Dewdrops hang on the grass in the soft breeze of dawn. A soaked knee anchors the grassy knoll next to the boat ramp. Powerful hands solemnly clasp together in silent reflection, thought, and prayer. Humid air muffles any echoes of bullfrogs and gators calling on the water.
Ron Champion inhales deeply, filling his chest cavity with contemplation and reflection. Faith, family, and fishing stream through Ron's mind; thoughts flowing to the three pillars that he has built his life around. The dampened knee suddenly extends as he stands. Certainty sharpens his eyes. He came to this lake with a clear mission: to fish hard. It's time.
Over the next two days of the Kayak Bass Fishing Santee Cooper Opener, Ron navigates his kayak on the hunt for the largest of largemouth bass. Years of attending this tournament and fishing these South Carolina lakes has allowed him to scout the gator-filled, lily-padded coves amid a maze of grassy shorelines and deep trenches in the middle of the sprawling 176,000 acres that make up lakes Marion and Moultrie.
Not a moment is wasted within the 19 fishable hours of this tournament. The man's motivation sustains with the capacity of a true professional. The time for laughs comes only after the tournament's daily 3 p.m. end-of-fishing call.
Until then, Ron's legs pump the pedal drive on his bright orange Hobie Pro Angler. He routes quickly to pre-scouted fishing locations, working over every nook and cranny in the flooded timber, lily pads, and grassy banks. With preselected rod-and-lure combinations, he beats the banks and dredges the depths on the measured search for hefty largemouth. The clock is ticking faster to 3.
Ron whips out the lure, whistling through the air as the tournament's final minute comes to a close. With the last take, the water explodes between shallow grasses; Ron reels with lightning speed. Seconds later, with the fish by his boat, the alarm on his wrist sounds off. After he lets a deep inhale escape in a long sigh, blistered and callused hands set the rod aside. He can relax.
Sort of. This is not the finish that he was looking for. His eyes cast the disappointment: strategies calculated, locations canvassed, lures spent. The scrutiny begins. Clearly, this one is not going down easy. It's not just pride, or simple bragging rights out fishing with buddies. This is work, and the tournament finishes--with associated prize purses--are a key factor in how he puts food on his children's plates.
Yet the sharpened look forms on Ron's face quickly melts.
"Every dog has its day," he lets out with a chuckle, compartmentalizing the mental notes away until he can unpack them later in the confines of his home office. For now, tournament mode is over, and Ron Champion, age 45, flips a switch.
"I can't wait to get home and see my baby girl, my son and kiss my wife," he says. "I miss home."
First, he must tend to the tools of his trade, efficiently cleaning and organizing his gear as he loads up his sponsor-wrapped Toyota Tundra. The truck mimics the man who takes pride in his work and appearance. The tires soon pound the pavement and the rig heads south to Georgia.
Later that evening, those big callused and blistered paws wrap around the shiny door handle of the Champion's home in the calm woods of Richmond Hill, Ga. As the front door swings open, bare feet pitter-patter along the hardwood floors. A sleepy-eyed blonde child rushes in to greet Ron with a "DAAAAADDY!" arms extending up to wrap around as much of her father as possible.
The small, tear-jerking act — daughter running to dad — weighs heavy on any family dealing with travel for work. The month prior to the Santee Cooper KBF Opener, Ron spent in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama. His lifetime TourneyX profile highlights nearly 100 tournaments spread across the states (with an impressive 37 top-10 finishes, with five first-place finishes). It's a career he's certainly passionate about. But life on the road can be hard. Long days. Longer nights. Ron knows it and cherishes the moment with his daughter Makayla accordingly.
It's obvious where his real passion lies.
"When I get back, it's all about family," Ron exclaims. "There are no three other people in the world I'd want to spend my time with."
The heat of a Georgia night sinks in and the stars cut through the humidity. All of the Champions are under one roof. Sleep comes easy tonight.
Sunday morning slowly creeps into the rural, thickly wooded landscape. Makayla, at age 7, and her older brother, Branton, 12, know the drill. Dad's home and they are getting pancakes. It's almost like Christmas, but you get to sleep in. Extra syrup drizzles onto plates as they devour fluffy cakes. This sugary energy consumed, however, is about to burn right off. A mere 80 yards from the front door of the Champion household is a local lake -- filled with bass and crappie.
Loaded with pancakes, the Champion clan heads to the garage, where there's no shortage of boats and gear. Ron helps Makayla and Branton load kayaks onto carts, then it's time for the kids favorite routine with dad: Head down the driveway. Look twice and proceed across the street. Up and over the curb and through a short patch of grass. Slide kayaks into the water.
It's not hard to spot the biggest grin in Georgia, on Ron's face, as his kids buzz with energy. Branton wastes no time to getting out to his honey hole--the apple not falling far from the tree. He's a li'l man on a mission. Within a couple casts, a bass strikes and he proudly reels in the first catch of the day.
Ron sends out congratulations from across the pond as Makayla sits in between his legs and pedals a larger kayak. It's a daughter and daddy duo and this little girl driving is after the vibrantly colored crappies that populate the pond. With a little assistance she finds a few, plus a couple bass on the end of her line.
These are the days. Etched into the hardest of stones in the memory of a proud father and loving husband. Ron knows the support and sacrifices that are made by the family, especially his wife of 10 years, Chrissy. He's quick to point out this balance is only possible with the love and teamwork from her.
"As far back as I can remember as a child, it's always been faith, family and fishing," Ron explains. "My family means everything to me and fishing is right there because both drive me to be better everyday. My faith is what holds everything together each and every day."
Cherished slivers of times like these fuel Ron's tournament life on the road: to perform at his best; to grind the long hot days when the bite isn't on; the overnight drives followed by a quick nap at the boat launch before fishing hours start in the early morning; in short, to be his absolute best.
Watch Champion explain how family and fishing motive each other in the film companion to his Backyard Adventure.
-- Check out the Backyard Adventure of Josiah Pleasant, an Arkansas kayak fisherman-educator known as the “Trout Professor.”
-- See more on the NRS Fishing Team, and stay tuned for more Backyard Adventures as Kayak Fish Editor Morgan Mason tours the sport's thriving hotbeds, profiling the colorful athletes and personalities who define kayak fishing, through the lens of their go-to escapes on the water.