If you’re a young, comparatively unaccomplished tournament angler looking for success, time is your enemy. Every year that goes by, you’ll have more and more distractions and the competition will continue to get better.
It would seem to many of you that the best way to jumpstart your tournament career would be to step to the front of the boat and compete at the highest levels possible. After all, “to be the best you’ve got to beat the best,” right? Wrong. Getting consistent ass-kickings with no feedback or post-mortems is nothing but a good way to get discouraged.
Fortunately, in recent years many tournament anglers who want to improve ASAP have realized that the fastest way to success in the front of the boat is by stepping to the back of the boat. There’s no longer any shame in going as a co-angler. Indeed, we’ve seen a number of very successful pros emerge after they spent some time as a rider (see, e.g., Lucas, Justin). While there are certain egomaniacs who will never risk the perception that they’ve lost their man cards by competing as co-anglers, we are closer to accepting as conventional wisdom the idea that a step back is sometimes the best way to move forward.
Unfortunately, the idea that “if you want to get better, go as a co-angler for a year or two” misses one key element of a successful transformation – process trumps immediate results. Just showing up as a co-angler to a set of BFLs, Costas or Opens doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get better. If you just participate on tournament days, there’s no guarantee that you will be learning from the best, because while those circuits include some exceptional anglers, they also have many who will never be better than average club-level sticks. Furthermore, by the time tournament day rolls around, they’re likely to be focused on putting fish in the boat rather than explaining to you how and why the bass are acting a certain way. They may be secretive and/or quiet.
The key to maximizing your experience as a co-angler is to hook up with a boater, or a group of boaters, who will help you understand how to break things down during a successful practice period. In fact, if given a choice, you’d likely be better off from a developmental standpoint if you were to solely spend the practice period with them rather than the tournament days. Just any old boater won’t do. Find someone who takes the process seriously and who also does well during the events and approach him about it. If you’re in your twenties, it might be someone significantly older that you. If your goal is to just go fish for a few days, drink a few beers in the evening and share a few laughs, your choice will probably be different than if your number one goal is improving as fast as possible. Approach your candidate and explain your goal, the fact that you are looking to get better, and that you will share expenses for each event but will not breathe a word of what you learn to anyone outside of this circle. In the long run, time in the boat with someone who teaches you how to practice effectively on unfamiliar waters is worth far more than a trophy.