For me, 2017 was a year of recovery. I got off to the worst possible start in the season opener on Lake Cherokee, where I zeroed the first day of competition. It wasn’t until midway through the schedule that I felt I had regained any sort of respectability.
Here’s my breakdown on the season. I hope that the lessons I’m sharing here will translate to more fish caught for you and me going forward.
When BASS scheduled the season opener on Lake Cherokee in east Tennessee, it was a sure bet we would experience harsh conditions … and we did. Everything from snow and sleet to pouring rain.
Having no experience on the lake, I used jerkbaits, crankbaits, jigs and finesse worms rigged various ways, hoping to establish a reliable pattern. And all of them produced to some degree. Where I struggled most was trying to find a key area to settle into. The bites came randomly throughout the day, in different areas — no two alike.
I targeted points, creekbeds, edges of flats and schools of suspended baitfish, and none produced any kind of consistency. Matters worsened when a major cold front slammed the region. On day 1of the competition, we took off in a blizzard, temperatures in the teens. To keep the blood flowing, I moved from spot to spot, continually changing baits and presentations. I never felt a strike … not even a whiff.
The next day, the skies cleared and the temperature rose 20 degrees. That’s when I started catching fish. Same lures. Same patterns. Same spots. By weigh-in time, I had nearly 18 pounds in the box.
Lesson Learned: When the bite gets really tough, it’s probably best to slow down — even to glacial speed. The fish are probably right where you think they are, just not cooperating.
During March, the “Big O” is a sure bet for shallow, fun fishing. I knew there would be spawning activity in various parts of the lake. It was just a matter of finding the right grade of fish to excel.
I focused on protected pockets inside thick reed beds — places that would produce no matter what the weather brought. I also looked for spawners in open water grassbeds — areas that produce big fish continually, year after year.
By tournament time, I felt I was ready and day 1 went pretty well. After culling to 16 pounds or so, I went to a big spawning female I had sited in practice. She was there, sitting squarely in the middle of her bed. I spent three hours trying to catch her, knowing if I did, I would be among the leaders. Unfortunately, she wasn’t in a protective mood, and the whole afternoon was a waste.
On day 2, I returned to her in the morning — believing that time of day might make a difference. Again, she was there and again, I wasted several hours trying to catch her. Finally, around 11 o’clock, I gave up and scrambled to fill out a limit. It wasn’t enough, however. I fell just short of the money.
Lesson Learned: Don’t waste time on uncooperative bedding fish, no matter how big they are. I was so absorbed and determined I let it get personal. And that took me off an already working game plan.
Toledo Bend Reservoir
My record on this lake is not very good. I’ve had some decent finishes, but not many. I was hoping to change that and get the season back on track.
During practice, I spent most of my time running the bank, searching for beds. Whenever I located a quality spawner, I would record the precise coordinates on my Raymarine GPS. In addition, my electronics helped me discoverer a submerged grassbed, where I developed a secondary pattern throwing a jerkbait and bladed jig.
Each day of the competition, I started with that pattern, catching a few fish until the sun got high enough to see. Then I would switch to sight fishing. It was a great one-two punch, and it put me solidly in the money.
Lesson Learned: When you figure things out and you’re confident in what you’re doing, don’t stray. Confidence and persistence in a solid pattern will lead to good things, especially if you have a back-up.
Ross Barnett Reservoir
Although I fished “The Rez” years ago, I wasn’t sure how much it might have changed. Concerned with that, I planned a scouting trip prior to the 30-day off limits.
It was a good decision. Everything looked different. There were fewer stumpfields and many of the backwater sloughs had silted in. I quickly realized the lake would fish small.
During the official practice, the wind blew strong, eliminating many of the best areas on the main lake. Navigation was difficult as well. Resorting to what I had found a month earlier, I was able to scratch out a respectable finish and salvage some solid points.
Lesson Learned: Pre-fishing can pay off. Had I not spent the time necessary to reacquaint myself with the lake, I would have never found enough protected areas to escape the weather and crowds.
Sam Rayburn Reservoir
I also scouted Lake Rayburn and discovered it, too, had changed. Some of the old areas were still productive, but many had essentially disappeared.
Because they are neighboring reservoirs, I tried to make it fish like Toledo Bend. But that proved fruitless. It was its own lake, completely different, and I had to adjust. So I covered as much water as possible, alternating topwaters, crankbaits, jerkbaits and various soft-plastics, and by tournament time I felt I was prepared.
