When the splashing ended, drags stopped screaming and howling wind finally subsided, Ryan Lambert’s name stood alone atop the leader board at the Hobie Bass Open Series (B.O.S.) Tournament of Champions (T.O.C.) sponsored by Power-Pole. Held last weekend on the famed Tennessee River System bass waters that slice through the heart of Knoxville and hosted the 2019 49th Annual Bassmaster’s Classic, the contest featured an elite field of 50 kayak bass fishing sharpies who qualified for their limited slots based on performance during nine B.O.S. series events spread across the country, plus a one-day Shootout held in Knoxville, on Friday.
Simply put, the 34-year old Lambert, from Chattanooga, Tennessee, showed the world how to get ‘er done on his home waters. Dusting the field by nearly 11 inches with a tally of 186.25” for the two-day event, he finished ahead of fellow local angler Jordan Marshall (175.50”), and Kristine Fischer (172”), as the Tennesseans swept the top three spots in what is arguably the most prestigious of kayak bass fishing championships.
“This really was an amazing event, and a terrific way to wrap up our B.O.S. season,” said tournament director, A.J. McWhorter. “When you put the best anglers in our series together, it can be anybody's game – and there were a lot of folks who had a reasonable chance of claiming this crown. In the end, the top spots went to local anglers who were familiar with the waters and best able to adapt to the changing conditions. No matter where you go this time of year, Nature can play rough and our competitors got a full dose of her fury with cool temperatures and heavy fog on Saturday morning, strong currents on both days, and a heavy storm with 60 m.p.h. wind gusts that blew through around lunchtime on Sunday. Through it all, Ryan Lambert was the only one who managed to sustain super-high catch levels across both days and that’s why he’s our champion. He earned it with an amazing performance.”
For his efforts, Lambert collected a $30,000 first-place check while Marshall pocketed $8,000 and Fischer took home $5,500. In total, the tournament paid out a whopping $61,000 to the top ten finishers, plus an additional $1,000 to Cole Kleffman, who edged out Lambert by a quarter-inch for Bassin’ Magazine Big Bass honors with a 20.75” brute. All told, competitors caught, measured and released 437 fish, a mix of smallmouths and largemouths, with the bronzebacks dominating the money spots. In addition to his substantial cash prize, Lambert also qualified for the Hobie Worlds 10 and the 2021 T.O.C. Fischer, it should be noted, finished higher than has any other female competitor in a kayak fishing national championship event.
“I love river fishing for smallmouths and these waters are local for me, so I felt pretty good heading into this tournament,” said Lambert. “Still, to win it all? I just couldn’t imagine that. I’ve had several second- and third-place finishes at national events, but I’ve been lacking that signature win on the big stage. For it to come at the Holy Grail of kayak bass fishing, well, that’s hard to believe. If I were going to pick one kayak event to win, this would be it. The competition here is the best you’ll find anywhere, and this tournament is so well run, so respected. I’ve got to tell you, it feels really good!”
For Lambert, the T.O.C. was perfectly timed. While he didn’t have a national title to his credit, he was coming off a solid season, qualifying for the championship back in March at the Lake Norman B.O.S. event in Mooresville, North Carolina. He competed in a total of four B.O.S. events during the year and captured the Kayak Anglers Society of Tennessee (KAST) State Championship in mid-October on the same Knoxville waters where he would claim his Hobie Crown.
“That KAST competition was the key for me,” revealed Lambert. “It was there I found a productive area where some big bass seemed to pile up. Honestly, it was an unassuming stretch of the French Broad riverbank that featured some flooded timber in the water and a rock pile with grass on it a little further down. I figured if they could just hang tight until the T.O.C. I’d be in good shape. Luckily, they did.”
Arriving at his launch site on Day 1, Lambert found nearly a dozen kayaks ready to head out so he opted to put in at another site five miles upstream and paddle back to his hot spot in hopes of keeping it quiet. He didn’t catch a fish until about 11 a.m., but then culled a 95” limit in a 45-minute span using a Z-Man SlingbladeZ™ spinnerbait and a Z-Man Ned rig.
“It was a pretty strong bite once it got started and I finished in the top spot for Day 1,” revealed Lambert. “I knew then that if I could buy five bites on Day 2, I’d be in the running. I got six, but I had to work a lot slower to earn each strike. I had to sit on those fish all day long with a Ned rig to post 91.25” of bass. Fortunately, that was enough!” said the winner, who acknowledged having tears of relief in his eyes upon claiming his fifth and final fish of the tournament.
Marshall, 25, from Maryville, Tennessee, spent his time covering as much water as possible while targeting smallmouth bass with homemade custom spinnerbaits on the Holston River. He found himself in fourth place at the end of Day 1 with 91” of bass and followed that up with a Day 2 total of 84.5”, good for second behind Lambert.
