For six months leading up to Kayak Bass Fishing’s (KBF) National Championship, it was all anglers talked about. From the time KBF president Chad Hoover announced a six-digit payout, anglers around the world started preparing for what would turn out to be one of the most grueling and unpredictable tournaments in history. Not to mention the largest cash purse of any kayak fishing tournament in history.
With 751 of the best kayak anglers descending on Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, Tennessee, I knew my camera and I had to be there too. A couple calls and some social networking and I was set up to cover the biggest money kayak fishing tournament in the world.
When I arrived in Paris, Tennessee the day before the tournament, anglers I talked to were feeling deflated. Bad weather and poor conditions had made prefishing tough, even for the pros.
Anglers qualified to fish the KBF National Championship by placing in the top 10 percent of any sanctioned tournament.
To get a golden ticket, anglers could fish a KBF open tournament, online event or any tournament held by a partner organization. Spreading the field created a feeding frenzy. Leading up to the big game, competition was fierce as anglers who had already qualified targeted specific tournaments to knock out their rivals.
These folks are serious about winning. They rig kayaks with 16-inch fishfinders, Power-Pole anchor systems, a dozen rod holders and enough tackle to start a revolution.
Like most kayak fishing tournaments, the KBF Championship uses a catch-photo-and-release format. Anglers catch a bass over 12 inches, take a smartphone photo of the fish on a ruler, upload the photograph to the TourneyX app where the fish’s length is added to the angler’s total. Using the application allows participants and fans to monitor the competition and view results in real time. The angler with the largest total over the two-day tournament wins.
Some of the athletes had been prefishing a week before the tournament. Some hadn’t caught a qualifying fish for days. Early March in the Ozarks is a toss-up. One day the sun comes out, the next day it snows. Water levels were low and temperatures were cold. The tournament covered Kentucky Lake and neighboring Lake Barkley, over 350-square miles of water. With $280,000 in total prizing on the line, I would expect nothing less than challenging conditions.
The first day of competition, I had to drag myself off the couch at 3:30 a.m. to hit the water before dawn. I spent the night puking in the sink of the fishy little cabin I stayed in with friends. Somewhere during my road trip, I ate a tamale that would haunt me for days.
For the first day, I followed Guillermo Gonzalez, a good friend and tournament sharpie who has placed in the top 10 during past KBF Championships. Before I caught up with Gonzalez, I met Jeff Little, sales manager at Torqeedo, to hook up with a NuCanoe Pursuit and Torqeedo 403 Ultralight. Little wasn’t fishing the tournament, just showing off the new hardware and making some casts for fun.
Torqeedo is a big-time KBF sponsor, and Little had offered to host me for a few days. He would fish and show off the Torqeedo and I would take photos and try to stay out of the way.
Little and I found Gonzalez at Bear Creek Cove as he was preparing to launch. The sun wasn’t up and I had already puked twice. Illness filled my body, but I traveled too far to miss fishing. Little and I followed Gonzalez out onto the lake.
To fish a deep channel where he had caught qualifying bass the day before. He searched out schools of bass on his sonar, but was unable to find the big fish.
The Torqeedo motor made it easy to keep up with Gonzalez and Little. I kept my distance, shooting photos while the two anglers made casts.
The morning started calm, but the winds picked up around 10:00 a.m. Gonzalez was fishing a deep channel, and he caught a couple qualifying bass over the 12-inch minimum but he was having a hard time finding the bigger trophy fish he had scouted in the same area the day before.
Before lunch, Little and I decided to go check on Roger Colledge, one of my friends from Colorado who had been cleaning up at his local events. When we pulled into the launch at Ginger Bay, the parking area was full. Kentucky Lake is huge, I was surprised to see so many anglers in one place.
Looking across the lake, I could see kayaks lined up over a rock ledge. Little and I put in and headed for the crowd. The boats were anchored 40 feet from the bank with anglers casting to the edge of an underwater ledge.
Kentucky Lake is famous for ledge fishing, holding on a deep drop and casting lures to fish hiding below. The tactic works great in the warmer months, but turned out a dud for the tournament. Still, the technique was putting up some small fish, giving the pack hope, and something to crank on. Everyone was catching bass, but few of the fish topped the 12-inch minimum size. Some guys seemed bummed, but most of the anglers were having fun weeding through dinks.
