From the start, I must say that this past season was one of the most confounding and frustrating I’ve experienced in my many years of competition.
Every stop on the Bassmaster Elite Series schedule favored my skillset. All were shallow water venues, yet I managed to blow nearly every opportunity.
That said, here is my account of the past season. Hopefully you will learn something from my mistakes.
St. Johns River
Normally I get excited about Florida events. After all, it is my home state.
Somehow, though, the St. Johns River is different. It seems I always manage to make that body of water more difficult than it should be. But not this time!
After three days of scouting the river, I felt I had dialed up the right patterns. The fish were bedding strong and there was a definite topwater bite working as well — two things I’m pretty good at.
On day one of the competition, I elected to start south on Lake George — in an area that attracts tons of bedding fish … and sometimes a crowd. Even so, I felt I could outfish them. It was a huge mistake. That arrogance nearly cost me a check.
On day two — well short of the money — I knew I had to try something different, so I moved to another section of the river and committed to the topwater bite. It proved to be a wise choice. I caught nearly 20 pounds of bass and climbed back into the money. And if it hadn’t been for losing several key fish on day three, I could have even reached the top 12.
Lesson learned: If you can avoid it, don’t fish in a crowd. Even if you feel you’re chances are strong, the added boat pressure can and likely will affect the outcome.
After pre-fishing this giant estuary, I felt I had a decent game plan going in.
Winyah Bay serves as the confluence for multiple tidal rivers, all of which remind me of Florida’s Gulf Coast. It looked and fished almost identically.
After three days of practice, I settled on a small canal system where I knew bass would migrate to. I was aware it might also attract other competitors, but I felt it could withstand the added pressure. (sound familiar?)
Day one went pretty well. I caught a little more than 10 pounds and was just inside the cut to the money. To cash that check, I knew I would have to repeat that same weight.
Day two, things fell apart. I lost a couple of key fish and was plagued with too many shorts. I thought about changing water, but the only other areas I had any confidence in were too far away. I was stuck without an option.
I pounded out four small keepers and finished well out of the money.
Lesson learned: Make every bite count, and don’t spread yourself out too far. Had I found anything close for back up, I could have salvaged the tournament and a check. Unfortunately, both were lost.
This was one of the most interesting and challenging events B.A.S.S. has ever hosted. Two days of competition on one lake, two on the other. I just had to survive the cuts to realize all of those days.
Although in close proximity to each other, the two lakes fished differently. Bull Shoals was primarily a bedding bite, Norfork was a pitching and flipping bite. Fortunately, I figured that out going in and was well prepared.
I worked long, hard hours on both lakes, covering as much water as possible. It required a lot of running, yet it was well worth it. Overall, I fished one of my best tournaments ever — capitalizing on everything I had found. And though my finish wasn’t super high, it was very satisfying.
Lesson learned: Hard work usually pays off. That and having lots of patience on what were extremely difficult bedding fish to catch.
I have a love-hate relationship with Wheeler. It’s been really good to me at times, brutal at others. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
After a miserable first day of practice, my roommate Cliff Prince clued me into a pattern he had working. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize it was waning. In fact, it totally evaporated on day two of the competition.
Just like Winyah Bay, I was inside the cut after the first day, but found myself scrambling the next. Without any kind of meaningful backup, I came up short and sacrificed a ton of Angler of the Year points.
Lesson learned: Making on-the-water adjustments is crucial in our sport. Sometimes instinct will prevail, other times there’s no hope. All I can tell you on this is to fight your way through it, and hopefully a turnaround will occur.
This body of water has been a thorn in my side for years. It’s one of the most productive lakes in the country, yet I somehow seem to miss the bite. This time, I thought it would be different.
After locating a number of areas with tournament-grade fish holding beneath matted vegetation, I felt the flipping bite would dominate. And it did, for the most part … just not under matted cover.
The right bite was flipping to flooded shoreline bushes and trees.
After discovering the mats, I put the blinders on. I just knew I’d have a banner tournament. Unfortunately, too many lost fish prevented it from happening. I lost them one after another — fish that I had shaken off in practice, not knowing how difficult it would be to get them out of the cover.
Lesson learned: Don’t get too comfortable with one thing. And know what your odds might be on catching the fish you find …before the competition begins.
Lake Texoma — BASSfest
It had been years since I fished Texoma, yet my memory of it was still clear. Going in, I expected to find plenty of action on the bank. What I didn’t expect was that the lake to be flooded … 10 feet above normal pool flooded.
After a day of practice, I could see the water level was slowly falling. That in mind, I focused on the cover closest to the old waterline — thinking the better fish would make their way there by tournament time. It was a good decision.
Although I finished just shy of the money, I did make some good calls on this one. I didn’t lose any fish to speak of either. I just came up a bit short on weight.
Lesson learned: Anymore, it takes much more than finding the pattern. You have to catch the right fish on that pattern. Perhaps a change in lure choices and/or presentations might have helped here.
If you follow my column, then you know I love fishing in New York. My track record there is strong. Somehow, though, I managed to botch this trip to the Empire State.
During practice, I spent half of my time scouring the bank for bedding fish, the other half probing offshore grass. I also developed a dock pattern as backup. I felt I had plenty to work with.
During the competition, however, things went south in a hurry. I started on the wrong spot and wasted several hours on what had become nonproductive water. Realizing the mistake, I tried salvaging the day by catching bedding fish. That helped, but most of the good ones had already been caught. I was fishing leftovers.
On day two, I decided to fish deep grass and that’s where I caught the days’ biggest bass — a 6-pounder. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to back it up. The rest of my limit consisted of bare keepers.
I finished low in the standings, killing my chances of making the Classic.
Lesson learned: Don’t waste time in an area that’s not producing, especially when you have plenty of backup. Had I moved sooner on day one, I’m confident I could have made a strong recovery.
I love the Potomac. It fishes shallow and they always seem to bite there … normally anyway. This proved to be anything but a normal event.
For some reason, it was next to impossible to find reliable fish. They were there one day, gone the next. Many of the pros who did well, claimed they discovered their fish during the competition … not in practice.
Going in, I liked my chances. I had found fish in several areas using a variety of techniques — some topwater, swimming a jig and steady reeling a vibrating worm. Unfortunately, none of that paid off when it mattered.
I finished the event with a single 3-pounder.
Lesson learned: Although tidal rivers can be unpredictable, this event was extraordinarily tough. All I can suggest is that you should move when things aren’t developing quickly enough …at least on tidal water you have the option of returning to an area on a different phase of the tide.
Prior to this event, Rapala (my title sponsor) scheduled a writer’s junket on one of the pools above official tournament waters. The idea was to give their pros an opportunity to work with key media while acclimating to the river.
I thought it would be a great opportunity. Instead, it gave me a false sense of hope.
Instead of treating pools 7, 8 and 9 separately, I spent way too much time trying to apply what I learned on pool 5. It was a costly mistake, too.
To make things worse, the only really good area I found was destroyed by overnight storms. It was a field of matted duckweed holding a school of 3-pound largemouth and it literally disappeared.
On day two, I went to a spot where I had caught them years before, only to find tournament leader Ott Defoe camped there. That was salt to the wound, as Ott went on to win the event.
Lesson learned: Don’t put all your bass in one basket. And don’t discount places that have proven productive in the past. Although you might have to approach them differently, they can still hold the right fish.