10 fish, 23-14
I hate to admit it, but sometimes doing your homework doesn't pay off. With a break in the schedule right before the off-limits period for Kentucky Lake, I drove out here to get a head start on the competition. Unfortunately, it didn't work out too well.
I spent three days behind the wheel of my Skeeter graphing ledges and looking for sweet spots. My Humminbird 1197si is truly an incredible machine, and it painted a vivid picture of the lake bottom, but my timing was off. I knew the fish would be out on the ledges when we got back here, and they were, just not locked into their summertime patterns. So I brought a ton of food and water, even fouled a set of plugs idling around, and I found good stuff, just not the right stuff. Talking to Dean Rojas after the tournament, it sounds like the same fate befell him as well.
Practice (and the tournament) started a day earlier than usual, in order to give us time to get to Iowa after this one ended, so we were out on the water on Sunday. Unfortunately, they didn't pull water that day, and that's what these Kentucky Lake fish key on. I relocated my waypoints and caught a ton of little fish. If I got bit, I kept the waypoint. If I didn't, I deleted it. I probably only had around 2 keepers that day, and I would've had to measure them to make sure they were legal. It was pretty frustrating.
On Monday they pulled water, and it was almost like starting over. Because those fish are so conditioned to current, I spent most of the day rechecking what I felt were my best spots. That took all day. I caught them better, but except for one four-pound smallmouth, the quality wasn't there.
On the last practice day, I spent part of my day shallow. I figured that if I could get on a dock bite or a shad spawn, I might have it all to myself. The problem, again, was that you never knew about the quality. I'd catch 30 shorts, then a keeper. It was confusing and frustrating. Despite people bad-mouthing their catches, I knew there would be some big bags brought in.
I had narrowed my best water down to three key stretches and I committed to rotating among them. The first was a secondary channel close to the bank. There was a pretty good school of fish there and I figured it would be good for around 15 pounds. The second was a corner of a secondary drop with a shell bed and some rock. It looked great, but it was getting a lot of local pressure.
The third spot was the end of a riprap bank where it met the river channel. That's where I caught the big smallie, but I figured it would get a lot of pressure, and with a boat number of 49, I thought someone from the tournament would beat me to it.
I was surprised when I launched that first day that I had it to myself. I guess it was a blessing and a curse. They weren't pulling water and I didn't get a bite there on my first pass. Rather than waste time on another pass, I decided to run to my main lake bank and I caught a limit there reasonably quickly on a prototype Reaction Strike crankbait and a 10-inch red shad worm. There was a tremendous number of fish there — I lost count after a while — but they were all cookie cutters. I culled three limits, but only ounces at a time. A 3-pounder was my best fish.
I ended up with 12-10 and I knew that wasn't going to put me at the top of the standings, but as usual the whole field caught them better than anybody could have reasonably expected, so I was somewhere down the list. I had dug myself a pretty good hole, but I also knew that if some bigger fish moved up on my spot, it was entirely possible to make a move. I knew I needed 20-plus, but that's possible on Kentucky Lake.
On Day Two, I started on my limit bank, but the prior day's glassy conditions had given way to heavy winds, which made boat control very tough. I made it through all three areas without a bite. In fact, I went until noon without a keeper in my boat, and then decided to throw caution to the wind and go shallow. I picked up a prototype buzzbait I'm working on for Reaction Strike and they were all over it. Any little grass point near deep water, particularly if it was on the way out of a pocket, would have at least one keeper on it.
I weighed a little less than on Day One, but catching that limit was huge for me psychologically. My friend Matt Herren is also a "rookie," but he's been doing this for 18-20 years. Guys like Skeet Reese, Kelly Jordon, Fred Roumbanis, it may have seemed like they had immediate success, but they spent years honing their skills. I've been a regional or open-level guy for just about 10 years, so I guess I'm paying my dues.
What really kills me is that I went out for a few hours Saturday morning to get some fish for a photo shoot with an outdoor writer and caught a bunch of 3- and 4-pounders pretty easily. Granted, some of them were released fish, but I've seen some legends of the sport fish for "retreads" so no matter what you think of it, it's something I should have considered. Then I might have been fishing for a check that day instead of for a photo shoot. Don't get me wrong, the media stuff is important, as is working the weigh-in for my sponsors like Yamaha and Skeeter, but I'm a competitor. I'd always rather be on the water, fighting the clock and trying to beat my friends.
