It would have been difficult for anybody to boat up and down the Ouachita River this past weekend between Felsenthal to the north and Columbia to the south without seeing contestants fishing away in the American Crappie Trail tournament.
The pro anglers are pretty easy to spot in their $70,000+ decked out fishing machines with racks of fancy poles and logos, colorful boat wraps and bright fishing jerseys. But if you saw one local fishing team and didn’t know better, you probably would have thought they were just trying to catch a mess of fish for supper and didn’t even know there was a big crappie shindig going on.
That would have been Patrick Matthews of Junction City and Tim Elrod of West Monroe.
They were fishing out a an aluminum boat with stick steering 15-foot AlumaWeld with a 30 HP Mercury on the back. If you would have seen them “running” down the river, they would have probably been going about 11 miles an hour at top speed.
But trust me. They did know there was an ACT tournament. They were in it.
And by the way, if you need proof, that was also them standing up on the stage at the end of the two-day tournament accepting a check for $2,000 from ACT Tournament Director Matt Morgan for finishing seventh place out of more than 80 teams from around the country. They caught 14 fish weighing 21.51. It was the first pro event the two ever fished together. But it probably won’t be the last.
There’s another storyline here, one beyond trophies, checks, fish or big and shiny boats. It’s about being yourself. Doing the best with what you’ve got and not being intimidated into doing something otherwise. An American Dream kind of storyline, if you will.
“To be honest, I grew up poor. Really poor. We didn’t have the best of everything and when everybody else came along with the new things, the big things, we didn’t get it and it was kind of intimidating,” says Patrick. “I learned quickly that isn’t important. Now I’ve got a big boat with all the gadgets on it, but I’ve got this little stick steering boat, too. When Tim and I started fishing together, we started thinking maybe we couldn’t compete with all these guys. He’s got the same kind of boat.
“But then we realized we can. We said they are just human beings just like both of us. We just need to do what we do best. It’s no knock on them. That’s what they are doing. So we went in the boat that we are comfortable in — the stick steering aluminum with a small motor and a two seater without the bells and whistles. Heck, the boat we fished out of in the tournament has an old Hummingbird on it, but we don’t depend on it. Lucky thing. One time Tim asked me Saturday how deep the water was where we were fishing. I looked at the unit and it said four feet. He stuck the net handle down in the water. It was like a foot and a half before it hit bottom. Then we caught another fish.”
The point is, if you are a good fishermen, don’t be scared of fishing tournaments like this because you don’t have all the fancy stuff, he says. You compensate in other ways like fishing every day you can and doing it the way you feel comfortable. In essence, the boat doesn’t make the fisherman. The fisherman makes the boat.
“We have always fished like this and have been comfortable doing it and this past weekend was not a exception,” he says. “A lot more local fishermen should consider entering these. Sure fish move around a lot, but knowledge of your local waters can help you find them and catch them more than someone who only has four or five days to. Here’s what you do. Go out. Scout. Pre-fish and stick to your plan. I just wish people understood you don’t always have to have the best of everything to catch crappie”.
We’ve got a lot of crappie fishermen in this area that could do just that and probably find themselves standing on stages at events like the ACT collecting checks.
“Tim and I have discussed many times how big these tournaments could grow to be if a lot more of the everyday fisherman would fish them and compete,” Patrick says. “I think the equipment thing keeps them from doing what they want to do.”
And that “stick to the plan” deal? This duo practices what they preach.
They found these good crappie that they caught in the tournament almost a month ago. They agreed to stay off of them and not hit the spot until opening morning of the tournament. They hadn’t seen anybody else fishing there and, with the water almost all run out, they didn’t expect anyone would. But the day before the tournament, Matthews got nervous. He called Tim and asked if maybe he should maybe go check the fish. Just catch one or two to make sure they were still there.
“Stick to the plan,” Elrod said. So he didn’t go.
They pulled up in the spot on opening morning, had it to themselves and the fish were still there. Their crappie intuition — something there isn’t a gadget or an app for — told them they would be. They didn’t catch great numbers during the two days like some anglers who reported 60-80 fish, but they had really good fish. Almost enough to win the whole thing. But since first prize is a big fully rigged $27,000 Ranger boat, what in the world would they have done with it?
Oh, there’s one more thing. While most folks were buzzing about what bait and what area and what technique worked to catch fish, I just had one question: “Patrick, where did you get that red, white and blue Cowboy hat?”
“Ha, you had to ask that,” he said. “I bought it at Walmart right before the Fourth of July. I had it in the back seat of my truck and when we realized we were going to get a check, I got it out. My wife said please don’t wear that hat. I had to. It’s my lucky hat.”
It’s just another subtle statement about being confident in who you are and what you want to do.