Most people see risk as a problem. A negative. Something to avoid. That's because they misunderstand the definition of risk.
Risk is neither good nor bad. It's just a measure. Banks, for example, can only make money through risk. Athletes can only succeed through risk. Coaches can only push their teams forward, and invent new concepts, through risk.
For veteran professional angler Clark Wendlandt of Texas, risk is something that's haunted him the past five years.
Why? Because he's come to realize he can't win unless he starts taking more risks.
After a fruitful decade with B.A.S.S. from 1992-2002, Wendlandt spent the next 15 years on the FLW Tour, visiting largely the same waters, fishing against a 200-boat field and averaging 22nd in the year-end tour points, which is an amazing stat across 14 full seasons.
Wendlandt did win an FLW Tour event each season from 1999-2001, but then he shifted into cruise control and a 14-year win drought that finally ended in 2015 at the Potomac. In terms of championships, he's fished three Bassmaster Classics and 14 Forrest Wood Cups, with two third-place finishes and several Top 10s, but no wins. His 2009 FLW Tour Angler of the Year title is probably his defining career achievement. But in his mind, that was more a reflection of “good fishing all season long,” rather than a sharp, win-first mentality.
A heart attack at age 47 intensified Wendlandt's desire to win. He's like the aging Rick Clunn, who once said something similar about his own changing mentality. But compared to the 72-year-old Clunn, Wendlandt's young — only 53 — and prior to the heart attack seemed quite sated by a consistent performance. Now, having stared down death and disease, Wendlandt's looking life straight in the eye, and upon his heralded return to B.A.S.S, is asking for more from himself.
"My fishing has been consistent since the heart attack — it's been good — but I'd be wrong if I didn't say I was a little disappointed over the last three or four years that I didn't have more chances to win. I just want to win," Wendlandt explains.
"I'm enjoying fishing, and I love fishing tournaments. You always want to do as well as you can do and have a successful career, but if I have to look at the whole, I want those wins. And to do that, I need to take more risks."
Decidedly, it's decisions
Every pro will tell you that factors like research, physical conditioning, tackle and equipment all play a role in winning. But the sport is changing, because the average for each of these has moved. Research is available at a mass scale. Anglers all have basically the same equipment. Nutrition and physical conditioning have improved. Altogether, these factors seldom determine a win.
Instead, anglers today win almost exclusively by their in-game decisions and mental confidence.
"I've thought a lot about that," Wendlandt says. "Some of this is going to get a little deep, but at this point, tournament fishing is such a mental game, the majority of it comes down to making the decisions about when to go, when to go slow, when to change baits, when to speed up. Those are decisions that can only come from me. I'm the only one who can make those decisions.
"I think that a lot of times, to win, you've got to take a major risk. I'm not saying that you suddenly need to take a 150-mile run. To me, a major risk is maybe not going the same way you did in practice — saying to yourself, 'What I did in practice isn't good enough, so I'm going to go wing it over here.'"
Too often, Wendlandt says, his efforts are toward risk reduction. It's natural, especially with paycheck psychology, where the need to get paid smothers the variance and "drives you back to the same place every day."
The need to make a check is ever alluring, but against a younger set of pros unafraid to wing it, it's almost to the point where it's riskier not to take risks.
Wendlandt notes, "What drives you back to that same place is the need to just survive by getting some bites. You think to yourself, 'I know I can make a check with a few more bites, if I take the risk away. But a lot of times, I think risk is what drives your best finishes. The upside to risk is a lot better. That doesn't mean you're always going to catch them if you vary your fishing and take more risks. That's what makes it scary.
"The way I've been fishing over the past six or seven years, I've not been taking that much risk. That's why I'm not having more chances to win. The whole risk thing is hard to describe, but what I've come to realize is that when you have a good day in practice, the bite's almost always better than when you come back there in the tournament — especially in a four-day event. Very few places hold up. I've realized more recently that you always have to be trying to change — pushing that edge and looking at risk differently."
Circling back on the topic of Gen-Y and Gen-Z pros, they're clearly more comfortable taking major risks, not fishing memories, stopping, changing, throwing a Crazy Ivan into their final day or even final hour.
Wendlandt astutely points out that youth is what drives any sport forward, but not for all the obvious reasons. In Wendlandt's eyes, younger pros do bring more energy, more stamina and a fresher eye. But beyond that, it's the relative ignorance of youth that drives their success.
Think about it from Wendlandt's standpoint. If he fishes a tour stop at Toledo Bend, or the James River, or Logan Martin Lake, he may know "50 different patterns that could possibly work." But the newcomer isn't weighed down by all that.
Wendlandt isn't shy about recognizing up-and-comers on the Elite Series — or about admitting the trappings of his age.
"It doesn't seem like it makes sense — you'd think experience would outweigh youth and drive — but experience doesn't really outweigh youth and drive,” he said. “Not knowing too much is usually better. When you go into a tournament, the less you know, the better. I'm not saying you shouldn't do research, or that experience doesn't matter. What I am saying is that, where I might go into a tournament knowing 50 different patterns that could work, one of the younger guys might go in knowing only three that could work.
"I'm trying to narrow 50 patterns down to one or two. He's just trying to eliminate one or two. And all it takes is one right pattern to win.