Ryan Lambert, from Jasper, Tenn., is $30,000 richer following last weekend's win in the Hobie Bass Open Series "Tournament of Champions" held in Knoxville.
Huge purses in bass fishing tournaments are not unusual, but a $30,000 prize in a "kayaks-only" bass tournament is a clear indication that the sport has become major league.
Lambert just started fishing regularly from a kayak six years ago.
"I bought a kayak to take my daughter out with me," he said. "I saw the local kayak club in Chattanooga had a tournament coming up and decided to try my hand at it. The rest is history."
Now Lambert says he and two of his friends, all in the Chattanooga-based Tennessee Valley Kayak Anglers (TVKA) club, "kind of make the world go round in the kayak fishing world."
He says his friend, Steve Owens, is the Director of the Bassmaster Kayak Tournament circuit. They have a tournament coming up Saturday on Chickamauga Lake,
Meanwhile his other friend, A.J. McWhorter, is the Director for the Hobie Bass Open Series. The season-ending championship of that series is what Lambert won recently. Besides the $30,000 purse, he automatically qualifies for next year’s Hobie Open Championship as well as a major international kayak fishing competition (location yet to be determined).
"The Hobie Open Championship is an 'invitation-only' event that includes the top 50 kayak anglers across country," said Lambert. "It is sort of the kayak equivalent to the well-known Bassmaster Classic."
Lambert says he won the event fishing a specific 40-yard stretch of the French Broad River for two days where he caught all smallmouth bass.
"I still am in disbelief that all of the puzzle pieces came together just like I thought they would," said Lambert.
In kayak tournaments anglers don't keep their fish. They photograph each fish on a measuring board with a special code number issued to each angler on tournament day. Then the fish are released immediately. The angler with the most "inches" is the winner.
"In two days, I had 186.25 inches," said Lambert. "The second-place angler had 175.5 inches."
Lambert says he has fished some traditional bass tournaments out of high-powered boats, but he definitely prefers the slower pace of kayak tournaments.
"The kayak fishing scene feels like more of a family, community atmosphere," he said. "I can call a kayak angler anywhere across the country, whether I've ever met them or not, and we have an immediate bond. It's completely different from the big boat world."
Lambert admits that as the sport grows the atmosphere could change.
"I hope it stays the same, but the more money you put into something, you never know what will happen," he said. "But me, Steve O, and A.J. are leaders in the sport. We're kind of the ones shaping the future right now."
Lambert is happy to have his $30,000 winnings in the bank, but said, "The money wasn't the determining factor. I just wanted that win in the biggest competition in the sport."