The recent Elite Series tournament at Winyah Bay was presented as a binary choice – do you make the long run to the (assumedly better) fishery in the Cooper River, or stay close and get more fishing time? Within those two choices, though, there were strategic elements that had the potential to derail even the “proper” choice.
The Bass Live team did a good job of explaining the risks of running to the Cooper, and also addressed the issue of how, when and where those making the long haul had to gas up their boats. Nevertheless, I’ve continued to think about that latter issue and how it demonstrates the incremental effect of various decisions at the highest level of tournament competition. So much goes into it that the average fan doesn’t have to consider, but it could easily mean the difference between $100,000 and missing a check.
The B.A.S.S. rules are clear that there’s no real way to game the system and avoid gassing up if you’re running two or more hours each way. Specifically, Rule C10 reads, in pertinent part:
“Only gas tanks that are installed by the boat manufacturer are allowed. No portable gas tanks or containers capable of holding gasoline can be placed anywhere on the tournament waters or shoreline for use by any tournament competitor.”
That doesn’t mean that you can’t eke out every little bit of extra gas mileage along the way. Anglers including Chris Zaldain posted pictures on social media illustrating how little gear they were packing in their normally overstuffed boats — one or two utility boxes, a few rods, and tools to fix just about anything that might go wrong. Those playing the advanced version of this game also know that how you balance that load can make a difference. In a normal river tournament, many anglers might choose to run a “beater” prop, but when grabbing each mile-per-gallon is critical, do you bring a clean wheel fresh out of the box?
One pro even told me he knew a strategy for cramming an “extra” gallon of fuel into his gas tanks by filling them with the boat at a particular angle.
Of course, this one was also an opportunity for the boat and motor manufacturers to tout both their speed and fuel efficiency. While the playing field was big, the juice was small — getting there first was critical and several anglers talked about how their faster rigs gave them an advantage over the competition. At the same time, fuel capacities likely ranged from 45 to 55 gallons per competitor, which gave some the ability to run further on a full tank — assuming that their mileage was equal or close to equal.
And don’t forget lubrication — I’m not sure if anyone in the field is still running a motor that requires adding oil, but if they are they’ll have to bring at least a gallon or two of dinosaur blood or risk blowing up their engines.
I doubt that any of them ever let off the throttle to find a more fuel-efficient running speed, but one other way to save on gas is to shorten your route. A shortcut, or cutting a few corners, can shave fuel costs meaningfully, but it can also leave you stuck in the mud and unable to return to weigh-in, as Davy Hite found out in 2016.
All of those factors are meaningful and important, but as noted above the decision of when, where and how to get gas is the one that intrigued me the most. It might seem to someone who’s never fished competitively that the impact of gassing up early, late or at midday is effectively a wash — time is time, and it should take an equal amount of it no matter when you do it. That’s not necessarily the case, though. Each angler might have different needs and preferences.
For example, do you gas up immediately upon reaching the Cooper? Well, there are advantages to that. You likely get it out of the way for the day. After running two hours, many anglers are shaking with excitement and the physical stress of crossing the big water. Gassing up early gives them time to decompress and get their mind and body back in the game.
On the flip side, there are disadvantages to gassing up early. First, if you fill up at that point and then run around a bit down in the Cooper, you might have to return to the station before making the long run back to be sure that you have enough range. Second, if a bunch of other anglers have the same idea, and you’re stuck waiting in line for 10 or 15 minutes, or more, you’ve just wasted a substantial amount of your already very limited fishing time. Meanwhile, you can assume that some of your competitors are sitting in your key areas and catching “your fish.” If you don’t establish yourself early, you might get on the wrong rotation or end up effectively locked out of fishing your best spots later in the event.
A further complicating factor at Winyah Bay was the tidal element. Even if you’re inclined to gas up first thing in the morning, if your perceived best tidal window is first at that same time, something’s gotta give.
Finally, on fisheries with multiple marinas, there’s also the option of where to gas up. While one station might seem to be the obvious choice due to location, on occasions it might be worth it to fill up at a less-optimally located station to avoid a crowd. There’s also the issue of whether someone will be there to help you at the preferred time and place, whether they have automated pumps, and even how quickly the gas comes through the hose. If you don’t think that all of this matters, think about how upset you’d be if you ran two hours, then an additional five minutes out of the way to get to a virgin gas pump, only to discover that they had no fuel, or weren’t opening for another 20 minutes. If all of this doesn’t play into your planning, then you don’t deserve to be on the Elite Series.
In the end, Stetson Blaylock won on the Waccamaw River, without making the long run to the Cooper. He beat Scott Canterbury by 9 ounces, and Cory Johnston by 1 pound 10 ounces. Those two were clearly around the right caliber of fish in the Cooper River, as evidenced by the former’s 16-02 bag on Day Four, and the latter’s 17-06 on Day Three. While there’s no guarantee that they failed time-management in any way over the course of the four days, you can be damn sure that Blaylock is glad that neither of them had an additional 30-40 casts during prime windows each day.
[As an aside, non-fishing friends often ask how I find enough topics to remain passionate about writing about bass fishing nearly every day. I just wrote 1,100 words on the importance of choosing when and where to fuel up during a bass tournament. I suspect that I am in no danger of running out of ideas.]