History Downtown Cookeville- Pan Am competitors..

Most of the photos are from Brad Weigmann  

While I am no stranger to international competitions, doing my first 6 week Whitewater Slalom Kayak racing tour of Europe in 1984 as a member of the USA “B” team.      My memories of that trip were so amazing that I dropped out of engineering school and decided to become a full time kayaker instead of considering getting a job.     I didn’t care how poor I was, how hard it was to afford food, how long I was homeless for, or any other challenges that a struggling kayaker would have.     I longed to repeat my experiences of representing my country in competition, being with people from other countries, in other countries, and seeing the world through their eyes, not just my white bread, limited experience, prejudice laden upbringing.  (Amazing, best parents ever, but small town Ohio, never traveled, and no possible way to know what the world was really like to teach me).   

EJ and coach after making the Olympic Team- 1992

In 1989 I made the USA “A” Team, finally making the big time, and competed in my first World Championships and World Cup.      I also competed in the Pan Am Championships.     At this point I was married to Kristine, who was 19 that year, and we saved up our money from working at “Armands Pizza” for me, and babysitting for her.        We lived on $250/week and saved $250/week until we had $3,000 in cash and had two tickets to Europe.      Again, this trip, the cultures, individuals we met, the sights we saw, the events I competed in, created a longing to have more, and we knew we could never go back.

This past week, I saw something similar, something special, in the Pan AM Bass Kayak Fishing Championships.    Competitors from 8 countries were registered to compete in Cookeville, Tennessee.     Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and USA.      Puerto Rico didn’t make it, however.

Some of the folks competing had never been out of their country, and some where actually living in the USA, but from another country.     Almost none had been to Middle Tennessee.    The culture in Middle Tennessee is unique and special in of itself.   Traveling from around the USA to Cookeville or Rock Island is an experience in of itself.     

The reason for the 55 anglers to come to Tennessee was to compete in the inaugural Pan Am Bass Kayak Fishing Championships.    It is a competition, pitting country against country, individual against individual, and team against team.      Everyone who came, had hopes of big catches and to be competitive and possibly win.    The field was stacked, especially with the USA Team members who are some of the biggest names in tournament kayak fishing.  KBF National Champions, State Champions, etc..       However, the biggest takeaway from this event, for me, was the new friends, and shared passions of the visiting teams.    

I was fortunate enough to be able to host the competitors, sponsors, and organizers at my house after the official practice day.   Kristine cooked Filet Mignon for 100 people, and I supplied Fat Tire Beer out of my Kegerator.     It was a good combo to bring people together in a social setting where everyone was able to drop their guard and just be friends with the competition taking a back seat for a few hours.   The conversations became the centerpiece, and teams began to mix up.    English was the main language spoken, mostly because Americans and Canadians are generally not bilingual, or at least not in Spanish, which is the language of 35 of the 38 Pan American Countries.       Brazil speaks Portuguese, and the Canadians learn French as well as English.    Anglers in the USA are also typically not in the demographic that learn Spanish or care to.     Luckily for us, the visiting countries had a relatively good handle on English as a second language.     For a couple of the Mexican team members that did not, they had a very simple way to communicate with the non-Spanish speaking Canadian and USA Teams….  Tequilla!     Yes, I was double fisting all night.   Fat Tire beer in one hand, and a cool glass of Tequila in the other.    The angler, Chuy, who Brought us this “special” tequila from his home town, trained us on how to drink it, by smelling it, sipping it, not “shooting” it.    It was good stuff!       I returned the favor by introducing a game called “Beer for Life”.    It is a mild mannered, good fun game to play while enjoying your favorite beer.    This game will proliferate into new circles and one day, while having a cool beer in Costa Rica, you will be called out, on a sandy beach, while fishing, by somebody, who learned it from somebody, who competed in the Pan Am Bass Kayak Fishing Championships and learned it from Eric Jackson at his house, over a Fat Tire.