15 fish, 56-06
After Smith Mountain, Lisa and the boys stayed with me in Virginia for another day. The weather was incredible — for a change. I thought maybe we'd turned a corner and we could put away the rainsuits, but once I moved on the return to storms and wind was imminent.
I left on Tuesday to go to Kentucky Lake. The plan was to spend three days just graphing ledges. I got to do two days of that — just riding around with my Humminbird 1197 unit side-imaging the structure. I never even took a rod out of the rod box. But my plans for a third day of graphing were thwarted by non-stop thunder and lightning which prevented me from launching the boat on Friday. But I was pleased with what I'd accomplished there so Saturday I made the 4 ½ hour drive to Guntersville. That gave me plenty of time to settle in and get prepared for the official practice period. I don't like being rushed.
I knew that on Monday I'd start off looking for a shad spawn. With water temperatures around 70, the lake was primed for that and the first few hours would be critical. I started on a bunch of shallow points on the main lake and every one of them was loaded with shad and schooling fish. You could catch them on just about anything you wanted, and if you lined things up perfectly you could get a bite on every cast. The problem was finding bigger bites. I had been throwing a crankbait and a spinnerbait, so I slowed down some with a 10" worm and the action was just as fast, but not necessarily better quality.
By the end of that day, I had put together more of the puzzle pieces. They were pulling current hard, and that was positioning the fish. They weren't necessarily keying on the shad spawn all the time, but you had to be around some shad. And they were leaving their spawning areas to head out to the main lake, so you had to intercept their migration routes. I also got on a good dock pattern — I didn't stick too many of them but I felt pretty confident I could get some bonus fish that way, too.
Talking with the other fishermen back at the campground, we all thought it would take about 15 pounds a day to get paid. To be safe, we agreed we'd probably shoot for 16 or 17. So I spent Tuesday expanding my zones and finding new schools of fish.
Wednesday was a lost day. Remember what I said earlier about the bad weather always finding us? Well this time it really hit us hard. I was woken up at 3 a.m. by a wicked thunderstorm. There might have even been some hail. I wanted to be out at first light, about 6 o'clock, but when the alarm went off at 5 it was still nasty out so I slept another 2 hours. By 7, it had stopped and I went through my routine to get ready to go, but as I got in the truck Dustin Wilks stopped me and told me that the worst of the storm would be by in 30 minutes and that it would be wise to wait it out. So I went into the camper to start working on my tackle and watch TV. The news report came live from the 431 bridge over the lake, where the crew was fighting 70 mph straight-line winds.
All of us campers had agreed to meet in the cement bathhouse if it got really bad — after all, it had cement block walls and dividers for the showers. I was changing hooks on a crankbait when the tornado sirens started to go off. I took my time, but then noticed that everyone else was already in the bathhouse or right outside, so I decided that I couldn't wait any longer. When I got there, the Kennedys, the Shorts, the Cooks, the McCaghrens and Dustin were waiting for me. We waited until it passed, which took quite a while, and by the time that happened the day was shot. I had to go to registration to get my picture retaken with my new jersey (with the Reaction Strike logo), so it was a total washout, literally and figuratively.
The tournament was going to be a good one, though. I drew boat number four (after being three at Smith Mountain) and headed to an area where I knew good fish were feeding on shad and were positioned by the current. It was a key migration area by a large spawning flat and in one pass I had two fish over 5 pounds, and I got my limit in no time, an easy 15 pounds, all on a spinnerbait. Since that was the baseline I figured I needed, that really relaxed me. It's amazing how much an early limit can affect your fishing. It settles you down. I took time to retie and talk with my marshall and figure out where to go from there. The hardest part was all of the culling — and that's a good problem to have!
I ended up practicing more than half that first day. Maybe I could have had 25-plus pounds had I stayed where I started but I had no idea if that would use up all the fish. I was pretty happy with my 21-04 and figured that duplicating that twice more would get me to Sunday ... until I saw all the huge bags coming in. It took over 20 pounds to make the top 60. I was in 45th place. There went my cushion. I really needed to step it up.
