Chris Chavez and Ethan Howard will catch largemouth bass when you don’t.
There is a certain amount of luck involved in fishing, but when Chavez, a junior at Clayton High, and Howard, a sophomore at Wilson Hunt, go fishing they have more than luck on their side.
They are the 2014 North Carolina high school bass fishing champions and will join 95 other qualifying teams at the inaugural Bassmaster High School National Championship on July 16-19 at Kentucky Lake and Carroll County Reservoir in Tennessee.
They won the state title by consistently catching fish in the high school tour’s four tournaments despite rough conditions.
“It was about 28 degrees when we started in three of the four tournaments,” Chavez said.
They won the first tournament when they caught and released 12 pounds of bass at Kerr Lake and were seventh with about 7 pounds at Lake Norman.
They won again with 8 pounds at the Shearon Harris Lake event, even though they couldn’t weigh any fish between 16 and 20 inches. They clinched the title with a second-place finish on a cold and windy day of fishing at Badin Lake near Charlotte with one fish weighing 6 pounds.
“We were about the only ones to catch anything that day,” Chavez said.
The boys met through fishing. Howard was in an adult fishing club when he heard about Clayton High having a team. He asked about joining and was welcomed like a good bite on a slow day.
He happened to get paired with Chavez and things seemed to click. They say they don’t know why it works other than they have complementary fishing tactics.
Chavez’s favorite lure is a plastic worm. Howard prefers a jig. Two styles doubles the chances of finding out where the fish are and what the fish will bite on that day at that moment, or as Howard phrases it, “Hearing what the fish are saying to you.”
But their partnership is much more than that.
Howard is the chattier of the two. He talks almost nonstop, sort of like he fishes. He’ll make four casts and retrievals in a minute. He can pull in a spinner bait or jig, clean it and flip it back out quicker than most folks can wind in.
Chavez is just as friendly but a little bit closer to the vest. He slow fishes his worms, casting, twitching, resting, slowly moving the bait. If a fish bites, he pauses to allow the bait to go deeper in the fish’s mouth before jerking the rod to set the hook.
He has hundreds if not thousands of plastic worms in an assortment of colors unrivaled by a rainbow. Different colors work better on different days. Some are flashy. Some have tails that twist through the water. Many are multi-hued.
Picking the right color and right style lure for the conditions is key, but knowing where to fish is as important.
They study fish just like they study their school work.
“If we go to a tournament we’ll spend a couple of days studying the lake before we go,” Howard said. “Hopefully, we can get in a practice day and find out what the fish are doing. We’re going to do our homework before we get there.”
And they have great recall about former successes.
They don’t regularly fish Lake Wheeler in Raleigh, but last week they pointed to a particular rock, bush or fallen tree and remembered what size fish was caught there and the probable bait.
The boys have fished enough that they can make all the casts and presentations, bouncing lures along the water to get underneath a dock or low-hanging bush, flipping underhanded or making long pinpoint casts to the perfect spot beside a log.
A mental edge
Lots of people can make the throws.
Their edge may be mental.
Most of their tournaments begin at sunrise and end eight hours later. It is hard to keep your focus, keep your optimism, for an eight-hour stretch, but they do.
“It is a lot mental,” Chavez said. “You’ve got to concentrate on what you’re doing. You’ve got to keep after it. You need to be focused.”
Howard said they are always thinking about what adjustments are needed. A spinner bait that had been the lure du jour at Kerr Lake a few days before the trip to Lake Wheeler attracted nothing and was set aside.
“Some folks fish one way and if the fish are biting that then they are going to catch fish,” Howard said. “But we make adjustments all the time until we find what is working.”
The answer to why they love bass fishing is as elusive as the fish. They have no idea why bass fishing is more attractive to them than, say, fishing for bream with a fly rod.
Howard said he loves the challenge, the feeling of accomplishment he gets when he catches a big bass.
He has caught a couple of 10-pounders, both released, and Chavez has pulled in a 9-pounder, also returned to the water. But it is not size alone that pulls them to the bass boat. They get almost as much joy from a 5-pounder as a 7-pounder.
The upcoming high school national championship has college scholarships among the prizes, and they like some of the perks that have come their way – like Howard’s all-expense paid trip for a week of fishing after winning the 2012 state high school title – but they don’t really expect to cash in on their love of fishing.
Going fishing, they said, is its own reward.