The 2023 Gate City Classic: Friendship and Fishing

The 2023 edition of the Gate City Classic brought many storylines to a close. It crowned the Angler of the Year and Rookie of the Year and it finalized the club’s NC BASS and KBF qualifications. It also capped ten successful years for North Carolina’s oldest Kayak bass Fishing tournament series. Finally, it set the table for the CKA Tournament of Champions, which will be held beginning September 30 on Lake Mackintosh.

The tournament also opened new story-lines. Among those, it announced a new tradition, as CKA presented the first ever Sportsman of the Year award. In doing so this year’s Gate City Classic struck a powerful note that stressed friendship as well as fishing, and in that way reminded us all about the club’s core values.

And before we forget, the 2023 Gate City Classic was also a wild fishing tournament that proved yet again how Lake Mackintosh has no peer as a bass fishery. At one point during the day, three anglers were tied for the Str8upMounts Big Bass Prize (which would have been decided by earliest fish submitted), with two new 22.5” bass on the board tying the defending catch. A late giant, submitted during the final frame of competition, clarified the contest. It was a 23.25” monster, and the biggest Largemouth Bass submitted all season long. And yes, it was also landed at Mackintosh.

There were so many prizes, giveaways, trophies and awards to distribute, the ceremony lasted twice as long as normal. It was a fitting conclusion to a historic season that saw Carolina Kayak Anglers pay out more money that at any previous time in the club’s history. Best of all, the club’s anglers warmed up with fresh pizza, enjoyed the awards and prepared for the season’s final frame which includes the Tournament of Champions, Battle on the Border and North Carolina B.A.S.S. Nation championship.

Here is a point by point review of the major awards from the regular season finale.

The Gate City Classic

They are two anglers on two different trajectories, and the rest of us are just holding popcorn.

First, the tournament champion: Will Lambert continues a remarkable late season run by winning the Gate City Classic. Previously, he

With three wins in two different clubs, Lambert is a wildfire. As if that were not enough, on Sunday he posted his second 100” limit of the 2023 season (and third in two years) to continue an extraordinary late season run.

Lambert is a former CKA Angler of the Year (2019) and his victory on Sunday was his second CKA tournament win overall. Here is how he did it:

“With the event being moved to Sunday and being post frontal usually that means fishing will be tough. I was caught between two minds. One thought was to head to a creek I thought would have some schoolers. The other was to stay out from the creeks knowing how much cold water would be coming in and that might push the fish and the bait out. While thinking about all that I made a bait change at the ramp and that ended up being my game winning decision as far as bait. Started the morning nipping at the heels of Mr. Drew Blair who was also heading to the area I thought schoolers might be. Knowing he fished that area earlier in the year and I couldn’t catch him, I made an audible like Peyton Manning screaming “Omaha” and changed course to my primary stuff. On my 2nd cast of the morning, the bait I decided to change too netted me a 21” bass. After that I knew I had to stick to fishing slow and grind it out. The bite seemed to die off for me about 10 am.”

“Fast forward to an hour to go I was still rotating between four spots close together. “I knew” if I continued doing what I was doing and I should get another good bite. With an hour to go I felt a big thud on the rod and watched the line run out a little and I finally had my Takahiro Omori “I knew it” moment. Set the hook and knew it was a good one. I got it up, seen it and got excited. It made one last run and I got it turned toward the boat only for it to come out jumping, hitting the front of my kayak and got the line tangled in my A Rig I had laying on the front of my kayak. With that nearly pulling my rod and reel into the water a quick left foot saved it! Worrying it would come off and I quickly got it in the boat! That fish ended up being a 23.25” which was good for big bass of the tourney and the Str8 Up Mounts big bass on the year! Looking forward to the TOC this up coming weekend. The next few weekends will be busy with CCKF Clash of Titans and the Battle on the Border. Hoping to make it out for the NC Bassmaster event on Norman as well.”

Angler of the Year

And then there is Bryan Tsiolkas. Where Lambert has been on fire for all of 2023, Tsiolkas’ smoke trail goes back to 2022.

An original CKA angler (he won an event at Randleman during CKA’s first season), Tsiolkas has finished atop CKA’s Angler of the Year standings for the second consecutive year. An angler in rare form, he treads on hallowed territory now as he stands alongside the club’s all-time champs in terms of both tournament wins and also AOY trophies.

For context: there have only been six other Angler of the Year champions in CKA history. Only one of those anglers has ever had a repeat victory (P.C. Hawj was a three-time champ from 2016-2018). Additionally, Tsiolkas has tied Hawj for second-most wins (6 each) and if he continues winning at his current pace (2 wins in 2022, 3 wins in 2023) he could tie or break the record of 7 wins (currently held by Rick Rowland).

Let’s admire the achievement, because it’s an awesome thing to behold an angler in peak form.

Here is how Tsiolkas regards it:

“Winning back to back Angler of the year titles truly is an amazing feeling. I honestly can’t put it Into words. I had a great season from start to finish, but by no means was it easy putting pieces of the puzzle together. We have true talent brewing within the club, the competition is stiff, and the AOY title was up for grabs the whole season. Having momentum from last year and starting on Lake Norman helped boost my confidence. I didn’t change anything, I fished my strengths, I was focused, and patient.

