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story.lead_photo.caption Ray Tucker of Little Rock caught these two bass (shown with one) on back-to-back casts Thursday at a private lake near Carlisle while fishing in a friendly “tournament” against Roddy McCaskill of Carlisle and Vic Hiryak of Little Rock. - Photo by Bryan Hendricks

CARLISLE -- Thursday showed us just how fine June in Arkansas can be.

The sky was sunny. The temperature was Oregon cool, but Nevada humid.

Best of all, the bass fishing was Florida good.

The occasion was a friendly bass tournament pitting Roddy McCaskill of Carlisle and Vic Hiryak of Little Rock against Ray Tucker and me at McCaskill's bass lake near Carlisle. The losers were to buy lunch at Nick's, a locally famous barbecue restaurant.

As Tucker and I prepped my boat and arranged our tackle, McCaskill asked, "How do we want to do this? Do we want to go by biggest bass or by numbers?"

"Numbers," Tucker said.

"How will we keep count?" McCaskill asked. "Do you have a clicker?"

"A clicker?" Tucker asked. "These guys are hardcore. They act like fishermen lie or something."

We agreed to photograph every fish we caught, and since we were the visiting team, McCaskill spotted us five pounds.

Once on the water, McCaskill gave us our choice of directions. Whichever way we went, they'd go the other way.

"Just about every cast you make will be to some kind of cover," McCaskill said as we parted.

On the advice of Tyrone Phillips, an accomplished tournament angler, I started with a gold-blade chatterbait. A bass slammed my first cast, but threw the Chatterbait with a shake of its head. It appeared to be about 4 pounds.

"It's supposed to be bad luck to catch one on the first cast," Tucker chided.

"I didn't catch it, so we're clear," I retorted.

Unfortunately, I seemed to have been mistaken. We couldn't buy another bite for about half an hour despite casting around an array of fabulous bass cover.

A custom showcase, McCaskill's entire lake is fabulous bass cover. It's only about 7-8 feet deep at most, but the bottom is carpeted with vegetation. A system of aerators keeps the tea-colored water oxygenated and moving.

A collection of narrow islands creates channels, pinch points, drops and shelves. Artificial fish attractors and brushpiles are in the deepest water. There are also some humps that don't break the surface. They look tan against the dark water, and bass use them to ambush prey, which consists mostly of bluegill. The lake has no catfish.

Vegetation grows along the banks, which also contain giant logs, laydowns and other forms of natural and artificial cover. Every cast has a reasonable chance of a strike.

While Tucker and I flailed away with Chatterbaits and swimbaits, McCaskill and Hiryak jumped out to a 6-0 lead with small swimbaits and wacky worms.

When in doubt, I always turn to a topwater lure to clear my head. Conditions were not optimal, but it was my only flash of lucidity at the moment. I tied on a small Whopper Plopper, a topwater plug with a propeller type tail that throws a lot of water and makes a lot of noise.

Tucker tied on an obnoxious sounding buzzbait that I used to catch an 8-pound bass on a private reservoir last summer near Cabot.

We maneuvered the boat to open water where a hastening north wind chopped the surface. The Whopper Plopper got strikes immediately, but I missed the first four. I reacted too quickly and pulled the lure away from the fish before they could chomp down on it. Thereafter, I gave them a quick two count before setting the hook, and then we started shooting photographs.

They were all small bass, though, until we reached a spot that we now call "Tucker's Alley." A big bass missed the Whopper Plopper, but Tucker cast his buzzbait behind it. The bass slammed the buzzbait and headed for the bottom, stripping line off Tucker's reel faster than he could reclaim it.

Tucker overcame his excitement and tightened the drag, and a few minutes later I netted his first fish of the day. It weighed about 7 pounds.

On the next cast, he caught another one that could have been its twin.

"Maybe we should have gone for biggest bass," Tucker said.

Hoping to upgrade the bass I was catching, I switched to a bigger Whopper Plopper. It had the desired effect because substantially bigger fish hit it.

As the sun rose, the strike rate decreased. We conferred with McCaskill and Hiryak, who led by six fish. I returned to the Chatterbait and threw it to what looked like a spawning bed on the bank of an island. A big bass materialized from the grass beside the bed and flashed on the Chatterbait and dashed toward the boat. My reel, with its 6.2:1 retrieve ratio, couldn't keep up with the fish. I finally set the hook out of desperation, but I missed.

True to form, I made one cast that produced a hopeless backlash. The wind blew the boat against the bank while I struggled to untangle the bird's nest. While we waited, Tucker caught two more bass with his own Whopper Plopper.

McCaskill and Hiryak were at the dock disembarking from their boat, signaling the end of the tournament. They had 18 bass to our 16, and McCaskill apologized for the poor quality of fishing.

"The water cleared up on us," McCaskill said. "Last week, when it was cloudy, we were catching 50, 60 a day."

I hate to be an argumentative guest, but a 16-fish day with two 7-pounders does not compute as poor with me, and even less so with Tucker, who floated on a cloud.

"Those are the biggest bass I've ever caught," Tucker said. McCaskill was delighted to hear it.

"The whole point of this place is to enjoy relationships and make memories," McCaskill said. "That's what fishing is all about to me."

"This is like playing the Yankees at Yankee Stadium," Tucker said. "Isn't this supposed to be a best-of-three series?"

The good cheer continued through lunch, which was delicious. The winners refused to let the losers pay.

Photo by Bryan Hendricks
Ray Tucker of Little Rock caught these two bass (shown with one) on back-to-back casts Thursday at a private lake near Carlisle while fishing in a friendly “tournament” against Roddy McCaskill of Carlisle and Vic Hiryak of Little Rock.
Photo by Bryan Hendricks
The author switched to a larger Whopper Plopper (left) to appeal to bigger bass after catching a mess of small bass with a smaller version Thursday near Carlisle. Swimbaits (top) worked for Roddy McCaskill and Vic Hiryak, but not for Ray Tucker and the author.

Sports on 06/16/2019

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