LAKE ALAN HENRY — It’s still dark as Robert Hawthorne’s Ford pickup truck rumbles south down U.S. 84, his father’s 18-foot bass boat in tow. The race against the sunrise is on, and Hawthorne, despite his best efforts, is falling behind.
“It seems like no matter how early I get up,” he says with a laugh, “I can never quite make it there in time.”
On a picture-perfect Tuesday, Hawthorne and Jonathon Carter, members of the Texas Tech Bass Anglers Association, may not have won the race, but the consolation prize is one hell of a view.
Orange and red hues of sunlight are peeking over the rocky banks of Lake Alan Henry. The water looks like glass, barely a ripple breaking against the sides of Hawthorne’s boat. Above the light hum of the trolling motor, the silence is pierced only by the occasional chorus of the area’s various bird species greeting the morning with high-pitched songs.
Hawthorne guides the boat out of the wake zone and toward an edge of the lake full of underwater branches that form a perfect refuge for the bass they’ve come to haul in. Carter grabs one of the half dozen rods he has carried aboard and throws out his line. The plastic crank bait splashes softly in the water and he begins to reel in the line.
Practice has begun.
Sandwiched between a 30-hour drive to Alabama for one tournament and a trek to Louisiana for another — which begins today at the Toledo Bend Reservoir in Many, La. — Hawthorne and Carter have made an early-morning trip to Alan Henry, about an hour south of Lubbock, to share their love for the sport of bass fishing.
The pair met two years ago while working at a local sporting goods store and quickly hit it off, discovering a shared interest of all things outdoors. Both had heard about the Tech fishing team, which was founded in 2003 by Curtis Norrod and Ryan DuPriest, and were interested in joining.
There was one problem. They needed a boat.
“I feel bad for some of the guys who want to join and really can’t because they don’t have a boat,” Carter says. “That’s pretty much a necessity.”
So Hawthorne worked up some nerve and asked his father to borrow his boat, which hadn’t been getting used much in recent years near the family’s home in McKinney.
“It was his boat and I hate asking people to borrow stuff,” Hawthorne says. “He was fine with it, but he wanted to talk to my mom about it. My mom was real leery about it because she didn’t want to get it out of here and have it break down. We ended up having to spend $500 on the thing to try and get it to where it was running right.”
The boat is running just fine as Hawthorne and Carter stand on the front deck and toss casts into the thickets of branches sticking above the lake’s surface. Within the first hour on the water, the two have pulled about five bass on to the boat, quickly removing the hook from their mouths and tossing them back.
For most of the day, the fishermen, who both just finished their junior years at Tech, are using plastic worms commonly referred to as “cincos,” slowly dragging them through the branches and on the bottom of shallow portions of the lake. The morning plays out like a chess match, with Hawthorne and Carter trying to successfully combine a seemingly unending amount of factors — bait, weight and hook size, reel speed, location — to get the lake’s bass to buy what they’re selling.
“It’s the challenge,” Hawthorne says of the reason he loves fishing for bass. “It’s not necessarily the fact that you’re catching fish. It’s the fact that you’re trying to convince the fish that the hunk of plastic is something real and get them to bite.”
Bonding on the lake
By the time the boat emerges from the lake, around noon, the pair has caught and released about 14 bass, a combination of large mouth and spotted species. Once tournament time rolls around, though, they know quantity will matter far less than quality.
When Hawthorne and Carter start their engine in an FLW regional qualifier today, hoping to become one of the top five teams in the field of 40 to advance to a regional tournament, the number they are working with is five. They will spend the whole day on the water trying to catch the five biggest bass they can.
If a fish is pulled up to the boat and doesn’t make a cut, it’s quickly getting thrown back. If the bass is big enough, it will sit in the boat’s live well until it is time to hit the scales at the end of the day.
Hawthorne and Carter, who both played football in high school, say they relish the adrenaline of the competition, love the strategy of finding the right spots on a lake and using the right tackle to best collegiate teams from across the country.
“It is awesome having all the boats there and they’re playing the national anthem,” Carter says. “The boats taking off together, the roar of all those engines, it’s an awesome thing. There’s nothing else like it.”
Only a select few teams can stand on the podium at the end of the day, and the tournaments end with most of the teams cursing their bad luck. “Sometimes the fish just don’t cooperate,” Hawthorne says.
But fishermen rarely leave the lake empty handed. With each outing an angler gets to add to an ever-growing catalogue of stories. And fishermen, Carter says, have the best stories.
Carter begins one tale by pointing to a tooth on the left side of his mouth that has been chipped in half. The culprit? His teammate and close friend Hawthorne. The two were fishing on the front deck of the boat during a tournament when a three-eighths ounce tungsten weight, attached to a snagged line Hawthorne jerked from the lake, hit Carter in the mouth.
Carter’s response: “Could have been a lot worse. It was only a tooth.”
Other members of the team — which is a member of the Association of Collegiate Anglers — got a huge kick out of the tale, if only because of Carter’s choice of profession. He plans to attend dental school after graduating from Tech, and the dentist he shadows in Lubbock is an avid fisherman. Both men savored the irony.
“I told one of our buddies about it and he couldn’t stop laughing,” Hawthorne recalls. “He said, ‘The dentist just got his tooth knocked out. Go figure.’”
Stories like that one are the foundation of friendships the club, comprising about 15 two-man teams, has helped foster. Just ask its current president, Sam Allen.
“The past two weeks, I’ve been a groomsman in two weddings and both were my old fishing partners,” Allen says. “You‘re able to spend so much time with people you fish with, and you develop great friendships.”
Hawthorne and Carter have developed such a camaraderie, built over hours spent in trucks and boats, sharing laughs as they continue to search for the big catch. Both anglers say the biggest bass they’ve caught is nine pounds, and the hunt for the double-digit bass they can brag about is one they often embark on from the same boat.
The journey costs money — teams can spend upwards of $2,000 out of pocket per season to travel to tournaments, with some teams competing in a half dozen events or more — and requires long drives and sleepless nights.
To this point, Hawthorne and Carter haven’t been rewarded for the sacrifice in terms of the results they seek. They finished 92nd in a 180-team field at the Boat U.S. Collegiate Bass Fishing Championships in Florence, Ala. two weeks ago.
They hope to move up the leader board in future tournaments, but even if they don’t, both men say they will keep racing the sunrise to the water’s edge.
“It’s definitely a labor of love,” Carter says. “No doubt about that.”
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