People who have read the columns and blogs that I've written over the past five years or who have heard me speak at seminars almost certainly picked up on one thing I've said over and over. The most important tool to carry in your arsenal when you're fishing — especially tournament fishing — is not the right boat, rod, bait or anything else you think will help you fish better.
The most important tool is confidence.
I could talk all day about tips to help you catch them. All good tournaments anglers can. But I promise you that the most critical element in fishing — and I'll say again, especially in tournament fishing — is having the right mental attitude.
In the last column I wrote in this space, I said that the one thing Kevin VanDam does better than the rest of us on the Elite Series is fish with extreme confidence. Anywhere, any time, Kevin will catch them because he knows he's going to. He could enter a tournament using a cane pole and a live worm and he'd most likely be in the hunt. He's so confident he'll catch fish that he does just that.
I don't mean disrespect to Kevin when I say he's no better at technique or preparation than a lot of anglers on our tour. We have great anglers on this tour, and they are Kevin's equal in those areas of preparation. Kevin catches them better than the rest of us for one simple reason — because he knows he's going to catch them.
That brings me to an excruciatingly painful thing that I have to admit. I cannot catch fish in Florida ... at least not yet. I'll never give up, but right now I just can't do it. I can't do it because my confidence, when it comes to Florida fishing, is shot.
I don't care where else in the country we go — it could be the reservoirs on the Texas-Mexico border or the Potomac River or Lake Erie or the lakes and rivers of Arkansas and Oklahoma, just to name a few places — I promise you I'll find a way to get them in the boat. In the past five years I've competed in five straight Bassmaster Classics, even winning one. I've got 13 top 10 finishes and more than 20 top 20s. These tournaments have come all over country, in all types of water and weather conditions. I can almost always find a way to catch them. But Florida has whipped me for three decades.
I went to our two Elite Series tournaments in Florida on the heels of a pretty good effort in the Classic. I finished sixth, and I know in my gut that I could have done even better than that.So, I went to Florida with confidence. At least, that's what I told myself.
But I knew on a deeper level that Florida is in my head like a demon. I tanked, and it's possible I'll pay a huge price for it. In those two Elite Series tournaments in Florida, I finished so far from the top that I might have fished myself right out of the 2012 Classic. Since only the top 25 percent of the Elite Series field will make the Classic, it means I've got a long, long way to go to get back on track. And this happened because I fished two tournaments without knowing the most important thing: that I would succeed.
So the question I'm asking myself is, how do I fix this Florida problem? What can I possibly learn that will make me better the next time around? Let's get even more specific: How do I get this demon out of my head? Quickly, let me explain what happened, and how I reacted to it.
During the first tournament, at the Harris Chain, I simply never got on the fish. I wasn't alone. On the Harris Chain, you're either on them or you're not, and there's not a lot of room to adjust there when you've got a crowded field. I finished 90th out of 100.
The real story came the second week at the St. John's River. On the St. John's River, I found them in practice. On a short practice day on Wednesday, the morning before the tournament started, I probably shook off 30 pounds of fish. I was on them.
Add to that, I had a perfect boat draw on Day 1 — second. So, on the first morning, I went straight to my spots, and the fish were gone — disappeared. Kevin was one of the anglers that was there with me. At one point, he idled over in my direction and said, "Where are they?"
That's when the head games started. Instead of doing what I normally would do, which is to take a deep breath, stay focused and regroup, I let it get in my head. I said, "Why does this always happen to me in Florida?" I lost the tournament as soon as I let that thought get in my head.
About 11:30 a.m., Kevin cranked up and took off, because to his way of thinking, he would just go somewhere else and start over. I, on the other hand, just kept fuming and lost my edge — precisely the things I tell both myself and other anglers that a tournament fisherman cannot ever, ever do if he wants to succeed. In fact, my loss of confidence was so deep that I could have fished five more days and I wouldn't have made a cut.
At this tournament, Edwin Evers showed us the best example of what you should do when you have to regroup. He didn't find them early, but he kept searching and stayed intense. He never fished the same spot for two straight days. He adjusted, kept his head in the game, found different areas and eventually caught enough of them to win the tournament. It was a great performance.
And, I'll say again, ordinarily that's what I would have done. But when you lose your confidence, you lose touch with reality and you make bad decisions.
Of course, it's funny how easy it is to say this. You would think it would be easy to fix. But recognizing a fault and doing something about it are two different things.
I've been in this position in other sports. As a young person, I learned that if you're trying to hit a baseball, you simply won't hit it if you don't believe you can. A pitcher could lob an underhanded volleyball at you; you still won't hit it if you don't think you can.
The best example might be golf. I've mentioned Tiger Woods a hundred or so times, because I think he's the best golfer that ever picked up a club. For about 12 years, I don't ever remember seeing him miss a pressure putt. It didn't matter the conditions or the course, he always had the right shot. So why, today, is he only an average golfer? It's simple. He's got one of those no-confidence demons in his head. So, here are two things I plan to do to fix my Florida problem.
First, there will be no more excuses. I could offer a hundred or so bad luck reasons why I've had lousy tournaments in Florida. But when it happens every time, they're no longer logical explanations — they're excuses. I'm done with that. I've admitted to myself that I'm the biggest part of the problem.
Second, I'm going to carve out time to go to Florida in the off-season and work at catching fish. In my case, it will be the equivalent of going to the driving range to fix a golf flaw. Even though the problem with the golf swing might have been in my head, the way to address it is to buckle down and keep swinging until you get back in the groove. That's the first stop to regaining confidence.
As simple as those two actions are, that's what I'm going to do. They're the first steps to regaining real confidence.
The Duckett Exchange is a regularly scheduled column about competitive fishing. Written by former Bassmaster Classic champ Boyd Duckett, the column addresses issues and trends that affect anglers at every level of competition. In addition to competing on the Bassmaster Elite Series tour, Duckett is also a popular a public speaker and successful businessman.
He is the owner of Southern Tank Leasing, an Alabama-based company with terminals all over the Southeast and Midwest, and Duckett Fishing, a rod manufacturing company that produces MICROMagic rods. His pro fishing blog can be found on his website at www.boydduckett.com. The Duckett Fishing website is www.duckettfishing.com.