BY DAVE LINK
Joe Vaulton and Walker LaRue didn’t win the Tennessee BASS Nation Southeast Region event Dec. 18, but they left Watts Bar Lake with a goal achieved.
Their second-place finish among 87 teams propelled the Alcoa Fishing Team to its first-ever overall team title in a Tennessee BASS Nation or Bass Pro Shops Series event.
“That was our goal at the start of the year, to win the team thing,” said LaRue, a freshman at Alcoa High School. “We were trying to share information with everybody (on the team), how we were catching them and stuff so we could try and win it.”
The Alcoa Fishing Team had five teams competing in the high school division at Watts Bar Lake and had three top-30 finishes.
Vaulton and LaRue’s bag for second place consisted of the five-bass limit weighing a combined 18.58 pounds, behind only twin brothers Dylan and Carter Nutt of Sale Creek Fishing with five bass weighing 19.19 pounds.
Vaulton, a sophomore, also caught the Big Bass of the event, a 6.17-pound largemouth.
Alcoa Fishing’s Jake Lovingood – fishing solo — finished 13th with four bass weighing 7.29 pounds, while Alcoa Fishing’s Jackie Hatfield and Graham Willis overcame boating mechanical issues and placed 29th with two bass weighing 3.25 pounds.
Their winning team weight was 29.12 pounds.
Vaulton and LaRue’s weight (18.58 pounds) was the biggest-ever for an Alcoa Fishing Team.
“We were excited about that,” Vaulton said.
And they were just as excited about the first-place team finish.
“That’s been our goal for a long time and it’s pretty big that we got that,” Vaulton said.
Alcoa Fishing Club’s coach, J.J. LaRue, is Walker’s father and a proponent of the team fishing concept, which isn’t as prevalent in middle school and high school fishing as in college fishing.
“Once you go beyond high school fishing,” J.J. LaRue said, “it’s no longer an individual sport. It’s a team sport.”
At least until professional fishing.
Alcoa Fishing’s winning team weight was about 4 pounds heavier than second-place Sale Creek among the 14 school teams competing.
During tournaments, a fishing duo by rules can communicate with other boats within its team, but only with the boat captain/driver doing the communicating; anglers aren’t allowed to use their cell phones.
“The dads (boat captains) will make a group chat and if one team goes and starts catching them,” Walker LaRue said, “we’ll share that information with the other dads and it will give the anglers the information about how the teammates should start using the lures and the techniques to use so that we could win the team award.”
Vaulton said that’s not always the case in high school fishing.
“We hear a lot of people say that if they did share (information), they’d get top school all the time,” Vaulton said.
Alcoa Fishing Team’s team approach includes fishing with different partners during weekly team tournaments, having team practices prior to events, and sharing detailed information before tournaments.
“The top school is what we’re shooting for,” J.J. LaRue said. “It means the team is doing well, not just individuals.”
CATCHING THEIR LIMIT
LaRue and Vaulton spent a day of practice prior to the event at Watts Bar, where they won Alcoa Fishing’s team event Sept. 11.
When the Dec. 18 event started in morning rain, LaRue and Vaulton – with J.J. LaRue serving as boat captain – returned to some pockets and mud banks they fished during practice.
“It started off pretty slow at the beginning,” Vaulton said, “but Walker caught three back-to-back-to-back, like pretty quick, when we were power-poled down. After that, I caught my 3.7 (pounder), then I went and lost an even bigger one. I lost a giant; I don’t know how big it was.”
Soon, the duo had five keepers and were looking for more weight.
“We knew we had to get a big bite,” LaRue said. “Joe caught one on a rattletrap that was 3.7, so we thought that was a good start to try and get a big bite. Then the next cast, Joe had one on that we think was probably over 5 pounds, and he lost it at the boat.”
For about the next hour, they fished different spots without any luck, then returned where they caught the previous keepers.
“I changed to a different color shad,” LaRue said, “because the water started to muddy up because of rain, so I changed to lavender shad and caught the 4.2 first cast on it.”
LANDING THE BIG BASS
As time for the weigh-in approached, LaRue and Vaulton began heading toward the dock when J.J. LaRue spotted a pocket that looked like it might hold fish.
“Me and Joe didn’t want to fish it,” Walker said. “We only wanted to go to pockets we had luck in, but dad told us to fish it.”
They did, and it paid off.
Vaulton caught the tournament’s Big Bass on a blue and chrome rattletrap.
“The funny thing was, we had casted there almost 10 times,” LaRue said, “and (Vaulton) finally casted there and said, ‘I’ve got one,’ and it started pulling drag, and it was a big one.”
They really didn’t know how big.
“As soon as I set the hook, I knew it was pretty big, but I didn’t know it was that big,” Vaulton said. “When it got to the boat and I could see it and Walker netted it, I could see how big it was. It was surprising. I didn’t think it was that big.”
Their five-fish bag consisted of all largemouth. Vaulton estimated they caught about 30 bass and only about seven or eight reached the 15-inch size limit.
“We caught almost all of our fish on rattletrap,” Vaulton said.
They split the $450 purse for second place and Vaulton won a fishing reel for Big Fish of the tournament. The team got $200 for first place.
The prize money will go back into fishing expenses.
“Sometimes we just put it to our next entry fee for a tournament or we go buy fishing stuff,” Vaulton said.
Although the high school and juniors’ circuits take a break until late February, Vaulton and LaRue will stay busy fishing during the winter months.
So will the Alcoa Fishing Team anglers and those of other area teams.
The Alcoa Fishing Team and the Heritage Fishing Club hosted the inaugural 2021 New Year’s Eve tournament Dec. 31 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Fort Loudon Canal Ramp. It included high school and junior divisions.
J.J. LaRue is also planning a winter series for local high school and junior anglers, while Walker LaRue and Vaulton will head to Florida for a national tournament Jan. 23 with Vaulton’s father, Barry, serving as boat captain.
The next Tennessee BASS Nation Southeast Region event is on Chickamauga Lake.
“Now we’re trying to focus on Chickamauga so we can get in the nationals,” Walker LaRue said. “We’re not far from the top five (needed to reach the nationals). If we can get a solid finish in the next Southeast tournament we can get top five.”
LaRue and Vaulton are 12th in the Southeast Region points standings after three events, while the Nutt twins are in first place.
Chase McCarter and Ty Trentham of Sevier County High School Fishing are tied for seventh with Connor Mason and Archer Reese of the Meigs County Anglers, while Andon Goins and Blake Wheat of the Rhea County Eagle Anglers are tied for 10th.