Lila Oast has a favorite spot to fish for smallmouth bass on the North Branch of the Susquehanna River that the 12-year old would rather keep a secret.
But when it comes to where and how Oast landed the fish that earned her a first-place finish in the Youth Division of the Tidewater Kayak Angler’s Association tournament, the Bloomsburg youth is ready to talk.
Oast has been fishing from kayaks for most of her 12 years. She was introduced to the sport by her father, John, who is the founder of the Pennsylvania Kayak Fishing Association. While the father and daughter duo spend a lot of time fishing the Susquehanna River and other local lakes from their kayaks, they also make the annual September trip to the Chesapeake Bay in Hampton Roads, Va., to compete in the TKAA tournament - one of the largest competitions for kayak anglers in the country.
Kayak tournaments are unique in that there are no livewells aboard to bring the catch back for a weigh-in. Instead, winners are determined by length of the fish and the catch must be placed on a measuring device with an identifier and photographed before it’s released.
Lila has competed in the tournament’s youth division since 2014, earning third- and second-place finishes. When she launched her kayak onto the bay at 6:30 a.m. to start this year’s tournament, Lila was determined to win.
“It’s a very fun place to fish because you never know what you’re going to catch,” she said. “You need to know exactly where you’re going and how to angle your kayak to the structure you’re casting to.”
On the bay at Hampton Roads, Lila replicated the style she uses to fish for smallmouth bass on Susquehanna River — jigs with soft plastics. John, who was competing in the adult division, was fishing nearby and it wasn’t long before he reeled in his first fish — an Atlantic croaker. His next catch was a 30-inch ribbonfish, and since the tournament is based on length, John and his daughter hoped there were more.
“They’re a long fish, which is what you want for this tournament, but they’re hard to find,” John said. “When we realized ribbonfish were at this spot we began targeting them.”
An hour after she began fishing, Lila’s rod suddenly doubled over.
It was a ribbonfish, and one that John knew was long.
“I was excited. I knew I wasn’t going to catch a longer fish,” Lila said.
Before she could claim victory, however, Lila had to get the fish into her kayak, which wasn’t an easy task.
As John paddled over to help his daughter, he had flashbacks to an incident that happened to him during a previous tournament when he landed a flounder that would’ve won, but the fish jumped out of his kayak before he could snap a photo.
“I didn’t want the same thing to happen to her,” John said.
Once the ribbonfish — which resembles an eel but with long, sharp teeth — was in Lila’s kayak, the real work began. She had to get the fish on the measuring board, with an identifier unique to the tournament, hold a camera over and snap a photo, hoping the entire fish is in the picture in order to qualify.
And she had to do it all before the ribbonfish jumped out.
Lila accomplished the task without incident and the ribbonfish measured 33 3/4 inches, good enough for first place.
“I was thrilled,” Lila said. “It proved to me that just because I’m not as strong or old as other people, it doesn’t matter with kayak fishing. I’m only 12 but I could do it.”
The win caps off a busy year of kayak fishing for Lila. She was recently featured on the cover of Pennsylvania Angler & Boater magazine and will be the focus of a story in an upcoming issue of Kayak Angler Magazine.
“It makes me proud as a father to share my passion with my daughter and see her be recognized for what she has accomplished,” John said.