The Opening ceremonies showed off the general personalities of the different countries.    No offense to the USA or Canada, but the countries south of us have WAY more team spirit!   They sing songs and generally have a host of fun, energetic, ways to express themselves in unison, while us Northerners (USA/Canada) could basically chant “USA” or something similar, but it was a stretch and we were outdone on the “spirit award” by everyone else.     That isn’t a negative, exactly, just a showcase of the way we communicate with each other compared to them.    For many of us, the best part of the opening ceremonies was being entertained by the countries south of us.   

There were some amazing opening ceremony moments that impressed everyone involved, that came from the community of Cookeville itself.     First, the local Nissan of Cookeville dealership provided 13 Nissan Titans for us to use for the event.    With most countries’ anglers Flying in to the USA, having a truck to use and a kayak (provided by Jackson Kayak) made it feasible compared to having to find a boat and renting a truck.       We knew we were doing the opening ceremony parade in the Nissan Titans, riding on the tailgates waiving our flags through town.   What we didn’t know was that the First Responders- Police and Firemen would be out in force.    The Police Motorcycle competition team did demonstrations for us, and the big ladder fire truck put a HUGE USA flag over the main drag as we went under it.    The fire trucks followed and blew their air horns on demand, while we ran red lights through town.  Several Streets were closed and those that weren’t had the cars pull off the side and stop while our Nissan Titan/Pan Am Kayak Fishing anglers went by.       It was hot and right before the parade we were parked outside of the “Cream City Ice Cream” parlor.      We created a line out of the door and they barely were able to keep up to the rush.    It was a great “USA” moment in that this was the small town homemade ice cream shop, and we were sharing a piece of American tradition with our out of country guests.     

This is a competition, after all, and there is a serious side to the event that was never far from people’s minds.    Practice was good for some and challenging for most.    There were several people who had never caught a bass before.    (remember that bass are not native in most of South America or Central America).      One of the Costa Rican’s was “freelining”.  This simply means that he didn’t have a rod/reel, but only a piece of wood with line wrapped on it and his lure.   He wasn’t too “poor” to buy a rod/reel, but wanted to show off a traditional way of fishing in Costa Rica for those people who are too poor to buy a rod.    What was awesome is that he could cast his jig about 60 feet and “reel” as fast as my 7/1 Lew’s Pro Ti.      

 

The tournament allowed you to “take off” from 1 of 3 ramps.  Rock Island (near my house and the main tributary of Center Hill Lake), Ragland Bottom (Mid Lake/Main Lake), and Cane Hollow (up a major creek arm below “Burgess Falls”).    I practiced on Cane Hollow on the official practice day.     I was catching fish all day, but not super fast and nothing huge.    At 2pm I ran into a GIANT school of 16-17” largemouth.    I ran over a huge school of bait that went from the surface to 8” deep and under them was HUNDREDS of bass.    It was close to the ramp so I tried to be discrete as I cast my Rage Swimmer 3.25 on a David Dudley jig head.    BAM, BAM, BaM….   I could catch a fish almost every cast.     Once I figured that out, and switched to a Rage Swimmer 3.75 on a Strike King underspin, the fish got bigger.    I had a winning school.   My Raymarine Element 9” graph was how I spotted them while fishing on my Angler 360.       

I didn’t hear of anyone else finding a mega school, but I imagine somebody did but didn’t say anything to me.        At the party at my house, everyone wanted to know where I would go fishing on day 1 of the tournament.   I had a dilemma.    I knew I could catch quantity of smallmouth from 13-17” at Rock Island, or I could catch fish at Cane Hollow that ranged from 10-20” but at a much slower pace unless I could re-locate the school of fish from the day before (if they didn’t disperse).       I chose to go to Rock Island and catch a lot of fish and hope I could locate some bigger ones.     However, I would fish from my Coosa HD, so I could hit the upper reaches of Center Hill above the rapids more easily.      

The takeoff procedure was to be in your boat at the ramp before 7am.    The marshall counted us down and we all took off at the same time.    On day 1 I raced downstream to the main lake first and got a few casts in before the bulk of the Rock Island anglers (8 of them) passed me.    I didn’t want to fight for fishing space with them so turned around and sprinted upstream and carried up the rapids.  Emily came with me, which was our plan.  She had not been able to pre-fish since she was in Colorado competing in Freestyle kayaking there (she won an  event two days earlier ).    I was her guide and she would simply fish where I went.    She is an awesome angler, as long as you put her on fish.  

