I went to the first National Championship of Kayak Bass Fishing and won money. I also discovered the country’s most ethical and environmentally friendly way to do boat-fishing — and the most affordable.
By Henry Veggian
Men preparing to fish from kayaks (Photo: Chad Hoover)
The tenants of the lake were far-famed for both their quantities and their qualities, and the ice had hardly disappeared, before numberless little boats were launched from the shores, and the lines of the fishermen were dropped into the inmost recesses of its deepest caverns, tempting the unwary animals with every variety of bait that the ingenuity or the art of man had invented.
— James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers (1823)
Carbon clouds bury the mountain peaks as I pass the Oak Ridge exit on Interstate 40 in Tennessee. I’m racing to beat the storm to the Nashville Basin and, beyond that, to Kentucky Lake, the largest impoundment east of the Mississippi River. The tempest catches me at Crossville: lightning in gunfight volleys and rain in Oregon waves. I ride the deluge down to the Cumberland Plateau with a 12-foot kayak locked to the roof of my 13-foot car, its hull turned to the sky. We have crossed the Appalachian range on our way to the first National Championship of Kayak Bass Fishing (KBF), and not even Daniel Boone’s fury could stop us.
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When a new sport enters the world, it is covered in blood and screaming to be fed. Sports that are the love children of already-established sports, however, grow up fast; consider, for example, the Biathlon, or the swift ascent of Mixed Martial Arts. In America, where we love our boats as much as we love our cars, a growing number of anglers have adopted the kayak (an old Native American technology), replaced its wood frame and seal skins with roto-molded plastic and materials like Kevlar, and coupled it with fishing. It’s not yet a full grown sport, but kayak fishing has plenty of hair on it.
What is kayak fishing? In theory, it is the most ethical and environmentally friendly way to fish from a boat. There is no fuel but muscle, no sound but a paddle dripping water (or an angler cursing a lost fish), and no invasive species in the ballast water or stuck to the props. Fish are measured, photographed, and released alive in a matter of seconds. In practice, however, the sport has passed along the usual ancestral traits: Strung-out kayak anglers populate the spectrum from gambling addicts to dehydrated triathletes. And there is the psychological stress too. Salt-water kayak anglers will warn you about sharks longer than the kayaks who swoop in to poach your catch. Hallucination is a common symptom of tournament kayak angling, and it visited me often at the national championship.As consecutive 20-hour-long days stacked up I started seeing things. Specifically, herds of bison. On the last day, I paddled through falling snow looking for one last good fish. At least I think I did.
On the first day of competition, I ran into a middle-aged dad and his teenage son. Both were fishing from kayaks, and the boy had fallen into the cold water from his vessel near the launch. I helped Dad beach the kayak and told him I was sorry his day was over before it started. He laughed, paddled across the cove, and started fishing. Not to be outdone by dad’s commitment, the shivering boy shouted fishing instructions from the open window of the warming truck.
Chad Hoover is the founder and co-owner of Kayak Bass Fishing. He’s a big guy, standing on stage at the Paris County Fairgrounds with a beer in one hand and a mic in the other, and he can’t stop talking about kayak fishing. During competition week, the anglers are required to gather every evening from Wednesday to Sunday, where Chad delivers at least two sermons every night. With the wit and spirit of a tent revival preacher, he breathes the spirit into all relevant topics. Chad praises the integrity of game wardens, evangelizes for social media strategies, and delivers fire-and-brimstone jeremiads explaining all the ways you can cheat, and all the ways that Chad will catch you cheating. On Thursday, after the first day of competition, he uses a fish submitted at 16.34 inches to get a big laugh from the crowd: “I don’t know what kind of math they’re teaching up in Kentucky,” he says, “but 16.34 inches ain’t sixteen and three-quarter inches.” Later that evening, he delivers a passionate, moving speech about the therapeutic salvation that fishing offers to military veterans. Part Billy Graham, part Larry the Cable Guy, Chad Hoover incarnates the new sport’s frenzied spirit.
