As most of you know, professional angling involves much more than just fishing. In most cases, it includes considerable time on the road. And that was certainly the case during my most recent stint with the Bassmaster Elite Series schedule.
Beginning in early June, I left my home in North Florida for the Texas-Louisiana border to compete in the Toledo Bend event. From there I traveled to Rapala headquarters in Minneapolis, Minn., and then on to Wisconsin for back-to-back Elite events. All total, it was a four week road trip.
Normally, travel doesn’t wear on me that bad. But this time was different. My two sons were fresh out of school for the summer, and leaving them behind was difficult. I wanted to spend time with them. Unfortunately, my tournament schedule prevented it.
Yeah, I could have taken them with me. But the problem with that is Elite Series rules prevent competitors from having family or friends in the boat during official practice. And since they obviously couldn’t go on the competition days, there really wasn't any way of keeping them entertained. So, reluctantly, and with a lot of guilt, I left home without them.
As it turned out, Toledo Bend was a complete disaster. Somehow I managed to finish dead last in the competition. And I have to tell you, that experience was not only depressing, it was also quite sobering.
Throughout my many years of competitive angling, I can’t recall ever finishing last in a tournament. Had it occurred during a normal season, one with typical highs and lows, it would have been one thing. But this fell on the heels of a two-year slump, which led to a lot of self doubt.
Here I was, one week into a four-week road trip, already missing my family and fishing like a beginner — frustrated and clueless on how to get back on track. After a two-year slide, I felt I had hit rock bottom.
Fortunately, after that setback, something really good happened.
With a few days off between Toledo Bend and a scheduled pro staff meeting at Rapala, I decided to visit with my sister and niece in nearby Houston. My travel partner, Zell Roland, also lives there, so the trip seemed to make a lot of sense. After stashing the boat at Zell's place, I headed to see my family.
My sister Jane is the oldest of four siblings. She's also the wisest. Throughout my life I've confided in her. She listens like our mom, and I guess that's why I feel I can talk to her. Together, we tried to figure out where the wheels came off, and, more importantly, why. You see, she has insight into competitive fishing — she's followed my career closely and she's also a teacher, with lots of patience and understanding.
Although I didn't realize it at the time, our talks somehow changed things. The time spent with her and her daughter's family was restful and therapeutic. I left Houston feeling much better than when I had arrived.
My next stop was the Rapala pro staff meeting. The meeting was productive, but relaxed, and eventually transitioned into a get-together with the company staff. I've been with Rapala a long time, and as a result have forged strong friendships there. It's a great company run by avid anglers that know the sport inside out.
During the visit, I spent a couple of days on the water with Mark Fisher, Rapala's head of research and development. We talked about my slump and the possible reasons causing it. Without probing, he gave me some things to think about. He also told me that I was too good for this to continue much longer. Looking back, I know the time spent with Mark was also helpful. Not only is he a great angler, he's also a sports psychologist of sorts. The only difference is that his couch is the deck of a bass boat.
I left Minneapolis pumped for two back-to-back tournaments in Wisconsin, somehow knowing things would change for the better.
The Upper Mississippi at La Crosse, Wis., looked much more inviting than I had first imagined. Driving along the riverbank revealed plenty of shallow water habitat perfectly suited to my style of fishing. With its many wing dams and shallow grassy flats, I knew I'd find fish there. And I did. Not in big numbers, but enough to earn my first check of the year.
Following the La Crosse event, I headed directly for Green Bay and a drastically different environment — Lake Michigan, the second largest of the Great Lakes. Talk about overwhelming, the Green Bay area represents just a small portion of Lake Michigan, yet it reminded me of the Gulf of Mexico back home.
Over the next few days, I dissected the bay and the Fox River which feeds its lower end. With a solid game plan in play, I improved my position each day over the course of the competition, and, for the first time in a year, I was competing in the top 12 on Sunday.
Once the 12 finalists were determined, "The Bassmasters" TV crew shuttled us to Lambeau Field — home of the Green Bay Packers. There, they wanted to conduct interviews inside the stadium, to add impact for the show's viewers. However strange that may have sounded at the time, I didn’t care. I just wanted to see the inside of Packer Stadium.
This wasn't my first experience inside a large stadium. Actually, I've been to many — including the Gator Bowl, Orange Bowl, Florida Field, Citrus Bowl, Busch Stadium, and others. But even so, exiting the tunnel onto Lambeau Field was awe-inspiring. Its vastness was positively overwhelming.
The image took me back to the 2000 Bassmaster Classic, when it was hosted by the City of Chicago and the weigh-in ceremonies were held at Soldier Field. I'll never forget that experience.
There's something about big arenas that challenge competitors. And after two seasons of struggling in the Elite Series, standing on Lambeau Field in the middle of "Title Town" as one of the top 12 was just what I needed.
I felt I was finally back on track.