In his fourth year on the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit, Grae Buck has really come into his own. A standout collegiate angler at Penn State, he’s now in the thick of the Angler of the Year race and cruising toward qualification for the Tackle Warehouse TITLE presented by Toyota.
But, there are still two regular season events left, and Buck is well-suited to both of them. This week, it’s a battle on the Mississippi River in the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit Super Tournament presented by OPTIMA Batteries. To see how things were going, I hopped in the boat with him for the second morning of practice.
I meet up with Buck for breakfast at 5:02 a.m. CT. Matt Becker is cooking, and Tyler Stewart, Dylan Hays, Buck and I all enjoy the fruits of his labor as the sky brightens across the river. The breakfast discussion ranges from community holes at Ticonderoga, to where to launch on Pool 7 to a full rundown on how Dean Rojas needed to be pulled off a sandbar by an airboat on day one.
After housing delicious breakfast sandwiches, everyone heads out, Buck and Becker to a nearby ramp on Pool 8, Hays to Pool 7 and Stewart to parts unknown by this reporter. An absolutely killer sunrise greets us at the edge of the river, and within a few minutes we’re ready to roll.
Putting his boat on plane, Buck rips down the river before turning off into a side channel.
Picking up a Z-Man/Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer with a Z-Man RaZor ShadZ trailer, Buck begins one of the strangest practice days I’ve ever tagged along for. Trolling along and fishing productively, Buck won’t lift the trolling motor for the next three hours.
Right off the bat, with the sun rising in the background, Buck sticks a bass on the ChatterBait to get things rolling. It’s a pretty decent one, and undeniably a good start to the day.
Soon, Buck puts another in the boat. It’s quite small, but happy to chase down a moving bait bright and early in the morning.
Buck seems to be picking up right where he left off yesterday. On day one of practice, Buck decided to go up to Pool 7, and it was fairly productive.
“I’d never been up there before,” says Buck of fishing Pool 7, despite fishing the FLW Tour event here in 2017. “It was similar to this, but you’d fish a lot of area without a bite and then all of a sudden you’d find a pocket with them in it. I had a decent day weight wise, probably over 13 pounds, which I think would be alright up here. I don’t know how many days I could do it for.
“I want to try and get something going down here. I’d prefer not to lock if I don’t have to, just so you don’t have any mistakes.”
As the sun continues to rise, it becomes impossible to overstate how perfect the weather is. The air is crisp and blessedly dry, hoody weather if you’re from the south, but a wonderful summer respite for the Pennsylvania angler.
Back in 2017, the fishing was a lot different, and a lot of fish were spawning. Buck ended up bed fishing around Stoddard in that event and did well on day one.
“This was the best practice I ever had back in 2017,” says Buck. “I did decent the first day, but that cold front on the second day just destroyed what I had going. I bombed.”
This year, Buck has stayed well away from any bombs – he’s fishing like a seasoned vet.
As Buck fishes up against the current, mostly tossing a vibrating jig and a frog, he loses a decent fish and catches a pike to force a re-tie.
Buck won a Bassmaster Open on Oneida in 2019 and since then he’s fished like a house afire. So, I ask why he’s contending for the Angler of the Year in 2020 as opposed to scrapping for every ounce like in years past.
“I think a lot of it is getting more comfortable fishing down south,” says Buck. “The first year I fished, I had never been south of Philpott Lake. I was working full-time, I wasn’t paying for anything by fishing, I didn’t have time to pre-practice. I would go and pick a section of the lake and try to really learn it. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. Now, I’m more confident to just go to a new area or scrap something if I have a bad practice day.”
Of course, Buck is still pretty modest and willing to admit that some things have just gone right.
“I think it’s an experience thing more than anything,” he says. “But, I’ve also got some very fortunate bites this year. I’ve caught more big fish this year than any other year. When you catch a 9 ½ in a tournament, you were in the right area, but it just as easily could have been a 5-pounder.”
Pretty soon, another good pike chokes his swim jig. It’s time for another re-tie, but it’s a minor miracle that the fish didn’t cut his line considering how deep it ate the bait.
Buck, an Environmental Science major at Penn State, continues to explain how he got to this point and how he managed to quit his job at a lake and pond management company and transition to fishing full-time.
“In the summer that job was cool, I was out collecting samples and doing vegetation surveys, so I was outside the entire summer,” says Buck of his former job. “In the winter, I sat and played with Excel sheets and put all the data from the summer into reports. We probably only needed to be in the office three days a week in the winter, but we had to go in for five.
“I haven’t worked since I won that Open,” he adds. “When I quit my job in 2016, I would work for my dad doing landscape work when I came home. Now, as long as I keep catching them, it works out. It’s been a good year.”