In theory, kayak fishing is the most ethical and environmentally friendly way to fish from a boat.
The congregation on Thursday night numbers several hundred. Senior citizens mingle with disabled veterans, Latinos applaud Asians who speak from the podium, and women exchange fishing tips with men. If you walk along the fairgrounds hallways, you will note black-and-white framed photos of prize pigs next to old farmers in their Sunday finest. There isn’t a single black person in those old photos, but if you look around the hall while Chad speaks, you’ll see black, white, yellow, and brown faces, all asking the same question: “What did you get ’em on?” You’ll hear Southern accents, West Coast slang, Midwestern vowels, and Yankee consonants because anglers from 30 states have come here to compete for another prize pig: the Smallmouth, Spotted, or Largemouth Bass that will earn them a first-place check for $25,000.
I’m with the North Carolina delegation. We number about one dozen. Staying at the Paris Landing State Park Inn with my dog, I find the buffet modestly priced and the food delicious, while the view of white caps on the lake becomes, in optical illusion, the sight of schooling fish crashing bait. The Hmong fishermen from Carolina are also at the Inn, and the rest of the group shares a nearby cabin. Cory Dreyer, founder of CKA tournament series, is among them. There are multiple tournament series in many states, but the CKA is the largest series in North Carolina and one of the largest in the nation. Annual participation is in the hundreds, and an average event will include 80 anglers. Each tournament awards points, and these accumulate over the season. In 2015, Kayak Bass Fishing awarded the top 10 CKA anglers qualifying spots for the first national championship, to be held on Kentucky Lake in March.
In 2015, I finished in 11th place overall after the final day of the CKA competition. But an angler ahead of me had already qualified through a different tournament series, so his ticket fell to me. I didn’t know whether to scream with joy or beg for mercy. I spent the fall and winter exercising, studying maps, and saving money for a 600-mile drive to a town I’d never visited, on a lake I had never paddled or fished, to compete in an event I wasn’t sure existed.
Kentucky Lake is to bass fishing what Detroit is to automobile manufacturing. Covering over 160,000 surface acres, the lake straddles two states (Kentucky and Tennessee). The Tennessee Valley Authority flooded the valley in 1944 as an impoundment of the Tennessee River. In doing so, it also created an assembly line for recreational fishing, a sport that would explode in popularity after World War II. Companies near and far produce and maintain the gear and boats that populate the private marinas and public launches on its shores. Cabins, campgrounds, and bait shops line the roads and lakes (Lake Barkley is next door), feeding anglers, lures, and watercraft to the water. It’s easy to get lost on or near it. One day I drove to a launch that no longer existed, only to find another that was not marked on any map. Another large fishing tournament, for collegiate anglers, was just finishing when we arrived on Kentucky Lake; hundreds are held throughout the year. One wonders if the local fishing economy might generate as much money as the mighty TVA generates from its dams.
I didn’t see the drone or hear it. It’s Friday, the end of the second day of competition. I just finished angling in a single-day open event, a last chance for anglers to qualify for the championship weekend. Leaning against a wall outside the Paris County Fairgrounds, I’m suffering kayak lag, but I’m too tired to worry about how tired I am. When I come to, I see the disc in the sky. My first thoughts are: “A flying saucer. They finally found us.” My next thought is to wonder if the aliens can spot good fish for us. Or just for me.
The drone comes into focus, propellers and all. I am being filmed, by someone for something. This is real, not Memorex. I had signed a waiver releasing my likeness to the event organizers, read dozens of pages of rules, disclaimers, liability forms, instructions for correctly uploading photographs to the tournament site; the event’s other literature included sponsor information, entry fee receipts, membership regulations, and T-shirts. One imagines lawyers behind the scenes, engineers filling out patent applications, and advertisers looking to paste logos on billboards. But for all these nascent sponsorships, the event has an improvisational mood, one captured by the KBF membership letter, where co-owner Joe Haubenreich writes, “if you find a few gaps in our programs and if things change as we go along, it’s because we are building this vehicle as we drive it wide open down the interstate.”
