November 30, 2012
That said, here's a recap on how I got schooled during the 2012 Elite Series campaign.
The lesson I learned in this year's opener on the St. Johns River was especially frustrating. Using what I thought was a proven approach for some spawning bass on
Spawning fish in Florida are fickle. They're usually only reliable when conditions are stable. Oddly, that's precisely what we had during this event, so I expected everything to go as planned. But no!
With an early draw on day-one, I secured what I believed was the best area of the entire flat—one with the highest concentration of beds and quality fish within a cast of my boat. As the sun got higher, however, it became apparent that the bigger females were gone. That didn’t worry me as much as it did the guys fishing around me—they all left by .
I was determined to stay. I believed the females would return once the water warmed. I've seen it a million times in
Unfortunately, this time it didn’t happen…at least not in the area I was fishing. And what was more perplexing is that it did occur in areas nearby. I was at a complete loss. What was clearly the best area on the entire flat two days earlier was now nearly void of fish. All that remained were a few deserted buck bass.
The early draw that I thought would prove invaluable actually worked against me, as I was forced to leave too soon in order to make weigh-in.
The lesson: Don't die on one spot. Move! If you know your pattern is solid, try applying it in other areas—especially areas nearby—before the clock runs out!
"Big O" Bomb
The other backyard lesson I learned came on Lake Okeechobee the very next week. While we were competing in the northern part of the state on the
In my many years of fishing Okeechobee, clear water has always been the key to finding quality fish. Based on that history, I chose protected areas where I knew the water would remain clear. In doing so, I essentially took myself right out of the race.
Lying on the western side of the lake is an area called Observation Shoal. Basically, "The Shoal" is a long, narrow stretch of reeds and bulrush extending north to south. It's there that the winds delivered the heaviest pounding. Accordingly, I completely discounted its potential.
As it turned out, most of the top money was earned by anglers who braved the conditions there. Lined up one after another, they plucked giant stringers of bass from The Shoal's outside bulrush line. All the while, I was fishing on the protected side of the lake…over where there were fewer and much smaller fish!
Lesson learned: Don’t get stuck on past patterns! Keep an open mind, especially on your home waters. What used to work with consistency can suddenly go out the window when habitat changes. That's precisely what occurred on Okeechobee, I'm convinced of it. Years of hurricane damage and fluctuating water levels left Okeechobee dirtier than normal. As a result, the bass learned to adapt by feeding in heavily stained water.
While the fish had adapted, I didn't!
Lake Douglas is an absolute bass factory. You can catch a pile of fish simply by going down the bank, but everyone knew going into this event that it would require a solid deep-water bite to win. I spent better than half of my practice period probing deep structure. Though I marked plenty of bass on my electronics, I was never able to make them bite. Frustrated, I gave up and pounded the shoreline like most of the other competitors.
The bottom line; I wasn't reaching the fish. Although I tried big, deep-diving crankbaits, I simply wasn’t getting them deep enough.
Remember, this is the event that made "strolling" and "long-lining" the new catch phrases on tour. Eventual winner, Jeremy Starks, perfected the technique by making lengthy casts, then trolling away from his lure until the spool of his reel was nearly empty. Then, with some nifty boat alignment, he would crank his deep-diving plugs directly through schools of deep, suspended fish.
Me? I used the very same crankbaits, but cast them in a conventional manner. The result was I never reached the ultra-deep strike zone that Jeremy realized.
Bull Shoals Bypass
Everyone caught fish at Bull Shoals. Numbers weren't the problem in that event, size was.
With the exception of Brandon Palaniuk, who won the event, most everyone else kept the trolling motor moving, covering as much water as possible. Fishing more conservatively, I chose two small areas and stuck with them throughout the competition. I caught a ton of fish but I wasn't able to improve on their size.
The bottom line is that I stayed too long in the wrong spots, and because I was catching so many fish, complacency set it in. Sadly, I didn’t realize the mistake until it was too late. As the tournament progressed, I fell further and further behind, simply because the fish I was on were smaller and the areas I chose kept replenishing themselves with the same grade fish.
Another problem is that I was culling more than fishing. I spent too much time culling fractions of ounces, rather than pounds.
