Learning to share water with bass boats and kayaks, part 1

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Scott Beutjer

Perhaps there is a rift between bass boats and kayaks. Well, I suppose it depends on how you define “rift.” Sure, I’ve heard of a few isolated incidents, but overall, these two groups are currently living in harmony as well as the largemouth and smallmouth in Lake Champlain. However, if we don’t go out back, behind the woodshed, and have it out by saying what’s on our minds, then we could be headed towards a brawl. 

Last summer, I was pre-fishing my way down a creek flowing into Lake Dardanelle for the Hobie Bass Open Series event. As I arrived, I saw a completely rigged out bass boat in super skinny water with an angler who was meticulously picking apart each laydown. I could tell just by his cast that he was legit and was clearly pre-fishing for the following weekend’s Toyota Series event. In fact, the lake was littered with bass boats all pre-fishing for the following weekend’s big derby. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but as I paddled by, I waved and made one of those generic comments like, “You tearin’ em up or what?” I got a similarly generic reply, “Caught a few small ones, how about you?” We went similarly back and forth for a minute, but the conversation turned into something much greater than I realized it would. 

He then asked, “What’s up with so many kayaks all over the lake this week?” I explained the Hobie B.O.S. event and how we actually have three national trails — the B.A.S.S Nation Kayak, Hobie BOS and Kayak Bass Fishing — that typically have turnouts between 100 and 200 anglers. Events are held on a lot of the same fisheries as the pro bass tours.

He then asked why I floated into the lake and didn’t go further up the creek, since I was in a kayak? I explained that, just like boat tournaments, each of our events has different boundaries that we have to abide by. Some allow for more river and creek fishing than others. At this particular event, we weren’t allowed to go any further up the creeks than the first bridge up from the lake.

It now made sense to him why he saw so many kayaks on the main lake and its backwaters, where the bass boats could also reach. He wasn’t upset about it and was glad that we at least had a fair amount of “kayak only” water in bounds, but you could tell that, understandably, he wished there was less pressure on the fishery immediately before an event he was fishing. Let’s be honest, no one on either side of this equation is fond of seeing more boats and pressure on the water before a tournament, regardless whether it's a kayak, bass boat, jon boat or jet boat.

Before I left, I asked his name so I could pull for him. He said “Fred Roumbanis,” and I laughed and said, “Well dude if you had been throwing a frog or been in your normal wrapped boat, maybe I woulda recognized you.” He claimed his normal boat was “in the shop,” but I like to believe he was trying to be a little “incognito” the same way I was in my simple pre-fishing setup — a 10-foot Crescent Kayaks Ultralite with just three rods and a single Plano utility box.

We couldn’t have been living in more opposite worlds in terms of our boats and their price tags, but the more we talked, the more we realized how much we had in common. We shared a passion for figuring out the puzzle that black bass offer, and he quickly realized how well I understood these fish, the same way I knew he understood them. Kayak anglers across the nation are slowly changing the way people view us in terms of an additional resource to learning more about when, where and how to catch black bass. 

I told him that we actually have several mutual friends that fish the major trails, many of which I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with on various projects. We talked for another 30 minutes, and I could tell that even Fred didn’t realize just how competitive the kayak scene was at its highest level. We talked about how we felt it could succeed alongside the bass boat world, and even be a fresh catalyst to strengthen the entire sport further. There was no doubt that he felt positively about what we were doing and wanted to see us succeed.

However, our conversation also brought up some interesting points about how bass boats and kayaks need to stay in their predominant “lanes” so we don’t encroach onto each other too much more than we naturally will. We each had a new respect for each other, made a new friend and even swapped phone numbers so we could stay in touch. He wished me luck, told me to go win the tournament and keep him updated on how I did. The next time I texted him was a picture of the final standings, which showed that I indeed had won the event. He was as genuinely fired up for me as anyone else.

After I won the tournament, I had a long 14-hour drive back home to northeast Ohio. During that drive, I thought a lot about the win, about how I was now in the thick of the Angler of the Year race and my gameplan for the rest of the 2020 Hobie BOS season. However, my mind kept going back to what Fred and I had discussed. We didn’t realize it, but we were dancing around a major issue that, the more I thought about it, could soon be at the center of a clash between two like-minded groups that share a common passion. The rest of the year, I paid even more attention to how bass boaters treated kayak anglers, and how we treated bass boaters. 

So, what’s the main issue? At the core, it’s a “turf war” issue. If you’re a bass boater you know it’s already at its peak within just your world, with how many local, regional and national tournaments are held on the major bodies of water each year. Look, I get it, bass boats are confined to certain areas of the main lake, rivers and creeks that have enough depth for them to run in, and the competitive scene in those events is increasing exponentially every year. This places an importance on learning new tools like forward facing sonar and/or using an aluminum rig to get shallower than your competitors.

