Paddlesport fishing promoters chart course into international waters
A potentially sea-changing angling competition is set to launch on the vast, bass-rich reaches of Center Hill Lake at the end of May.
During the week following Memorial Day, elite kayak anglers from across the Western Hemisphere will converge on the Upper Cumberland to test their skills and try their luck against one another in a first-of-its-kind invitational tournament that organizers hope baits the hook for bigger fish to fry down the line.
The Caney Fork River’s impounded waters behind Center Hill Dam will serve as venue to a distinguished lineup of paddle-and-pole wielding mastercasters who’ll compete in this year’s inaugural Pan-American Kayak Bass Championship.
Countries slated to ship angler-ambassadors here to contend against the USA Bass Kayak team for transcontinental bass bragging rights include Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.
The overarching goal of the tournament is to lay the foundation for establishing an officially sanctioned world-championship kayak fishing competition — which could lead ultimately to recognition and embrace of the sport by the International Olympic Committee.
At a minimum, the multinational USA Bass-sponsored meet-up will elevate Center Hill Lake’s profile, and burnish the Upper Cumberland’s reputation as a paddling-angler’s paradise second to none.
Participants are expected to arrive early and stay late exploring various regional fisheries in addition to Center Hill — like Cordell Hull and Dale Hollow lakes, as well Cumberland River Basin moving-water jewels, like the upper and lower reaches of the Caney Fork and its multispecies-filled tributaries, the Falling Water, Calfkiller and Collins rivers.
A Natural Fit
The Cookeville-Putnam County Visitors’ Bureau is responsible for luring the event to the area.
This region is a “natural fit” for high-end angling tournaments and other adventure-sport gatherings with the capacity to draw substantial crowds of participants and spectators, said Zach Ledbetter, vice president of visitor development.
“We have an ideal destination for outdoor enthusiasts, especially those who want to compete on calm and bass-filled waters,” said Ledbetter. “Aside from the outstanding hospitality of our community, the value of our natural assets allows us to welcome anglers from all over the world.”
Ledbetter put together a bid package last fall that outshined efforts by other fishing destinations — including Columbia, S.C., Hot Springs, Ark. and Branson, Mo.
“Cookeville and Center Hill Lake quickly became the clear choice to host this historic event,” said Tony Forte, president of USA Bass and founder of the U.S Angling Confederation, a nonprofit sport-fishing advocacy group.
The public is encouraged to meet and mingle with anglers at the tournament launch areas — Ragland Bottom Recreation Area, Cane Hollow Boat Ramp and Rock Island State Park.
Forte said tournament officials “looked at Dale Hollow pretty hard, too.” But DHL lacked CHL’s logistical appeal, he said. Center Hill Lake is situated nearer Nashville and I-40 — and it’s neighbored by inviting communities like Sparta, McMinnville and Smithville in addition to Cookeville.
Tourism-focused businesses throughout the area may get a bite of extra business from the Pan Am event. “We really hope this proves advantageous to the host communities, and commerce is obviously part of that process,” said Forte. “If this event allows for some guided fishing trips and more stays in local hotels and meals in local restaurants and those kinds of things, then we’re all about it.”
That’s obviously what Ledbetter has in mind, too. And he echoed a sentiment shared by chamber leaders around the Upper Cumberland: visitors come here for numerous regional attractions, so it makes sense to work across county lines to promote events, activities and destinations.
Cookeville serves as a destination hub for the Upper Cumberland, Ledbetter said, and visitors will often roam out to explore the surrounding region using the city as a base camp. In fact, none of the Pan Am tournament launch points are actually in Putnam County — Cane Hollow is in White County, Ragland Bottom is in DeKalb, and Rock Island is in Warren.
“We push day trips a lot,” Ledbetter said. “Whether visitors just stay right here in Cookeville, or go out to places like Cumberland Caverns in Warren County or Granville in Jackson County, we consider it a win for all of us.”
Big Name Boaters
Forte said kayak angling has for the past decade been “exploding worldwide.” But as yet it “hasn’t evolved to the point where it’s making household names.”
“That’s part of what a tournament like ours is designed to do,” he said.
The Pan Am Kayak Bass Championship could launch competitive kayak angling onto the global stage — and likewise position the Upper Cumberland to anchor future international tournaments.
“I would love to see a world championship come to Cookeville at some point — where we invite all the nations’ best kayak anglers to come,” said Forte. “We’re hoping we can make that happen.”
If the anglers competing to win the Pan Am aren’t household names exactly, some aren’t altogether unrecognizable either.
The two biggest names on the U.S. team are probably those belonging to Chad Hoover and Eric Jackson.
Both are media-savvy adventure-sport entrepreneurs who’ve navigated their life’s passions into lucrative careers that allow them to spend a lot of their waking hours on the water for a living.
A resident of Hendersonville, Hoover hosts Youtube’s most popular kayak fishing channel.
Not only has Hoover been a kayak-fishing fanatic for two decades — long before its popularity caught on — he’s organized some of the largest North American paddlesport angling tournaments ever held. His KBF brand is one of the Pan Am tournament’s sponsors — although he himself is solely a participant.