Colledge ended the day with three bass on the board, for a total of 47 inches, good enough for 161st place after the first day fishing.
Later that night, at tournament headquarters in Henry County Fair Grounds, the huge crowd inside the main hall was lively. A day of tough fishing led to an air of disappointment, but some of the top anglers had figured out the fish were holding shallow. Tim Perkins was in the lead with 95.25 inches and Brandon Watson trailed by less than three inches.
The next morning, I was supposed to meet up with Roger Colledge at Leatherwood Cove, but when I got to the launch, he was gone. I was still feeling the effects of road side Mesoamerican dish, so I didn’t mind a slow start.
I hooked up with Jeff Little, again. The boat launch was at a marina in a cove off the main lake. The parking lot was packed, but everyone seemed to be taking their time getting to the water. Frustrating fishing conditions seemed to take the wind out of the main pack’s sails, everyone expected tough competition but it seemed most anglers hadn’t counted on tough fishing. With the wind blowing again and the temperature dropping, most of the competitors had turned the event into a fun fishing day.
Little and I cruised around shooting photos; he even caught a nice bass. After a few hours, we decided to meet up with another group of anglers. Kristine Fischer is from Weeping Water, Nebraska where she lights up Instagram with big musky, pike and bass. Last year she placed 126th in the KBF National Championship. Fischer was fishing with Joseph Sanderson, a slick tournament angler from Austin, Texas who scored 12th place in the 2017 KBF Open.
When Little and I motored up, the crew was fishing a small hole and having fun catching a bunch of small bass. After a rough first day of fishing, most anglers admitted they were happy to be having a good time.
Little and I spent the second day chatting with anglers and shooting photos. Somewhere, someone was catching big bass that would win the tournament, but we only saw small fish.
After the anglers returned from the water, tournament headquarters was buzzing with excitement. No one was suffering from the blues, most of the anglers had conceded defeat hours before the end of the day. Kayak fishermen have so much going against them, they rarely get bent out of shape when things don’t go right. No one seemed too bummed that they didn’t get their shot at the big money.
While tournament organizers reviewed photos and compared notes, they kept everyone in anticipation by shutting down the TourneyX feed so no one could see the final scores.
After a long wait, tournament officials called the top 10 anglers into a back room and the rest of us wagered on the winner.
Every few minutes, KBF director Chad Hoover would stoke the crowd by throwing prizes into the melee. Over the two day event, he tossed over $5,000 worth of gear to the field.
Before announcing the winner, they gave a breakdown of the tournament results. Only 100 anglers scored more than 100 inches of fish in two days.
The Winner Of The Fishing Tournament
Dwayne Taff of Huffman, Texas took first place with 173.5 inches to become 2018 Kayak Bass Fishing National Champion and $100,000 richer.
I caught up with him and asked his strategy. When everyone else went deep, Taff fished shallow, hitting every stick with a chatterbait. “I caught my biggest fish in four feet of water,” he confided. He used one lure for the whole tournament. I heard he climbed into a tree to retrieve it.
The tournament paid out 75 places, awarding almost $280,000 in cash prizes and $35,000 worth of merchandise.
“We wanted to change the winner’s life,” Hoover told me after the awards ceremony. No doubt $100K will affect Taff’s fishing schedule.
Hoover already has plans for his next national championship with a restructured prize package encouraging anglers to fight harder over bigger prizes paying out deeper into the field. And he’s changing the location, “I’d like to see the Championship rotate to different lakes each year,” he said. He’ll announce the next stop at ICAST this summer.
Next year, KBF will offer more tournaments with higher payouts across the country. “We’re putting together a MOAT,” Hoover explained the acronym stands for mother of all tournaments, high-stakes events going down across the country. He says he has a big box store as a sponsor.
When the dust settled at the end of the day, the 2018 KBF National Championship will change kayak fishing tournaments. By offering a huge incentive for anglers to compete in qualifying events, Kayak Bass Fishing encourages tournaments around the country to get on board. “With more tournaments following our format and rules, we will create consistency across the sport,” Hoover says. This will bring legitimacy and standardization to a sport that has been the Wild West for too long.
Dustin Doskocil is a freelance photographer living in Denver, Colorado. He traveled to Kentucky Lake to cover the KBF National Championship for Kayak Angler.