Open: Practice extremes work on the James

Richmond, VA — Twenty-five year old Virginia pro Nicholas Bodsford, currently in 5th place in the 2021 Bassmaster Open on the James River, has previously competed in four Opens here, but has never managed to finish better than 30th place. That will permanently change tomorrow, and he credits his upward trajectory to hard work.

“I’ve literally been here every day I could for like two months,” he said. “I’ve spent every dime in my bank account. I’ve probably spent $1,500 on gas alone in the past two weeks.” He finished 76th and 154th here as a teenager in 2012 and 2013, respectively, before barely squeezing inside the check line in 2016 and 2017. Now he feels he’s on a different course, one driven by worth ethic. 

“I feel like I can compete with just about anyone out here,” he said. “But earlier I would just come here and practice one or two nights a week when I was off work. Until these last two months, I really didn’t realize that back then I wasn’t working hard.” 

The need to “start early and stay late” is nothing new in the world of bass fishing, and Bodsford’s realization seems to have shifted him into another gear, but anyone who thinks that practicing harder means practicing better is a universal truth need only look four slots higher on the leaderboard. The tournament’s Day 2 pacesetter – who with 36-1 leads Bodsford by 3 pounds and leads his nearest competitor by 13 ounces – is Elite Series pro Brandon Palaniuk. The five-time B.A.S.S. champion has vowed to remain at each Elite event this year to see the victor crowned, even if he’s not fishing on cut day. When last week’s tournament on Neely Henry was delayed a day and Championship Sunday was pushed back to Championship Monday, he honored that promise to himself.

“I have no regrets,” Palaniuk said. “I haven’t missed one yet. I want to show respect to the guys who win. It’s also partially to lead by example. The winning moment is the one thing that drives this industry, and to see it in person has 10 times the impact of seeing it on a screen.”

By the time Palaniuk left Alabama and drove to the James, Bodsford had already logged dozens of practice days. Palaniuk finally dumped the boat in the historic river on Tuesday at 4:30, and then fished daylight to noon on Wednesday. 

“This is a place where I’ve caught them before,” he explained of his comfort level despite a truncated practice period. Indeed, in four past Opens here he’s finished 5th, 11th, 11th and 38th. After a 13-11 limit had him back in the pack yesterday, he slapped a tournament-best bag of 22-6 on the scales today to rocket into the lead. Rather than see his lack of practice as a disadvantage, he thinks it’s allowing him to adjust to the river’s constantly-changing conditions. “I’m making decisions based on what is happening in the moment, not what was happening two weeks ago.” Indeed, that ability to alter strategies, lures and areas on the fly was the difference-maker today. Palaniuk had what he described as a “magical last hour” in which he not only filled out his limit, but also culled three times with fish in the 4- to 6-pound class. “There’s 25 to 30 pounds in there,” he said of his key area. 

So which is better, a lengthy practice period or an abbreviated one? There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer, and there’s no guarantee that either Palaniuk or Bodsford will come out on top. There have been three 20-pound-plus limits weighed in over two days of competition, and every member of the remaining top 10 has the ability to surpass that mark on Day 3, when there will be less competition for prime areas.

Win, lose or draw, Palaniuk will be back on the road no later than Sunday, reversing course to Alabama en route to an Elite Series tournament at Lake Guntersville. Bodsford, we can assume, will return to his normal life with an eye toward the next Northern Open, which will be held in July on Lake Oneida. He said that while a Classic berth would be incredible, his real goal is to use this week’s personal best B.A.S.S. finish as a springboard to qualify for the Elite Series. “The money would be awesome, but the trophy means more to me,” he said. “Plaques last forever.”

Of course, if all of the cards land a certain way, Bodsford and Palaniuk could meet again not only in the remaining Northern Opens or for future Elite Series events, but also as competitors at next year’s Bassmaster Classic on Lake Hartwell. Bodsford, whose father is a member of the fishing media, has attended every Classic since 2008, and even rode as Palaniuk’s observer in a past one on Hartwell. They keep meeting up, even though their paths have been wildly different – including this week.