We all have tough tournaments — events where things don't go our way and we're left trying to put something together on Day 2 (or in the afternoon if it's a one-day event).
It's easy to let tough fishing or a lost fish ruin your day, but I'm here to tell you that a big part of what separates successful tournament anglers from the ones who don't perform as well as they could is the ability to salvage the bad days, turn them into productive days and move on.
Every year, the competition in the Bassmaster Elite Series gets tougher. You may see the same thing in your bass club or weekend tournament circuit. The gap between the top and the bottom is getting smaller all the time. The things that separate the best from the rest are often razor thin and difficult to define.
If you're not able to maximize the tough days — to find some way to turn them into average days and to learn from them — you're not going to be as successful as you should be, and you'll find yourself chasing the guys who possess that kind of mental toughness.
I've learned a few things over the years that have helped me a lot in this regard. For one, I think of each Elite tournament as part of the larger season — not as merely a standalone event. This helps me to put things in perspective and realize that everything doesn't hinge on one day or one cast.
It also helps me keep my long-term goals in mind. In the short-term, I want to do well each day and win the tournament. In the longer term I want to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic and put myself in position to win Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year. If I only think about the tournament I'm fishing in at that moment, it might be easy to let a lost fish derail me and put me off my game. But if I think about the bigger picture, I can more easily stay on task and work toward the other goals.
I also think about all four days of each Elite tournament. It's one thing to take them one day at a time but quite another to lose sight of the fact that they last four days. You can often weather a bad first day if you regroup and put things together on Day 2. That could put you inside the cut for Day 3 where you could make something happen and get yourself into the finals. But none of that good stuff happens if you have a meltdown in the first hour of the first day and never recover.
In fact, nothing good ever happens when you beat yourself.
One of the most common instances you see of great anglers hurting themselves in competition is when they lose a big fish. I certainly understand the feeling because it's happened to me more times than I care to remember. But unless it happens late on the final day of a Bassmaster Classic, it's probably not fatal and it's something you can learn from and even capitalize on.
Instead of dwelling on the nightmare of losing that key fish, get your bait back in the water and review the elements that put the big one on the end of your line. How were you retrieving the lure? Where was it in the water column? How close was it to cover? What was the cover? Did the bass strike from an ambush point or did she follow your bait? How well was she hooked? What caused you to lose the fish?
Think of those things for two reasons: (1) they'll get your head back in the game and (2) you might hook up with another big one if you can just repeat the key elements of that pattern.
The next tip is the flip side of that same coin. When you land a big one, don't get too caught up in celebrating. Get the fish unhooked and into your livewell as fast as you can, and get your lure back in the water. Use that positive momentum to take you to the next good fish. Your window of opportunity may be closing; make the most of it.
Ultimately, you win by making good decisions, using your time efficiently — on and off the water — controlling the variables you can and keeping your head in the game.
And never, ever forget that it's all about the attitude.