To avoid the crowd, I gambled on a distant spot — one I knew held fewer fish, but had the right grade.
That choice proved to be a huge mistake. Because of heavy overnight rains, the water had muddied and the fish refused to cooperate. By the time I made it back to my other areas, they were covered up with other competitors. I weighed a less-than-par stringer and found myself low in the standings.
Day 2 was better, but not near enough to get back on pace.
Lesson Learned: While I firmly believe you’re better off distancing yourself from the crowd, there are risks involved. Once discovering the water had muddied, I should have aborted right then and returned to more productive areas.
I like this lake a lot, and I was confident going in. Unfortunately, the lake wasn’t in the best of shape. Copious amounts of rain had muddied the best areas.
Expecting it to fish small, I tried to detail the few good areas remaining — hoping to find something unique that might go unnoticed.
As the competition got underway, my best spot quickly filled with other pros. Fortunately, most made a quick pass through the area then moved on. Seeing that, I decided to wait them out.
As the day progressed, I slowly put together a solid stringer. And by afternoon, I boated my largest fish — a 6 pounder, second largest of the competition. Day 2 was tougher, but again, I managed to eke out a solid limit and move through to the weekend. Day 3, more of the same.
It was slow but steady effort, and it moved me considerably higher in the points.
Lesson Learned: Patience is truly a virtue. Having trained on Florida bass, I know how to fish slowly and thoroughly. And that’s precisely what was required to survive this event.
St. Lawrence River
As the tour turned north, my confidence grew. I love all of the waters connected to the Great Lakes, and this river is my favorite.
During practice, I ran through familiar areas — trying topwaters, jerkbaits and various soft-plastics. Anytime I found a key spot, I punched the numbers and moved on. Success here means having plenty of places to fish …at least for me.
As the competition got underway, I quickly established myself among the leaders — eventually making it through the cut to day 4.
On the final day, a stiff northeaster blew directly into my best areas. The waves were relentless. I was forced to relocate to more protected waters — spots that held a lesser grade of fish.
When the dust settled, I learned my closest competitors were catching their fish on a lure I totally overlooked — a spy bait. I fell to 12th — giving up valuable points to the guys I thought I could beat.
Lesson Learned: Don’t discount any lure in a situation. Had I tried a spy bait — a lure that is known for producing in a tough, clear water bite — it’s probable that I would have at least held my position.
Although Champlain has a big population of smallmouth, it’s largemouth that have put me in the money more times. So, with that mindset, I put most of my effort into locating schools of green fish.
Ticonderoga had just what I was looking for; fields of topped-out milfoil in off-colored water. Working from sun up to sundown, I managed to locate several schools of fish, and I thought I could win. When the competition started, however, that all changed. It became a matter of survival.
Of my three best schools, only one produced — the one I believed to have the smallest fish. I went to them out of desperation and they saved the day.
On day 2, they were still there and biting and I managed to climb back into the money. It was a great save and it moved me even closer to my goal of making the Angler of the Year Championship (AOY).
Lesson Learned: You never have enough fish. Even if you find the motherlode, fish have fins and they use them. For whatever reason, my best two schools disappeared. Thankfully, I had a third group to fall back on.
Lake St. Clair
Another of my favorite Canadian border lakes, I couldn’t wait to get this event underway. I knew I would find plenty of fish; it was just a matter of figuring out where the better ones were holding.
Like the St. Lawrence, I applied a variety of baits and techniques. Topwaters, jerkbaits, soft-plastics — all of which contributed to finding and catching fish throughout the entire event.
On the third day, I got off to a great start. I had 20 pounds of smallmouth in the boat by 7:30am. It looked like I would make the AOY Championship, but then disaster struck. Two of my smaller fish died and (because of BASS rules) I was unable to cull them. It was devastating. I continued to catch bigger fish throughout the day, but to no avail. By the time the dead-fish penalty was assessed, I missed the AOY Championship by seven spots.
Lesson Learned: Had I gotten off to a better start early in the season, that dead-fish penalty wouldn’t have mattered. The damage was done at Lake Cherokee, where I zeroed the first day … not on the last day of the season. So, the lesson is pretty simple; try to avoid digging yourself a hole so deep that there’s no way to climb out.
Year In Review
Looking back, it was a good season overall. I made some good decisions, and many were on the fly. Anytime I make an adjustment and have it pay off, especially during a competition day, that’s a huge confidence builder. And with that, we’ll close the book on 2017 and look forward to next season and another shot at the Bassmasters Classic.