The lesson: Don't get caught up in an area simply because it's producing plenty of action. Make sure that the fish you're catching are actually improving your chances. If they’re not, move on!
This past season, Toledo Bend Reservoir gave new meaning to the word "brutal". I had a bad feeling on my way there and an even worse feeling when I left. I finished dead last at that event…something I had never done before, and the lesson still stings like a bee-otch!
If you read my account of Toledo Bend in a previous column, then you pretty much know how my practice went. I wasn't on a bunch of fish, but I felt I could survive, nonetheless.
This lesson came courtesy of fellow pro, Ott DeFoe. We both had found fish in the same areas, but fortunately for Ott they bit for him and not for me. Why? Simple. He used a different approach—he used a swimbait.
The thought of using a swimbait never occurred to me. I believed the fish were too deep—deeper than I was comfortable with in choosing that type of lure. To me, the situation called for a jig, worm or deep-diving crankbait, or maybe even a jigging spoon—but not a swimbait.
So much for my logic.
Using a large profile swimbait, Ott went on to secure a solid finish—plucking the very fish that I had also found. It's bad enough not being able to catch the fish you find, but to watch someone else load the boat with those same fish is especially painful.
Hats off to Ott!
Turning The Tide
When the tour headed north, my luck changed. First up was the
On the first day of the tournament, I locked upriver to the next pool with a crowd of other competitors. When I arrived at my starting spot (a small patch of matted milfoil) another angler had already beaten me there. I watched as he filled his livewell by throwing a hollow-bodied frog across the grassbed. It was extremely painful to watch.
Finally, after a couple of hours, he moved away and I was able to access the spot. What happened next was pretty remarkable.
With Power-Poles down, I committed to the grassbed. Using a frog, I combined long casts with a super slow retrieve—some taking as much as five minutes each. My marshal said he had never seen anyone fish so slow, even with a frog. It took a while, but I eventually put together a solid stringer of largemouth averaging 3-pounds apiece!
He couldn’t believe I was catching such quality bass from a spot another competitor had already pounded. Heck, I couldn’t believe it! I knew from practice it held good fish, but I had no idea how many. If I had had another place to run to in that pool, I would have left. Fortunately, I didn't.
The lesson: Patience, and believing in the areas where you find fish. If it's a good area, quite likely more fish are using it than you may realize.
Bonanza Green Bay
The Green Bay event added fuel to the flame. After a very successful practice, I was more than ready to begin the competition. The only real concern I had was for the weather.
On day-one, the wind blew hard. Facing more than an hour-long run through three and four-footers, I wasn't sure it was worth it. By the halfway point I was beginning to question the decision. I watched as a number of other competitors turned back—but something inside told me to stay the course, so I did. And what resulted was a great catch that catapulted me in the standings.
The lesson: Always listen to your gut! If something inside tells you it's right, then believe in it.
As it turned out, the wind laid down on that first day and the fish bit really well in the afternoon. Each day was slightly different and I had to make some adjustments throughout the event, but without that first day run I would have been lucky to scratch out a check at all.
New York, New York
What can I say? I love
Lake Oneida is on the small side, with tons of grass and shoreline targets. It's a bank-beater's dream. It's also full of fish—both green and brown—and I always seem to figure them out. With a ton of confidence, I revisited many of the areas that had produced for me in previous events.
Every time I've fish Oneida, it seems multiple lures and tactics are required in order to remain consistent throughout the competition. With that in mind, my lure selection covered the entire water column top to bottom. During practice, I worked meticulously through each area trying to learn which had the most potential. The strategy paid off. By week's end I had logged another Top-12 finish.
The lesson: Versatility—being competent with as many lures and techniques as possible, especially if your strengths lie in shallow water. There, you're likely to be fishing behind other competitors, and what you do to separate yourself is critical.
With so many talented anglers competing now, versatility is absolutely essential!
No matter what level we fish at, learning from our mistakes is crucial to becoming better anglers. It's what helps us grow.
Remember, even the very best anglers experience failure. It's how they respond to the setbacks that shows what they're made of. So try to keep an open mind and draw on your experiences, good and bad. They're the ticket to success!