Butch Tucker’s Winning Bass Diary From The Elite Series
Butch Tucker of Moultrie won the co-angler side of the BASS Elite Series tournament in Florida. His diary includes a 17-lb. bag and racing KVD!
This season I entered some of the BASS Elite Series bass tournaments as a co-angler, the first tournament being the Citrus Slam on the Toho/Kissimmee Chain. I fished a BASS Open there last year on the pro side and was excited about going back.
The Day Before: The pairings’ meeting is way out in the boonies at an FFA Educational Center that was simply beautiful. It is pretty neat seeing all the pros you see on TV and read about. It is neat getting to visit with some of them. Fortunately my traveling buddy and I know some of the guys, so it’s not like we are newbies or anything. Alan Burkhalter has probably fished more BASS tournaments as a co-angler than anyone I know. It is neat getting to visit with some of them.
My first-day draw is Kevin Wirth. I’m quite pleased and looking forward to the day. We do the usual pro/co thing, short and sweet with no specific information about what or how we’ll be fishing, which I certainly didn’t expect. I could tell right off I would like this guy.
Day 1: Kevin is coming by water from Lake Cypress, so I meet him at the ramp. I’m there 30 minutes early and anxiously awaiting our 7:30 appointment. Take-off is at 8 a.m., and he says meet him at 7:30. I’m not one who likes to sit in a boat for two hours in the early morning, so this suits me fine. We’re boat 21.
We get my gear in his boat, one bag and six rods, as suggested by BASS. For those of you who haven’t attended a BASS Elite Series launch, it’s pretty awesome. It is a beautiful Florida morning in one of the prettiest places you could ask for with lots of live oaks, Spanish moss and all the other things you would picture at an old-style, Florida lake fish camp.
A young lady with a beautiful voice sings the “Star Spangled Banner,” and it gives me chill bumps. Then it is “Gentlemen Crank Your Engines” time, and I feel the excitement in the air. It is an awesome crowd for a first-morning launch, and they make it even more exciting.
We idle through the boat check, and everyone has their game face on now. All the trash talk and pre-launch hype is gone — time to play ball. We idle out behind Kevin Van Dam (KVD) and Tim Horton. We all turn left, and the race is on. We run the canal and through Lake Hatchineha to the canal going into Lake Cypress. The whole time Kevin is doing his best to pass KVD and Tim, and it’s neck and neck. At times they’re running three wide, Kentucky Derby style. I am just hoping he wouldn’t start doing the old bump-and-shove thing as we weren’t on horses. I’m beginning to think Kevin thinks he’s actually in the Kentucky Derby! He’s doing his best to take them, and I’m wondering why. What’s a few seconds? However, it’s his boat, his race and it is exciting. I find myself leaning forward in the seat to see if it will make us a little faster. Finally I see the end of the canal coming, and Kevin starts slowing down.
Now I’m really excited when I see where he is starting. It is where I practiced for the BASS Open last year. I know where the shellbeds are in this area. The current is really ripping through, and it is an ideal Carolina-rig situation in Florida. I have a C-rig tied on with a 7-foot leader because of the current.
Zell Rowland is sitting on the spot when we arrive, so Kevin eases by and starts fishing shallow. Zell is fishing a break off the grass I also knew was there. Where I want to fish is behind us, and it’s where Kevin is wanting to fish as well. He makes a comment that Zell’s boat is sitting on top of the fish, and I silently think to myself, “yep, he probably is because there is one heck of a shellbed under his boat.”
The first stop is a real advantage for me because I know how it’s laid out. I don’t say a word — it’s not my place, and it’s against the rules. As we make our way back toward the canal and the deeper water, I pick up the C-rig and start throwing it as far as I can. With the 3/4-oz. lead, the current is carrying the junebug Sweebo perfectly across the shellbeds. Kevin is talking and commenting on this and that with Zell, typical tournament talk. Then he starts poking a little fun at my long leader.
I said, “Well, I like fishing a long leader when there’s current; we do that a lot on Seminole.”
The whole time we’re being pulled by the current closer to the canal, and I’m finally able to reach one of the shellbeds. As I’m fishing, Kevin hollers at Zell.
“Zell, do you see how long the leader is my co-angler is throwing?”
I am fixing to experience the Kodak moment of the entire tournament. Zell is looking at Kevin, whose back is to me, and he can see me in the back of the boat. About that time I feel some pressure, and my line is moving. I set the hook, and it’s a nice one.
Zell sees my rod bow up and tells Kevin, “Wirth, need to look at the back of the boat.”
As he turns around, a 4-pounder clears the water. He asks if I need any help and I tell him I’d just play it down and to go ahead and fish. My first fish is a 4-pounder, not a bad start.
