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Tagging Along with Sprague in Kentucky

Tagging Along with Sprague in Kentucky

Through the first four events of the 2016 Walmart FLW Tour season, Jeff Sprague finished inside the top 20 every time and challenged for the win at Beaver Lake. After stop No. 4 on Pickwick, Sprague took over the lead in the Angler of the Year race. This is the story of his first tournament as the AOY leader – stop No. 5 on Kentucky Lake. Currently, Sprague is preparing for the finale on Lake Champlain. He’s in second place in the AOY standings.

Friday, June 3 – Arrival

It’s Friday, and Sprague is driving north from Texas through the rain, talking on the phone with Matt Arey and making plans to share a hotel room and do some fishing before his duties start for the week.

After checking in, the rain arrives. Nonetheless, the pair still saddles up in Sprague’s truck with a handful of rods and heads to the Tennessee River below Kentucky Dam to look for a bite or two.

It doesn’t take long. After agreeing on the standard first/most/biggest bet, Sprague hooks up with a little smallmouth on about his second cast.

By 7:30, without a whole lot of catching and plenty of rain, Sprague and Arey are ready to call it quits. Fishing for three hours in the rain without much expectation of success isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but for a pro ready for anything but the open road, the only things that can pull Sprague off are hunger pangs and increasing darkness.


 

Saturday, June 4 – Preparation

Sprague hits the gym on Saturday morning before checking out of his one-night hotel. His next stop is Walmart Pro Day in Murray, Ky. Pro Day is a standard piece of the puzzle for many pros affiliated with FLW sponsors, as Sprague is with Keystone Light. It’s not particularly glamorous, simply a few hours meeting and greeting in a local Walmart to promote the upcoming tournament and represent their sponsors.

Though a few fishing fans find their way into Walmart today, the highlight, as it usually is, is the kids, who are happy to have a sticker and a signed trading card without knowing a thing about the jersey-clad pro angler giving it to them.

After Walmart, it’s time to head back to base and get ready for the week. For years now, Sprague has roomed with Jason Reyes on the road, and this time, he and Reyes are sharing a cottage at the Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park with fellow Tour pro and Texan Gene Eisenmann.

“I met Jason when I was a co-angler in my second Tour tournament, so I guess it’s been six years now,” says Sprague. “You get in the boat with a lot of guys, and some guys are cool and you’re friends with them, and sometimes you come across people in your life that, man, you’ve got it with them. From the first day that we climbed in the boat together it was pretty crazy.

“I didn’t know a single person when I came fishing on the Tour, and shortly after that I started rooming with him. Our relationship has gone from everything from personal friendship to families to even a business relationship. Without him, a lot of this wouldn’t be possible. He’s taken me under his wing and showed me a lot of things you have to learn to survive out here at this level.

“There was a reason that I was put in his boat. The man upstairs had a greater plan. Honestly. That’s the way I look at it. It’s just been an awesome friendship, a friendship that if a guy comes across once in his life he’s lucky.”

Just as Sprague is quick to praise his travel partner, Reyes is quick to praise Sprague. While rigging tackle around Sprague’s boat, you can hear the conviction in Reyes’ voice when he speaks of his confidence in the budding superstar, a standout that, from the sounds of it, he spotted a long time before everyone else did.

“Fishing with Jeff has really helped me. I used to be out here traveling with a guy who was here because he had the money, but he didn’t have the knowledge or the skills,” says Reyes. “Not that you’re counting on your roommate to find your fish, but he’s out there pushing with you, and a lot of times it’s about eliminating something, not finding something.

“We went to Pickwick, and he let me know that it wasn’t happening out [offshore]. When you put two heads together, it can work. And it’s working good. He’s clicking; you’ve seen it. All you can do is get behind that.”

Back in Texas, Reyes runs a company that distributes non-food items, particularly seasonal and licensed goods, to grocery stores.

“We work together too,” says Reyes. “He runs a division for me at work, so I see the work ethic there and on the water. We’re on a working relationship outside of fishing as well as once we get here [to the tournament]. Usually when you partner up you know the person, and it can go 100 different ways the wrong way, but you can build towers as well.

“His fishing schedule is trying at times for work, but he’s got a brother that steps in and can cover. When Jeff’s gone on the Tour or fishing or at a Keystone event, he can cover. His brother is a great dude. He’s a fisherman, but he doesn’t want it like this. He doesn’t want to leave Dallas. Which is fine. Not everyone wants to be a pro.”