If you read the kayak fishing industry’s propaganda, you might begin to think people are selling their cars and paddling to work. In 2014, the American Canoe Association, the industry group for paddle sports, reported that Americans in the previous year had taken 215.8 million trips in “kayaks, rafts, canoes or stand up paddle boards.” Thirty-five percent of those outings — over 70 million of them — involved freshwater fishing. In 2015, the ACA declared that “kayak fishing is happening everywhere … [and] growing faster than ever.” The group’s 2014 report backs up the claim: Since 2011, kayaking has overtaken canoeing as the most popular paddle sport by an increasing margin each year. To assume that much of that growth is driven by kayak fishing is not a leap of speculation; it only requires opening one’s eyes.
I first took notice of it all when I moved to New York City in 2003. I had been gone for five years, and when I looked out on the Hudson River I saw long shapes. Kayaks, someone said. I wonder now if those people were paddling away from work, or to it. The evidence is everywhere these days: kayaks in yards, kayaks for rent, kayak clubs, kayak dealers, etc. At a recent local tournament, I met several kayak anglers who had sold their bass boats and purchased kayaks. A house here in Durham has re-purposed an old Jackson kayak as a flower pot in the front yard.
One is tempted to use the “big business” cliché to describe what’s causing this sport to grow. But that’s not true, at least not yet. Some observers say the rising cost of fuel made other boats too expensive for much of the past decade. Others credit the widespread popularity of kayak fishing series such as River Bassin’ and KBF to the regulation and clean-up of our inland waters (see Hudson River, above). Anglers sometimes credit the innovative engineering of the new kayak designs; others, the clever marketing trick of naming kayaks after predators: we had Tarpon, Cuda, Thresher, etc. The new kayaks provide comfort, stealth, and transit to remote waters. This is how a sport is born: Attract a broad range of people, place them in competition, and sell them cool stuff. If the sport is affordable and relatively green, so much the better.
I go inside and sit with the North Carolina delegation. We placed several anglers in the money at the open event, including yours truly (again, I finished last in the top spots). Several more of us will finish in the money during the national championship that begins the next morning. Right now, it isn’t the money that matters, or the adrenaline of victory, or the thrill of being part of a sport just as it becomes a national event. All that matters is that we are exhausted, a cold front is coming, and we have to figure what the fish will do as we try to find meals and a few hours to sleep.
Chad is onstage again, requesting feedback about today’s event. I’m asked backstage to have judges verify my photos. Large flat-screen televisions serve as monitors; paperwork and cases of water are stacked on tables. I fill out an Internal Revenue Service form. The oversize fake checks wait in another room, where a photographer will meet us. A laser printer quietly pumps out the real checks. I can see the total cash prize figures on the monitors, and my jaw drops. There is camaraderie in the chaos, and lots of cash. Later, as my name is called to join the winner’s circle, I nearly knock over a lighting rig.
Pioneers eventually settle, of course. A sport will become a business, if it’s lucky to last that long, and competitors will become clients. But it doesn’t feel that way, not just yet.
I drive back to the hotel and wave to Andrew, the night watch from Philadelphia, as I crawl past the desk. It’s almost midnight and I have yet to prepare gear. I wake up at 4 a.m. in yesterday’s clothes, the TV still on. I eat a quick breakfast, feed Zeus the dog, and walk him to the bluff that overlooks Kentucky Lake outside. There is a blue glow in the eastern sky. Engines fire and I turn to watch the column of Carolina anglers leave the cabin across the cove. I will drive soon, too, 40 miles and north, passing real deer and imaginary bison, to reach my launch. The championship begins. Before it is over we will paddle through rain, wind, and snow toward something that is coming into the world, looking an awful lot like us.