Junior time

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Missing the last cut of the 2008 Elite season at Oneida Lake may have led to one of the best fishing days of my life.

Forty-six of those Elite anglers who missed that final Top 50 cut were asked to help out with the Junior World Championship, which was held on nearby Onondaga Lake. The JWC this year had 92 junior qualifiers in two age brackets from all over the country — and the world, as there was a representative from South Africa.

Each Elite angler was paired with one youngster from each of the two age groups for a practice day on Saturday and then the tournament on Sunday. On the practice day, the Elite pros could fish with the kids, show them how to use the electronics, let them use our tackle, and generally help them any way that we could to get them on fish.

On Sunday, the Elite anglers could drive the boat and hand them the net; no other help was allowed, except in the case of an emergency. By the rules, we weren't allowed to help them in any other way that could affect the outcome of the tournament.

I was paired with Chase Rahm, from New Mexico, in the 15-18 age bracket and Hunter Gaines, from Arizona, in the 11-14 age group. We spent the better part of the practice day on Saturday looking for the largemouth bite that was supposed to be so good at Onondaga. We caught a few largemouth around the grass, but nothing to get real excited about. The smallmouth, however, were a different story.

We located massive schools of shad bunched up at one end of the lake, oddly enough; at almost the same time that Shaw Grigsby and his kids found the same schools. Six drop shots went over the side of the two boats at about the same time and I think that all six of us hooked a fish. I told Chase and Hunter "You guys will whack them here tomorrow." Did they ever.

Sunday at 8:40 a.m., boat number 32, which was us, idled past the check-out pier and we headed to smallmouth heaven. The plan was to catch a decent limit of smallies, then get up on the bank, if it turned out to be a cloudy, rainy day, and try to locate a largemouth bite or two. Didn't take long to take care of the limit. Problem was, the kids were catching the smallmouth so well, they really didn't want to leave!

Shaw, Yusuke Miyazaki, Brian Snowden, and I all started within 25 yards of each other on the huge schools of bait. It was a slugfest from the minute that the first trolling motor dropped in the water. There were bent rods in every direction.

Squeals, screams, giggles (from Shaw), and groans (when one got away), those first few hours were without a doubt the most fun I have had fishing without having a rod in my hand. It was absolutely amazing to watch all these kids. They were all catching them and catching some good ones, too.

On Saturday, I had shown Chase and Hunter what to look for on the electronics to determine the difference between the balls of bait and the smallmouth below the bait. Didn't take them long before they were spotting fish and dropping their baits right down in the smallie faces. No way was I ever doing that when I was even close to their ages.

Both Chase and Hunter had their limits within the first hour and a half, then they started culling and culling and culling. We all lost track of how many smallmouth they caught during the day — that's how you know you're having fun. I had given them several hundred baits the day before, and they put a big dent in the bait population.

What started that morning as a small group of four boats grew to a flotilla of 16 by midday; all packed into an area small enough to flip a drop shot from one boat to the next.

There were even kids in separate boats who got their dropshot rigs tangled up together — that's close. Did you read that? They tangled up their lines they were fishing so close together AND NO ONE HAD A PROBLEM WITH IT!

In fact, both kids were apologizing to each other for the tangle. That would never work with us whiny, pompous, prima donna Elite Series pros; there is no way in the world that 16 of us could fish that close together and not elicit a blood bath.

Even with the close quarters Sunday during the JWC on Onondaga, there were no problems with anyone crowding anyone. When a boat drifted into another one, which happened several times, there were apologies and everyone moved on. When a kid in another boat caught a big fish, there were '"Wows" and "Good jobs." There's a lesson to be learned here.

At the end of the day, we loaded up and headed to Oneida Lake and the Elite Series stage for the weigh-in. By our calculations, Chase had hauled in 15.5 pounds of bronzebacks and Hunter had 14.5. Not too shabby. On the stage and the big scales, Chase's weighed in at 15 pounds, 5 ounces while Hunter's went 14 pounds, 6 ounces, good enough for both of them to finish third in their respective brackets.

Thanks to my two days on the water with the JWC qualifiers, I have a whole new respect for the kids coming up through the fishing ranks. There are a bunch of these guys and gals that can flat-out fish. I have no doubt that in a few years we'll be seeing some of these same anglers on the Elite Series stage. When we do, I bet they'll be hauling up a sack, too.

For more info on Kevin Short or to contact Kevin, check out his Web site at www.kfshort.com.