By Todd Ceisner
(Editor's note: In observance of the Labor Day holiday, a new First Cast story will not appear until Tuesday.)
To hear Wayne Vaughan and Kelly Pratt tell it, one would think the James River is the new Lake Chickamauga.
The two Virginians, both with years of experience and plenty of tournament days on the James, said that had the Northern Rayovac Series not been postponed due to flooding in the spring, the winner would've likely needed to catch north of 70 pounds over 3 days.
That's pretty stout considering the sometimes fickle nature of bass that swim in tidal waters.
"It's been excellent," said Pratt, who won the 2011 Bassmaster Northern Open at the James and finished 4th in the same event in 2012 and 2013. "There was a 9-pounder weighed in and a lot of 6s and 7s. For a tidal river, that's strong. I've had 22 pounds here four times this year and haven't won any of those (tournaments). That's how good it is."
While it wasn’t 70-pounds good last week, the James still produced a few big bags (Pratt had one of them) and plenty of big fish.
Below are some details on how Vaughan, the runner-up, and Pratt, the 3rd-place finisher, picked apart the James.
2nd: Wayne Vaughan
> Day 1: 5, 23-07
> Day 2: 5, 9-13
> Day 3: 5, 16-15
> Total = 15, 50-03
Vaughan fishes the James frequently and wanted badly to parlay his 23 1/2-pound day-1 haul into his first Rayovac Series win, but a slower day 2 put a serious dent in that plan.
"You always want to win no matter what you're fishing," he said. "These tournaments are just hard to win."
He said the James has been fishing as good as it has in years even after the high-water situation back in the spring that caused the tournament to be rescheduled.
"I've fished the Potomac for years and it's been amazing for so long, but now it's not," he said. "The James, with the way it' fishing now, it's unheard of. Had the tournament been earlier in the year, it would've been amazing with some great weights caught.
"It's August, though, and I don't care what fishery you go to unless it's up north to a smallmouth fishery, it's going to be tough. What made it tougher for us was we had the worst tide (cycle) you have a tournament on. Some guys complained about it, but it's tidal water and it's summer time and if you're not around that premium low water, it's going to be hard to get bites."
He had a later boat draw on day 1, but was still able to find productive water before the tide started coming back in. He started in the James, then worked his way into the Chickahominy River.
"I caught a lot of fish and was able to get to some low water later in the day where I was able to catch a lot of fish," he said.
His primary bait was a black/blue swim jig fished in 5 to 6 feet of water off the edges of grass beds and lily pad clusters. He also tossed a buzzbait, a swimbait and a topwater popper bait.
"Most other guys were up closer in the pads," he said. "You weren't going to get many bites fishing off the edges, but the ones you got were big bites."
His 23-07 bag on day 1 put him in the lead, but he had one other giant get away.
"I lost a 6-pounder and could've probably weighed in 27 pounds," he said.
He ran to the same areas on day 2, but the quality just wasn't there any longer, plus more boats had opted to fish the Chickahominy.
"It was just more difficult," he said. "There was a lot more traffic around in the Chick that wasn't there Thursday and I never got one of those key bites."
He second-guessed his day-2 strategy after catching just 9-13.
"What I should have done on day 2 was because I knew the pressure in the Chick would go up, I had told myself that I could catch them up in Richmond," he said. "I was boat 8 to leave on day 2 and I wanted to stay up here and I should've done that to maximize my time because I felt confident I could catch 14 to 15 pounds.
"Kelly's good on that river, too, and he and I are among the most consistent guys and I was afraid that if I didn't catch 15 to 18 pounds I'd be out of it. Looking back, I should've stuck with my gut feeling."
He rebounded to catch the heaviest bag on the final day from the Chick, despite losing a big fish right away.
He boated a trio of 4-pounders and finished his limit by 9:30, "before the tide got crappy," he said. "We got to leave 10 minutes earlier and with the tide moving an hour later, we got to fish the outgoing tide for a bit."
