Not many 19 year olds can say they’ve won three Bassmaster High School National Championships, but TFO Ambassador Tucker Smith can proudly say he has. Last weekend, Tucker and his teammate Hayden Marbut won the Mossy Oak Fishing Bassmaster High School National Championship presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors on Kentucky Lake with a final three-day total of 47-5. It was Tucker’s third-straight title win, and the first for his teammate Hayden.
The tournament was not a cakewalk by any means for Tucker and Hayden. Originally scheduled to be in August, the tournament was rescheduled due to COVID to late October. Although Tucker had fished Kentucky Lake before, fishing it at a very different time of year brought many challenges – including cooler water and air temperatures, heavier winds, different holding spots for fish, and a change in eating patterns/behaviors. Tucker and his teammate were able to have very productive practices to adjust to these changes, but also had the right tools to get the job done.
This week we caught up with Tucker while he took a break from his virtual freshman year classes at Auburn University to get the scoop on the Championship win, the TFO rods that helped him bring home the gold, but also to get some backstory on Tucker on how he got into competitive fishing, and how he became a part of the TFO family.
Where did you grow up and how long have you been fishing?
I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama fishing around the Coosa River. I’ve been fishing for as long as I could remember. My Dad, Uncle, and my grandfather really got me into fishing. Eventually, I met local competitive angler, guide, and TFO Ambassador Joey Nania. Joey was kind of a mentor to me growing up.
How did you and Joey meet?
Mutual friends. My Dad had a friend that recommended we fish with Joey for a guided trip when I was 14 or 15 years old. We did a trip with Joey and caught a ton of fish and had a great time. I started fishing with Joey a lot more after that. We became buddies and he started taking me out fishing just for fun outside of guide trips. He kind of showed me the ropes. We’re still good friends today.
When did you start fishing competitively?
I started fishing competitively in high school when I was a freshman. I did a few tournaments in middle school, but didn’t really start fishing the “bigger” tournaments until I got on the high school fishing team.
How long have you been fishing TFO?
I’ve been fishing with TFO as long as I’ve been fishing with Joey. He was a huge supporter of TFO rods when I started fishing with him. I got comfortable using the rods competitively in my high school tournaments. I wanted to get more involved with TFO, and thankfully not long after I won my first championship my sophomore year, I became a Youth Ambassador for TFO.
Let’s talk about the tournament. When was it originally supposed to happen?
It was supposed to be in August at the same location the tournament has been the last two years – Kentucky Lake. When it got postponed due to COVID, it was definitely a challenge because we were fishing this lake at a totally different time of year. The fish were focused on completely different baits and holding in different spots as well. We had to adapt and catch them outside of what we had done historically there.
What were conditions like throughout the tournament in late October, compared to what they would have likely been in August? How did you adjust and adapt to this change?
Typically in August, its 95 degrees and you’re having to take your sunglasses off every five minutes because they’re getting fogged up with sweat. Late October, the first couple of days were nice in the high 60s/70s, but the last day it really dropped – mid 30s with high winds. It was pretty miserable that last day.
For the most part we were throwing topwater the whole tournament, but on the last day when it was windy and got down in the 30s, we had to get a little deeper.
What TFO rods were you using? Why did you choose that rod and stick with it versus using others?
I was using the 6’10” Medium Tactical Elite Bass almost the entire time. I was throwing topwater most of the tournament. That 6’10” is perfect for working a spook. I was using that most of the tournament. For this type of topwater fishing, you really want a shorter rod so you can work the bait not hit the water with your rod every time you jerk it. The Medium Action has enough to give to load up with those treble hooks, so they don’t sling it when they jump.
We were catching 3-7 pound fish. When they have a big topwater in their mouth jumping with treble hooks, you need that rod to bend and give them some space to jump. That’s why I went with the 6’10 Medium Tactical Elite Bass. For the rest of my setup, I was using 40 lb. braid to a Shimano Curado K (7:1).
Would you have used this same setup (topwater) in August?
In August, we were throwing a lot of chatterbaits and I was using the 7’3” Medium Heavy Tactical Elite Bass. That’s actually my favorite rod because of the versatility of it – you can throw so many things on it. It’s a great chatterbait rod.
Give us a breakdown of the days of the tournament. Sounds like you guys had a pretty successful first day out.
