JEFFERSON COUNTY, Tenn. — Talk about a memorable debut.
Kevin Walton of Norfolk, Va., made the most of his first time fishing Douglas Lake by catching a three-day total of 42 pounds, 7 ounces to win the TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Southeast Regional at Douglas Lake.
After a Day 1 limit of 14-14 put Walton an ounce off the lead set by Jordan Card of Knoxville, Tenn., Walton stepped on the Day 2 gas pedal and caught 15-0 — the event’s biggest bag — to enter Championship Friday 1-13 ahead of Card.
His final limit of 12-9 pushed him across the finish line by the same margin over second-place Zeke Gossett of Pell City, Ala. Walton took home a top prize of $5,000.
The top boater and the top nonboater from each of the 10 participating state teams earned a spot in the TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Championship Oct. 18-20 at Lake Hartwell.
“It was better than I expected it to be because I had a horrible practice,” said Walton, who had fished only as a nonboater before this season. “This was definitely my biggest win.
“They bit pretty well today. Not the size I’ve been catching all week, but (my nonboater and I) caught a ton of fish.”
Walton did all of his work on a 150-yard upstream stretch of the French Broad River, which flows through Douglas. Positioning proved critical to extending his window of opportunity.
“The shade was key,” Walton said. “Other people were fishing the right side of the river, and the left side where I was fishing stayed shaded longer. So, the shad spawn lasted two to three hours, when the main-lake shad spawn only lasted 30 minutes (after takeoff).”
Targeting bushes in 8 to 10 feet of water, Walton mirrored his previous steps, but found the final morning offered a much more vibrant scenario. While Day 1 presented an active shad spawn, the second morning saw the baitfish gone.
Remaining in the area throughout the second day, Walton found his current-tuned river fish less keen on moving, even without baitfish present. Day 3 was game on.
“Today there was bait everywhere,” Walton said. “There were bombs going off in the bushes.”
Walton started Day 1 with a black Spro Bronzeye popping frog on 65-pound PowerPro braid. When that bait succumbed to the violent attacks, he switched to a black Booyah Pad Crasher. Each day, Walton added one of his weight fish on a Lobina Rico popper in a shad pattern.
“They didn’t want the frog moving slowly,” Walton said. “I couldn’t twitch the frog fast enough. They were coming out of the bushes and gulping it.”
Walton said he caught eight of the 15 fish he weighed out of one tree.
“I don’t know if the fish were coming out of the bay and coming to that tree, but that tree produced a bunch of fish,” Walton said. “My co-anglers caught fish on that tree and I caught the majority of mine on that tree.”
Attributing his success to trusting his spot and sticking with it through changing scenarios, Walton said his final day seemed like it was one of those meant-to-be days. With a nearly flawless performance, he left nothing significant on the water.
“I lost one fish on (Friday) that might have given me a 1/4-pound upgrade. But for the whole tournament, I never lost another fish that would have helped me.
“Usually, in those bushes you lose quite a few, but they were eating it so good they were staying pinned.”
Gossett turned in daily limits of 13-12, 12-13 and 14-1 for a tournament total of 40-10.
“I looked for a shad spawn early, but I didn’t catch anything there, so I started swimming a 3/8-ounce white Strike King Hack Attack Swim Jig with a white Strike King Rage Menace in the bushes and caught 8 to 9 pounds,” Gossett said. “After that, I spent the rest of the day out deep.”
Gossett caught most of his bass on a Strike King 6XD crankbait. He also caught keepers on a Strike King 10XD and boated his biggest Day 3 fish — approximately 4 pounds — on a 3/4-ounce Strike King football jig with a Rage Menace.
“I was reeling the swim jig pretty fast near the surface and I had to reel the crankbaits pretty fast to get them to react,” Gossett said. “The biggest thing offshore was finding the right angle. They changed all three days.”
With daily weights of 14-15, 13-2 and 11-2, Card finished third at 39-3. Despite coming up short, he said he was happy to achieve a season-long objective.
“The goal coming here was just to make that National Championship,” said Card, whose younger brother, Brandon, fishes the Bassmaster Elite Series. “To win would have been nice, but it didn’t work out.”
Card spent all day offshore and rotated through several spots. He caught his bass on Strike King 6XD and 10XD crankbaits, along with a small swimbait on a 3/8-ounce ball head.
All week, Card had been looking for fish that were closer to the bottom. Day 3 found most of his fish suspended — a more challenging scenario.
“When they’re feeding, they’re close to the bottom and they’re waiting for the bait to come by,” Card said. “When they’re suspended, they’re less aggressive.
“I did catch one suspended fish today on the swimbait, but when they’re up off the bottom, they’re a whole lot harder to catch.”
Chuck Howard of Elloree, S.C., won the $500 Big Bass award with a 5-6 he caught on Day 1.
Gossett won the $500 Garmin Tournament Rewards bonus.
Matt Summers of Gassaway, W.Va., won the nonboater division with 21-11. Catching daily limits of 6-1, 6-14 and 8-12, Summers took home the $2,500 top prize and earned a spot in the championship.
The tournament was hosted by the Jefferson County, Tenn., Department of Tourism.
2023 B.A.S.S. Nation Title Sponsor: TNT Fireworks
2023 B.A.S.S. Nation Platinum Sponsor: Toyota
2023 B.A.S.S. Nation Premier Sponsors: Bass Pro Shops, Dakota Lithium, Humminbird, Mercury, Minn Kota, Nitro Boats, Power-Pole, Progressive Insurance, Ranger Boats, Rapala, Skeeter Boats, Yamaha
2023 B.A.S.S. Nation Supporting Sponsors: AFTCO, Daiwa, Garmin, Lew’s, Marathon, Triton Boats, VMC