The fish that haunts me came on Day 2 of the 2008 Elite Series tournament on Wheeler Lake — the Southern Challenge.
I didn't have a very good first day, so I needed to turn things around on Day 2 or I'd be going home early. I decided to see if I could grab a spot on one of the community holes and throw a Rat-L-Trap or Strike King Redeye Shad.
There was a big crowd out on the spot I wanted to fish, but I eased around a little and found a corner that I had all to myself. I definitely didn't want to crowd anyone who had a good first day and had a chance to do really well in the tournament. I was just trying to salvage things and see if I could make the cut to 50 anglers, fish on Saturday and get a $10,000 check.
Well, I got out there and starting burning that Redeye Shad and the bite was absolutely textbook. It seemed like every time I ripped the bait free of the grass, a bass grabbed it. I had a limit in a hurry and was looking to bump up my weight with some better fish in hopes it would be enough to make the cut.
Of course, experienced anglers know that lipless crankbaits like the Rat-L-Trap and Redeye Shad can be sort of a double-edged sword. They're fantastic baits and will get you lots of bites, but they're just about the easiest lure in the world for a bass to jump and throw. In fact, several years ago, after watching me lose a bunch of fish on a lipless crankbait, Rick Clunn told me he doesn't use them after the water temperature reaches 60 degrees because that's when bass start to jump and he hates losing them.
Well, the bite was really good that day, and I was catching one every few casts. That got my confidence up, and that must have boosted my adrenaline because I started casting that Redeye Shad farther and farther to cover more water. Naturally, that made it even tougher to get a good hook set.
In the course of about 20 minutes, I lost three bass that would have really helped me. The first two were just good, solid fish, but the third could have been big fish of the day and would definitely have put me in the cut.
She struck at the end of a really long cast, and when I set the hook I couldn't budge her. That's when I knew I was in trouble. There was just no way that I had gotten any hook penetration at all at the end of such a long cast. I'd only had time to turn the reel handle once or twice before she grabbed the lure.
After I set the hook, the fish jumped straight up, and I got a good look at her. She was at least 6 pounds and probably better than seven. As soon as she came out of the water, she was shaking her head like mad and that bait came out of her mouth like it was shot out of a cannon. Just as quickly as I had hooked her, she was gone.
As I watched my bait fly out of her mouth, I felt like someone had kicked me in the gut. I didn't throw a tantrum or slam my rod to the deck. That's not what I do. Instead, I collapsed — fell right to the front deck as if someone had taken my knees out from under me. It was devastating. Somehow, I knew that I wouldn't get another chance like that and that I wouldn't be getting a check for the tournament. All the wind had been taken out of me.
Then, after just a moment or two, I stood back up and started casting again. That's what you have to do in this sport.
What else can you do?