Lloyd’s the one who alerted me to this tournament, and while I’ve fished tournaments, primarily for bass, off and on for several years, this is the first bass tournament I’ve been involved with that was restricted to flies only. With “World” in the title, the temptation was more than I could resist. So I got on the horn and gave Lloyd a call and asked if he’d like to fish it as a team. I had great aspirations for much writing, studying, and planning, all of which I failed to do. But we showed up and fished together for the first time, successfully I might add.
It was the first time that Dave Coulson and I met in person, although we’ve talked on the phone a few times. We met under a dim light bulb on the front of the Lake Fork Marina Restaurant at 5am. It was difficult to make out features but first impression was tall, slim, and soft spoken. The door opened at that moment and we went inside where the light was better. He looks to be in his mid-fifties although he claims sixty-three. I would soon learn that he is in better physical shape than me, although I’m still not convinced about his mental health.
We’d agreed to meet at Lake Fork Marina where I’d rented a motel room the day before. It was my call to meet early so our pre-fish day would be close to “real” for the next day’s fish, although based on my prior day’s fishing I wasn’t overly optimistic. At about a quarter to five the cell rang, “Dave, its Lloyd I didn’t wake you did I?” “Nope, I’m just walking up from the boat. Where you at?” was my response. I really wanted to say, “Hell no, you think I’d be asleep when we should be on the water?” In truth I was half expecting an “I’ll be late, or I’m lost,” response. Nope, he was parked in front of the not-yet-opened restaurant. I love punctual anglers.
My first impression of Lloyd was a man who’s relaxed and confident, dressed in shorts and a sleeveless T, it was obvious I wasn’t dealing with a pretentious fly fisher, rather a down-to-earth Texan. But I figured that would be the case before we ever met. As we ate breakfast I knew that bantering with this man was going to be a losing effort, but I sure enjoyed giving it a go. And I was hoping he’d be able to dish it out to the fish equally well.
We did the usual first meeting talk, a little of this and a little of that as we gauged each other. It’s important to know you’re not about to trap yourself all day long on a small boat with a psycho. I must have passed that test because he let me on the boat. We finished our breakfasts and I got my tackle and we headed for the boat. The Lake Fork Marina is a bit on the rustic side, but it has an excellent restaurant, a well-stocked general-fishing store, a good ramp, and it has boat slips that the motel patrons can also rent. Dave had his boat in slip number ten so all I had to do was get in and stow my gear.
This was Friday morning; Dave had arrived the day before to begin scouting the lake. Dave’s boat is a Mako, a flats style boat with a poling platform on the rear, a large rear deck that I would become intimately familiar with over the next two days, a center console and a large forward deck with a big trolling motor. Behind the poling platform is a four cylinder 115 HP motor. Mounted on the center console is a gps/depth finder. It is a very nice boat, and turned out to be just about perfect for what we were about to start on – for one thing it can get into water a bit less than two feet, and that really helps on Lake Fork.
Friday morning, 5:45 a.m. and we’re on the boat moving slowly away from the Marina in the no wake zone. It’s foggy, really foggy. The sun’s not quite above the horizon yet and with the fog visibility is limited to about a hundred feet, maybe a hundred and fifty. Maybe! I’m sitting on the bench seat just in front of the center console, looking forward at a whole bunch of gray nothing.
Dave starts talking, something he does often enough that he’s not boring, but not so much as to be annoying. I would eventually learn that he has a very sharp and dry sense of humor, but you have to know where to look for it because his sense of humor is meant to entertain himself and not others. He can be funny when he wants to be, and once you learn how his mind operates, it’s easy to laugh with him. I was about to get a taste of his sense of humor because he started talking about how many stumps there are in Lake Fork, while we were puttering along in the fog, before the sun was up, and visibility as I said was “limited”.
“Lloyd, I’ve never seen a lake like this. There are stumps everywhere. The ones you can see are about four foot on center both ways, and the ones that are just beneath the surface are even closer together. There are a couple of channels in the middle of the lake where we can get up on plane. They’re marked with channel buoys, but from what I saw yesterday better be kissing those buoys with the boat because the channels aren’t real wide.”
Stumps? I‘d heard from some anglers in Colorado who’d fished the Fork that it was a stump filled lake and dangerous to run. Imagine a thick hardwood forest that got flooded and you’ll start to get the idea. There are places you can hardly squeeze a boat through with a trolling motor. To top it off, a good number of trees have broken off at the water line. The water was murky and often stumps were just under the surface and difficult to pick up. Running up on them is common with a trolling motor. If you don’t know an area is free of stumps you best just idle along.
