National Championship? – Final Episode
I had been fortunate that fate had allowed me to be exposed from an early age to bass fishing. Both my grandfather and my father were/are hard-core bass fisherman whose own lives essentially corresponded with the modern advent of the sport. By virtue of that birthright, I was constantly surrounded by things bass fishing.
For one, I lived my whole life on the banks of great bass fishing. Rivers, backwater marshes and ponds, and tidal waters were my backyard growing up. Then, there was always a bass boat of some kind in the driveway; always rods and tackle in the garage or in the house; always a Bass Pro Shops catalog and a Bassmaster magazine in the house; Roland, Hank, Orlando, Ray, or Bill on the TV. I knew of nobody else, had no friends who had come from such “privilege”.
During my late teens and into my early 20’s, I had no money, but I had one magazine subscription – Bassmaster Magazine. I read every article, cut them out, marked them up, and filed them away into a file folder by topic.
My National Championship tale was really two stories.
One story was how I had leveraged 40 years of listening, watching, reading, experiencing…learning to get me to a position where I was leading after two days. I applied all that learning to a foreign body of water all the way across the country.
The other story is how I carried a stubborn pride in the event that I could figure the fish and Florida out on my own. You might say that approach served me well, but that approach also cost me as you will see with this final piece of the series.
Tournament Day 3 – Final Day
Day 3 started out a little differently. Believe it or not, there was a fair amount of attention for leading the tournament after two days. From the moment we all got on the bus to head back to the hotel after day 2’s weigh-in, to coming back to the hotel and then breakfast the next morning and then loading back on the bus to go down to the ramp on the final day. I was suddenly a popular guy. Lots of questions about what I was doing, how somebody from Washington could possibly figure them out. All of that was comic irony in my mind. I thought it was even more improbable than they did.
All of that hype overshadowed what should have been a real concern for me. The weather had radically changed. Cloudy, breezy…not so humid. Gone was the sun that had accompanied any bit of success I had. I can’t say that I wasn’t aware of these changes, just that I tried to ignore them – because I didn’t know what to do about it.
I need to reemphasize how brutally tough the fishing was. I was one of only a few to have a limit both days, but that was after two fish caught in three days of practice. Speaking of my practice, especially frustrating was that third day of practice, when I thought I had figured something out and could not get bit even trying to target the “right” stuff. Let’s see…what was the weather doing that day. Cloudy, windy.
So I started that third day as I had the other two, at the Gator Hole. I caught a couple right away, but of the 11-inch variety. Now I thought about that five pounder from practice. This final day, my mind began to wander more. I raked my brain over how to catch five. So, I began to scramble, running to the island after only one pass through the Gator.
By now the low clouds/fog had begun to lift some, revealing more clouds. I started a tug of war in between my ears about whether to change techniques to more of a moving style bait as I reasoned that the cloud cover was not going to position them in the same predictable ways that the sun from days one and two had.
Remember that little detail of the five-pounder from day two sitting under that mini-mat of cattails? That was a key little detail. The sun and shadows created by the angle and direction of the cattail clumps made me efficient. I didn’t waste casts because I felt I knew where I needed to put that tube. Now, I didn’t have that same confidence that they would be set up the same way.
This wasn’t a “Florida” problem I was facing. This was just bass fishing 101. A major weather change makes a difference. But I was hanging on to what worked on the other days, even though I knew better.
With each “short” fish (sub 12 incher) I caught, I convinced myself that I was still doing the right thing, that I just needed to be persistent and stick with it. Several times, I swung and missed on what felt like a super aggressive fish. I started thinking how they were in a finicky mood, not committing to that tube. But then, I hooked one of those big hitters and it turned out to be a mudfish or bowfin. It reminded me of moving into areas on the Columbia River and catching nothing but Squawfish instead of Smallmouth.
