While James Bailey of Harrison, Arkansas may be a Bass Cat Boats devotee, he admitted that until he got the call from the home office about the 2018 National Team Championship, “I didn’t even know it was a thing.” Fortunately, his partner Aaron Hodge, also of Harrison, was aware of the event’s prestige and grand prize and told him that they needed to go. They’re certainly glad they did, because after leading the event wire-to-wire through five marathon stops in two days, the pair is headed to an all-expenses paid trip with Ron Speed Adventures at Lake El Salto, Mexico.
Bailey and Hodge had finished second in the recent TOC, also known as the Bass Cat Midwest Regional, but when the winning team determined that they could not participate, the honor fell down a notch. While they didn’t have much time to prepare, they’re local, so they utilized past experience to get ahead of the pack and stay there.
Based on past NTCs, they expected that the field would spend some time on Table Rock, Bull Shoals and Norfork, with a couple of wild cards thrown into the mix. This time it was Taneycomo, where trout could be weighed in, and two different periods on Bull Shoals, but they started on Table Rock
“We 100 percent really wanted to try to catch a limit at each lake,” Hodge said. “We know Table Rock and Bull Shoals well, but James had never been on Taneycomo and I’d probably been there three or four times. I’d also been to Norfork more than I care to admit without catching a limit.”
The tournament commenced at Table Rock, where the pair expected the early bite to be critical, noting that it had been extremely tough as the day progressed. “The period before the sun hit the water was the key,” Hodge recalled, and the first bank they hit produced seven keepers on a SPRO Rock Crawler crankbait. By 7:59 am, they had 10.32 pounds in the livewell, and they never got another bite after that. The other teams struggled, with no one else landing in double digits. Their closest competitors were over 3 ½ pounds behind them, an insubstantial margin that could be eclipsed with a single bite.
2018 NTC Qualifiers
The field moved to Taneycomo, where the pair had limited experience, so after “just going fishing” proved fruitless, they moved over to boat docks, where flipping a PJ’s finesse jig put a small limit in the boat. That settled their nerves, but the five small keepers weren’t enough to make them comfortable. Taking advantage of the event’s multi-species opportunities, they ran up the lake to fish for trout. A peach-colored PJ’s marabou jig elicited a strike from a 2-pound rainbow on Hodge’s first cast, but it came off. They recovered, though, and after landing “six or seven” trout their two best added to their total.
They weighed in 6.72 at Taneycomo, enough to hold the lead, but the margin had shrunk. The Alabama team of Tanner McMurray and Ben Counts stayed steady and pulled to within nearly 2 pounds of the leaders. Meanwhile, the Minnesota team of Mike and Brett Seide, who had blanked at Table Rock, put 14.05 in the livewell at Taneycomo to bring themselves to just under 3 pounds off the lead.
The final session of the third day was held at Bull Shoals (K Dock), a venue that Bailey and Hodge know well, and while they expected to catch fish, they also knew that a home lake curse could bite them. They quickly caught one keeper on a Loon-colored Whopper Plopper, then missed another. Ninety minutes later, they still hadn’t added a second fish. That’s when local knowledge came into the equation. They idled over a drop on the main river channel, found fish holding there, and added four spots to their livewell.
“That made three lakes and three limits on the day,” Hodge said. “We were high-fiving in the boat.” They had every reason to do so, as Seide/Seide weighed in only 2.80 pounds and McMurray/Counts blanked, which meant that the leaders had once again increased their lead. Next up: Norfork.
On their first stop of Day Two, they caught a small keeper spotted bass on the Whopper Plopper, then landed several fish that wouldn’t measure on the Rock Crawler. Sensing a need to change, they ran down toward the clearer water at the dam, pulled up on their best spot and…. nothing. “The wheels were coming off,” Hodge said. With time running out, they started running up the lake, fishing windy banks, and the Plopper produced a 2-pounder with just enough time left.
“For the last 30 to 45 minutes, we were mostly strategizing for Bull,” Bailey said. “Norfork always seems to be a cruel girl. I’ve never weighed in a limit there.” Fortunately for them, no one did much better at stop number four, and they maintained their substantial lead heading into the home stretch, which would take place at Bull Shoals again, this time out of Lakeview.
“It felt good to have a solid lead,” Hodge said. “You know at the lower end of Bull Shoals fish are going to bite sometime, so I thought if we could just catch three fish we’d have a really good shot to win.”
They started off deep, where the bite has most consistent lately, focusing on brush piles, but despite landing one keeper largemouth, that strategy was mostly a bust.
“It didn’t pay off,” Bailey said. “We went shallow, pulled up and caught four fish on our first bank on the Plopper and a War Eagle Purple Shad spinnerbait. They were biting that afternoon. We even had time to try to catch a walleye.”
Their 13.07 further extended their lead to nearly 11 pounds over the second-place team of Seide/Seide and to a remarkable 20 pounds over McMurray and Counts. Now they’re headed to Mexico, where the fish are big enough that a lead of that size can be spanned by just a couple of bites. They’ve been to Texas hunting for 10-pounders, but so far Bailey’s 9-01 is the pair’s best single-fish effort.
Both Bailey and Hodge run 2006 Pumas. Bailey previously owned two other brands, but as they fished together they constantly found themselves fishing out of Hodge’s boat because it was faster and handled rough water better. Hodge previously owned a Cougar, which he loved, but he said moving to the Puma “felt like I was in a Cadillac.” While they’ve been impressed by the boats for many years, and have visited the factory on multiple occasions, this event allowed them to understand the true meaning of the Bass Cat Family.
“They went all-out,” Bailey said. “From the rooms, to the meals, to flying teams in and loaning them boats. Everything was first class. One team had troubles with their hub and lower unit. Rick Pierce loaned them his personal boat, took their boat back to the factory, and rebuilt the hub on the trailer for them. This is why I own a Bass Cat. I know that we had a little advantage over some of the other teams, but even if the event were somewhere else I’d be there in a heartbeat. We made lasting friendships with some of the other teams, and we’re already planning to go fish with some of them.”
About Bass Cat: Bass Cat, owned by Correct Craft, manufactures the industry’s premier bass fishing boats from its headquarters in Mountain Home, Arkansas. Family operated since its founding in 1971, Bass Cat is the longest continuously operating tournament bass boat company in the United States. For more information visit www.basscat.com.
About Correct Craft: Celebrating 94 years of excellence in the marine industry, Correct Craft is a Florida-based company with global operations. The Correct Craft family includes Nautique, Centurion, Supreme, Bass Cat, Yar-Craft, SeaArk, and Bryant boat companies, Pleasurecraft Marine Engine Group, Watershed Innovations, and Aktion Parks. For more information please visit www.correctcraft.com.