As we idled out of Lakepoint Resort Marina on Eufaula Lake, I glanced over at the rods strapped down on his front deck. Frogs? Really? It was 2003, my first year fishing the BFL circuit and I was thrilled to have earned a spot fishing on the final day of the regional and a ticket to the All American. I had made the top six in third place using my favorite technique, cranking ledges, and here’s a guy with four frog rods on the deck. I had a good day and finished second. The frog guy and I talked for a while at the weigh-in, his day didn’t go so well, but we chatted briefly and offered each other congratulations for making the All-American.
I saw the frog guy the next spring at a tournament on Center Hill Lake. It was two weeks prior to the All American in Arkansas. I decided to strike up a conversation. He was quiet but cordial. We exchanged phone numbers and agreed to share a little info to try to help each other out for the upcoming All American. This was my first real interaction with someone whom I have come to know and respect as one of the best bass fishermen to ever pick up a rod and reel, Adam Wagner.
Over the next few years, Adam and I became friends. We fished a several tournaments together, and won quite a few. Every time I got in the boat with Adam I was blown away at how natural it was to him. His mechanics were flawless, but he just seemed to understand so well how bass positioned on structure and cover and how to make them bite.
I have been fortunate to have done reasonably well at this game. I’m a thinker. I analyze. I try to control variables. I gather data and draw conclusions. All of this analysis has served me pretty well. Adam is not like me. His fishing is completely intuitive. In his words, “It’s just not that hard. You just throw out there and reel it back in.” He is as smooth as silk with a flippin’ stick. He casts a 1/4 ounce crankbait to tiny targets as effortlessly as I breathe. I’m yanking my plug out of tree limbs; he’s dropping in places I couldn’t dream of. The times I spent in the boat with Adam were fun, but awe-inspiring as well.
In 2004, we fished a BFL regional on Columbus Pool in Mississippi. I finished 9th, Adam won and qualified for his second consecutive All American on the Ohio River. He called me after practice and told me he could win it. He finished second, only because the current was so strong that he had drift backward. His co-anglers got first shot at all of the fish. His co’s finished first and second. On the final day with no co-angler, Adam caught the biggest bag of the tournament. In 2009, after finishing 2nd at the BFL Regional on Lake Wheeler the prior fall, Adam fished in his third All American. After practice, he again told me that he could win. In a nerve-racking event that required multiple locks and less than two hours of fishing time per day, he won the BFL All American on the Mississippi River in Iowa by almost ten pounds.
Between 2009 and 2013, Adam spent a year on the FLW Tour then returned to fishing and dominating local events. He’s won two Weekend Series and eight BFLs in addition to who knows how many team and local events. So, when the 2013 WE Series schedule came out with the $100,000 national championship set for Old Hickory Lake, Adam was my (and a lot of other people’s) first pick as the guy to beat. Assuming both of us could qualify, I was going to do my best to win, but knowing how Old Hickory fishes in the fall and Adam’s uncanny ability to catch them in tough tournaments, I felt confident that the winner would have to go through Adam Wagner to get that trophy.
Practice started on Sunday and I had a good day on the lake. I was fortunate to pretty quickly figure out a pattern that produced consistent keeper bites. While running that pattern, I ran into Adam, doing the same thing. He said that he had already caught about 18 pounds and was trying to stay off of his good stuff. I knew at that moment that the rest of us were probably fishing for second. The next two days of practice, I continued to find some fish, but he found them better. When the first day of the event rolled around, I felt good about what I had found, but also knew that beating Adam at his own game was going to be like trying to beat LeBron in a dunk contest.
After two days, my friend had a seven pound lead on the second place angler and he had dropped 32 pounds of bass on the scales. Day three was a reality check for all of us. A two and a half hour fog delay gave way to post-frontal high pressure, no wind, and cold temperatures. Most of the field struggled mightily. Adam boated only four keepers, but three of them came on an instinctive move in the last hour. I fell to 21st place with only two fish. Adam started day four with a six pound lead. I figured if he could catch eight pounds, nobody would touch him. After catching his limit, Adam saw his 19 year old co-angler struggling with only one fish. Adam gave the co-angler his rod, with the lure he had caught all of his fish on. The young man caught a three pounder on his second cast with Adam’s lure. I like to think of myself as a nice person, but I don’t know that I could have shown that kind of class.
When we arrived back at the check-in, I didn’t know what Adam had, but I could tell he wasn’t confident about the win. When the second place angler, Marshall Thompson, dropped a 14 pound limit on the scales, Adam’s heart sank. He didn’t think he had enough. I watched him walk on stage, the last man to weigh-in, needing almost nine pounds to win. He looked tired. He looked beaten. He didn’t have it. I could feel the pain of having lead this event wire-to-wire only to have $150,000 and Classic birth slip away by ounces. The tournament director announced that Adam had to have more than 8.57 to win. He shook his head.
I can only imagine the emotion and the “what ifs?” that were flashing through his head. What if he hadn’t given his co-angler that rod? What if he hadn’t laid off of them on day one?
The scale locked on 9.10. The “what ifs?” melted. It was over. He had done it. The anxiety on his face was replaced with tears of joy. Without even realizing it, I was standing, yelling at the top of my lungs, and pumping my fists. His dream was going to be a reality. Adam was bound for the Bassmaster’s Classic.
The tournament fishing game is funny to sit back and watch. There are so many “pros” with logo-filled jerseys and sticker-covered trucks talking the talk. Adam rarely says a word, he just walks the walk. He lets the final numbers do their talking. While us wannabe pros brag about our latest technology and secret techniques, Adam just picks up a flippin’ stick and a $5 crankbait and beats us all. He’s a no-frill, fish-catching machine. He is simply a natural.
Until next time,
Keep chunkin and windin,
BoatUS Angler Prostaff