And that’s when he opened the engine up and off we went blasting into the fog at six-hundred miles per hour, leaving a sonic boom in our wake. The fog now seemed to be a hell of a lot thicker than it had when we were just idling along, probably because we were compressing it ahead of us with the shock wave. Suddenly, out of the fog came a buoy, which, true to his word, Dave missed by 1/32 of an inch. Maybe less, hard to say because we went by so fast it was just a blur. And the next buoy was lost out there in the fog somewhere but Dave just roared on like he had good sense. Pretty soon another buoy popped up only to quickly disappear behind us leaving the location of the next one a total mystery. I’m pondering on Dave’s words about the narrow channel, the hidden stumps, our rapid speed through the dense fog and I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve stepped into the twilight zone when the next buoy pops up and disappears. Now I’m starting to think something’s up because it is purely amazing that we’re coming up on these buoys consistently and so close, in the fog, before the sun is up, at sixty thousand feet per second. That’s when Dave decides I’ve had enough terror and says.
“I came through here a couple of times yesterday with my GPS on tracking so I’ve got a nice tight path to follow on the GPS.”
What I didn’t fully explain was I have a map and trace feature on the GPS unit so I was able to retrace my tracks from the previous day’s running and was fairly sure where we were. The biggest danger running in the fog is other fools doing the same thing.
You’ve probably heard someone use the phrase “a flood of relief”? That’s what I felt. I felt relief flooding through my body. He wasn’t a psycho after all, just a normal person that wanted to see if I would scream with fear under duress. I surprised him by not screaming. I didn’t tell him the only reason I didn’t scream was because my throat was locked with panic, and I’m hoping the whimpering sounds were drowned out by the motor. So he set the pace and it was give and take crap and banter for the next two days.
Later in the day when the fog burned off, I would see that the channels were actually quite large so we were never in the remotest danger. But outside the channels, Dave had not exaggerated at all. This lake is to stumps what Chicago is to crime. It is to stumps what politicians are to lies. I mean I’ve seen some stumpy water, but nothing like this. Outside the channels it is all stumps, just all solid with stumps, and that would be about ninety percent of the lake. Just stumps sticking up and stumps submerged and stumps laying sideways and stumps, stumps, stumps. When you leave the channel, you have to move at a crawl. It shouldn’t be called Lake Fork, it should be called Stump Lake.
For all the boating hazards and heavy fishing traffic, yes, Lake Fork is an extremely popular and heavily fished reservoir, the more “remote” sections are beautiful. I’m used to rocky shores, and clear cold waters. So to fish “classic” bass structure was a real treat. Deep into the arm we fished, the numbers of homes were few, the shoreline was heavily forested with oaks and other hardwoods and the shore suggested heavy cover, almost jungle like. There were birds of all sorts calling, turtles everywhere you turned, water snakes, . . ., life everywhere. While landing a bass, we even spotted a water snake rise to the surface with a fish in its mouth, not something I’ve ever seen. Quite a treat for a desert rat!
There are some minor little pathways through the stumps here and there, tiny little lanes that are sometimes marked with beer cans on some of the stumps and sometimes with pvc pipe, but mostly not marked at all. Not many of these paths exist and only someone who is intimately familiar with these lanes will move at a pace faster than an idle, and damn sure not on plane. And, of course, the best fishing areas are back deep in the stumps.
The water is stained, visibility something like six inches, so you don’t see the submerged stumps until you are right smack on top of them and only then if they are less than six inches beneath the surface. Eight inches down and they are invisible. Dave’s boat can pull about two feet. There are a hell of a lot of stumps in the lake that are between six and twenty-four inches deep. Stumps that are totally invisible, but still catch on the hull, or hit the prop on the big motor, or hit the prop on the trolling motor.
Actually, being a flats boat I draft closer to a foot, but that’s the hull. Typically I run both the trolling and big motor deeper. However, with a jack plate I can get the main motor shallower than most boats, and the same with the trolling motor. But even then, moving through the stumps was a lot like the ball in a pinball machine or playing bumper cars, you’re constantly bumping off something.
So the drill is: leave the marina slowly, get to the channel and go on plane for about fifteen minutes terrifying your passenger in the dark and fog, slowing down to a no wake crawl whenever you go under a bridge, then slow down and move off the channel into the stump fields, look for a lane through the stumps that will get you somewhat close to where you want to fish and follow that lane slowly, then leave the lane and go strictly on trolling motor and even then it’s like being in a bumper car ride at a carnival. Poor Dave, he was growling at stumps the whole two days.