At 6:55, Buck catches another bass to mix in with the pike. It’s a chunky one, but maybe not a real tournament winner. Still, he’s happy to have it as we work farther along. Basically, Buck is mixing up between a frog and a winding bait, sometimes fishing the edge of the grass and sometimes casting into the thick parts of it. The whole stretch has current, and it’s truly good looking stuff.
Fishing along, Buck is enjoying himself. Just fishing on the Mississippi is a really good way to have fun. Though the stress of a tournament raises the stakes, it’s one of those places that looks good everywhere and gives the impression of infinite opportunity around the corner.
Buck loves it, despite it not really being the same as his tidal experience on the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.
“That’s all underwater grass lines and edges,” says Buck of his tidal experience. “You get current like this when the tide is pulling hard, but this is different. For as much as I like fishing deep for smallmouth, I like fishing shallow for largemouth. I’d rather do this than go fish deep on Chickamauga for largemouths any day.”
Buck started the day waxing poetic about vibrating jigs, but he’s now catching fish on a swim jig like he’s Tom Monsoor. As another good one comes in the boat, Buck points out a key feature of this particular jig. Instead of a trailer made of mortal plastic, his Z-Man Turbo CrawZ is perfectly suited for lots of bass, pike and nipping perch and sunfish. Because the claws are ElaZtech, they really can’t be clipped off by the average fish.
Soon, another fish comes aboard on the swim jig. It’s definitely a hot little stretch, but it’s spread out just enough to not really be one spot he could run to. So, while things are going well, it’s not like Buck has added a school he can run to and drop his Power-Poles on.
Still on the trolling motor, Buck turns the corner at a point in the channel and begins heading downstream. Now he’s flipping and casting along a steeper, more cut bank, and the morning bite appears to be tapering off. It’s quite early in the day, barely 8 a.m., but the sun has been up for hours now and it’s warming things up quite noticeably.
Easing down the current and onto a sand bar, Buck is trying to get into the open expanse between the main channel and the Wisconsin bank. It turns out that it’s easy to do – as soon as I get off to push the boat begins to float again. So, I walk along beside it for 30 feet or so and then hop back in as the sand begins to drop off.
Beyond the sand, Buck starts picking away at a broad expanse of grass with a frog.
With no luck on the frog, Buck pauses to rig up a Z-Man Palmetto BugZ on his flipping stick. It turns out that these fish either don’t want to be flipped for or just don’t exist. It’s a bit of a ghost town. It’s a good reminder that you can’t always be on ‘em, and that teamwork can be key. Though Buck, Becker, Hays and Stewart aren’t on the phone all day, they keep each other updated and in the loop.
“We talk throughout the day,” Buck says of the team. “We have a group chat going, and we usually share how we got bit on the first day, to try and get on the same page. We all fish a little different anyway, so it works out. It definitely helps break down places quicker.”
After spotting a section of eelgrass that is simply loaded with snails and drawing my attention to that, Buck starts to think about making a move. Finally, it’s time to try somewhere new.
“Let’s run a little bit and make sure the motor still works,” says Buck.
As we get ready to go, he checks his messages – it turns out that Becker has at least caught one very big frog. After showing it off, Buck puts it on plane.
The next stop is a bit different than the braided waters we’ve been in. Stopping lower down in the pool, Buck pulls out a frog to attack some thicker and shallower cover. It looks good, like everything on the Mississippi, but it seems to be lacking in fish.
I take the opportunity to get his vibe on the AOY race. Can he catch Ron Nelson?
“Not without him stumbling,” says Buck. “It’s either that or you’ve got to top 10 in the next two. You gotta assume he’s going to be in the 30 range for the next two at least. He’s an unbelievable fisherman, his only bad tournament ever was Rayburn last year.”
Buck started the day with his rods still on deck from day one, and he’s got a good pile going. There’s nothing extraordinary mixed in with his Favorite rods and Ardent reels, but he has a lot of variations of colors and sizes ready. So, instead of just one swim jig, there are a couple, and he’s prepared with multiple colors of ChatterBaits to meet any situation, as well as more specific tools like a crankbait and swimbait.
Giving up a lot more quickly here, Buck works his way back out to water he can run in and then dives into another back channel near the main drag. It looks a lot like the water he plied to start off with, and it gets the same treatment of flipping, frogging and swimming. There are some frog trails from another angler, and it looks like they may have caught a bass or two. Buck however does not, and after another hundred yards it’s time to go.
After dropping me back off at the ramp, Buck heads back out. He’s yet to see what he wants in Pool 8, but there’s a lot of time left to find it.