Not much is said as I put on another Sweebo and start casting again out the back toward the other side of the canal. In short order, I feel some pressure. I sweep the rod, and it’s a good one. I don’t say anything, but when the fish jumps Kevin turns around and can’t believe I’ve got another one. I tell him it’s a pretty good one, and I might need some help if he doesn’t mind. With the current, I play the fish because it is pulling so hard. I tell him to go ahead and fish until I get him close to the boat. Finally, I get him up and Kevin lips the 5-lb., 1-oz. bass for me. By this time I’m shaking, and Kevin is getting frustrated.
“I can’t believe I’m not getting bit,” says Kevin.
“Kevin, it’s the leader,” I quietly say.
I won’t repeat his comment, but he doesn’t seem to agree.
A few minutes later, Zell moves up the grassline and off the shellbed he has been sitting on in about 8 feet of water. By now Kevin is throwing a C-rig and casting to the shellbed. He fishes it for probably 20 minutes and doesn’t get a bite while I’m throwing to the back and sides of the boat. He finally eases the front of the boat around and starts casting to the shellbeds on the other side of the canal where I caught the first two fish. This gives me the opportunity to throw to the shellbed Zell was sitting on.
On the first cast, I miss the bed. On the second cast, I feel the shells as the current carries the lead across them. Then I feel the line tighten up. As I set the hook, the fish seems to be pulling harder than the previous one and heads for the middle of the canal. I let her pull drag as there is really nothing she could get into, and I don’t want to horse her in the current. Kevin continues fishing until I get her to the boat, and he lips her for me. She’s a twin to my second fish, another 5-lb., 1-oz. largemouth. Kevin has been pretty quiet and mumbles something to himself as I’m taking my fish off. He makes a cast and immediately reels it back in.
By this time I’m on the back deck putting on another worm. He opens his box and takes out his leader spool and cuts off a longer leader and starts tying it on. He looks up as I’m about to cast and sees my leader and says, “This one isn’t long enough.”
He cuts off a longer one, about a 7-footer, ties it on and I share my Sweebos with him, which is legal. It isn’t long until Kevin boats his first fish, one about 3 pounds. A little later he gets one about 2 1/2 pounds, and I catch one about 2.
I’m on cloud nine but certainly keep my excitement inside so as not to agitate Kevin any more than he already is. He does pay me a nice compliment about mid-morning when he asks, “You ain’t no average co-angler are you?” That made me feel good.
The rest of the day was fairly uneventful.As the day begins to wind down, Kevin runs to Lake Hatchineha and finishes his limit flipping the reeds. He boats three keepers fairly quickly, and I manage a 12-inch squeaker to finish my limit. A little later Kevin’s buddies come by and slow down. Seems word spreads fast on the water, and they’re already ragging him.
“How many pounds does your co-angler have Wirthy?”
He doesn’t say a word. They die laughing and move on. We head in to Camp Mack.
The weigh-in is awesome. It is so surreal to walk up on the BASS stage and weigh in 17-lbs., 4-ozs. Even with a big bag, second place is less than a pound from me.
The weigh-in went fairly quickly, as we we’re boat 21. As I previously stated, Kevin was very gracious both on and off the stage. As I stated before, I go into these things with no expectations whatsoever. Afterward, Kevin asks me if I have some extra junebug Sweebos I can spare. I give him a handful, which makes me feel pretty good, too.
I would like everyone to know that I didn’t “beat” Kevin from the back of the boat that day. It was never remotely a consideration on my part. I never threw in front or over him, and he had the opportunity to fish everything before I did. As I stated before, these guys don’t give you anything, and I certainly didn’t expect it going in. I was very fortunate I drew someone who actually started in a place where I could take advantage of my strengths, which is a Carolina rig. It didn’t hurt that I was familiar with the area and the location of the shellbeds. That’s the luck of the draw folks, nothing more. Believe me, my son and I both have been outfished from the back of the boat more times than either of us would like to remember. I certainly could understand his frustration but never took it personally.
Would Kevin have caught those fish if I hadn’t? We’ll never know for sure, but I don’t think so. He was a class guy, and his record certainly speaks for his ability as a professional fisherman. I never felt like he was angry with me or held any animosity toward me throughout the rest of the day. As we were idling in for the weigh-in, I tried to hand him a $50 bill for gas, and he said it wasn’t necessary. I had to actually force him to take it. I hope I made another friend that day, and I’m sure Kevin and I both learned some things from each other. That’s what it’s all about folks.
Day 2: I am paired with Cliff Pace. Cliff is a great angler, as proven by his second-place finish at the 2008 Bassmaster Classic.