It’s my nature to growl. These days it was stumps, Colorado and Kansas it’s the wind. Even if conditions are right I always find something to growl about. Hell, I’m old and grumpy. Growling makes me happy! Now Lloyd, he’s on the other side of the spectrum. A jolly ole sole is he and he likes to laugh, often, and frequently at my expense, deservedly so.
This first day of fishing, casual as it was, just about beat me to a pulp. I’m a desk jockey, who also spends another three hours a day driving to and from work. My exercise is fishing the river on weekends. I was taking sit down breaks pretty regular on the boat. Dave was standing and casting the whole time. He didn’t even sit down when driving the boat. That afternoon, when we came in from fishing, I managed to hobble up to the room and crash on the bed, where I promptly fell into a deep coma. Dave? He went for a casual four mile hike. He showed me a digital pedometer that he carries and said that he is trying to maintain at least 10,000 steps every day. Just the thought made me tired, but obviously it is working for him. He also showed me his lunch, 15 almonds. Can you even imagine that? 15 almonds as a lunch? Hell, I’d put 15 almonds on my triple cheeseburger.
I’ll readily admit when tournament fishing I do one of two things, fish or run to the next fishing spot. I picked this up from a semi-pro bass angler when I first started fishing tournaments. He was in his sixties and a machine. When the trolling motor was down, he was fishing. Hell, he didn’t even take restroom breaks. If he had to go, he’d do it while casting, and retrieving. He never missed a beat. Only while we were running would he have a drink or a bite. I always admired the dedication and, as often as he won and placed, I figured there was something to be said for it.
About halfway through the second day, I noticed that Dave was using the stumps to steer the boat. I swear he would look forward and pick out a kind of path through the stumps that ran parallel to the grass beds we were fishing, then he would bounce to the left off a stump that would drift the boat into the next stump where he bounced it off to the right, then on to the next that would bounce him back to the left, and so on. It was more efficient and since we were going to be bouncing off stumps anyway, why not?
The problem remained the stumps you couldn’t see, they were everywhere and it was a regular occurrence to get stuck on one and have to power the motor back and forth, and for us to move around inside the boat to change the center of gravity in order to move on again. Oddly enough, that became almost second nature and didn’t slow down the casting at all. Although it did speed up Dave’s normal growl into full blown cussing.
I’ve never fished a tournament before. Dave fishes them all the time. I was calm and cool and collected because I didn’t think we had a chance in hell of winning the tournament. Dave was calm and jittery at the same time, not jittery so much as intense. Yeah, intense is a good word for Dave’s approach to tournament fishing. For me this was a lark, something unusual, an adventure. For Dave it was competition, and Dave is competitive. Dave was absolutely convinced that we had as good a shot as anyone at winning and a much better shot than most.
Lloyd’s read the situation correctly. I love to play, but I also play to win. I don’t mind getting beat as I’ve long ago learned that no matter how good you think you are, on any given day, there can be someone who’s better. But I hate to lose. By that I mean I want to give it my best effort, so that the other anglers have to work their tails off to beat me.
So Friday was Dave’s second day on the lake. Dave has several talents that came in handy for the tournament, over and above his ability to run wide open in the dark and fog that is. For one thing Dave is a talker. He’s apparently never met a stranger and he will walk up to absolutely anyone and just start talking like they’ve known each other for years. I watched this time after time and it was funny as hell. At first the person he was talking to would act stand-offish, like they were thinking “Who in the hell is this and what is he trying to sell?” In a moment or two you I would see them relax and begin to talk fishing with Dave. Often his problem was how to walk away because once he got them going, it was like they had a new best friend. It’s a talent.
The cool thing about it was that these conversations weren’t nearly as causal as they seemed. Or at least they weren’t just random conversations from Dave’s side. He was interrogating. He was doing it in a conversational way so that he wasn’t raising any red flags, but he was getting information on where they had been fishing, what kind of water, what depth, what kind of structure, what kind of lures, what time of day and so on. In other words, Dave was scouting a strange lake by talking to people who had been out there fishing, and he was getting the goods too. By the time I got there Dave already had the place and the pattern figured out from talking, and he had run up and down the lake getting the lay of the water.
I’ve never thought of it quite this way, but yes, when pre-fishing, I use every tool I can to gather information and improve our chances of winning. Over the years I’ve written about talking with your fellow anglers, all your fellow anglers, bait, lure, or fly it doesn’t matter, and gaining from their experiences. One point though, in tournament situations, you want to concentrate on talking with folks not in the same tournament as you. You’re more likely to get truthful answers.