Of course, all this hindsight makes sense today, but at the time I really wasn’t sure what adjustments to make, so I just put my head down and tried to grind it out. I only picked up one keeper (barely 12″) from the island and by 11:00 I was headed back to the Gator Hole
Now, remember, the “Gator” Hole earned that nickname. Just keep that in mind as I describe what happened next. Within a few minutes of pitching, I caught keeper number two, another stout 13 incher. The fact that this happened quickly made me believe I had made the right move. As I neared the section that had given up the five pounder during practice, I made a pitch deeper into the cattails than normal. In fact, I couldn’t see my tube enter the water. Immediately my line jump and I reared back and my rod bowed under the weight and resistance of…I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t see my bait or the fish. It was too thick and I had pitched too far back in there.
So I plowed into the cattails with the trolling motor and buried myself until it wouldn’t go any further and then starting to trace my line as far as I could. I still couldn’t see where my line was going to so I got on my belly and laid out off the boat as far as I could, my body bridged over the water while I clawed and grabbed at the cattails. I HAD to have that fish, which I still hadn’t seen yet.
After a major struggle, I came back with bass number three. A whopping 13 incher again. I’ve thought about the moment more than a few times since and how close I was to going in the water at the Gator Hole.
Those three keepers were all I could muster that day. I ended up in 2nd place, exactly 2lbs out of first. Two 13 inchers away from winning. At some point that day, I remember thinking “all I need is two, 1 pound fish”. But I didn’t have a clue how to do that other than to keep doing what I was doing.
I wasn’t prepared to make that adjustment.
Compare my story on day 3 to that of the winner, Randy Phillips, and you’ll see what I mean about not making adjustments when the conditions changed. Click here for that story.
I hadn’t prepared for a weather change. I hadn’t prepared to use a different technique or a different location. Now I could tell you in theory about doing those things and had done them before, but in this case, I wasn’t prepared to lead the tournament after two days with one technique in two specific areas and then give up on that quickly on the final day.
So while I could defend my decisions on that final day with the fact that most everyone would have done the same, it still doesn’t make them the right decisions.
Above all the whole National Championship experience made me a better angler. There were a number of things I learned from that trip that would help me a great deal later on in other events. Some of these things I did a good job of executing in Florida, others I failed to do and it cost me the tournament.
- Find areas that you can have to yourself. Even if they are not the “best” spots on the lake or river, you will be able to better manage those fish if you have it to yourself. If it’s an area where you never see anyone fishing, see if you can learn it and make it work for you.
- The only thing you can count on in fishing is change. Prepare for it. Prepare for changes in weather, and water conditions. That means at a minimum run through those scenarios in your mind, prepare equipment for those changes. Purposely practice in adverse or different conditions if you have the opportunity.
- Even in a multi-day event, catch as much weight as you can for that day. Worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. Conditions will change and that area won’t be the same anyway. When you feel like you are in “the zone” and really understanding what is happening at the moment, take advantage of it. The one or two pounds you end up losing by can be made up easier when you are dialed in than they can be the next day when you are struggling.
- Have a level-headed approach to “dock-talk” and information in general. In other words, pay attention to it, but have a critical eye and ear to your sources. Don’t shut yourself out of opportunities to learn about the conditions, the environment and what general areas and patterns are getting the most attention. If nothing else, you will want to make the opposite work. Zig when they zag, but to do that you need to know if and when they are zagging.
- Competiton days are still practice days. Don’t limit yourself to learning and trying new things only during “practice”. You will actually learn more about how to really catch them on competition days if you allow yourself to do so.
- You don’t have to learn a new way of fishing when you go to a new body of water, even in another state, even all the way across the country. Just like there are bass that you aren’t aware of and don’t know how to catch on your home waters, there are bass that you can catch with the same baits and in the same way on a new body of water in another zip code.
While It’s been enjoyable for me to recap this experience, my real hope is that you were able to see yourself in some of those experiences and learn from them as I did.
If you are interested in learning more about how to improve as a tournament angler, let us know below.
Looking forward to hearing about your classic experience.