By Ken Smith
The last few years have been somewhat brutal for me and my writing has reflected that, largely talking about lessons learned but seldom applied. If you have fished tournaments for more than a few years you know that fishing can be streaky and generally good fishing begets good fishing, but start making bad decisions and the next thing you know you are questioning every decision you make.
Knowing this, and knowing what a poor year I had in 2016, I approached the off-season really wanting to make some changes to improve my game. I identified a couple of things that I wanted to get some confidence in, specifically I wanted to get comfortable throwing soft plastics on a wobble head, and I wanted to get better, actually dangerous, with an A-rig. To do that I spent multiple days on Texoma near my home taking only wobble heads with Hula grubs and A-rigs with various swimbaits looking for confidence. I gained confidence in both, especially in an A-rig with a Zako (colors 036 and 994). But even with these new tools and my confidence in them, I knew I had to deal with the little voices in my head that had gotten stronger and stronger over the last 18 months and that were excited for the first FLW Costa of the year to start their 2017 campaign of terror.
Then there was one other issue that continually haunted me: dock talk, but not just random guy dock talk. I am really lucky to run with a group of extraordinary fishermen - two in particular, Dicky Newberry, my team partner, and Albert Collins, both genuine hammers and roommates for the first Costa tournament. Both of them, if asked, will tell me how their practices are going, what’s working, what’s not. As my confidence over the last 18 months has eroded I have found myself looking for help more and more, deck surfing at takeoff, all the things we do when our confidence leaves us. I decided prior to Rayburn that thrill of victory or agony of defeat, I was going to fish what I found in practice and use the knowledge I gained in those practice days.
Dicky and I fished a team tournament on Toledo Bend the Saturday before the Costa. From that and a weekend spent on Toledo the week before, I had a sense that the fish were already staging in and over the grass, with lots and lots of bites available. However, the 8 pounder we caught that Saturday that got us a nice finish on Toledo was still outside the grass edge 12-14 feet deep. That was my first clue; totally different lake, but roughly the same latitude and therefore pretty in synch regarding the stages of the spawn.
For practice on Rayburn we had multiple overcast days and mild weather and I could take a swim jig with a 4” Swim Senko and wreck the fish. I was getting upwards of 40 bites a day, similar to the Costa two years earlier when you could go through multiple bags of Senkos a day. But like 2015 the quality fish, other than an occasional 4 pounder, just weren’t showing themselves. With the new moon the first night of the tournament and 63-68 degree water all week, I knew that a wave of spawners were coming, but I also know in the wide world of fishing I’m just not a great sight fisherman. I love to do it, but I want to see them bite it. The guys that catch the giant stringers don’t have that issue; they’ll stay away from the fish and cast semi-blind for those big bites. But I know me. I just don’t have that level of patience. It’s important to become familiar with your strengths and weaknesses on the water. If at all possible, fish to your strengths. I’m sure one day I’ll fish a tournament that I absolutely have to fish a drop shot, and when that day comes I will go buy a spinning rod, but until then I’m going to power fish.
With the fish moving up I knew 15 pounds a day might get a check (it took 31.5 to cash), but I really felt it would take 20 a day to make the Saturday cut (dead on). I don’t fish for a living, which means I’m out here to win. This may sound silly coming from a guy who struggled like I did last year, but I’ve won multiple team Anglers of the Year, a BFL Angler of the Year in Texas and runner up in Oklahoma. I don’t need validation that I can cash checks, I want the big trophy! I just didn’t see that coming from the haygrass or over shallow hydrilla in 2-3 feet of water.
Over the course of practice I really didn’t get any giant bites, it was actually only two fish over 5 pounds over 3 ½ days - one on a ¾-ounce Midasu Lipless Crank in Crawfish Red and one on a ¾-ounce Candy Craw trap. I had several fish absolutely crush my Zako-laden A-rig out on the deep grass edges, but I was fishing without hooks. I had some confidence that some of those were the kind of fish I needed to make the cut and get a shot at the big trophy, so I made the decision to focus on the outside grass edge that was 6-15 feet deep, according to where you were on the lake.