He’s the roommate of Jim Murray Jr. whom I’ve known since he was just a little kid. His dad and I have been friends for years and fished many tournaments against each other. He owned a large boat dealership in Cordele in the 80’s, and I was one of the six members of his fishing team. The neat thing is that Cliff and Jim are only a few doors down from Alan and I at the Liars’ Lodge.
Cliff calls me as I’m heading back to the room. He doesn’t realize I’m just a few doors away, and I told him we’d get together when he got back from getting gas. We meet up, and he wants to leave the motel around six in the morning, and we’re boat 88. It’s not a problem, but as I said before I don’t like sitting in a boat for two hours, but that’s not my call. He’s a young guy full of energy — been there and done that myself. He doesn’t tell me much, and that’s fine, as I don’t ask. However, I can tell by what he’s tying on, that I won’t be needing a Carolina rig. We’ll be fishing the sort of stuff I had figured on before, shallow vegetation around the spawning areas. Cliff doesn’t say anything about me leading on the co-angler side, and I don’t mention it either. There’s no reason to.
We make a right turn coming out of Camp Mack and head to Kissimmee. He’s running a track I’m pretty familiar with from the Open. What is really freaky is we start in exactly the same place I started the first day at the Open. We have the same results, no bite.
One thing I really like about Cliff is he would tell me how many casts he was going to make before we would leave. Sometimes it was five, sometimes three and as the day gets shorter, it’s “let’s go!” It’s nice to have a little notice, so you can get your stuff tied down and all.
We move around a little, and Cliff keeps saying we need a little wind and cloud cover for his fish to bite. He’s throwing a ChatterBait mostly and flipping a Sweet Beaver and some other similar bait. I’m alternating between a ChatterBait, Johnson Spoon with a gold-and-black skirt, a Sweebo with a 1/16-oz. sinker, a fluke and a Senko. Cliff manages two small keepers and is getting nervous as he’s wanting to make the cut bad. I have yet to get a bite, so I’m sweating, too. I have confidence in Cliff, as he had told me the bite didn’t start until after 12 o’clock.
Around 12:30 scattered clouds start moving in, and a breeze picks up. At 1 p.m. the cloud cover is heavier, and a good breeze is blowing. We leave the small canal he was flipping on the south end of Kissimmee and head to his main area. It is an area on the main lake that has mixed vegetation in 2 to 4 feet of water. We had fished the area earlier with no success, but he has a lot of confidence in it from his practice. This is why these guys are truly pros.
The conditions are ideal for a Zoom Ultra Vibe and a paddletail worm. I tie on both as soon as we get there. Not long after we start fishing, Cliff catches a solid keeper on the ChatterBait. I throw the paddletail, as I’m a little partial to it being from the Seminole area. Then Cliff hooks a another good one on the ChatterBait, and it pulls off before he can get to it. I really feel bad for him, as he isn’t far from the cut after day one. I pick up the Ultra Vibe and catch one right after he hooked the big one. Then he catches another keeper, and things are looking up. We fish around and come through the same area. Once again we both catch keepers within a few casts of each other. Cliff is focused now, and he works the area, moving out to let it rest and then working it again. All of our fish come from this one small rise that comes to within 2 feet of the surface and has 3 to 4 feet of water surrounding it. That’s how keyed in he was.
With the day coming to an end, Cliff and I both have respectable limits. Cliff lost two really good fish, either would have put him well within the cut for day three, but he didn’t make it. My respectable limit weighed 7-lbs., 14-ozs. and held the lead going into day three by less than 3 pounds.
Cliff is a great angler and a person I enjoyed sharing the boat with. He was a little intense at times, but who wouldn’t be on that level when you’re trying to survive the year with limited sponsorship? I’m not sure how many realize that several of these guys struggle and what determination and dedication they must have. Personally, I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. Personalities are different, but the objective is the same — to win and succeed. It’s a hard road but one they choose to follow, and my hat is off to them.
I was glad to be leading day two, but as I’m told by one of the interviewers, “It’s leading after day three that counts. No one remembers who was leading days one or two, unless you’re leading day three.”
Day 3: I’m paired with Kenyon Hill on the last day of the co-angler tournament. Kenyon is tied for sixth place. He’s my kind of guy, just a down-to-earth Okie full of wit and humor. He’s laid back but serious about what he is doing at the same time.
He’s just a neat individual and someone you could not help but like. Being from Norman, Okla., and me having grown up in Duncan, Okla., we had something in common from the start. He asked me if I had ever fished Lake Fuqua, which is one of Duncan’s city lakes. I said, “Yea, I fished it on opening day out of a 14-foot aluminum boat with a 20-horsepower Sears outboard.”