Of course, Reyes seems to know that sometime in the future, Sprague will put down everything else and make his living in fishing full-time.

“We’re planning. His brother can step in. I’m not ever going to hold him back. If his fishing career goes he can tell me, ‘Hey, I gotta run this,’ and we’ll figure it out,” says Reyes. “But again, he’s not the type of guy who would just leave it without having something in place. It works because we have that up front. We’ve already had those talks before he ever fished the pro side. I knew he was going to do well, so we went ahead and had the talk.”

After re-spooling a half-dozen rods, borrowing a big spoon from Reyes and tying up plenty of ledge-fishing gear, Sprague heads for dinner with the crew and then to bed before the first day of practice starts.


 

Sunday, June 5 – Day one of practice

The first day of practice dawns cool and relatively calm – a nice start on a lake that is usually either blistering hot or windy and rough in the summer. After a stop for a couple of sandwiches and a bag of ice at a gas station, Sprague slips the boat in at Jonathan Creek intent on putting in more than 12 hours of idling with just a tick of fishing. For a ledge tournament on Kentucky Lake, having lots of schools located is the name of the game.

“I’m gonna run a few old holes to look at how they’re set up and then adjust from there,” says Sprague. “The water temp is 77, but I know it hasn’t been there long.”

Sprague rolls out to the main lake and quickly strikes gold on his second dot (waypoint) of the day. The fish are stacked and “worming” up and down on his sonar. A few casts with a Strike King 6XD produce a 4-pounder and plenty of incentive to move on before someone else spots him. After marking a waypoint reading “LOAD 2016,” the Texas pro cranks up and moves from the secondary ledge he started on out to the river channel.

Though he grumbles a bit about having other anglers in the way of his idling, the hours of graphing nonetheless provide plenty of time to talk. Keeping a hand on the wheel and an eye on the Lowrance isn’t something that requires 110 percent focus.

“You’ll hear me harp on how important Reyes is, and he didn’t give me anything … Oh, that’s pretty right there; that’s a big ol’ school, too … But, I wouldn’t be living my dream right now without him letting me tag along,” Sprague says.

Pretty quickly, it becomes evident that Sprague is very handy with his Lowrance StructureScan and DownScan. He’s quickly able to ID just about everything except perhaps the difference between largemouths and catfish.

“I’ve been doing this since I could afford StructureScan,” says Sprague. “I used to waste so many hours idling around not knowing what I was looking at. What I learned was great for guiding, but figuring out the tournament game is different.”

As the morning wears on, Sprague continues to find fish – good fish – on a little less than one-third of his waypoints, but they’re spread all over the lake, from 100 yards off the bank to the main drag. In other words, a pattern hasn’t developed.

Unfortunately, what does develop is a steering issue. For some reason, there’s a leak or something in his steering fluid that’s pestering the pro when he runs on plane. After fighting it for another hour or so through a few more stops (with varying success), Sprague pulls into the Paris Landing State Park Marina to buy hydraulic fluid for a quick fix.

Freshly loaded with fluid, and with a trip to the service trailer on the list of tasks to accomplish on Monday, Sprague heads out and keeps plugging southward from the bridge. He works the mouth of Big Sandy Creek and all the way down to the power lines (a local landmark) without making a cast before turning back northward toward the ramp. At this point, it’s about noon, and other than a couple bottles of water and an Advil for his back, Sprague hasn’t put anything in his body.

Sprague says he doesn’t eat much when he fishes, and he fully expects to lose weight over the course of the three-week stretch that encompasses Kentucky Lake and the finale at Champlain.

The conversation trends this direction, and Sprague reveals that he does like to cook. From spaghetti and meatballs to anything that can go on a grill, he says he loves making and eating homemade food. He says the cooking probably came from his grandparents, both of whom are great cooks. His grandmother in particular has a knack for the details of making a dish go from good to great.

After another hour of not casting, Sprague finally relents on a spot that he and JT Kenney idled almost back-to-back.

“Ol’ JT didn’t want to fish for them in front of me, but I’m gonna,” says Sprague. “I’ve driven around for so long, I just need to catch one of them.”

His first bite is from a catfish, evidenced by the telltale slime on his line, and Sprague is suddenly more than a little confused. After a little repositioning, his next few casts result in a half-dozen small keepers. Turns out, Sprague doesn’t need to totally recalibrate his fish-finding sense.