Friday morning we simply went out and confirmed what he had already figured out. We went right to an area that neither one of us had ever seen in our lives and started casting to a pattern of water that didn’t look like it would hold minnows, much less bass. We were tossing the right flies too because we started getting hits and Dave landed a very nice 18” bass. That’s when he said, “Let’s not spoil this spot, let’s go check out some other areas.” Of course he phrased it as a question and let me choose to agree or not. Diplomacy is another of his traits.
Another of Dave’s talents is catching turtles. I snagged a turtle once a long time ago, but Dave fair hooked his. The turtle had actually attacked his fly and was hooked inside the mouth. I tried to convince Dave to stick his fingers in there to get the fly back, but he wasn’t hearing me for some reason. I believe Dave caught 7 different species of fish and one species of turtle that day, pretty good spread.
Out of fairness, I would like to point out that Lloyd was more than a little instrumental in figuring out what topwater was best. Based on Lake Fork being managed as a trophy fishery, I persisted in throwing some of the bigger flies in my arsenal. Lloyd’s choice of smaller patterns proved to be the ticket, and I’m not sure why I didn’t see that sooner. Most of the minnows/fry I saw were less than two inches. Hindsight is truly a wonderful thing.
At 5 a.m. Saturday morning it was raining hard, but per the radar, it was a small cell that would move off, and there weren’t any more showing. So we ate breakfast while it rained and as soon as it stopped we jumped in the boat and were off and running wide open. Within fifteen minutes we were back at the spot Dave had found and were tossing top water poppers into less than two feet of water, into grass beds. It was cool and heavily overcast with occasional rain sprinkles, perfect weather. The water smelled fishy, in a good way, and was holding at a high 70’s surface temperature. The lake had come up a foot or so from recent rains and what we were doing was fishing newly flooded ground, hence the grass. It was working. We had a few hits before boating the first bass, missed a couple more then got two more pretty quickly.
About 10:30 we boated our last fish of the day. About 10:40 it started raining, and raining hard. We got soaking wet, but we didn’t stop casting. We eventually moved to another area to try a different kind of water, and had no better luck there. The fish had turned off completely just before that rain, and we didn’t get another bite until just shortly before we had to go in. Looking back on it, we were having good luck on Friday and Saturday during unsettled weather, but that last rain seemed to have been the end of that weather pattern. A few minutes before we had to jet back to the dock, Dave hooked something big and had it on for about ten seconds when it broke his line. If it had been a bass, it would have been a big one, but we never got a look at it. We reluctantly left the water for the turn in time and made it with fifteen minutes to spare.
At one point that morning, we saw a snake swimming along near the bank and I started casting to it. I wondered how good a fight it might put up. Dave growled something about cutting my line before I would be able to get it in the boat, (there were quite a few colorful four letter words in his growling that time too) but the snake ignored my offerings so we didn’t get to have that excitement. Too bad!
I stayed on my feet all day this time. Something in Dave’s intense competitive desire to win infected me like the flu, and I suddenly found myself fishing as hard as I’ve ever fished. And it was fun, fishing with that kind of concentration and urgency is just downright fun! I stayed on my feet because of that urgency, not because I wasn’t tired, that’s how strong a drive it is.
I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’d say somewhere near sixty fishermen were in the tournament. Some were paired up as teams, some were not. Some were in power boats and some in kayaks. The kayaks were treated as a separate division, so there were basically two divisions.
Our combined total was 42.5 inches (this was a catch/photo/release tournament) for our three fish landed. We missed out on second place by probably one fish, if we had landed just one more bass of decent size we could have taken second place. First place went to a team from a Dallas fly fishing club, people who have apparently fished these waters numerous times. They had five fish for 90 plus inches. Lake Fork is less than a two hour drive for them, so first place went to the home team.
For a guy from Colorado that has never fished a stump field with a little water between them, and a guy from three hours away that has never fished in a tournament and doesn’t fish lakes at all, we did damn good!
But better than winning was the two days I got to spend with a hell of a great guy. I had a blast and made a solid friend. How cool is that?
Oh, and when I got home, I got on amazon and ordered me a pedometer.
I couldn’t agree more, Lloyd and I hit it off and fished as well as a team as I’ve ever experienced. It’s rare to find two anglers, especially fly fishers, who can fish in that close of proximity for two days with no conflict. That alone is enough for me to plan on fishing this tournament again, hopefully with Lloyd. The only difference is I will take a full week with the hopes to spend more time fishing with my newfound friend. Two days isn’t near enough.