He died laughing saying that was a little before his time. Actually I fished Lake Fuqua for a number of my younger years. I met Roland Martin there on a Thanksgiving Day not long after I had returned from the service in the early 70s. He was dating his first wife, who lived in Pauls Valley, and was there for Thanksgiving with her and her family. We were the only two on the water that day, and I was loading up to get back home for Thanksgiving dinner with my family. I saw this blonde-headed guy come running up to the ramp in one of the new high-performance bass boats I had been reading about. He asks me if I fished here much, and I told him I did. We talked, and I told him about a spot up Bear Creek we called the Hog Pens. He ended up having a great day there. I really didn’t find out about it until I read his first book where he mentioned the story. I’ve talked to him since about that day, small world. Now back to Day Three.
The morning of day three Trip Weldon and BASS did a special tribute to the Tommy and Gerald Swindle family. Tommy’s son and Gerald’s brother, Tony, had passed away on the afternoon of day two. They let Gerald weigh his fish in before telling him on day two. He had enough to make the top-50 cut but headed back home that night to be with his family. Gerald and Tony had fished many team tournaments together in Alabama.
Trip had the pros open their passenger-side livewells, with the pumps running, and a moment of silence in tribute to Tony and the Swindle family. Needless to say, it was quite an emotional experience and nothing but pure class. The one thing I came away from this experience is the realization these Elite Series guys are a family; they truly care about each other.
Kenyon’s and my day is fairly uneventful. He targets fish moving up to spawn in the areas where there are hundreds of empty spawning beds. He casts a Zoom black Horny Toad most of the time. Occasionally he pitches a craw-looking bait or a Senko, but not often. He fishes shallow, heavy vegetation with scattered grass. I am pretty limited in what I can throw since he is like a vacuum cleaner with two hoses, and he’s fishing lanes. He doesn’t miss any irregularity in the cover at all and naturally gets the majority of the bites.
A very close friend of mine had made Alan and I some cookies and brought them to the pairing meeting. We munched on them in the room. I normally don’t carry food with me when I’m fishing a tournament. I just don’t usually eat anything. That morning when I was getting my tackle ready, I noticed there was one cookie left so I put it in a sandwich bag and stored it in the tackle bag. At 3 o’clock, with not a fish in the livewell, I sat down, got the cookie out and ate it and took a few sips of Gatorade. At 3:10, I caught my only keeper of the day and the one that closed the deal for me. Thank you Janet Bell, I love you girl!
The wind was blowing pretty good, and about 3:30 Kenyon says we’d better head in because it’s going to be a little rough.
On weigh-in stage, I get to to sit in the “Hot Seat,” which is a blast. I end up winning the tournament with 26-lbs., 10ozs., exactly 1-lb., 9-ozs. ahead of the second-place angler. It’s kind of funny that my only fish from day three weighed 1-lb., 8-ozs. Looked like I didn’t need it after all.
Kenyon had enough to make the final day cut. For those of you who saw the video of Kenyon catching the 5-pounder on the last day that put him in fourth, that’s the exact spot he caught the 3-pounder on day three that put him in the cut, pretty neat. There had to be a bed there.
One more thing I would like to say, especially to guys who fish as co-anglers. When I met Kenyon the morning of day three, I never mentioned to him that I had been leading the first two days, nor did I during the day.
When we were in line at the weigh-in tanks, a couple of people Kenyon knew and are close friends of mine came up to see what I had and mentioned something about me leading. He turned around to me with a blank look on his face and said, “You are leading this thing and didn’t tell me, why?”
I told him “Yes, I’ve been leading it for two days in a row.”
Kenyon says, “why in the heck didn’t you tell me?”
I told him if he didn’t know, I wasn’t going to be the one to tell him. It wasn’t my place. You have to remember that these guys are fishing for a living, so their families can eat. I wasn’t going to put any pressure on him. Kenyon caught a 3-pounder right before we came in that put in the final day cut. Had he felt pressure from me, he might have passed up that spot, who knows.
I think putting pressure on a pro can be disadvantageous to a co-angler on any level. The best thing you can do is make them feel comfortable and in control, and try to take advantage of the opportunities offered. There are opportunities if you’ll just focus on the positive and not get wrapped up in the negatives and the poor me stuff. I learned this from Alan who has much more experience with these guys from the back of the boat than I, and I thank him for his advice and counseling. It’s a hard thing to do, but the payoff can be nice.
The entire event was very, very special. A friend of mine put together a tribute for the Internet at <www.wired2fish.com>. Just click on “Tucker Tubes It.”
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