This past week I attended the GEICO Bassmaster Classic in Birmingham — not as a competitor, but as an observer. And I have to tell you, that's not a lot of fun. No tour-level angler wants to be at the Classic as a non-competitor. It's just not in our DNA. Unfortunately, that was my role at this year's event.
Like scores of other envious spectators, I watched from the sidelines as the chosen few competed for bass fishing's most coveted prize — Bassmaster Classic champion. Being on the sidelines brought on an empty, sick feeling and with it, a flood of nightmarish memories of how I failed to make the cut.
For many who were unable to qualify, the season came down to a mechanical malfunction — one that hindered a practice session, or worse, prevented them from making weigh-in on time. For others, it was a lost fish or two, or a situation where someone beat them to a key spot.
Any of these scenarios, no matter how implausible or seemingly insignificant, can have a huge effect on the outcome of an angler's season — whether or not he's able to accumulate enough points to qualify for the championship.
In NASCAR terms, it's like hitting the wall leading into The Chase … no matter how strong your car is running.
Misery Loves Company
Like many other anglers, I came up short. I finished 51st in the points race and watched as 38 other Elite Series pros advanced to fishing's biggest event.
That realization stung when the season concluded, but nothing like it did during Classic Week. That's when all the hoopla and fanfare really drives the message home … like a stake through the heart.
Instead of competing on Lake Guntersville, I represented my sponsors at the Classic Outdoor Expo. There with me was longtime friend and Elite Series pro, Shaw Grigbsy. We actually drove up from Florida together, and along the way we reminisced about the various misfortunes that prevented either of us from qualifying.
Believe me, we had plenty to talk about.
Shaw recounted several instances where he had found good fish — winning fish — that somehow eluded him during the competition days. And I could totally relate. He also shared scenarios where he had discovered obscure hot spots, only to find out later that others had also found them. Again, I could relate.
By the time we arrived in Birmingham, we had recounted the entire season, blow by blow, like a panel of ESPN analysts.
A question we often hear during the Expo is, "What happened, why aren't you out there?" And I have to tell you, after a few of these inquiries, it becomes pretty annoying. In fact, by the last day of the show we're ready to choke someone!
The answer is not for lack of effort. Every angler on tour gives it his all, me included. Like most of the field, I have a strong work ethic, which I demonstrate during practice at every event. But the truth is, no matter how well prepared we might be, things happen beyond our control. And recovery is sometimes impossible.
I know what you're thinking: what about the guys who consistently qualify? The truth is, there are some really incredible performers on tour — guys who make it year after year. But there are also some very high profile anglers who miss or barely make it at times.
In fact, many of this year's qualifiers made it not through cumulative points, but by winning a single event. And several of them did it in the final hour! Their performance over the long haul was otherwise lackluster at best. But because B.A.S.S. allows automatic qualification to individual event winners, they advanced to fishing's greatest competition.
Don’t get me wrong, I'd be proud to make it that way. Rules are rules, and if they allow for that type of advancement, I, too, would take full advantage. At the same time, however, I feel —deep down — that it penalizes those who fish steadily over the course of the season, yet somehow fall short of the cut.
Igniting the Flame
Regardless of your position on this issue, one thing is certain: watching the Classic from the sidelines will light a fire in any serious competitive angler. It's the best medicine there is. And I can assure you, after watching all those guys cross the stage in Birmingham, I'm definitely motivated!
The 2014 Elite Series kicks off on Lake Seminole in little more than a week. Immediately following is the St. Johns River event. Both are close to my home and because of this, I spent considerable time scouting them during the off season.
Will conditions change? Probably. But I believe there's no substitute for time on the water, and the more comfortable I can get with any body of water, the more likely I am to succeed. At least that's my logic going in.
This time next year I hope to be sharing my experience as a 2015 Classic competitor instead of dining on sour grapes. Until then, I'll keep you up to date on my journey to get there.