> Swimjig gear: 7'5" medium-heavy G. Loomis GLX casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo Premier casting reel (7.3:1 gear ratio), 14- or 20-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 1/4-oz. Mr. Super Bass swim jig (black/blue), Strike King Rage Tail Craw trailer (black/blue).
> He threw 14-pound Sniper along the outside of grass lines and 20-pound when fishing in thicker cover.
> He also mixed in a bream-colored jig as well.
> A Reaction Innovations Skinny Dipper (Houdini) was also part of his arsenal, Texas-rigged on a 1/4-oz. belly-weighed hook. "If they wouldn't hit the jig, they'd eat the swimbait," he said.
> Main factor in his success – "Just having the local knowledge from fishing on the river a lot and having plenty of places to go and hit with the crowds and pressure."
> Performance edge – "This is my first year running a Skeeter and Yamaha. As far as a boat, it's a pretty darn nice riding boat. I had a comfortable ride each day."
Kelly Pratt added another Top-4 finish to his already glistening James River résumé.
3rd: Kelly Pratt
> Day 1: 5, 22-02
> Day 2: 5, 13-00
> Day 3: 5, 12-15
> Total = 15, 48-01
Pratt's experience on the James told him the tide schedule last week was going to make it a challenge to catch fish throughout the day.
"The problem was I know FLW probably rescheduled it whenever they could, but it was all on the incoming tide, which is really tough," he said.
It made it look easy on day 1, bagging 22-02 before "I pretty much quit around 11," he said. "The ride just ran real slow for whatever reason so I tried to find current banks with some tide movement on them. When the sun popped out, they started to eat. It was fun the first day."
His key bites were a 7-pounder and a 4-pounder that came off the same stretch. He jumped around the finish his limit. He threw square-bill crankbaits early on, then picked up a flipping bait when the tide started moving in and targeted undercut banks.
"I was focused more of stuff that was current-based," he said. "Anywhere that had shallow drops for 2 to 4 out to 6 feet. If current was there, it keeps the baitfish in the area near the drops and the big fish like that. I was fishing just open marsh banks without any wood or anything."
Day 2 didn’t start with the same promise for Pratt, who said he lost two fish in the 6-pound class early on.
"On my third cast, I lost a 6 and an hour later one jerked the rod out of my hands," he said. "By the time I got the rod back, he was on top and spit my worm out. It was my fault."
He brought in 13-00 on day 2 to make the Top-10 cut, then came in with 12-15 on day 3 to finish 3rd.
"It clouded up on day 3 and I hate that," he said. "It threw my fish off. I still had 15 keepers, but they just go roaming and hunting when the clouds come in. The sun kept them pegged where I wanted them."
> Crankbait gear: 7' medium-action Falcon Low Rider casting rod, Lew' BB1 casting reel, 12-pound Vicious Pro Elite fluorocarbon line, Strike Kind KVD HC 1.5 or Lucky Craft 1.5 square-bill crankbaits (custom colors).
> Flipping: Same rod (medium-heavy), same reel, 20-pound Vicious Pro Elite fluorocarbon line, 1/8-oz. unnamed tungsten flipping weight (pegged), 4/0 Gamakatsu Superline hook, Missile Baits D-Bomb and Missile Baits Fuse 4.4.
> Pratt said the 1/8-oz. weight was key because the fish seemed to want the bait falling slowly. "They'd hit it before it got to the bottom even though I was only in 2 feet," he said. "They'd just pick it up. I wouldn't feel it, but I'd just see my line start moving."
> Main factor in his success – "Understanding the tide and what it did to the fish. I've fished three Opens here and the Rayovac and the worst I've finished in 4th. The key is understanding the tide and what it does."
> Performance edge – "My Mercury motor. I had a spark plug come apart on day 2 and tore apart a cylinder, but it still got me back. I still had to go about 10 miles before I got back to the landing. That Vicious line is great, too. It handles these fish and the barnacles and the tough stuff well."
Much of the tackle referenced above is available at the BassFan Store. To browse the selection, click here.