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Catching a break

SCOTT DEPOT - Taking a break sometimes helps.

Professional bass fisherman Jeremy Starks is walking, talking proof. After taking an entire year away from the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament circuit due to health problems, the Kanawha County native has returned with a vengeance.

On May 6, Starks captured the Douglas Lake Challenge in Dandridge, Tenn., and also locked up a berth in the prestigious 2013 Bassmaster Classic. With four tournaments remaining in the current season, Starks ranks a lofty 13th in the Bass Angler Sportsman Society's Angler of the Year standings.

"I've had a great season," Starks said as he relaxed in the living room of his Scott Depot home. "I'm one of only eight guys who have made every cut. And now, with the win, I've become one of only 12 or 13 guys who have won at least two Elite Series events."

Starks began competing on the Elite Series circuit - professional bass fishing's Major Leagues - in 2006. He won the 2008 Southern Challenge on Alabama's Wheeler Lake, and in the process became the first West Virginian to capture an Elite tournament.

All along the way, however, Starks found himself battling periodic migraine headaches, dizziness and blurred vision that got worse as time went along. In 2009 and 2010, he earned prize money in only three Elite tournaments.

Finally, in 2011, Starks asked B.A.S.S. officials if he could take a year off from the circuit to address his health problems.

"Through medication and some dietary changes, things got a lot better," he said. "I felt good enough to make a go of it again this year. I was really looking forward to getting back out there."

His first test came in March on Florida's St. Johns River.

"My first day out, I was in 60-something place and it wasn't looking too good," he recalled. "But then I caught a bunch of fish on the second day and moved up into the 30s. I've fished with confidence ever since."

Starks won $10,000 at the St. Johns tournament and followed that up with $10,000 winnings at Florida's Lake Okeechobee and $10,000 more at Arkansas' Bull Shoals Lake. Then came the Douglas Lake tournament.

"More than anything, I'm proud that I was able to figure that lake out all by myself," Starks said. "Going into the tournament, I had never read anything about the lake, I didn't get any [fishing hotspot GPS] waypoints from anyone, and I didn't pick anyone's brain for information.

"I showed up with no expectations. I looked at a map and decided where I would like to fish. I felt the tournament would be won out of that part of the lake, and as it turned out I was right."

In the three days of practice competitors are allowed before each event, Starks used his boat's sophisticated electronics to find schools of bass. He discovered that the bass were lying deep, often in 40 to 45 feet of water, and he also figured out that they weren't responding to jigging, drop-shotting and other tried-and-true deep-fishing techniques.

"I figured that since subtle presentations wouldn't work, I'd try to rip a crankbait past them and try to trigger reaction strikes," Starks recalled.

The problem he faced was getting a crankbait to run deep enough.

"That's when I thought about long-lining," he said.

Long-lining is a technique thought up years ago by anglers who wanted to get crankbaits to stay deep along the tops of underwater ridges. A long-lining fisherman casts out his crankbait, keeps his reel in free-spool mode, and backs the boat away from the bait using the trolling motor until very little line is left on the reel. He then stops the boat, engages the reel's gears and starts cranking like mad.

"Usually a crankbait follows a V-shaped course when it's being retrieved," Starks said. "With a long line the bait goes steeply downward until it bottoms out, and then stays at that level for a good long while before the retrieve begins taking it toward the surface."

The technique worked.

Early on the tournament's first day, Starks had more than 16 pounds' worth of bass in his livewell, but the migraine bugaboo returned and forced him ashore before noon. He finished the day in 12th place.

On day two, with his headache gone, Starks caught a limit of bass that weighed 23 pounds, 1 ounce and vaulted into third place. Another 19 pounds, 11 ounces on the tournament's third day put him in the runner-up spot heading into the finals, almost 6 pounds behind leader Britt Myers.

"I didn't really think I had a chance to win," Starks recalled. "Only one time before had anyone come from that far back on the last day to win."

But then Starks started catching fish.

"I had 16 pounds in the boat early on," he said. "There were a lot of fans out there watching us, and they started telling me I had moved into the lead. Then, all of a sudden, they started saying that Britt was catching them and that I was back in second place."

By 2 p.m., just an hour before check-in time, the bass in Starks' honey hole had stopped biting.

"I had figured by then I was headed for second place, but I finally figured out that I wasn't OK with that. I moved to a place I had fished earlier and found a wad of fish about 42 feet down.

"Right off, I caught a 4-pounder. On the next cast, I hooked a giant, but it got off. I said to the [ESPN] cameraman, 'I've lost the tournament.' He said, 'Don't give up.' On my last two casts, I caught two 5-pounders. It was an awesome feeling. The fans were screaming, and I honestly felt at that point that I'd won the tournament."

He had. Starks' four-day catch of 81 pounds, 2 ounces put him comfortably ahead of Myers' 79 pounds, 1 ounce.

Starks' father, Allen, called his son's last-second heroics "a miracle, a gift from God."

Starks isn't one to disagree.

"When I look up on the mantel and see two Elite Series trophies, I almost have to pinch myself," he said. "And now, for the first time, I'm going to get to fish in the Classic. It's been a great year so far. There are four more tournaments to go, and then the Classic - and I don't think I'm done quite yet."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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