While the James and Chickahominy rivers provided some excellent fishing over the weekend for the T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League Regional, weather conditions forced anglers to make adjustments.
A combination of wind and high tides literally changed the playing field daily. From Chester Va., Richard Owen emerged on top in the boater division, relying on his local knowledge and tidal experience to finesse his way to the $65,000 first-place prize, which includes a new Ranger bass boat, by a mere 4 ounces over North Carolina’s James Wall.
Owen, who entered the final round in fourth place, says he knew he had a chance, but figured the leaders were catching them, too.
“I didn’t realize it was that close," he recalls. "I was in shock. I knew it was close but not that close until looking at the weights later.”
While most of the final 12 boaters targeted the James River’s well-known aquatic vegetation, Owen methodically finessed soft plastics on hard cover, targeting wood and rock with a very slow presentation.
Owen notes that periods of high water during tournament hours pushed fish to steep banks, and that set him up for his style of fishing. Small worms, light line and spinning gear allowed him to make subtle presentations and keep his bait close to cover while the current added some lifelike movement.
Owen cast to concealed and visible cover with a 4-inch Zoom Dead Ringer worm (watermelon and blue fleck) using a 6-foot Berkley Lightning Rod, 1/8-ounce weight and 8-pound-test Yo-Zuri Hybrid fluorocarbon. He fished a relatively small area far from other competitors up the James River closer to Richmond with his boat in 8 to 10 feet of water to reach cover that was 5 feet deep.
Though Owen’s weights tapered off each day, from 14-5 to 13-7 to 12-15, his 40-pound, 11-ounce total was enough to earn the win and a trip to the BFL All-American
“I tried so hard for so many years and couldn’t get a break," Owen says. "I'd lose a fish or two, or something would just go wrong. I couldn’t believe everything went right this tournament. It was unreal.”
Owen says this win came at the perfect time, as his 2002 boat was starting to show its age.
“I was getting ready to get a new one, and this is a game changer," he says. "A financial burden has been lifted off me. This will make fishing better, giving me the piece of mind to make the long runs I like to make.”
Wall works spinnerbait, buzzbait for second
James Wall from Greensboro, N.C., used spinnerbaits to put himself in contention for the win, but, like first-place finisher Owen, Wall’s weights tapered off each day, and he wound up 4 ounces back with 40 pounds, 7 ounces for three days.
Wall tried to make history repeat itself as he went to the spinnerbait Hank Parker used to win the Bassmaster Classic on the James River decades ago. The Mann’s Classic Spinnerbait was tied to 15-pound-test Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line. Wall worked the 1/4-ounce Classic, with gold Indiana/Colorado blades and a firetiger skirt, around grass and cypress trees.
To get spinnerbait bites, he intentionally snagged the grass and then ripped and popped the bait loose. Running along edges at lower tides and over grass at higher tides worked well, but on the final day, cloud cover gave way, and he had to make a change to stay in contention. Tides were lower a bit later in the day, and fishing pressure was taking its toll in Wall’s area. He successfully fished his same area along edges with a 1/4-ounce buzzbait with a black skirt on 50-pound-test braid. Most of his bites came in the afternoon.
Wall, who runs a plumbing business, says this finish doubled his career earnings.
“It was awesome to do well against all of the great fishermen," says Wall, adding that he's excited to finally get to the All-American after six years of trying. “It feels really good to get the opportunity to do that.”
’Trap tactics lift Ray to third
Ralph Ray from Youngsville, N.C., caught the second biggest stringer on the final day – 13 pounds – to hold tight at third place with a tournament total of 39-10.
“It felt great," says Ray, who's been fishing competitively for 25 years. "I feel like a kid when I fish with the young guys. I love competing and give it all I've got.”
Not really experienced in tidal fishing, Ray spent practice looking for anything that would produce a fish to find a pattern. He found one while throwing a 1/2-ounce Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap over a grass flat, and Ray stuck with that pattern all three days.
