An old friend, big fish, and new adventures

It took me a while to realize it, but I am a bit of a homebody.

Not to say that I don’t like adventures and new experiences. I just enjoy a certain level of familiarity and the comfort that comes with it. I’m not averse to trying new things per se, I simply pick and choose my opportunities in a calculated way.

This certainly leads to missing out on some chances and, if I’m honest, I sometimes kick myself for that. But being selective about when and how I step out of my usual surroundings help me try to keep the stress and anxiety in my life at a minimum.

Recently, I had a chance to venture away from home and it was an opportunity I simply couldn’t turn down.

During the last several years, I have regularly received pictures from my friend JT, an old college buddy who is a Minnesota native. These photos generally include a vast array of large fish he catches in Potato Lake just outside of Park Rapids. His family has a cabin there and that lake provides most of JT’s fishing opportunities throughout the year.

Fishing is one of the many things that has forged the bond between JT throughout the years. But, for whatever reason, we haven’t done much fishing together. Earlier this year, we decided to change that.

Earlier this year, we began making arrangements to meet up at his family’s cabin. To up the ante, we selected a weekend when we could participate in an online bass fishing tournament. We spent the following months exchanging ideas on tactics, gear, and (of course) fish pictures.

As the week of the trip arrived, I spent most of my free time organizing my gear and travel necessities. While I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the nearly eight-and-a-half-hour drive, nothing was going to deter me from enjoying the weekend ahead. I wasn’t going to miss a chance to fish with a friend I hadn’t seen in over a year, nor was I going to deny myself the chance to catch a few fish of the quality he regularly encounters.

The truck ride up was smooth and uneventful. I was surprised at how quickly the time seemed to pass. It’s amazing what determination and focus can do.

As soon as I got out of the car, we got straight to business. I unloaded my tackle and JT and I immediately began assessing our options.

About five minutes in to the conversation, JT looked at me and asked, “Did you even bring clothes?” At that point, I decided it was time to quickly unpack my non-fishing-related cargo. With that taken care of, we hopped in the boat.

Our rig for the bulk of the weekend was a 12-foot aluminum boat with an equally old 10-horse outboard that JT had acquired for the low, low price of “free.” I was asked to bring boots along because the boat “leaks a little.” The ice cream pail sitting behind the rear bench quickly made me realize that this beauty came as advertised.

The tournament format was pretty simple. Each competing angler gets an identification code. That code must be included in every fish picture. Fish are placed on a trough-style measuring board and photographed. Those photos get uploaded to an app. The five longest fish count toward your score. The angler in your region of the country with the highest score wins. Largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted Bass are all fair game.

As we set out to our first spot, images of all the big smallmouth JT had sent me in recent months began rushing through my head. I stared at the faded Bass Pro Shops measuring tape in the front right of the craft contemplating how our fish would measure up. We had a real opportunity to be competitive this weekend and that added a level of excitement.

JT warned me that fishing was slow in the morning. But that didn’t do much to temper my expectations. I was confident we were going to get on a few fish and they were going to be big.

We spent most of our time on shallow water spots: humps, points, sandbars, and the like. We were, as JT called it, taking a “run and gun” approach, frequently switching rods to offer up different presentations and never spending more than 15 minutes in a given spot. However, action was hard to come by. JT had scored a small northern pike but that was all we had to show for our first couple of hours.

As sunset approached, our luck began to change our while drifting a large hump. JT boated a solid 17-inch smallmouth on a top-water bait, adding to his relatively meager total from earlier in the day. He now had three fish on the board.

Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I decided to switch over to a top-water bait as well. I’ve never had much luck with this approach at my local spots, but I had a feeling Potato Lake would offer up a different experience. As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened.

On several occasions, the calm water erupted as a bass launched itself at my bait. That experience alone provides a unique brand of excitement. One minute you’re enjoying the serenity of a peaceful lake, watching loons hunt, and bald eagles soar. Then, without warning, you’re treated to a shot of a adrenaline straight to the veins.

The trick is managing that drastic shift in emotions. Setting the hook too soon can pull the bait right out of the fish’s mouth. In other cases, the fish misses the bait entirely despite the impressive display of aerial acrobatics.

After coming up empty on a handful of strikes and daylight running low, I switched to one of my old standby lures: the Rapala F7. I managed to land a few small bass. At least I was on the board.

We headed back to the cabin and enjoyed some pizza and cold beer while I caught up with JT’s parents and we mulled over plans for the morning.

The next day, we were up and at ’em bright and early, probably an our before sunrise. We each snacked on a delicious oatmeal muffin, straight from the oven (courtesy of Mrs. Tix) before heading down to the dock.

A modest north wind was blowing, a factor we would need to take into account as we implemented the strategies we discussed the night prior.