Jackson is already a pioneering, world championship-winning athlete ranked among whitewater kayaking’s most accomplished competitors in the sport’s history. Propelling himself onto the winner’s dock to hoist aloft the first ever Pan Am kayak bass champion’s trophy would constitute a truly remarkable follow-up to Jackson’s brilliant 30-year whitewater paddling career.
There’s also the fact that the company Jackson founded is probably the most identifiable paddlesport boat-maker in the world.
Jackson Kayak’s immense White County factory headquarters bolstered the area’s allure to Pan Am organizers. JK is helping sponsor the event and will provide kayaks for anglers visiting from far-flung foreign fisheries.
Springtime Is Primetime
Speaking of which, home-water advantage for Tennessee anglers like Hoover and Jackson won’t likely play as big a factor in the Pan Am championship as might typically be expected, according to a pair of veteran anglers well accustom to competing in bass tournaments on Center Hill Lake.
The Pan Am’s timing coincides with what’s typically some of CHL’s hottest bass fishing, said local pros Josh Tramel and Adam Wagner.
Tramel lives in Smithville and Wagner in Cookeville, and both have earned more tournament wins and money finishes on the lake than either can rightly recall. Each could stock an enviable trophy room just with Center Hill Lake hardware they’ve collected over the decades.
Already this year Tramel has landed an FLW first-place trophy on CHL in a tournament that saw Wagner place 5th. Wagner netted a victory on Dale Hollow Lake over the winter — his 11th career victory in FLW Bass Fishing League competitions, tying him at third for most FLW tourney first-place finishes of all time.
Tramel and Wagner say black bass on CHL in late May will likely be holding in relatively shallow water, and probably in a mood to bite and fight. That’s good news for anglers unfamiliar with the lake’s perplexing range of deeper-water structure, around which bass will spend most of their daytime hours after water temps start their summertime climb in June.
Tramel expects Pan Am tournament anglers will locate fish in water less than 15 feet deep — maybe even less than 10 feet in some areas. “The 10- or 12-foot range will catch them at that time of year,” he said.
Another nice thing about spring fishing is that anglers can choose from a variety of plugs, plastics and presentation tactics that will yield success, said Wagner.
“It’ll be really, really good in late May,” he said. “That post-spawn bite over there is always good. You can catch them on topwater, you can catch them on a Carolina rig, you can catch them on a crankbait or a spoon. There are just a whole lot of things you can do to catch fish on Center Hill at that time of year.”
Tramel said Pan Am competitors might have difficulty tracking down paunchy females, but aggressive males will be guarding schools of recently hatched fry and “will be hitting pretty good.”
“It’s a really good time for like two-and-a-half to three-and-a-quarter-pounders,” he said.
Like Wagner, Tramel expects surface-swimming lures will make for good fishing during the tournament, which isn’t always the case on Center Hill.
“Topwater will be a player. There will probably be a lot of fish caught on topwater at that point,” Tramel said. “There’ll also be some good fish caught on a shakey head, drop-shot sort of thing. My favorite thing would be pitching at that point in the year — pitching a jig or some plastics, bigger-profile type baits.”
One of Tramel’s standard strategies on CHL is to keep moving. He avoids spending too much time in one area if he’s not hooking up — even if he’s already boated a couple in the vicinity. It’s kind of unusual to catch multiple keeper-size fish in one location on Center Hill, he said.
If they were competing in the Pan Am tournament, both Wagner and Tramel say they’d want to launch from Cane Hollow or Ragland Bottom.
“With either one of those, you wouldn’t have to go far at all to catch fish,” Wagner said. “You could basically put in and start fishing. All the area around both Ragland and Cane Hollow is pretty good.”
“I fish around Cane Hollow a lot,” Tramel said. “It is up in Falling Water River and there are just a couple different sorts of structure-types, but historically the fish will be hitting back in there.”
Located in the heart of the Center Hill Lake, the Army Corps of Engineers-managed Ragland Bottom recreation area offers a wealth of fish-habitat diversity in many directions.
“There’s a lot of versatile water around there where you can do a lot of different things,” Tramel said. “You’ve got the main channel, you’ve creeks and pockets and all different kinds of structure that the fish can get in to.”
Certain areas of the lake are better for smallmouth than largemouth, and visa versa, Tramel noted.
“Whereas in Falling Water, you’re going to be targeting largemouth primarily, around Ragland Bottom you’re going to have access to whatever bass species you want to fish for,” he said.
Spotted bass caught on Center Hill have lately been running smaller than smallmouth and largemouth, Tramel added.
Wagner disclosed that Davies Island, located about two river miles north of Ragland, is a Center Hill sweet spot.
“It’s got some very good current through there, especially when they’re really pulling water (at the dam),” he said. “There are a lot of spots there, where current hits, that are really good.”
Davies Island is positioned at the confluence of the Falling Water and Caney Fork river arms. The island is four miles in circumference and “a huge population of fish” tend to congregate around it, said Wagner.
Fishing in a kayak is quite a bit different than fishing in a boat. Whereas stealth and maneuverability are a kayak’s chief attributes, bass boats can obviously cover a lot more water.
Tramel and Wagner agree that not being able to zip across the lake at 60 miles an hour in search of covert bass cover would dramatical change how they’d approach a tournament.
“In a bass boat, I can run from one end of the lake to the other in not a whole lot of time,” Tramel said. “In a kayak, you better start where there are some fish, or you’re probably going to be in trouble.”