Ray replaced the treble hooks on his bait with VMC wide-gap trebles and threw the bait on 17-pound-test Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line. But he credits his G. Loomis cranking rod with allowing fish to inhale the bait to enable good hookups.
The Tar Heel pro triggered bites by making contact with the grass, ripping out the ’Trap and allowing it to fall. Ray says the fish were keying on the chartreuse pattern, and the better bite occurred on lower tides with fish moving to the edges of grass where he was able to target isolated grass clumps.
While Ray is thrilled to win $5,000 for his finish, he says he's most happy to be heading to the All-American.
“I’ve won a fair amount of tournaments, but this has been on my bucket list, and I’m glad I got to add that to my accomplishments.”
Top 10 boaters
1. Richard Owen – Chester, Va. – 40-11 (15) – $65,000
2. James Wall – Greensboro, N.C. – 40-7 (15) – $10,000
3. Ralph Ray – Youngsville, N.C. – 39-10 (15) – $5,000
4. Chris Panetta – West Simsbury, Conn. – 39-7 (14) – $3,000
5. Chris Daves – Spring Grove, Va. – 39-4 (15) – $2,200
6. Jackson Pleasant – Raleigh, N.C. – 39-2 (14) – $1,900
7. Jason Wilson – Lincolnton, N.C. – 38-11 (15) – $1,600
8. Craig Chambers – Charlotte, N.C. – 38-8 (15) – $1,400
9. Tim Teague – Belmont, N.C. – 37-4 (15) – $2,200
10. Robert Stinger – Williamsburg, Va. – 36-0 (15) – $1,000
Lockler blows away co-angler field
It was a no-doubter for co-angler Adam Lockler of Charlotte, N.C., who came into the final day with a 4-pound lead and won the Regional walking away with an impressive 12-pound cushion. Lockler tallied up 39 pounds, 10 ounces for a total prize package worth $45,100 that includes a new Ranger bass boat.
Lockler kept it simple, throwing a 1/2-ounce four-bladed spinnerbait on 20-pound-test Seaguar fluorocarbon. He replaced one of the hammered nickel blades with a larger No. 4 willow for more thump and made long casts to cover water.
The co-angler champ says he noticed small baitfish fleeing during practice and used the spinnerbait to spook the baitfish over grass beds. He was able to trigger strikes by ripping the bait from the grass and letting it flutter back down.
Lockler used a 7-foot, 3-inch rod for casting distance and solid hooksets and a Lew’s reel with a 6.4:1 retrieve ratio for speed control from slow to fast. The only change he made during the tournament was skirt color, swapping in chartreuse/white in dingy water and white in clear water.
This is the fourth year that Lockler has fished the BFL. It’s also the second time he’s fished the Regionals and qualified for the All-American. He's hoping his streak of successful tournament finishes continues.
“I want to continue to eventually become a boater and move up the ladder," Lockler says.
Top 10 co-anglers
1. Adam Lockler – Charlotte, N.C. – 39-10 (15) – $45,100
2. Ben Arnold – La Follette, Tenn. – 27-10 (14) – $5,000
3. Henry McKee – Haddon Heights, N.J. – 25-15 (15) – $2,500
4. Michael Nelms – Hartwood, Va. – 25-15 (12) – $1,550
5. Colton Chambers – Elizabethton, Tenn. – 25-9 (12) – $1,000
6. Nathan Grose – Summersville, W.Va. – 25-2 (13) – $900
7. Justin Bach – Kannapolis, N.C. – 25-1 (11) – $800
8. Tobey Lawson – Raleigh, N.C. – 23-14 (12) – $700
9. Chris Whittaker – Waverly, Va. – 23-3 (14) – $600
10. Anthony Awgul – Quakertown, Pa. – 22-15 (13) – $500
The Kentucky Lake Regional featured the top boaters from the North Carolina, Northeast, Piedmont and Volunteer divisions. The top six boaters and co-anglers qualified to compete in the 2018 T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League All-American, which is a televised event with a six-figure payday and a boater berth in the Forrest Wood Cup on the line.