BY DAVE LINK
Joe Vaulton and Walker LaRue of the Alcoa Fishing Team didn’t know what to expect June 22 when the Major League Fishing (MLF) High School National Championship started on Pickwick Lake in Florence, Alabama.
They’d spent three days of practice on Pickwick before the three-day Nationals started, with the top 10 teams after Day 2 qualifying for the TBF/SAF World Finals on a fourth day, June 25.
There were 416 boats competing.
“I didn’t think we had a good chance at all because we’d caught two good fish (pre-fishing the lake),” said LaRue, a rising sophomore at Alcoa. “But we found that one spot during practice. You had to have your sonar turned off. You’d just pull up and you’d get on your live-scope, and you’d just see ’em, and then you’d cast at ’em, and if they wanted it, they’d bite at it, and if they didn’t, they’d run away.”
Vaulton said the bass they found during practices were often spooked, and the boat congestion once the tournament started became a problem.
“We probably had 10 to 15 schools that we found in practice,” said Vaulton, a junior at Alcoa this coming school year. “We’d cast on them a couple of times during practice but not a lot, and we could never get them to bite, so I didn’t even know if we’d come in with a limit the first day.
“And the first day, we couldn’t get on anything with 400 boats. We couldn’t get on any of our schools except for that one spot, and that one spot paid off for us all week.”
It sure did.
With Walker’s dad J.J. LaRue serving as boat captain, Vaulton and LaRue finished sixth in the MLF Nationals before soaring to fourth in the World Finals on Pickwick.
“It was really cool,” Walker LaRue said. “I think we got our name out there pretty good from that tournament. It was a really cool experience. It had 400-something boats. Anytime you can finish top 10 against them, it’s pretty good.”
Vaulton said it was the duo’s best achievement – and meant a lot to Alcoa Fishing.
“It was big,” Vaulton said. “I think it was big for us, big for the team. It was just cool we got to do all that.”
Vaulton and the LaRues arrived in Florence on Saturday night, June 18, for the start of their weeklong fishing marathon.
They found Pickwick different than lakes in East Tennessee.
“It’s a whole lot bigger than these lakes at home,” Vaulton said. “It’s all about how we were fishing. We were ledge fishing. It’s all about the current, how much current they run.
“It just makes the fish feed and set up on spots. We spent all of practice, just idling. We probably didn’t fish for more than two hours out of all the practices combined. We were just looking for schools, and I think that paid off pretty good.”
Good thing they found plenty of schools.
When the tournament started, LaRue and Vaulton found all their spots in pre-fishing taken by other boats.
All except for one spot.
So they got on that spot and stayed on it.
“It was a ledge, kind of,” Vaulton said. “What it really was, it was like a submerged wall, like an old railroad track or something, I don’t know. But (the bass) loaded up on it really good, big ’uns loaded up on it.”
It turned out to be their honey hole.
“Two of our (three) fish came off of it the first day,” Vaulton said, “and the rest of the week, every single fish came off of that one spot, except for that one fish the first day.”
LaRue said: “We caught one other fish, a 4 pounder, on another spot. But all those fish came off that one spot.”
LaRue and Vaulton caught a three-bass limit weighing 13 pounds on Day 1, landing them in seventh place going into the crucial second day.
BIG FINISHES, BIG BASS
Although they didn’t land any big bass, they did well enough on Day 2 with three bass weighing 9 pounds, 8 ounces – good for eighth place, which earned them a spot in the World Finals.
As one of the top 10 teams after two days, Vaulton and LaRue had a cameraman on their boat while they were talked on microphones.
“It was pretty nerve wracking, but it was pretty cool,” Vaulton said. “I think having a cameraman messes with a lot of people. I think me and Walker did pretty good with it.”
They finished Day 3 with the three-bass limit weighing 9 pounds, 2 ounces for a three-day total of 31 pounds, 9 ounces, good for sixth place in the Nationals.
LaRue said the cameras took some getting used to.
“It was kind of nerve wracking, but at the same time it was pretty cool,” LaRue said. “If you want to make it to the pro level, that’s just what’s going to happen. You’re going to have to learn how to talk on camera, learn how to fish on camera, and not let it aggravate you.”
Vaulton and LaRue were the only team from Tennessee placing in the top 30 in the Nationals. Elijah Kelley and Hunter Sloan of White County finished 31st with a three-day total of 18 pounds, 14 ounces.
What was working?
“I was throwing a big spoon, mostly,” Vaulton said. “That’s what I got all my big bites on, and I was also throwing a drop shot a lot. Those were my two best baits, mostly what I was throwing all day.”
Not so for LaRue.
“I was throwing everything (Vaulton) wasn’t,” LaRue said. “I was throwing a scrounger head (like a crankbait), a Carolina rig, a big worm, a swim bait.”
Winning the Nationals title were Fallon Clepper and Wyatt Ford from Lake Creek/Montgomery, Texas. Their three-day total weighed 39 pounds, 9 ounces. Clepper and Ford’s three-bass limit on Day 1 weighed 18 pounds, 8 ounces.
Only 31 teams qualified for the World Finals on Day 4, which Vaulton and LaRue started with a bang when Vaulton caught a 5 pound, 12 ounce largemouth.
“It was really exciting,” Vaulton said. “We knew we had that one spot (in the World Finals), and the first 15 minutes of the Worlds, the fourth day, I caught that 5-12, the lunker of the day, and I thought we were about to whack ‘em, and we didn’t get another bite for like an hour. We just sat on that spot all day and grinded it out.”
Their three-bass limit for fourth place in the World Finals weighed 10 pounds, nine ounces.
Wes Newman and Kendall Hatch of Virginia won with a three-bass limit weighing 13 pounds, seven ounces.
When the World Finals started, LaRue and Vaulton were gassed.
“The fourth day we were exhausted, but we grinded through it,” Vaulton said. “Also, the fourth day we didn’t move at all either. We never got a break. We just sat there at that one spot the whole time. The fourth day was really exhausting We were ready to sleep in the next day.”
LaRue considered the week as preparation for the future.
“It was just like one of them pro tournaments,” LaRue said. “We figured out if we wanted to go pro, that’s what we’d have to do. It was tiring.”
MORE NATIONAL FINISHES
Several other teams from the 5Star Preps coverage area competed in the MLF High School Nationals at Pickwick.
The combo-school duo of Blake Wheat (Rhea County) and Riley Faulkner (Campbell County) finished 35th with 18 pounds, 3 ounces.
Bryson Dotson and Holden Pistello of Campbell County were 76th (13.04); Matt Popp and Peyton Ferguson of Campbell County were 103rd (10.08); Landon Myers and Hunter Olivet of Alcoa were 112th (9.11) and Austin Gredig and Hunter Stewart of William Blount were 121st (9.03).