“I was throwing the same pattern that helped me cash a check at the T.O.C. last year,” he said. “It’s a half-ounce, natural shad color presentation with double willow blades. I’d say it’s accounted for 80% of my fish in the last two Hobie B.O.S. championships. I was looking for banks that had a lot of current, and outside bends and little shoots. The rocks in these river situations make small eddies and a little bit of slack water where big smallmouths like to hide.”
Conditions were tough, noted Marshall, especially on Sunday when the storm rolled through the region. “That was probably the strongest wind I’ve ever fished through,” he stated. “Overall, I’m quite happy with my performance, but I’ve got to tip my hat to Ryan. I’d have paid him to fish the stretch he chose. I know these waters well and I didn’t think that area would hold enough big bass to put him over the top. Heck of a job.”
Fischer pinned her hopes on patterning smallmouths along cut banks and shoreline indentations that featured some slack water. It took her until 10:30 a.m. to find her first fish as the fog lifted on Day 1 to reveal a flat at the tip of an island where the French Broad splits. “There was a large area of slack water there,” she said, “and I was able to align my Hobie with a blowdown and work a solid school of bass by fan-casting the flats. I’d drilled eight or nine fish there on an underspin before deciding to save the spot for Day 2. At the end of Day 1, I was in second place with 94” of bass, just an inch behind Ryan. That left me with some exciting prospects.”
Returning to the same area for the second day of the tournament, Fischer found the bite had slowed and resorted to a shaky head presentation. By 12:30 p.m. she had dug up four fish. “Getting that fifth one was tough,” she admitted, “especially once the weather changed for the worse. I really needed the sun to make that flat bite work. With about an hour to go, I finally filled my limit with an 18.75” smallmouth that inhaled a Z-Man Shaky HeadZ® with a Turbo CrawZ™ trailer. Unfortunately, my fish ran a bit smaller than the day before, and I could only work my way up to ninth place for Day 2, which left me in third overall.”
Like Marshall, Fischer offered props to Lambert’s achievement. “I dropped a big fish late in the tournament,” she recalled. “But even with that one, I didn’t have the bites to beat him. Ryan really brought his A-game and had a stellar performance. It was a very well-deserved win.”
Both Marshall and Fischer noted that their Hobie Mirage 360 Pro Angler 14 kayaks with Kick Up Fins proved a big help in attaining and holding superior casting positions during the tournament, especially as the winds increased on Sunday. “The way that wind was blowing on Sunday, I couldn’t imagine finishing in the top three with any other kayak,” said Marshall.” There were times I was drifting at six or seven m.p.h. but with the balance, strength and MirageDrive on my Hobie, I could back-up and tuck into the spots I needed to reach, line up my casts, and hold my position to make a solid presentation.”
“My Hobie was a huge advantage in this contest,” added Fischer. “Its maneuverability is the best on the market. It allowed me to cut through current seams and hold steady in ways no other kayak can do. It really put me in a great position to maximize my fishing and casting skills.”
While all fifty anglers were battling for the T.O.C. championship title, at least a dozen more were seriously in the hunt for Hobie’s Angler of the Year (A.O.Y.) honors. Heading into the contest, A.O.Y. point leaders Jody Queen and Rus Snyders were in control of their own destinies, a top-three finish virtually assuring victory for either competitor. But it was Drew Gregory, from Ohio, who clawed his way from the third position to overtake the leaders and secure the title. Ron Champion of Georgia took second while Marshall grabbed the third spot to cap a great day. This year’s A.O.Y. first-place prize package included $5,000 cash and a fully rigged, custom-colored, orange and black B.O.S. camo Hobie Mirage 360 Pro Angler 14 outfitted with a Power Pole, Lowrance Unit on a Scotty base, and Dakota Lithium batteries. In addition to cash and prize packages, the top three A.O.Y. winners also received invitations to the Hobie Worlds 10.
For McWhorter, the end of Hobie’s tournament season brings some relief, but plans for the 2021 Hobie B.O.S. sponsored by Power-Pole are already well underway. “After a season full of challenges that still showed record growth for our series, I just want to thank all of our anglers for their continued support, willingness to travel, and everything they do to make this tourney trail so awesome. We wouldn’t be able to do it without you. Our competitors are the stars of this show, and we can’t wait to showcase even more of you next year.”
As for the city of Knoxville, McWhorter offered plenty of praise. “What an amazing time of year to be here,” he concluded. “To witness the leaves changing and the morning sun rising above these bass-filled waters and the Great Smokey Mountains has been magnificent. This was a spectacular venue for a terrific tournament, and this city has been so friendly and helpful. I’d highly recommend you find some time to visit Knoxville when you can. There’s a great mix of city and outdoors life to experience here. We’ll certainly be coming back.”
For more information on the Hobie B.O.S. Anchored by Power-Pole, or to view the final T.O.C. standings, go to: https://tourneyx.com/app/tourney/hobie-bos-tournament-of-champions.