It’s lucky I was just a “kid” myself when the North Louisiana High School Bass Tournament got started on Lake D’Arbonne.
I was a 23 – year old sports and outdoor writer for the Monroe paper, a year removed from senior journalism classes at NLU, when I came up with the idea of a high school fishing tournament late one Friday after a hectic high school football night. If I would have been older and had more sense, this thing would never have happened. And thank goodness I didn’t even know what a lawyer or “legal ramifications” were in those days.
Bass fishing was fast becoming the rage in our area, and tournaments were becoming one of the most popular events. The Ouachita Bass Club had formed and was the first official bass club organized in the state of Louisiana. I had fished in my first Bussey Brake Bass Club tournament with the late Speedy Goodnight and I loved fishing. Several of us were talking about fishing that midnight when a sports story came across the AP wire about the formation of the new World Football League (WFL – laugh if you are old enough to remember….)
Mike Richey was the sports editor and we were joking about what would come next. Out of the blue, I said, “well, I guess the next thing we will have is high school bass fishing tournaments”. We all had a good laugh, but the idea didn’t go away.
I talked to some coaches and fishermen and before you know it, the next spring we were standing on the banks of Lake D’Arbonne ready to go. In today’s writeup, I have to share some of the more exciting experiences of those days.
* * Year One: 1975. There were 160 high school fishermen lined up around the floating dock and up and down the bank around Jake’s Boat Dock (where the D’Arbonne Motel is today). It was getting close to daylight and we had checked in most of the fishermen. I was talking on the bullhorn to tell them we would be easing off the bank, one at a time, in just a few minutes. The local Ruston bass club was also having a tournament and they were lined up on the bank not far from me. A minute later, one of Ruston Clubbers stood up, yelled “LET”S GO” and well, all you know what broke loose. Everybody did go. All at once. Boats of every size and shape started heading off in every direction – the Ruston Club and the high schoolers. I was helpless standing there on the bank with my little megaphone. Stop. Come Back. Wait. Nope. I never found out who yelled that. I don’t want to know now, either. But man, what a blast-off.
In future years, we lined up in the inlet on the west side of the bridge and each boat had to idle out past State Police and Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries boats with their flashing lights. I think the Ruston bass club avoided spring tournaments on D’Arbonne for a few years, too.
* * I am probably remiss in just naming one person who helped with the tournament more than anybody
else, but I will anyway. The late J.D. “Buddy” McKeithen volunteered with the tournament almost every year. He helped us take a step up for the kids when he got one of his sponsors, Jim Bagley, involved. For years, Bagley sent every fisherman in the tournament a Balsa B crankbait and a big orange Bagley cap. Buddy also became a dear friend and never got enough credit for what he did for the tournament. Thanks, Buddy.
* * “Mr. Kinny, they’re sinking”. We had been having the tournament for 4 or 5 years when right after the takeoff, someone came running and told me “they’re boat is sinking”. I started to head for my boat to go help when I asked them where? “Right over here on the bank”, the young fisherman said. To my relief, the two young anglers had launched their boat in without the plug, pulled it up to the bank and it sank. The nose and the trolling motor were still sticking up.” Whew. Come to think of it, stories like these past two are probably why I don’t have much hair any more….
* * To say the young fishermen over the years were excited would be an understatement. Some came and slept in tents at the marina the night before the tournament. Some slept in their cars. Some did not sleep. My dad always pulled his camper over to the lake and I spent the night there. I know about the ones that didn’t sleep, believe me.
But one of my favorite stories about the excited ones were two boys from Rayville who entered the tournament. They drove over and were a bit late getting to the lake. They had never even been to Lake D’Arbonne before. They were standing on the shore with their fishing gear and I asked them what was going on.
“Do you know if they rent boats anywhere around here”, one of them asked. Nope. They fished off the bank for a while and I didn’t ever see them again. I’ve heard of “up the creek without a paddle”, but never “in a tournament without a boat”.
* * I don’t have complete records for the tournament, but there was one back-to-back winner. Lance Jackson of West Monroe won the event in 1984 and 1985. His catch of 16.84 pounds in 1984 was the largest stringer ever. Prizes got a whole lot better as the years went on, too. Jackson won a TideCraft aluminum boat and trailer as top prize. David Crain of Calhoun was second in that tournament and won a “Bass Hunter” two-man boat. I heard from him recently and he still has the boat! He also caught big bass in that tournament at 4.09 pounds.
Over the years, I’ve run into a lot of the former fishermen. Looking at the top finishers for 1984, I noticed that Matt Ludwig of Farmerville finished seventh. Ludwig is now part owner of Ludwig Marine on Lake D’Arbonne. Some have gone on to be college football players, doctors, lawyers, coaches and some were the most successful fishermen of their generation. Schools represented in just that tournament included West Monroe, Calhoun, Farmerville, Ouachita Christian, Minden, Ouachita, Bastrop, Ruston, Crowville, Vandebilt, Alexandria Sr. High, Downsville, St. Frederick, Ridgedale, Prairie View and Cedar Creek.
* * The high school bass tournament was a low-budget operation with the little money we got from small entry fees all going back into the event. We got sponsors to donate most of the prizes and took the money we got in entry fees and bought trophies. My mom was secretary at Bastrop High and she typed up and ran off copies of the entry blanks the first few years (for you young whippersnappers, a “typewriter” is an old piece of equipment resembling a computer with a built in printer. At one point, you didn’t even have to plug one in. I guess it was the first wireless device.). After we got going pretty good, the newspaper picked up all of the expenses and actually became sponsor of the event.
I got three things out of the deal: 1) Off from work on Friday night (although I did have to go in and report on the event Saturday evening) 2) The chance to fish a little bit myself on Saturday. Those of us volunteering usually had a little fishing tournament until about noon. 3) The enjoyment of seeing a whole bunch of young fishermen out there having a good time and doing something they could enjoy the rest of their lives — fishing. Actually, make that four. 4) Looking back at all the photos, writeups and talking to some of the “kids” that fished in it has been a great pleasure.