So, as a boater, when you see a kayaker on an offshore grass flat you’ve found, or a skinny water spot you can sneak your aluminum boat into, it probably isn’t the greatest feeling knowing that the kayak crowd can also choose to fish in water that your boat literally cannot get to. However, I’d like to think that most fisherman also understand that anyone, no matter their watercraft, has a right to be on a public body of water to fish.

Hopefully they don’t hold it against a kayak angler who has made it all the way out to an offshore spot, is holding there and has the skill to catch them there. Hopefully the more serious tournament anglers also see the big picture as well — the positive economic impact to the industry that kayak anglers are bringing and how it all trickles down to better the sport for everyone. Still, I get the angst as well, but there are ways we can alleviate some of it. 

So, what’s the solution to the turf war? Well, first off, the key is recognizing it now before it gets out of hand. While kayaks certainly have just as much right to be on those bodies of water as the Elite Series or Opens anglers have, we should also take a step back and realize that what makes us different is our ability to access water that boats cannot. This is essentially what makes a kayak a kayak, and I’d recommend we continue to lean into this uniqueness even harder, because, in my eyes, it’s our differentiator and what makes our sport truly special.

The major kayak trails already do an excellent job of including unique fisheries, chains of lakes and river systems that could never work for bass boat tournaments. If we continue on this path, we’ll continue to blaze our own trail and show the fishing world why we are so exciting to follow, and how we are truly reinventing things rather than copying what’s already been done so effectively in bass boats. 

Finding unique locations to hold our kayak events that are not always the “biggest name” lakes or rivers may be even more crucial in the future as pressure continues to mount. Major kayak series really only need a lake around 8,000 acres, plus the rivers/creeks that feed it, to be able to handle 100 to 200 anglers. The major bass boat events are typically looking for 30,000 acres or more, and probably prefer 75,000 plus.

The major bass boat tours also require a larger amount of tourism support, and dollars, to be able to offset the expensive television production and livestream costs. Kayak tournaments currently don’t have a live stream or live television so our trail’s don’t need as big of a financial partner ... yet. This opens up so many opportunities that we can take advantage of. 

A major boat landing with good parking and a facility nearby to handle weigh-ins is another critical component to putting on a bass boat event. However, given the fact that kayak events are scored via the catch, measure, photo, release method, and can legally launch at many areas that are not boat launches, we don’t need as much of this infrastructure either. If you’re unaware, kayak series do not launch from one location all together the way the bass boat world does. We are allowed to launch at any public access point on the bodies of water that are in bounds. I like to joke around that “my Tacoma is my outboard” when I need to load back up and make a big move during the day. 

In no way am I suggesting that kayaks shouldn’t go to some of the big name and largest fisheries in the country. So many of those are still incredible for kayak anglers and offer so much “kayak only” water where the boats cannot get, be it Champlain, LaCrosse, Chickamauga Rayburn or Guntersville. Plus, these perennial locations clearly love bass anglers and have done an amazing job supporting B.A.S.S throughout the years. Kayak events should definitely go to some of these incredible fisheries each year.

However, here’s the exciting part, there are about 130 reservoirs over 8,000 acres across the U.S. Most of these do not have all the elements needed to bring an Elite Series, Open, College or High School series to their area. I’ve done some “rough math” and just on pure size alone I believe there are about 50 good options for B.A.S.S and the other major boat tours, but even less when you consider that some of those may not have the funding or other elements needed to bring a major series to their area. This leaves about 80 lakes that are rarely, if ever, involved in a national level tour rotation. These fisheries of course have local, or possibly regional tournaments held on them, but they are not quite as pressured as many of the other big name locations.

Aside from those roughly 80 lakes, there are numerous natural freshwater rivers, deltas and bays leading into the ocean that also hold plenty of healthy bass and are a great fit for kayak events. Hobie holds an event on the Susquehanna River that fits the description of these type of waters perfectly. Just like the Susquehanna, many of these locations are home to amazing fisheries where they are dying for a way to promote the resources that God has blessed them with. Only the locals in these towns and communities know the true secrets about the giants that live in their fisheries.

Bringing those areas to light, via a kayak series, is a great way to further highlight what makes kayak so special and different. Plus, this gives us some “new turf,” while staying away from some of the more pressured lakes where major bass boats trails literally have to go, and where the boat truly is the best tool to get the job done most of the time.

Even though I fish on the kayak side, I have numerous friends on the Elite Series and other pro tours that I’ve collaborated with, so I feel I have a decent pulse on each of the communities. One thing I repeatedly hear from my pro boater friends is how much they love fishing new water, and how at the highest level they don’t get to quite as much as they’d like due to so many of the requirements I’ve already touched on. The beauty of kayak is the fact that we currently have much lower requirements to hold an event in a location; we’ll practically never run out of “new water” to explore until our threshold increases substantially.

New water keeps the sport fresh, keeps the anglers excited to explore new fisheries, and it prevents the “local hammers” from having a slight advantage every year on the same fisheries. Honestly, new fisheries are what get me most excited about each year’s upcoming schedule. A large part of the fun is the prep work, the map study and trying to solve a new puzzle each fishery presents.