A few more hours of hopping from waypoint to waypoint and Sprague runs into Keith Amerson, a man who’s surely one of the local favorites. At this point, neither has quite seen as many as he’d like to. After comparing notes without letting too much info slip, the anglers separate, and Amerson moves on from the section of ledge by asking Sprague to “tell me about it if there are any 4-pounders there.”

The next couple hours go quickly, as Sprague moves fast over another eight or 10 waypoints before putting more steering fluid in and heading back toward Jonathan Creek. After a couple checks on the good schools he found, Sprague idles back through the Highway 68 bridge to call it a night around 6:30.

“All I’m doing today is dialing it down,” says Sprague. “There’s no way you can cover as much lake as we did today and cover it perfectly. That area back where we saw Kenney, there are a bunch of fish doing the right thing there. I’m gonna have to go back later and dial it in.”

Despite a somewhat frustrating day from a mechanical standpoint, the finally tally isn’t bad. Sprague finishes with about 10 schools in his pocket and a lot of waypoints checked and discarded.


 

Monday, June 6 – Day two of practice

Despite a forecast high of 86, Sprague steps out of the house to a mid-60s start. A few minutes later, with the sun rising over the riprap of the Kentucky Dam Marina, it’s far from muggy. Often, a good stretch of blazing heat is the best thing for pushing bass to the ledges on the Tennessee River. So far, practice isn’t providing that.

Lack of heat aside, just glancing across the glass-calm water indicates nothing but a ledge-fishing deal. Groups of locals and pros fishing and idling are evident all along the lake to the south. Sprague plans to join them for a few hours before heading back in to the service trailers to get his steering fixed for a full assault on the lake over the final stretch of practice.

Sprague moves quickly through a swathe of waypoints, ticking off a few uninspiring places on his graph before stopping to fish on a secondary ledge clustered with stumps. His first cast with a worm draws the bite of the century. Visibly dismayed that the fish has hooked up, especially with two other anglers within eyesight, Sprague kicks the trolling motor on high and speeds over to the fish in an effort to avoid a protracted fight. Luckily, it isn’t a bass. It turns out to be a catfish, and the cat goes a long way toward clarifying some of the unexplained schools Sprague has marked on his electronics.

Another couple hours go by before Sprague makes the call to speed back to takeoff and the service trailers. Despite a perfect morning for idling, he’s not enamored with the north end of the 100-mile-long lake.

Once his steering system is bled and filled, Sprague gets back on the water at Jonathan Creek and spends the afternoon working all the way south nearly to New Johnsonville, Tenn.

Idling, hopping waypoints and fishing brings him to a disappointing conclusion to the day: one new school and not a single largemouth boated. Sure, his good schools are still there, but the pressure on some of the shallower, easier stuff is evident. The fishing isn’t going quite as well as he’d like it to.

“I just know how hard it’s going to be if you get out,” says Sprague. “If you get in a bad rotation it’s going to be bad. You know what I’m going to do tomorrow? I’m going to go to Barkley and fish shallow for half a day.”

Filling up after the day, Sprague arrives at a final tally of a little more than $80 in gas money. That’s nearly 40 gallons burned on the day. Stops at the gas pump are probably the worst part of being a pro angler. On the plus side, after topping off his oil, Sprague manages to swish his empty oil jug into the trashcan on his first try. Sprague probably isn’t giving Steph Curry a run for it anytime soon, but if fishing doesn’t pan out he might have another option.

Sprague leaves the gas station and meets Reyes, and they head straight for Cracker Barrel. They're adamant that they move to the beat of a different drum, and while some eclectic musical tastes and their general vibe set them apart from the classic bassin’ “good ol’ boys,” the meal shows they aren’t all that different. At the basis of it, it’s two great fishing friends breaking down the day and life, not so different from a dinner between any other fishing buddies who’ve come to care for each other off the water too.


 

Tuesday, June 7 – The final day of practice

In addition to his fish-finding duties on the final day of practice, Sprague is also tasked with taking over the FLW Snapchat (it’s “FLWOfficial,” if you’re so inclined). As such, he starts the day with some chocolate-covered donuts to show off the healthy breakfast of a pro before slipping the Ranger into Jonathan Creek and heading out onto the big lake.

Tournament success is all about adjustments, and launching at Jonathan is an adjustment in itself. The plan the night before had been to put in at the dam and run into Barkley to test a few ledges there and look shallow.

