Survival on the Red River

I’m back in Dallas this week after fishing the Red River Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open #2 presented by Allstate. This may have been one of the most important tournaments of my career to date. I’m on my final year of my American Sporting Visa, and to continue chasing my dream, I need to make the Elites to be eligible for a Green Card.

Basically, this is probably my last shot at making the Elites. If I don't, I must go home to Australia.

I was sitting sixth in Opens points after Amistad and leading into this event, which was right where I needed to be. After fishing the tournament I feel like I am more proud of this finish than any other since I started competing in the United States. I believe the Red River is one of the toughest and most demanding fisheries — mentally and physically —on tour.

There are so many things that you need to be thinking about before hitting the water and on the water. It’s crazy.

Just some include: What are the water levels doing? Are they dropping the water? If so, by how much, and in which pool? Which pool should I spend most of the pre-fish in? Should I run several spots, or put my head down and fish one area? Do I catch the scheduled lock time, or fish longer but risk being locked out? Should I fish the dirty water, or fish with the crowds in the clearer back waters?

Then there is the wear and tear on yourself and your equipment.

The Red is hard on gear, and having a 2,500-pound boat stuck on a sandbar or log becomes a common, everyday event and you have to take it on every day and not let it get to you.

Falling out of your boat is a high risk, and if you were fishing Lake St. Clair in the summer, it wouldn’t be a problem. But here, you face a mess of sharp, dagger-like trees all around your boat and the ever present gators keeping a watchful eye on you.

Practice

My practice went well. I had found fish in a lot of different areas, and I was having trouble making the decision on where to start on the first day.

This time last year, I fished the Red River Open and faced things I had not seen before, like dropping water levels the day of the tournament, and it saw me finish in the 100s.

The harsh lessons I have learned from then really helped me this year. This is where I realized how important it is to not give up.

The last few years have presented me with some of the toughest times of my life, and giving up seemed like the only option at times. But looking back now, those tough times prepared me for whatever obstacle I would have to face now.

If I gave up, I would have never learned.

Drastic Day 1

By the time 10:30 a.m. rolls around on the first day of the event, I haven’t had a single bite. Everything I had found in Pool 5 just wasn’t working. Conditions had changed and I wasn’t able to adjust to what the fish were doing.

That’s when I made a kind of crazy decision to lock down to Pool 4 and fish the last few hours of my day in an area in Sullivan’s, more than an hour boat run from where I was.

My attitude today is at a level I never thought possible and is totally different from where I was the last few years.

I roll into Sullivan’s at 11:30 to see boats in every spot I want to fish. I try to make it to a row of trees that are free, and I find out I can’t even get to them as they had unexpectedly dropped the water level in Pool 4. Now, it is 1:30 p.m., my boat is stuck, the wind is blowing 25mph and it is overcast. Conditions are absolutely nothing like the last five days of practice.

I could feel the panic button starting to show up, but I shut it down pretty quick. I didn’t let it affect me, and not once did I have a negative thought. I stayed positive, and I never let the thought that I wasn’t going to catch them enter my mind. Just believing it’s going to happen is a huge thing.

I sit down, crank my Yamaha and idle to the nearest drain of deep water to where my fish were, reach into my rod locker and pull out my Swim Freak Millerod/Shimano combo with my new Bassman Bladed jig tied on, a great reaction bait for the conditions.

My nonboater and I began to catch them. I had four fish in no time.

With half an hour left before I have to leave, a small opportunity presents itself as the sun breaks through the heavy clouds. I know my best chance of a big one is flipping to large stumps — if the sun holds. I get out of there and go to my area that had been hit hard by other anglers. They had all left to catch the scheduled 1:30 lock time.

I had it to myself and I started to catch them. With 10 minutes to go, I flip a 4-pounder to give me a weight that would keep me in the hunt.

I get the Skeeter running at 70 mph on the way back to the lock.

I know I am pushing time to the limit, and I hope the lock will be open when I get there.

That is not to be.

It is closed, and I can see it is full of water. It is 3:45, and I am due in at 4:30. It wasn’t looking good.

At 4 o’clock, the gates open. It’s a 12-minute run to the ramp. I know it was going to be close. I look to my left and can see a competitor’s boat stranded with both anglers waving frantically.

I know it might cost me, but I hope someone would do the same if I was in their situation.

I hook a hard left, shoot in and say we need to hurry. They put their tagged fish in my livewells, and we are on our way to the weigh-in, coming in with less than two minutes to spare.

What a day! So many things could have gone wrong, but I didn’t let it happen. I was sitting in 47th place with 9.80 pounds, only 2 pounds from the cut.

Day 2

Everything is about catching them the second day on the Red. This time, I am boat 27 with a 2:30 check in.

I have half an hour to fish before I have to make the scheduled lock time into Pool 4. I run into a shaded backwater that I know has some good laydowns and healthy milfoil. I throw a topwater looking for a big bite.

A 5-pounder hits the deck in the first 10 minutes. A few minutes later, a giant 6-plus inhales my bait.

It rolls my rod loaded up, and in the blink of an eye, it is gone. It is the first game-changer I’ve lost all year. I may have been a little early on the hook set; the violent ‘boof’ it made when it took my lure made me react a little fast.

Although I haven’t stopped thinking about that fish ever since, I don’t let it affect me during the tournament. I put my head down and go hard all day. I bring in another solid limit of 11.80 pounds, which jumps me into 23rd place for the tournament.

The wash-up

I didn’t qualify for the cut, but the 23rd-place finish was enough to keep me in the points game. I’m now sitting in fourth for Open points and have given myself the best possible shot of making the Elites. I have been here before, and I’m going to really have to catch them on the Arkansas River.

In 2012, I was in this same position in the Central Opens going into Fort Gibson for the final event, I had a big first day — more than 12 pounds and in 20th position, which had me sitting second in points. It was mine to lose.

The fishing got tough, and I weighed in three good fish, which dropped me to 31st in the tournament. Everyone — me included — thought for sure it was enough to make the Elites. But I dropped to ninth in the points. In the end, I was one single point away from making the Elites.

Looking back now, I know it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I wasn’t ready then, and as long as I make it this year, I feel I’ll be ready for next year.

Lake Douglas is next. It’s the first Northern Open, which I’m really excited about. I’ve had some good finishes on this lake, and I love the way it sets up. I’ll be sure to keep everyone in the loop with how it goes.

He who says he can and he who says he can’t are both usually right!

Whatever it takes.

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