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story.lead_photo.caption Tyrone Phillips of Little Rock points to a promising fishing spot on the lower end of Lake Hamilton.

It takes a good friend to let you drive his bass boat.

I've never driven one.

Oh, I once owned a tiny little fiberglass Cajun boat. It was about 15 feet long and had a 40-horsepower Nissan outboard, but it wasn't a "real" bass boat.

I've also put a few on trailers, including Larry Nixon's boat, but that's not really driving.

It's a basic thing, but driving a bass boat is one of the few things I haven't done in 30 years as an outdoor writer.

On Thursday, noon came and went without a feature story for the Sunday Outdoors section. I called my old friend Tyrone Phillips of Little Rock.

"Let's fish Lake Hamilton this afternoon," I said.

"I have to go to the dentist at 2, but I'm free after that," Phillips said.

"I'll meet you at Entergy Park when you get there," I said.

Phillips is the rare kind of friend that will get out of bed at 1 a.m. to pick you up at the airport and give you a ride home 40 miles away. That happened a couple of years ago when there was a little mixup about the difference between a.m. and p.m.

Ten years ago, on the day when I learned I had cancer, Phillips cleared his schedule and took me fishing at Lake Hamilton. We met at Entergy Park and enjoyed a stellar afternoon catching bass with jerkbaits around bridge piers and docks. It took my mind off the bad news that would soon change my life, and we spent the day talking about marriage, fatherhood, manhood, life and mortality. We are good friends, but I've come to think of him more like a brother.

By the time we got on the water Thursday, it was humid and hot, but the sun had retreated to a gentler place.

I had three rods. One was a stout spinning rig with a swimbait. One was a stout baitcasting rig with a Texas-rigged, beaver-style bait. The other was a baitcasting rig with a bone-colored River2Sea Whopper Plopper.

"The Whopper Plopper has ruined me as a bass fisherman," I said. "I enjoy catching them on that thing so much that it's almost all I throw anymore. I know I can catch more doing other things, but all I want to do is see them blow up the Whopper Plopper."

"I throw it when they're eating it for sure," Phillips laughed.

Phillips approved of the swimbait.

"They'll eat that around the bridge pilings," Phillips said.

We made a perfunctory stop on a point where there is a giant, man-made rock pile about 8 feet to 10 feet deep. I took a photo of Phillips standing beside it 10 years ago when the lake had been drawn down. Some enterprising angler had piled up the rocks knowing it would attract bass when water covered it.

Bass weren't on the rocks Thursday, so we went to the nearest bridge.

"Throw that swimbait as close to the pilings as you can," Phillips said. "If fish are there, they'll eat it."

"What depth?" I asked.

"I start high and keep working down until I get bit," Phillips said.

Phillips worked high and I worked low. We got a couple of nips, but no hooksets.

It was the same with the next bridge.

"What's the water temperature?" I asked.

"86," Phillips replied.

"Is there any current?"

"I can't tell," Phillips said. "If there is, it ain't much."

"We need to find some cooler water," I said.

On our next stop, we broke off baits. After I attached a leader to my braid with a Double Uni knot, Phillips showed me how to tie a T-knot.

"Bryan Thrift showed me how to tie this," Phillips said. "I think it's basically the same thing as a Double Uni, but this is a lot faster."

Thrift, a top FLW Tour pro, is one of the best anglers in the world. Phillips is an avid tournament angler that has qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup as a co-angler. Broaching Thrift's name unleashed a torrent of tournament stories that we bounced back and forth for the rest of the evening.

Struggling for a bite, we ended the day in the back of a creek that looked as if it should have teemed with bass. Schools of baitfish roiled the surface, but no bass accepted the Whopper Plopper's challenge.

As evening descended, I removed my prescription sunglasses and immediately started throwing the Whopper Plopper into the trees. Phillips was amused, and also astonished, by my ability to free it without much fuss.

"Without my glasses, it takes me awhile to recalibrate my depth perception," I explained. "Right now, those trees look like they're 75 yards away."

A few fish swirled on Phillips' white fluke, but they didn't take it. He finally abandoned the fluke and picked up a light spinning rig with a Ned rig. It's a helmet-head jig pinned to about half of a Senko-style soft plastic lure. It's the most basic looking thing ever, but it works.

Phillips immediately started getting more aggressive bites, but fish bit the tail of the plastic without contacting the hook. Finally, at sunset, Phillips landed a keeper largemouth. We were so certain he would catch a big one that we didn't photograph that fish. We should have because it was the last bite we got.

As we donned our life vests, Phillips asked, "You want to sit over here?"

"What? Drive?" I asked.

"If you want to," Phillips said.

A late-model Ranger with a 200-plus horsepower outboard? He didn't have to ask twice.

After I figured out how to properly trim the engine, it rode like a dream. Phillips live-streamed the trip back to the ramp on social media.

It doesn't take long to get from one end of Lake Hamilton to the other. I wanted to savor the experience, so I took it easy.

Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/BRYAN HENDRICKS
Tyrone Phillips works a swimbait around bridge piers at Lake Hamilton.
Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/BRYAN HENDRICKS
A Ned rig was the only thing bass bit with conviction Thursday at Lake Hamilton

Sports on 06/30/2019

Print Headline: You drive!

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