“I was lying in bed this morning thinking about it, and I just wanted to check a few things in the morning to start,” Sprague explains.

As he runs out of the creek and into the lake, the challenge of the day immediately becomes clear. There are 2-footers cranking southward against the current. It’s already rough on Kentucky.

Sprague bounces (literally) through a handful of waypoints and elaborates on the start of the day.

“I came out here to check how these schools were setting up in the morning, and I’m telling you now, I’m not impressed,” he says. “There are a few, but they’re just scattered out, man. We need some freaking current. They’ve been pushed off of it. They’re not even where they should be.”

His frustration mounting with the wind and waves, Sprague’s next move is into a “sexy little pocket” for a shallow attempt.

“After seeing what I’ve seen so far, and you can quote me on this, this will be one for me to survive because I’ve put my eggs in the offshore basket, and it’s all about if you can get on something,” he says.

After working through it with no results and idling another few sections in the slightly protected mouths of bays, Sprague pulls into another shallow area with a look of disgust on his face.

“I don’t care how good you are at reading graphs, you can’t hardly do it when the swells are 2 1/2 feet tall,” he says. “You’re better off putting the boat on the trailer and taking a nap.”

With that, Sprague decides to put it on the trailer, but not to go nap. He’s headed for New Johnsonville to go see entirely new water. He calls Reyes to alert him of his whereabouts then cranks up and heads for the bank.

On the drive down to New Johnsonville, Sprague is challenged yet again. About one-third of the way there the bearings go out on one of his trailer wheels. In about 10 minutes flat, Sprague shows off the fix-it ability that just about every professional fisherman develops along the way. He also displays the greatness of a dual-axle trailer. Limping on three wheels, Sprague heads for Paris Landing – it’s a longer run south, but a much closer drive. His positive spin: At least it didn’t happen somewhere without any local recourse on the long drive to Champlain for the final Tour event.

“I’m upset because I feel like I’m not on the fish to win, not because I’m not on the fish to do well,” says Sprague while putting the boat in at Paris. “I left because I felt like I was wasting my time up there where everyone else was. I push myself real hard to do well. The winning fish might be down there [by New Johnsonville]. It’s a little more my style, and I’ve got to try.”

Sometimes last-ditch heroics change the game. This time, while it was easy to flip up a few shallow bass, New Johnsonville doesn’t end up being the promised land it might have been.

Practice is over. Sprague doesn’t believe he’s in terrible shape, but he knows he could have done better.

“The way I figure, I’ve got about 20 schools, which is more than a lot of guys,” says Sprague. “I’ve talked with a lot of guys, and I don’t think I’m doing too bad. I don’t have the kind of schools some guys have, but out here it can only take one if you get on it right. When you figure in talent and the number of places I’ve got, I think I probably have enough for a top 25.”


 

Jeff Sprague

The aftermath

When it was all said and done, Sprague wasn’t close to the top 25 at Kentucky Lake, finishing 71st and giving up the AOY lead to Andy Morgan. Sprague weighed 12 pounds, 14 ounces on the first tournament day and came back somewhat on the second with a solid 14-10, but his 27-08 total just wasn’t enough on the big ledge lake. As he predicted, Kentucky Lake was one to survive.

Sprague strictly ledge fished on both days of competition, but could never quite put it together. With an early boat draw on day one, he streaked to disappointment at his spot in Jonathan Creek. Later in the day, it became clear how good some of his places were when Randy Haynes pulled up on a ledge Sprague had just backed off of and “went to work,” catching the fire out of them. On day one, Haynes weighed 22-15.

Sprague went into day two with some optimism. Reyes had had a good day and caught 3-pounders off one place almost at will, and Sprague figured he’d join him there. Having a late boat number and a long day was also a boon in his estimation. On day two, Sprague burned a lot less gas and did more fishing than running, but he still couldn’t muster a big bag to rebound up the leaderboard and hold on to the AOY lead. He did better, but not quite good enough to be fishing the weekend.

Based on Sprague’s results on Kentucky Lake, he might have his graphs dialed in, but he still has something to learn about how to do well in a ledge-fishing tournament. If the rest of his season is any indication, the young pro will solve that problem eventually. The next stop is Champlain, where there will be tons of shallow fish to catch, and he’s right in striking distance for the AOY title.

Jeff Sprague

Tags: jeff-sprague  aoy  jody-white  angler-features 

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