What it means to compete with the Elites

The recently-concluded BASSfest at Chickamauga Lake provided a window into what “borderless” fishing might look like, with competition featuring the full field of Elite Series pros, a handful of FLW Tour pros and a smattering of self-selecting Open-level guys. No points at stake, no real home-water advantage for anyone, everyone starting on equal footing – what a great laboratory for some of my ideas.

The question that interested me most is how the true Open-level guys would fare against the Tour-level field as a whole – especially when forced to fish multiple days with limited practice.

I know that B.A.S.S. claimed there were 33 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens anglers competing in the field, but for my purposes I’ve got to exclude anglers like Luke Clausen (prior winner of both the Bassmaster Classic and the FLW Championship), eventual winner Jacob Wheeler (past All-American and FLW Championship winner) and other active tour-level pros. I subjectively narrowed it down to 26 of them, including some like Michael Murphy (past FLW Tour pro and FLW Championship qualifier), Steve Sennikoff (past tour-level Classic qualifier) and David Kilgore, who it appears could compete at the tour level if ever he elected to take the bait.

I’d assume that most of this group of 26, if given the opportunity and the financial backing, would give up their first born or their favorite flipping stick to fish the Elite Series.

Besides that, what else do these Open anglers have in common? They, by and large, got their butts kicked at Chickamauga (and in most cases at Nickajack).

I recognize that it’s a single tournament, which does not quite prove anything definitively, and established superstars like Aaron Martens finished in triple digits, but it’s another nail in the coffin of the story of how hard it is to compete against the best of the best. Did they fish less conservatively because there were no points at stake? Maybe, but the numbers tell a tale:

After the two days of full-field competition, none of them were in the top 20. Murphy was the highest-ranking member of the group at 24th. Steve Mui (30th) and Jared Knuth (33rd) were the only others in the top 50. Meanwhile, 18 of the 26 were in 80th or worse, including 11 in triple digits.

At Nickajack, Skylar Hamilton (84th after two days) and Brock Mosley (52nd after two days) managed to fish their way back into the field, bringing to 5 the number of “strivers” fishing on Chickamauga going forward. After four days, Mui finished 18th, but none of the rest of them cracked the top 30.

Again, it’s a limited sample size and an imperfect survey, but it confirms my thoughts about two things: (1) It’s exceptionally difficult to qualify for the Elites; and (2) If and when you get there, it’s even tougher to be consistently competitive. So here, at the intersection of “lot of people who want to fish the Elites” and “not many can consistently compete with the Elites,” we come to the question of how one goes from being an adequate Opens level angler to someone who can go toe-to-toe with the likes of KVD on a weekly basis.

Part of the answer, of course, is to perfect your skills. But tournament fishing is not quite like basketball, where you can practice your free throws, or golf, where you can make a trip to the putting green, or baseball, where time in the batting cage can simulate the real thing. Perhaps more than any of those sports, the only thing that really prepares you for tournament fishing is….more tournament fishing. Of course, you can work on perfecting certain skills on your home water, or even in the backyard, but nothing fully substitutes for a finite practice period on a new lake with changing conditions, with 100 or more other boats looking for the same thing.

Every year we see a few guys emerge out of the Opens who stick with the Elites, but most of the pure Open level field simply are not able to make a serious run at the next level. One industry stalwart told me that he encourages his pro-staffers to qualify twice before making the leap. How many of them do that, I asked.

“Almost none,” he replied. “Just about all of them jump the first time they get the chance.” If you’ve gone from practicing for a week or more on lakes in your home region and barely qualifying to 2 1/2 days of practice on someplace altogether new, with Skeet/AMart/KVD/Ike and a cast of thousands looking to cut your legs out from under you (in the friendliest possible way, of course), the odds are stacked against you. Even once you’re in the Elites, it’s rare that we see an angler finish in the nineties for three or four years and then make a sudden leap into the Classic.

So what’s the best way to get to the Elites, stay in the Elites, and have a chance to be successful in the Elites?

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all policy. For some, it’s fishing as many tournaments as possible, whether that is one-day club, Weekend Series or BFL events. For others, the key is to focus on multi-day Opens. You have to know how to manage fish but sometimes it’s about learning on the fly rather than devoting gobs of time. Or maybe it’s about getting outside of your comfort zone. The problem is that very few anglers really know themselves especially well, and certainly not well enough to prescribe their own fix-it strategy. If you have a Steve Kennedy make-up, a Rick Clunn practice plan probably won’t work and vice versa. Are you one or the other, or someone altogether different?

We’re not at the point where our sport features real coaching or meaningful video analysis. Former Elite Series pro Clark Reehm runs an “academy” aimed at helping anglers learn to maximize their electronics and develop tournament strategies, but I’d bet that few if any anglers who have a real chance of making the Elites have utilized his services, or that of any similar operation. There’s too much pride involved to admit what you don’t know and that process often trumps immediate results.

I wonder how many Open anglers, including the Chickamauga crew, have ever asked their co-anglers or Marshals what they could’ve done better. If you’re an up-and-coming Joe and your Marshal was in KVD’s boat a day ago and yours today, wouldn’t you want to know how your skills compare? Hell, it might be even better to know how you compare to a middle-of-the-pack Elite Series angler. No one wants to hear their weaknesses, but sometimes understanding what they are is what you need to ascend the ladder – perhaps the only chance you have of making that move.

In some respects, I envy the yet-unknown Open guys who had the balls to pony up five grand to compete at Chickamauga. I have to believe that every one of them thought he had a chance to do well, and you can’t win unless you enter the ring. At some point, though, you have to stop beating your head against the wall and figure out which goals are realistic. Of course, there is a chance that we’ll see some of those 90-something place finishers in the Elite Series one day, but only if they make a meaningful attempt to perfect the practice process. Most will wash out without even getting close.