My success the past couple of years has changed my outlook coming into events. I’m not scared to fish for five big bites because I’ve learned things can come together in a matter of minutes. I do not focus on what everyone else is doing, or the leaderboard, I just focus on winning the event. At the end of the day, win or lose, we all do this for the love of kayak fishing. I am definitely looking forward to the Tournament of Champions and especially the opportunity to win Angler of the Decade!”

Regarding that last point: Yes, Tsiolkas could win Angler of the Decade if he wins the Tournament of Champions on September 30. In that case, the tie-breaker would be the angler’s big bass (Tsiolkas now leads with a 21.75” to Rowland’s 18.25”). So yes, with a win, Tsiolkas could add another trophy to his case.

Like we said, it’s an awesome sight to behold.

Rookie of the Year

This race turned out to be another dramatic battle. In previous years, there had been a few memorable Rookie of the Year races (the first, when Graham Reay and Keith McGee went toe-to-toe in 2018, is an all time great). This one has to rank up there with it because it came down to a three-way race on the last day. Leland Stiff, Ryan Hayes and Christopher Edwards all had fished hard in 2023 and all had a shot at the trophy going into the Gate City Classic.

The final event standings tell part of the story: Ryan Hayes finished 9th, Chris Edwards finished 10th and Leland Stiff finished in 14th place. In the final standings for Rookie of the Year, Hayes outperformed Stiff by a mere four points, while Edwards, finishing 28 points behind the leader, took third place after a strong showing at the Gate City Classic.

Hayes, who is from Wilson, North Carolina, told CKA:

“My goal was to win Rookie of the Year. I fished every event this season except for Hickory. I studied hard on Navionics and Google Maps, and I pre-fished all year. I watched it on-line last year, and I knew you can only win Rookie of the Year one time. Now, I want to win the next one.”

Hayes joins a small but accomplished brotherhood of Rookie of the Year champs. It includes Keith McGee, Sammy Wilson, Charles Crews†, Bruce Deel and Jared Stanley.

Sportsman of the Year

This was a new award. As we have noted elsewhere, directors had a sense that there were deserving anglers in the club, and we would let them nominate the best candidates. And so, prior to the award itself being announced to the crowd, CKA Tournament Director Eric Nelson read through some of the many emails the club received in favor of different anglers.

And then he read what some people wrote to us about the award’s recipient. A few samples:

“He brings so much enthusiasm…”

“He helps when you’ve had a bad day…”

“He puts people and sportsmanship above the competition…”

I will step outside my role as objective reporter to say I did not know who would win, but I happened to be looking in the direction where Alex Sterling was standing when he was named the first ever CKA Sportsman of the Year. His expression was so genuine that I will never forget it.

There is little to say here about the award’s reception itself. Maybe a better writer could capture a moment that dramatic and sincere. Anglers in attendance were moved by the recipient’s speech, to say the least, and also by the show of support from his friends.

Congratulations, Alex. You made the 10th anniversary edition of the Gate City Classic a lifetime memory for us all.

Weather Delay and Safety

A final note about the 2023 gate City Classic….

Moving an event is never easy. It forces directors to make tough choices and those choices in turn force anglers to make tough choices. In the end, however, the safety of every competitor is the bottom line. Whether it is enforcing a PFD rule, moving an event from a dangerous fishery to a safe one, or letting potentially dangerous weather pass, CKA has always chosen safety. We care about anglers and want them to return safely to shore after every event. 

In 2018, CKA was forced to move the Gate City Classic because Hurricane Florence came to town, disrupting both the CKA tournament and a parallel Kayak Bass Fishing Trail event. The tournament had to be delayed by one week. This year, the Gate City Classic got a visit from Ophelia, and she nearly spoiled the party. We had to move it by one day. What would the outcome have been if we had fished Saturday? We will never know. We fished Sunday instead.

As a result, some anglers who planned to fish could not and lost out on spots in the Tournament of Champions. We hate that it happened that way, but there was no other option. With a tight schedule, moving dates would affect other tournaments, anglers and clubs, and make a bad situation worse.

Unfortunately, that is part of running or being part of a tournament series. Still, the directors made the decisions with heavy hearts. We are thankful to anglers for their patience and understanding.

Up Next

We will conclude our season on September 30-October 1 2023 with the Tournament of Champions on Lake Mackintosh.

Additional Info

For Complete Gate City Classic standings, see:

For Complete AOY standings (not adjusted for Gate City points):

CKA’s 2023 Season is brought to you by

Dakota Lithium Batteries

Click here to become a member.

First Published September 26, 2023

All content and photos © Carolina Kayak Anglers LLC, 2023.

The author of this article was not assisted in the composition of it in any way by a machine.

Related posts

One thought on “The 2023 Gate City Classic: Friendship and Fishing

  1. Chris Linville

    Gentlemen, Chris Linville here if my health holds out and good Lord willing it will, I will build 3 rods again this year ik you want. The Rod Shop

Leave a Comment