By Pete Robbins
February 18, 2013
Jay Yelas may be one of the newest Yamamoto pro-staffers, but he’s an old sage when it comes to competing at the highest levels of professional bass fishing. Over the course of 20-plus years as a pro, he’s fished 16 Bassmaster Classics and nine FLW Cups. He’s widely recognized as a sure first-ballot hall-of-famer.
Nevertheless, he’s “only” won one championship, the 2002 Classic. That’s not a reflection of any shortcoming on Jay’s part. In fact, while the Classic’s small field makes it seem like a comparatively easy tournament to win, the caliber of the competition, along with other “X factors” makes it one of the hardest.
With the exception of ultra-rare outliers like Rick Clunn and Kevin VanDam, championships are exceptionally elusive in this sport. Despite fishing 25 Classics, pattern-fishing innovator Roland Martin has never won. Gary Klein, the pro’s pro, has come close, but has not yet sealed the deal in 29 tries. Unlike football, basketball or baseball, where sheer talent wins out, the timing concerns, spectator pressures and other atypical aspects of these events sometimes make them harder to win than a regular season tournament.
Taking those variables into account, Yelas has honed a strategy that works for him, and he believes it could provide a road map for others in search of victory. It hasn’t produced another championship victory for him since his 2002 win on Lay Lake, but with two more top tens in Classic competition and four in FLW Cup competition, he’s shown a consistent ability to be in position to win. Additionally, he fished Grand Lake three times in B.A.S.S. competition in the early 1990s, finishing in the top five on two occasions. None of those events were in February, but he knows how the lake lays out and has fished comparable bodies of water this time of year, so he’s confident about how he’d approach this Classic. It’s more about strategy and preparation than about a particular lake, anyway.
“My approach would all develop based on the weather the week of the tournament,” he explained. “If it was cold and dry, I’ll look deep first with lures like a football head jig and a Hula Grub. If it was warmer and rainy, I’d probably go shallow with a spinnerbait, a square bill and a jig.
“Pretty much the whole field understands those basic ideas so you’d have to find the best water with the best concentration of fish. It’s a great lake, full of bass, including lots of 4- and 5-pounders, and the fish could be on the move so you’d have to hazard a guess and pick the right area or creek.”
He said that different anglers may be able to cover varied amounts of water efficiently, but over time he found that he did best when he selected one basic area and proceeded to pick it apart during practice.
“My first 11 Classics I spent 6 days or a week in pre-practice and hit a different area each day,” he recalled. “But when the tournament starts, you can only go to one place at a time. For me, that practice strategy was flawed. I had six areas I knew, but the other five days of practice were wasted. The year I won, I spent all six days of practice in one section of the lake.
“It’s a gamble,” he continued. “If it’s on, and the fish are up and biting, you’ll do well. If they’re off, you’ll bomb out, but the Classic is one tournament where you don’t care if you bomb out. You’re up there to hit a home run, so you have to come up with something that works for yourself.”
He noted that the strategy has not paid off with another victory, but he’s had several close calls. The other element of his evolving plan is to try to find a section of the waterway that he’ll have to himself. For example, he finished 21st in the 2010 Forrest Wood Cup on Lake Lanier, and then 6th there in the 2012 Cup. He ascribes his great improvement substantially to that strategy wrinkle. Simply put, even in Classics like 2010 and 2011, when the winners fished in a crowd, it’s hard to do well when you’re splitting the best fish up with other competitors.
“I try to pick out an area that not a whole lot of people pay attention to,” he said. “So in 2012, I focused on parts of the lake that were bad in 2010. That year the river section was bad, so that’s where I fished, and it was won there this year.”
Once Yelas locates the area that he intends to pick apart, he’ll “bear down on that and try to uncover the hidden gems.” That way, no tournament time is wasted aimlessly picking out banks or stretches that appear good. He wants to go straight to the juice. When he won in 2002, he found the key sweet spots below a tailrace. Not only did he know where to fish, but he knew when to expect more and better bites. The fish generally only ate between 10am and 2pm, when the power company was generating, so other competitors who had identified the area either couldn’t get to the best areas or in many cases they abandoned ship before the conditions got right. When choosing an area to focus on, Yelas also tries to make sure that it won’t be hindered by spectator traffic. Even the potential winning school of fish can be turned off by pinging electronics and an armada of boats parked above them.
The final element of his success has been to hone his mental game. Again, for each angler this process progresses on a different timeline. Some are born with ice water coursing through their veins and others need some disappointments or on-the-water education to polish their approach.
“You’ve really got to have an even keel,” Yelas advised. “You can’t let little setbacks bother you when they happen.” This is particularly true because in fishing, unlike golf or tennis or baseball, the competition takes place on public property. Fortunately for most of the Grand Lake Classic qualifiers, “in February there won’t be a whole lot of people on the water who don’t know that the tournament is going on.” Nevertheless, choosing areas to fish, and traveling between them will require careful planning if an angler is to be safe and productive. When Yelas won his Classic, he had recreational fishermen set up in his best areas and pull big bass out from under his glare. At other points in time, recreational boaters chugged right over his sweet spot.
“When that happened, I looked at my cameraman and said it would take an act of God to catch one now,” he recalled. “Moments later I caught the biggest fish of the tournament.”
In other words, if it’s meant to be it’ll happen, but an angler with a savvy game plan – one who avoids pitfalls and gives himself every advantage – can maximize his chances for Classic success.