t win a prize, I had a blast catching all of those fish and setting a new personal best! Kentucky Lake is an amazing fishery, and I can’t wait to go back. Not only did I have a great tourney, the rest of the McKendree team did, too.  The biggest fish that the McK team weighed in over the weekend was Curtis Lilly’s 6.24 lb. bass, followed up by Trent Robinson’s 5.55. Shane Campbell also caught a 5.08 that got him in the prize money in one session. Out of the 78 different universities and 436 anglers that fished the tourney, our team placed 11th overall!

This finish helped our team to move up to 14th in the coveted Association of Collegiate Anglers (ACA) School of the Year (SOY) race!

Curtis Lilly’s 6.24 lb. largemouth earned him 3rd place in Session 2 on Day 1 and 18th overall.

Trent Robinson’s 5.55 bass got him 8th place in Session 4 on Day 2, and 38th overall.

Shane Campbell’s 5.08 lb. bass landed in 9th place in Session 2 on Day 1.

The Big Bass Bash will be televised in two parts in May on NBC Sports channel.

Our team’s next stop…  the Cabela’s/Boat US Dardanelle Derby on Lake Dardanelle in Russellville, AR.  This tourney provides another unique tourney format and the chance to earn big Cabelas SOY points.