A few weeks prior to the tournament, we were fortunate enough to get some practice time on the lake. We fished five days, daylight to dark before we got cut off to practicing. When it came to be the official tournament practice days, we went back and checked all the baits that worked for us during those five days of scouting practice, and cut the hooks off so that we wouldn’t catch the tournament fish, but we could see where they were.
We were throwing topwater, so you could easily see when they’d come up and eat. We’d work down these long main river flats and bars until we’d get bit. Whenever we’d get a bite, there’d be a few others as the fish were usually schooled up. Once we’d find these spots, we mark it down for actual tournament days.
On Day 1, the conditions were perfect – calm, no wind. We hit up a few of the spots that we had marked during practice, but we weren’t getting into any big numbers. We eventually moved to another spot we had marked. After a few casts of no bites, I noticed an indention in the flat that looked really good about a hundred yards down the flat. After I got on the trolling motor and got close enough, I made a cast and caught a 4 lb. smallmouth. My buddy picked up his rod, made a cast in there, and caught a 7.5 largemouth (which was the biggest fish of the tournament). I threw back in there again and caught another 4lb smallmouth, he threw in after me and caught a 4lb smallmouth, then I followed up again and caught a 3 lb smallmouth. So after all that, we had 22 pounds in five casts in five minutes. It was the craziest five minutes of fishing in my life. We ended up getting biggest bag and biggest bass of the tournament on that first day.
Day 2 – We started with the spot where we caught the big bag from the day before. The wind had picked up making the water really choppy and they just weren’t hitting topwater. We were able to get eight 3+ lb bites, but they just wouldn’t eat it. My buddy snagged a 4lb smallmouth with a spook in the back of the head cause they were just basically slapping at our bait at that point.
We decided to switch up our tactics. I grabbed a 7’3” Medium Heavy Tactical Elite Bass with a rattle trap and caught a 4lb smallmouth, and then the next cast I caught one over three pounds – so at that point we had three good ones in the box.
We tried another spot later in the day where I caught another bass pushing 4 pounds on the 6’10” Medium Tactical Elite Bass. We ended up getting two more at that spot and filled our limit for the day. We ended up with a bag of 17.5 for that second day.
Day 3 – This was a super rough day with 20-degree temperature drop and very strong winds. They actually almost didn’t let us go out, but after a 45-minute delay, they ended up letting us go. Right out of the marina we were hitting 4-foot waves. It was rough.
We knew we had a good lead amongst the other teams from our previous two days, but still needed to get fish in the boat. We ended up getting two 4 lb. fish, but it was really tough.
We ended up winning by 10 pounds, but it was funny the way we found out. We were the last ones to pull up to the weigh in because the judges typically put the people they think are going to win in the back. When it came to be our turn, they called out “Alright boys, you want to come on up here and weigh your fish, or do you want to just come get your trophy because you’ve already won without weighing in your fish.” We would have won by 3 pounds if we haven’t weighed our fish in from that last day, but after we did weigh in, we ended up winning by 10 pounds.
Now that the tournament is over, you’re back at school for your freshman semester at Auburn now. What’s next for you in terms of fishing and life?
I’m on the Auburn Bass Fishing team right now, and I’m currently majoring in Business. My goal is to fish all these college tournaments and make it to the National Championship. If you make it to that and get in the top four, you can make it to the Classic Bracket. If you win in the Classic Bracket, then you get to fish in the Bassmaster Classic – which is the biggest tournament in bass fishing. That’s my dream.
Other than that, I’ll fish some Opens, and maybe fish some Toyota events as well. Try to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic through that as well.
Have you thought about guiding some? I’m sure you’ll want to focus on your competitive fishing first, but have you thought about doing some guiding down the road?
I’ve definitely thought about it, but you’re right – mainly focusing on fishing competitively right now. I might pick up some guiding in the summer when I’m back home. We’ll see..
If you could only take one TFO rod with you – doesn’t matter what time of year or the conditions – what TFO rod would you take and why?
If I could take one, I’d probably take the 7’3” Heavy Tactical Elite Bass. I think it’s the most versatile. I like the Medium Heavy too, but if you have that Heavy, you can do flipping, frogging, throw a jig, chatterbaits, big swimbaits, A-rig. You can throw most of what you need to make it work.