Saturday was a day of surprises.
Connor Rushing and Cayden Reily were, first the surprisers, then the suprisees in the “during” and the “after” of this school year’s first qualifying event for the Louisiana High School bass championship.
Fishing from Doiron’s Atchafalaya Spillway launch, the Central High School students, with Connor’s dad, Larry — coach and boat driver — stunned the record field with a five-bass limit weighing 18.51 pounds.
Connor’s 5.76-pounder was the day’s big bass. The catch was more than 4 pounds better than the Live Oak High runners-up Hayden Stanley and Jacob Long, whose five fish weighed 14.19 pounds.
It meant this pair of high-schoolers had posted the top bass-tournament catch since the spring from either (or both) the expansive waters of the Atchafalaya Spillway and the Verret Basin near the Stephensville launch.
For the two young fishermen, the real surprise came later. State B.A.S.S. High School director Eugene Hoover said because the event attracted such a large field — 225 team registered, 219 boats launched — the win meant Rushing and Reily received an automatic berth to the B.A.S.S. High School Nationals next summer on Kentucky Lake.
For Larry Rushing, it was a chance to watch his son’s dream come true. And Reily’s, too.
“The boys have worked very hard in the last year to qualify for the state (tournament), and now to get to the nationals is a big reward,” the elder Rushing said before starting into a play-by-play of the Rushing-Reily win.
There was no way of predicting what would happen on the water. When predawn rains and cold winds push into south Louisiana this time of year, it’s usually a trigger for a solid bass bite. (Later in the season, it will bring the exact opposite reaction from bass.)
Larry Rushing said they started in Bayou Long, then moved into the Bayou Pigeon area. Young anglers aren’t allowed to drive the boat, but can operate trolling motors.
“We didn’t have a fish in the livewell at 10 o’clock,” Larry Rushing said. “Then we found a run-out, and within seven minutes the guys have a limit of weigh fish in the box. And they caught fish for almost an hour, like catching speckled trout in the marsh.”
Following a rule mandating teams take a lunch break, and with an estimated 10-11 pounds in the livewell, Larry Rushing said his son told him they needed to say a prayer.
“He said we needed to thank God for what was given to us on what was a tough day with tough conditions and pray everybody is safe,” Rushing said. “And, we called a timeout. I’m able to coach them during the day and I pointed to a point and told them the fish would be feeding in the current of the water moving around that point.”
The young fishermen worked soft-plastic creature baits on the point and caught a a 3-pounder and another 2-pounder. Two fish broke off before Rushing said his son pointed to a matted-up spot across the canal from the run-out and the point, and Conner said he was sure he could punch into the grass and hyacinth.
“He caught the big fish, the 5.76-pounder on the first punch, then one over 2 pounds on the second, and another near 5 pounds on the next punch,” Larry Rushing said. “Went back to the run-out and caught another 3-pounder, and I guess they had more than 30 (keeper) fish at that point, and then realized what was in the live well, maybe 17-pounds plus and I told them that was unheard of in these conditions. I told them I think you have this one in the bag.”
It wasn’t 1 p.m., and the last three hours, minus the lunch break, was about as fast a bass catchin’ as the Atchafalaya can provide. Larry Rushing said even after making their way back to the landing, there was time for casting into Little Bayou Sorrel across from the launch, and he said the two Central Wildcats caught five more 2-pound bass.
“Back at the landing, I called my wife, Joni, and told her she needed to get her mother and father to come to the landing,” Rushing said, noting his father-in-law Ike Eichelberger is a longtime Spillway fishermen and needed to see their grandson’s stringer.
When all the yelling and screaming was over, those 219 boats, the 438 young anglers from all corners of the state plus the coaches for the two-angler teams — and there were several young women competing — accounted themselves well: 47 of the teams weighed in five-bass limits and 155 teams weighed in at least one fish.
Now, Hoover said, the teams get ready for qualifiers 2 and 3, the first set Feb. 10 on the Calcasieu River near Lake Charles and last qualifier March 25 from Bayou Segnette State Park in Westwego, for spots in the April 27-28 state tournament on Toledo Bend.
A note about this weekend’s duck season: Youth hunters get the first shots for a Saturday-only hunt in the West Zone and Saturday-Sunday chances in the Coastal Zone.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service change this year allowed the state to choose the option of moving decades-old youth-only ages from 15-and-young to 17-and-younger for waterfowl hunting.
And that age change holds for several national wildlife refuges and hunting areas.
Except, the Bayou Sauvage NWR in the southeast, which, though under the USFWS, will retain the 15-and-younger rule. And for all NWRs, hunters need to carry a signed refuge permit.
The Bayou Sauvage rules read, “All waterfowl and coot hunts are considered youth hunts,” and except for the youth-only days, adult hunters, who must accompany youth hunters (up to two youths per day), adults are allowed to hunt until noon (cannot enter the refuge before 4 a.m.) Wednesday, Thursday Saturday and Sunday. And, hunters must remove all decoys and blinds no later than 1 p.m.
Young waterfowl hunters 16 and older must have a basic hunting license, federal and state waterfowl stamps and carry a no-fee HIP certificate. All information on waterfowl hunting, including info on Hunter Education classes, can be found on the state Wildlife and Fisheries website: wlf.louisiana.gov, under “Hunting.”