Day one dawned muggy and I probably got a little but lucky in that my day one partner was an older gentlemen who was suffering with some health issues and couldn’t fish as hard as my day 2 and 3 partners would. That seemed to help keep me from overthinking the shallow bite on day one. I started in an area on the south end of the lake where I had caught one of the 5’s and several in the 3-4 pound class on the Midasu in practice. A pass through the area with the Midasu, then the A-rig, and finally the trap yielded one keeper for about a pound and a quarter. I did not spin out, as I knew I had several more areas to run and I also knew the bite seemed to improve as the day wore on. I will admit I was unsettled having gone through what I thought were two solid groups of fish, and almost two hours, with nothing to show for it. I worked my way north, rotating through my three baits and by around 2:00 had a very disappointing 14-ish pounds. I was seeing lots of guys running the banks sight fishing, but I stuck to my guns and finally with about 30 minutes left to fish I popped the big trap out of a tower of hydrilla on a deep grass edge about 10 feet in front of the boat and watched one just over 6 pounds literally inhale the bait. One cull more had me sitting in the very middle of the pack on day one in 47th with 15.14.
I wasn’t leading (I was 12 pounds out of first) but these are multiple day tournaments and I knew a lot of those big day one stringers were the result of sight fishing, which would get tougher each day as the beds were picked over. I also felt I was refining my areas more and more, and I was still in search mode looking for bigger fish. [An aside here, another issue I’ve been working through during tournaments is to stop making my circles smaller and smaller - meaning rather than fishing everywhere fish might be as the tournaments unfold, I’d only circle back through areas I had already been bit in. I vowed to myself not to do that anymore and it paid off nicely this week.]
Day two is where my lessons learned really kicked in. I drew Rob Lucas, a great guy just 16 years old, fishing his first Costa. I skipped the south area that I wasted two hours in on day one and ran to an area around Veach (mid-lake). I started paralleling the deep grass edge as I felt really confident that’s where the big females should be (especially in light of the 6-pounder the first day). Rob began throwing a chatter bait perpendicular to the boat up over the grass to the edge of the haygrass. His first fish, I think on his first cast, was easy to shrug off. His second came maybe 20 minutes later. Still not bad, but an hour or maybe hour and a half later he had a solid 13 to 14-pound limit and I had not had a bite. The little voices were screeching, but I kept telling myself I could catch 100 of those fish and still wouldn’t make the cut. Another 14-15 pounds wouldn’t get me there. So I stuck to my guns, and finally at about 8:50 one train-wrecked my Zako. It was a 7.75.
Grind, grind, another one about 2 pounds 45 minutes later. Rob was steadily catching them behind me and the voices were screaming in my head, “One almost 8, pick off four 3-pounders shallow and you get to finish around 20-ish. A great finish and you make a check.” But I had committed to myself that I was there for more than a check, I was there for the win. My rotation was to fish the deepest scattered grass going over the points and into the drains with the A-rig, then I would switch to the Midasu or trap as I got too shallow for the A-rig. My second cast after picking up the Midasu in one such drain was bite number three on day two, a 7.50. I now had 3 for 18 pounds, and truthfully I was thinking, “I have six hours left to fish. I can catch 30 pounds.”
That didn’t happen, and actually Rob caught a 4 and a 5 (both post spawners) behind me that would have helped, but I was committed to trying to catch the big pre-spawn girls out over the edges. I finished day two with 25.1 giving me a 40.15 total for two days and 6th place.
Day three was truthfully almost a do-over of day two but without two big bites. I drew a guy throwing a swimbait up shallow. He had a limit before I had three, but as the day wore on I finished my limit, and again my bites were of better quality and I finished with more weight than my co-angler. Day three weight was 15.2, and my smallest fish was within a quarter pound of my biggest. Unfortunately, I just never got a quality bite on day three, but 15 fish for 56.1 is a pretty solid average, and a 6th place finish was a great way to start the year.
I had finally fished (for all but about 20 minutes of three days) the way MY practice had dictated was the way to win a Costa level tournament while ignoring the little voices in my head. Interestingly, as we sat around Sunday morning and discussed the tournament, Dicky told me that he had the best practice of his life (he’s won a Costa and 10 times at the BFL level so his comments carry weight), including multiple fish in the 5-8 pound range throwing nothing but a rattle bait. Those fish either moved up, or simply refused to bite. Had I known that and had we discussed his practice, at some point the second morning I think the little voices might have won. For now, their campaign of terror has come to an end.