On Friday, they dropped the bottom out of the lake, a full foot and a half. I knew pretty quickly that the spinnerbait wasn't producing as well, so I switched to a crankbait and started catching some fish. I also had some company on my spots — we shared them well, but we were often bumper to bumper and I really didn't expect that. A couple of them had over 25 pounds so I really wonder what would have happened if I'd had those fish all to myself, but at this level there are no secrets. Still, being able to hang and make the cut in 41st place was just awesome. With a monster bag, I still felt I could make the top twelve.
On Saturday, I went to the same first stop and my first fish, once again on the spinnerbait, was over 5 pounds. I figured it was game on again, but that was my last good bite. The current was only intermittent, and that's when they'd typically bite. I caught about a hundred fish, but most weren't keepers. I used the worm a lot more, but the better ones still came on the crankbait. One of the fish died because I had hooked him in the tongue, and I wasn't excited about the 8-ounce penalty, but those things happen. That's the breaks of the game. I also had a 15-inch spotted bass in my bag. But with 90 minutes left, I only had four fish in the livewell. I hadn't been to my docks the entire tournament, so I hit my best stretch and caught my fifth fish. After the penalty, I had 13 1/2 pounds, pretty far off the pace, but all in all I was pretty happy.
Financially, this keeps me going. We were up against the wall with respect to the upcoming final payment and this definitely gives me the ability to finish out the year. I just went fishing and when I was on the water the financial side of things never entered my mind. It was Fishing 101, really, just putting the pieces together and living up to my potential.
Mentally, it's a huge confidence booster. My original goal was to get four checks in eight events, and now I've earned two in five tournaments, so I'm closer to the pace. The points don't help me a lot. Unless you finish very high up you can't jump up much. But I'm rejuvenated, looking forward to Kentucky Lake, Iowa and then some good old northeastern style smallmouth fishing on Oneida.
Smith Mountain Lake
9 fish, 16-12
Where did the time go? It feels like my Elite Series career is just getting legs but the Blue Ridge Brawl marked the halfway point of the season. Four events down, four to go.
This one was a special event for me for a number of reasons. First off, my 50th birthday fell on one of the competition days. That's right, a 50 year old rookie. I'm working hard to keep up with both the young guns and the grizzled vets and it's a challenge every day. These guys are good, from top to bottom.
More importantly, my wife Lisa and the boys were going to meet me at the lake. Because of school and other obligations that doesn't happen too often and the thrill definitely hasn't worn off. That was the best part for me. It really worked out well — the weather was incredible, as was the scenery. The lake and the surrounding landscape remind me of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, one of our favorite places in the world to spend time together, and I could pursue smallies, which I feel is one of my strengths as an angler. But most important was my family — the whole togetherness aspect was my birthday present.
Leaving the Upper Bay, it wasn't that far a drive, but the awful DC traffic stretched it out to about six and a half hours. Not too bad, I guess. I pulled into the campground and met up with my friend Matt Herren, who went on to finish 2nd in the tournament behind KVD. I think Matt is the consensus favorite for Rookie of the Year. I'm not conceding anything, but if I can't win it, I'd like my Skeeter teammate and friend to get the hardware.
I had done my research on Smith Mountain and it all pointed to the fact that this was going to be a bed fishing event, and that's how it turned out. But that doesn't mean it was easy. The obvious beds, at the base of riprap and places like that, had some smaller fish, and even though the water was clear, as the result of pollen and recent rain you lost good visibility after a few feet. I marked over 50 beds in practice on my Humminbird GPS, but they were all 1 ½ and 2 pound males. I just wasn't seeing the bigger fish that I think were out in the four, five and six foot range. It was hard to see those deeper beds. In practice, I looked more than I've ever looked for any tournament I've fished, covering tons of water, mostly in the lower lake. I "just fished," too, and I could catch up to 15 pounds a day without looking at them. I felt pretty good by the start of the event — maybe some of those smaller males would be joined by their girlfriends on Day One.