I brought my Raymarine Element upstream with me, dragging my kayak up the rocks, which took only about 10 minutes, but I have a lot of experience with this from Whitewater kayaking.   It took me about 10 minutes to catch my first 16” fish.  However, I paddled upstream and found a sweet little eddy that looked like money.    Two casts produced 2 fish over 19” and it was game on!    For the rest of the day I rotated through some key spots, focusing on underwater Points, eddy lines,  chunk rock, and a few super shallow bait crushing locations that the smallmouth used to get a bite to eat.    My tackle selection included:

  1. Lew’s Pro Ti- Cashion Kayak Series 7’ Medium/Heavy- 50lb Tuf-Line Braid,  Strike King Pro Grade Swim jig in sexy shad with a white Rage Menace trailer.
  2. Lew’s Crush spinning reel- Cashion 7’ Medium spinning rod-  30lb Tuf-Line Braid,  David Dudley Ned Rig 1/8oz head, and 1/2 of a 5” Green Pumpkin Ocho worm for my “turd”. 
  3. Lew’s Pro Ti- Cashion 7’ Medium Elite-  P-Line 15 lb flourocarbon with a Strike King Rage Swimmer 3.25 Pearl Flash and Pro Blue with a David Dudley 3/8oz Jig head and 2/0 hook.
  4. Lew’s Pro Ti- Cashion Elite M/H 7’3” with 50 lb Braid- Strike King Finesse Jig (green pumpkin) with Baby Rage Craw trailer (Green pumpkin/redflake). 

I had several other rods on deck, including a crank bait, jerk bait,  spinner bait, but stopped using them right away.   I rotated through the rods/baits above all day.

I fished the swim jig in the rapids and super shallow stuff, mostly pulling it over cracks between rocks that the fish were hiding in to ambush bait.      

The Ned Rig was used both to follow up on missed bites (I missed a lot of fish on my swim jig on first bite) and also some of the more calm waters from 6-12’ deep.   

The Finesse Jig was used in the same waters as the Ned Rig, but also to pound the bank as I could cast it further and more accurately.   

The Rage Swimmer was used offshore from 5’-20’.    I would throw it out deep and let it hit bottom and then lift it just off the bottom and slow roll it.  It would snag easily if I let it hit again, so I erred on side of being a little too fast.   I pulled lots of 18” smallmouth up that way!

By the end of the day I caught over 50 smallmouth and another 25 rock bass and a few crappie.    I had 93” of smallmouth.     I figured I would hit 85” easily as 17” fish were easy to find in my pre-practice.      I almost averaged 19” on day 1, doing better than I expected.    I was quite stressed to be fishing for smallmouth when that mega school of largemouth was so close to the Cane Hollow Boat Ramp and I knew if I found that school again in the tournament I would crush it in less than 1 hour.    There had to be some big fish in that school as there didn’t seem to be any little ones.    (I am going to Cane Hollow with my Raymarine Element, Angler 360 and “Flex E-Drive” today with Bridgett Howard and looking for the school!)

Emily was fishing well also and kept upgrading all day.   She finished with 88” on day 1 and was in second place to me, ahead of the biggest names in tournament kayak bass fishing.   

Emily and I both were quite fired up to see how much of a lead we had.      At the dinner that night I had quite a few people say… “I am following you tomorrow!”    Whew… I was nervous as my area fishes really small and Emily and I beat the hell out of it on day 1.     I was worried about having a second strong day there even if it was just 2 of us.    Emily and I were the only ones fishing the area we got the 93” and 88” stringers.    

We had 7 new people that were going follow me at takeoff on day 2.   They included my team-mate Drew Gregory (awesome river bass fisherman), and USA Team member Bridgett Howard, as well as Costa Rica’s Mark,  two from Honduras, and 2 from El Salvador.   None of the Canadians were headed my way, which was wierd to me as they were smallmouth masters, but since many were from St Claire lake, perhaps they don’t fish rivers much.   If James McBeath were here he would have been up with me. 

