This week's tournament on the Bassmaster Elite Series schedule — BASSfest on Lake Chickamauga — is different from all the Elite events that have come before it. It's not a points event. I can't move up the ladder in Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points and qualify for the Bassmaster Classic that way based on my performance this week. In fact, the only way to get to the Classic via BASSfest is by winning the tournament.
So that's exactly what I'll be trying to do.
That's not to say that I'm not always trying to win. My goal every time out is to win, but sometimes conditions dictate a different approach and a different set of goals. Sometimes a tough practice will change your attitude. When you think you're not on the fish to win, it might be best to set your sights on just making that first cut or just catching a decent limit, picking up some valuable points and living to fight another day. If you think it'll take 20 pounds a day to win but you know you can only catch 15, sometimes your best bet is just to go out there and make sure you get your 15 rather than take a big chance and end up with nothing.
At BASSfest, where the only thing at stake is the prize money and a Classic spot, there's really no second place for me. I want to win and lock up that 2015 Classic berth to take the pressure off for the rest of the season.
At the moment (Saturday night), I don't know a lot about Chickamauga. I saw it for the first time today and still have never been out on the water. That's OK, though. I've won tournaments on waters I've never seen before official practice started. Hitting the water with truly fresh eyes and no preconceived notions can be a great thing.
From what I hear, the lake has an awesome bass population, and there will be a lot of ways to catch them. I doubt that anyone will be able to win by catching shallow water fish all four days. I feel certain it's going to take a productive deep water area or pattern.
And from what I've seen and heard, Chickamauga is going to fish very, very small. In addition to 107 Elite anglers there are going to be 33 pros from the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens, and we're going to be fishing right on top of each other. The T-shirt I'm holding up in the photo for this column kind of sums up my attitude to fishing in a crowd.
My preference is to get away from other fishermen and look for productive water that I don't have to share. That may not be possible here. The winner may have to fish close to lots of other anglers and find something special — a bait, a retrieve, a spot within a spot — to stand out from the crowd and catch bigger bass than everyone else.
Some people handle fishing in a crowd better than others. It doesn't bother them so much. Unfortunately, that's not how I'm wired. I don't like it, but I can do it if that's what it takes.
Sharing water with other competitors is something that happens to all of us if we fish enough tournaments. To make it work, you need some diplomacy and you've got to be realistic. When I pull into an area that I found in practice and see another competitor's boat there ahead of me, if I think there are enough bass to go around I'll ask if he minds sharing the area. If he seems reluctant, I'll explain that he's probably there ahead of me because he was in an earlier flight. Tomorrow I'll be there first and can return the favor of sharing with him ... or I can keep it all to myself the next day. Most guys are pretty reasonable.
What's tough — and what I always try to avoid — is when your boat draw determines your fate in a tournament. You have to do what you can to keep that from happening, but it could be a real factor at Chickamauga.
If I'm fortunate enough to be in the Top 50 after two days, I'm looking forward to meeting the fans at BASSfest and talking fishing. It should be a great opportunity for anyone who can get there to meet some outstanding anglers and learn a lot about the sport we all love.
Finally, if we're Facebook friends, I want to give you a chance to win a pair of Wiley X Gravity sunglasses like I wear on the water. They retail for $140, and you can win them by being the first person to correctly guess (or come the closest) to my Day 1 total weight and place in the standings. You can find me here.