We want back to top-water tactics since that yielded the most success during our last trip. We worked reeds and points in areas that were protected from the wind. Early on, a solid pike came completely out of the water as soon as my bait hit the surface. I fought the fish to within yards of the boat when the 30-plus-inch specimen seemingly decided it had enough, opened its mouth, and simply let the bait go.

After coming up empty at the hump that produced fish the day before, we moved to a sandbar that immediately showed signs of life. On my first cast, a large walleye followed my spinner bait all the way to the boat before thinking better of striking. JT had a bass follow on his first cast.

Before long, JT had scooped up a couple of smallmouth in the 16-inch range. He now had five scoring fish and was sitting comfortably in second place in the standings.

We tried a new post near a weed patch before heading in for lunch and I was able to land a 10-inch largemouth. It wasn’t much, but I now had three fish on the board.

After quickly scarfing down some re-heated pizza, we shifted our attention to Plan B: a pond just down the road from the cabin that was a largemouth bass haven. We loaded up a pair of kayaks, made sure our tackle was in order, and hit the road.

JT had this spot in his back pocket, just in case we ran into the type of slow fishing we encountered on the lake. He was very confident as we discussed our plan on the truck ride over. As it turned out, he had every right to be.

With the gear unloaded, I sat in my kayak, a royal blue job with a shark face on the front. JT pushed me off as he tidied up on shore. I lofted a few casts with no luck. I have spent very little time in kayaks in my life and even less time attempting to fish out of one. I was a bit nervous about the whole thing.

When paddled out to me, JT asked how many casts I got in. He seemed surprised to find I hadn’t had a bite despite only three attempts.

We made our way to the far side of the pond and began fishing in earnest. It was about noon and the sun was directly overhead as the wind continued to persist. The bay we were floating in was relatively shallow and surrounded by weeds and lily pads.

“Got one,” JT yelled out shortly after he put a line in the water. I looked over to see my friend pulling on a doubled-over rod while the fish thrashed in front of him.

A short while later, I was hooked up with my first fish. It measured out at just over 14 inches, my largest of the weekend so far.

This is when I began to understand the level of thought that goes with fishing from a kayak during a tournament. Landing a fish, unhooking it, finding the measuring board, getting a good picture, and safely releasing the fish, all while floating in windy conditions requires a level of organization that I don’t always possess.

To be honest, the first couple fish were frustrating, even though all of them helped my score. Keeping lines from tangling, making sure my gear doesn’t shift around too much, trying not to get hooked or finned when a fish is in the boat, it’s a lot for someone with almost no kayaking experience. It felt like chaos.

But the fish just kept coming with bites on seemingly every cast. Eventually, I got into a groove and I began to embrace the chaos as an added element of fun rather than a detriment.

We found fish in the shallows and began pulling out largemouth after largemouth on frogs, Whopper Ploppers, Rapalas, and chatterbaits. Once the top-water bite slowed, we moved to deeper pockets where we found even more fish.

As the day went on, we systematically covered water and made sure we didn’t leave any spots unexplored.

At one point, I got a hook buried in the knuckle of my left index finger. JT paddled over and kindly performed a small, on-the-water medical procedure to dislodge the hook because I didn’t have the stomach for it. After that hiccup it was back to fishing and back to padding our scores.

All told, I ended up with 32 smallmouth. JT had at least that many of his own to his credit. He left the pond still in second place in the standings with over 84 inches of fish. I was now in third with just under 79.

In the six-plus hours we spent on the pond, we estimated we had over 150 bites. Though many of the fish were cookie-cutter specimens in the 15-16-inch range, catching them was an absolute blast. Largemouth are hard to come by where I’m from. Consistently finding some of this size, in these numbers, is nearly impossible.

That night, we feasted on some cheesy chicken hot dish for dinner as we went over our photos and scores. We agreed to give the lake one more shot in the morning before I had to make the trek home.

The next morning, we pushed off the dock just before sunrise with the plan to run-and-gun to our most successful spots. We were swinging for the fences now, hoping to find a fish or two to put us over the top. It didn’t take long.

On my very first cast, I scored a 17.5-inch largemouth on a spinner. This ended up being my largest fish of the tournament and put my top-five total at over 80 inches.

We found a couple more bass that didn’t help our scores along with a handful of pike.

Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the cabin and say our goodbyes. I am incredibly grateful for the hospitality JT and his family showed me. Before I hopped in the truck, we already started making plans for next year.

I ended the weekend with 41 fish, 38 of them bass.

When the dust settled on the tournament, JT finished third with 84.75 inches of fish in his top-five. I took fifth with 80.50 inches, by far the highest total I have ever recorded in one of these events.

On the ride home, I reflected on a great weekend filled with friendship, beautiful scenery, and plenty of fish.

Once in a while, there are certainly benefits to not being a homebody.

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