 

I had a VERY simple strategy for Day 2… I would use my superior speed and whitewater skills to get to the fish first and try to catch a few before everyone else could make it up the rapids.     It was a 4 minute sprint to the first rapid and another 1 minute for me to make it up that rapid “attaining” like a salmon spawning.      Nobody else was able to paddle up the rapid and they were already behind me.   I gained a 5 minute window of solitude to catch my first fish.    My first cast had a big bite, but missed it.  Second cast same, and 4th cast missed again!    I was using my Strike King Pro Grade Swim Jig on 50lb braid and fishing in raging water.    5th cast, BAM!    20.5” smallmouth in raging water.   I fought it for 2 seconds and boat flipped it hard.    It about destroyed my legs, but it got it under control, measured, photo, and released….   At that moment, I knew I had the tournament as I knew I could at least get another 4 over 16”….   

By 9:30am, I had 93”, the same as the entire first day.     I had dialed in where the big ones were at.   There were limited numbers, and I had two over 20” jump off, but the first 5 minutes put me in the driver’s seat, and the rest of the day I eeked out one cull after another until my smallest fish was 18.25” and I had 2 over 20”.     At 2:30 I got my second fish over 20” and it was down below the rapids.    100% smallmouth weighed in.  However I caught 14 spots, 40 rock bass, and over 60 smallmouth.       It was a magical day, with no stress, just good fun with a sixth sense as to where the fish were and what they wanted at each moment.    The Generators turned on at 11am, changing everything and it took me about 10 minutes to re-adjust to the new bite.   My finesse fishing gave way to my Rage Swimmer, and the deeper fish moved a bit shallower and the shallow fish moved off the bank to the edges of the current.     The bigger fish started bitting better as well as the average fish I was catching went from 13-16 to 15-18.     

Some of the bass I caught were super black and some where golden.    I caught a lot of really dark ones, my type!    The reason for the color is that the really big ones, who are aggressive in the group, and earlier in the season, tend to be dark.    Dark is aggressive.   Lighter colors tend to mean more relaxed, less aggressive, and also harder to catch.     No finesse is needed to catch an almost black smallmouth… That could be why I got so many black ones!

The awards ceremony was awesome.   The highlight for me was being on stage with my daughter, Emily, who I have shared a stage with many times in whitewater kayaking, but never fishing.      I was also quite excited to see that the individual overall winners medals were swept by Team Jackson Kayak.     With my win, followed by Drew Gregory’s second, and Emily’s third place.      We fished the river with the Bite (Emily) and Coosa’s (Drew and I).   I fished the main lake with the Angler 360.

 

The Mexican federation put in a bid to host the next Pan Am Championships in their country and got the bid passed!    I am very excited to fish in Mexico next year for big largemouth!     Mexico is one of my favorite countries to visit.   I have only gone for whitewater kayaking there to Veracruz or Chiapas (about 8 separate trips), but have always wanted to fish there.

Costa Rica also talked about hosting one and shared some amazing videos of fishing there in the rivers.    I have spent a lot of whitewater time there as well over the years, but never fished there before. 

Today I am taking my Angler 360 out with Silver Medalist, Bridgett Howard, who is also going to be in her Angler 360.   I am going to fire up my Raymarine Element and see if I can find that mega school by the Cane Hollow Ramp.   I want to see if I could have beaten the 96.5” I had on day 2 of smallmouth with largemouth.      If I find the school, it shouldn’t take more than an hour to catch 20 fish,  and 2 hours to catch 40.    If that is true, then I’ll discover just how big the fish in that school are.      Oh yea… I am testing the final Flex E Drive out of the box as well….  It is GAME TIME!!

Angler 360 or Big Rig FD for big lakes and we have a variety of awesome boats for the river.  (Coosa HD is my favorite)   

My quiver is simple- Angler 360 with pedal and E-Drive, and Coosa HD with a Werner Shuna Hooked paddle….    If you don’t have either of those… check them out!

Here is a video I made with my GoPro from the event….

 

🙂

EJ