2017 Tournament of Champions at Lake Fork – Preview

As the temperatures turn cooler and the leaves begin to reveal their fall colors, the time is at hand for many of the nation’s top tournament kayak anglers to descend on legendary Lake Fork for the Yak4It Tournament of Champions (TOC) presented by Mariner Sails. This invitation-only event pits the best kayak anglers from various qualifying groups around the country. Year five of the TOC will potentially be its biggest and most competitive event – and as always requiring the biggest keeper size in tournament kayak fishing at 14” long.

Competition will begin on Friday, November 3, for anglers who are trying to fish their way in to the exclusive Main Event that weekend. Because the TOC is not open to the public for entry, this is a last chance to earn the right to compete for the big prize over the weekend. This will be my third year pre-qualified for the Main Event through AKA/NSKA, and I’m glad I don’t have the pressure that’s on these anglers to make it happen in the one day qualifier. Those who are not pre-qualified and want to give it a go, check out the Open sign up page on iAnglerTournament.com.

The weekend of November 4/5 brings the Main Event which is for all the marbles and the bragging rights. In 2015 and 2016, there was a total payout in cash and prizes of more than $23,000 – meaning lots of cash and prizes to be claimed by successful anglers. A similar prize pool should be available in 2017 and will be a career highlight for the winner. Anglers already qualified for the Main Event should register at iAnglerTournament.com prior to the event date and will need to attend the captain’s meeting on Friday night at 7:00 p.m.

There will be several changes this year to the event based on angler feedback to make it smoother and a better angler experience. The biggest change is moving the scoring over to the iAnglerTournament app allowing for mobile photo submissions, live leaderboard, and speeding up the flow of weigh-in. Some other notable changes are the extended off-limits period, opening the lake to any public launch site, and there will be a change to the identifier process to simplify the photo taking process. More details about the event itself will be made in coming weeks. Follow the news at the TOC Facebook page.

What Makes TOC Special?

For me, it is because it is different than any other event I fish all year long. For a more big-picture perspective, I asked the tournament director, Cody Prather. “The Yak4it Tournament of Champions is a special tournament that has grown through the commitment of anglers from across the country into one of the highest level events that kayak bass fishing has ever seen,” he explains. “I consider this a very organic tournament because no one person has made it one of the best events we have. It has been cultivated, embraced, and influenced by every angler from every region coming out to help it grow. It is a meeting place for anglers to see old friends, make new friends, and share a passion for a sport we a love. The Tournament of Champions really stands out because it is not always easy to earn a spot, and there is a lot of prestige in that invitation.”

What Will It Take To Win?

In short, maybe a little or maybe a lot will take home the main prize. Both have been true in past events. One of the things that make this tournament difficult is the requirement for a 14” keeper, which is generally larger than most kayak circuits. The TOC in 2015 only 43 of the 91 entrants (47%) even recorded a keeper, and only three anglers (3%) turned in a limit. Clinton Holstein took first place with 90.75” in this one-day tournament. Fish were more cooperative in the 2016 two day event. On day one, 84 of the 122 (69%) recorded keeper and 13 anglers (11%) turned in a limit. On day two it got tougher, with only 40% turning in keepers and 3% with a limit. Only four anglers had a limit on both days. Aaron Spry took the top spot with 91” on day one and 89” on day two totaling 180” for the weekend.

What about big bass? Yes, Fork has them. Last year the largest bass turned in was a 25.50” behemoth and there were 35 bass 20” or larger turned in.

Cody Prather, tournament director, believes this could be a breakthrough year. “Lake Fork is historically known as one of the best big bass lakes in the world, and there have been a lot of big fish caught during the Tournament of Champions,” said Prather. “In the past, it has been hard for anglers to break that 90 inch mark during the tournament because we have never hit the perfect conditions. I think this year we have the potential for it to take a two day total of over 200 inches, but I bet it takes at least 194 inches to win. Look out for a big bass to push 26 inches to take the Big Bass prize.”

About Lake Fork

Pedal drives beware what lurks beneath the water at Lake Fork. Photo credit: Lake Fork Resort

This will only be my third trip to Lake Fork, so I in no way have it figured out. It’s a big lake in a kayak, with many creek arms feeding an always windy main lake area. With more than 80% of the original timber still standing in the lake from when it was flooded and stocked in its first few years with more than 735,000 fish, it makes a fantastic fishing habitat and is known for growing giant double-digit bass. Talking with successful anglers from previous years, there doesn’t seem to be a reliable spot or pattern to depend on, it will be important to figure out the conditions during tournament week in order to find the fish. Weather conditions have made fishing difficult during the last two trips with a severe cold front in 2015 and post-front bluebird skies in 2016. Owners of pedal-powered kayaks beware – last year many Hobie drives (and a few PDL prop blades) were wrecked by the underwater stumps and trees. The tournament home base is the Lake Fork Marina & Motel, which is a nice little fishing haven – read my review from last year.

A Brief History of the TOC

2016 Yak4It Tournament of Champions winner Aaron Spry.

One of kayak bass fishing’s premier events sprung from humble beginnings. The Professional Kayak Anglers Association (PKAA) with Rob McFarren began the event in 2013 as the “PKAA True Tournament of Champtions” which included 22 anglers from the area. The next year, Beau Reed and Capital City Kayak Fishing (CCKF) took over the TOC and made some key changes, creating the “Tournament of Champions” and making it an invitation-only style event. This is where the TOC took off and gained in participation – bringing together elite kayak anglers and had 52 anglers in 2014, and showed even more growth in 2015 with 91 entrants. Beau Reed passed it to current tournament director Cody Prather for the 2016 event, which grew to a field of 122 top kayak fishermen.

What is in store for 2017 and what will the field look like?

Unfortunately KBF also has a competing event scheduled on the same weekend at Toledo Bend, which could draw some anglers away from TOC. Cody Prather believes TOC will see similar participation levels thanks to many who have committed to return and due to some new club affiliations and promotional partners. “It is much more difficult to earn an invitation to the TOC than it is to qualify for the KBF National Championship,” Prather explains. “I personally consider the TOC to be the true National Championship event in the country because it truly represents the top anglers in the country.”

I as a participant also agree that TOC has an important place in the kayak fishing landscape and I’m pleased to have earned the right to fish both in the TOC  at Lake Fork in November and in the KBF National Championship next March at Kentucky Lake. This year I’ve fished four KBF in-person events and 14 online KBF challenges and really enjoy the KBF events. Hopefully both the TOC and KBF can continue to thrive many years into the future.

What Will Happen

Who knows which angler will win, or if they will be peddle or paddle, or if many limits will be caught? I do know a few things will happen at TOC:
• There will be many, many slices of pie eaten at Tiffany’s restaurant
• Someone will be stock-blocking the shelves at the tackle shops
• Many Hobie drives will lose a battle with a tough Texas tree
• Big ones will be caught, and some will get away
• Anglers will greet, meet and compete at a world-class event

Watch for post-event coverage after the TOC on kayakfishingfocus.com