I’m not going to lie to you: My 70th and 66th place finishes to start the Bassmaster Elite Series season had me down in a pretty bad mood. It stinks to look forward to a season and to prepare your best and then have things fall apart on game day. But now, after finishing 15th at Hartwell, I feel like I’m really starting to dig my way out of the hole.
I know that one finish doesn’t enable me to take over the world right away, but it gets me mentally to where I need to be. I never doubted that I could still catch bass but sometimes when the momentum starts going the other way it snowballs.
One key to the turnaround was my 34th place finish at the first Central Open of the year on Toledo Bend. The Opens offer a lot to any angler, including a chance to earn some money and a shot at the Bassmaster Classic, but for me the key was getting my fishing instincts honed again. I felt really comfortable with the Central schedule, with the possible exception of Toledo Bend. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to fish it, just that I’d never been there before. It’s always been something of a bucket list fishery for me and to get out of there alive with good points was a great feeling. It was a reminder that when I get my headed screwed on straight I know what I’m doing.
Then we went to the Classic, which threw even more fire under me. I had a great time, meeting the fans and solidifying my relationships with companies like Pure Fishing and Battle Born batteries, partnerships that I’m thrilled to have, but it won’t hurt me one bit if I’m not working it next year. I saw how the anglers who are competing are treated and what kind of opportunity that massive stage presents, and I want in on that deal.
After that, a 15th place finish at Hartwell was exactly what I needed to start righting my ship. I know that some anglers would’ve been pissed to miss the top 10, but it’s my best Elite Series finish so far, and I’m proud of it. I moved up every day, from 53rd to 26th to 15th. If I could do Day 1 over again I definitely would, but I’ll chalk up the poor performance to a learning experience. I’m thrilled that I was able to recover.
Now it’s on to Winyah Bay, and again I’m not going to lie to you: I’m pretty nervous. This one is a make or break deal that could mess up someone’s season. There are so many variables, including long runs, mud flats, mechanical difficulties and tidal swings. It’s a tough fishery, too. I prepracticed and understand how to get around, but the fish are unpredictable, and I don’t think anyone is going into it confident of catching big bags every day.
This is where my experience on the highly-pressured Fox Chain in Illinois puts me in the mental position to do well. It’s going to be a grinder where if you catch five a day you should be in good shape, and getting bites in tough situations is what I do well. If I can get five to seven bites a day and execute cleanly, that’ll play into my hands. If I can go into Saturday on the right side of 35th place you’ll see me doing cartwheels because I feel really good about the rest of the schedule. I just need to be smart about things.
With three Elite Series tournaments in the rearview mirror, it’s clear that the Elite Series is as competitive as ever. There were a lot of former stars who grabbed a lot of bandwidth for many years, but these new guys are straight studs. Whether they came out of the Opens, the College ranks, local events or regional circuits, they didn’t come from nowhere. They enter the tour with no fear and no hesitation, and every one of them can reprogram the world with their electronics. If you’re not on top of your game every hour of practice and competition they’re going to take your lunch money.
All of that competition and my small recent roll of success has me jacked up for Winyah Bay. I’m going to set the hook on everything that bites. It might turn out to be a dogfish or a shellcracker or a 6-pound bass that’ll get me into the money, but I’m not going to leave anything to chance. If you see me onstage with an 8- or 9-pound limit at the end of the day, I’m going to have my head held high and an ear-to-ear smile, because I’ve got my head in the game again and I’m ready to show what I’m capable of doing.