I was lucky to draw out as boat number three on Day One, but I didn't have a particular big fish to go to. So I chose to run to one pocket that I knew was absolutely loaded with fish and "just go fishing." Unfortunately, as a result of the cold nights even the smaller fish backed off of their beds and the surrounding shallow cover. The fish that I had caught "just fishing" during practice had moved too — they had abandoned the brush and wood where they'd been stacked up just a few days before. They were gone, so I had to drop back and punt.
I ended up catching a limit that weighed over 9 pounds off of the beds, but I kept looking for that 3-, 4- or 5-pounder that would boost me up. I never found her.
By the second day, the easy ones were all gone, but I still caught every fish I saw. Actually, let me rephrase that — I hooked every fish I saw. I lost two of them and just ran out of time with four fish in the livewell.
I don't even know where I finished. I never picked up a sheet and I haven't had a chance to get online, but I know it couldn't have been good. I'm just going to chalk it up to the learning curve, though. I know the competition isn't going to get any easier, but I still feel like I could cash four checks in a row. I have a pretty good idea how Guntersville and Kentucky Lake will play out. I haven't been to the Mississippi River in Iowa, but I'm excited about that tournament and I'll fish it with an open mind. And then we're headed to Oneida — not quite my backyard, but close — and it's going to be a game of ounces but it's one I feel that I can win.
It's late and I have to get some sleep before practicing tomorrow. I'm looking forward to the rest of my rookie year. It took me a half century to get here and I'm going to savor every moment.
First Northern Open
Upper Chesapeake Bay
2 fish, 5-07
I was really excited to get the Northern Open season started this year, and not just because we'll be headed to waters closer to my home than any of the eight Elite Series events. Sure, I have a lot of experience on Champlain, and Erie is a great fishery, but I'd heard so much about the Upper Bay and was looking forward to getting a chance to experience the fishery firsthand.
I have friends who live in the area, and they'd been telling me for years about what a dynamic fishery this is, so I had high expectations — which faded exceptionally quickly.
I didn't seek out any information ahead of time, but I had done some research and knew that I wanted to run as far south as I could. The Sassafras River is famous and they always seem to catch fish in Gunpowder Creek, so I had those areas circled on the map.
The first day of practice was spent entirely in the upper part of the "Sass" and I never had a bite. At that point, I considered changing areas the next day, but I hadn't fished the front half of the creek and that drew me back again. I was fishing the right stuff — grass, laydowns, docks and points — and hitting them at the right tides, but once again I never got a sniff. You could tell it was a tough fishing day, but come on, not one bite? That's a little ridiculous. The grass down there didn't look particularly good, but that should have put them on hard cover, and they weren't there, either.
The third day I trekked down to Gunpowder, where the grass was absolutely beautiful. I just about threw my shoulder out fishing it, and once again, no dice. I moved over the hard cover and the results were the same. Maybe I should have just stayed in the camper. It wasn't even a situation where I thought I might've had a light strike, a short strike, anything — for all I knew, there wasn't a bass alive in there. So I knew that I had to change up. Unfortunately, the weather just kept on getting worse. It was freezing cold and raw, and the wind was absolutely howling, so it amplified my difficulties.
On the fourth and final day of practice, I went up the Susquehanna River. I've sold G3 boats in that area, and I've worked the Harrisburg show, so I knew that I couldn't go very far, but I idled a long way and got a pretty good distance up there. At noon, I still hadn't had a bite. Just about par for the course at that point. But then I set the hook on a monster smallie. My biggest smallmouth to date came on Erie and it weighed somewhere in the six pound class and this fish was its twin. It was fat and ready to spawn. I caught it on a lipless crankbait, and while I never got another bite that way, I did manage to get six more bites on a jig — I never set the hook, though. On the way back, I stopped in the Northeast and hit some docks and swam two more good bites, so all of the bad feelings of the previous three days were starting to expire and I felt pretty good about life. There were a few boats up there, but we'd all pretty much staked out our best areas. In fact one other competitor in an aluminum boat came up and asked me if I planned to fish there, which was a polite way of saying, "Keep to your own water."
When we blasted off on Day One, I headed straight across the bay to the Susquehanna and was joined by more boats than I expected. I never had a bite, but a friend of mine had 16 pounds of smallmouths there. The rest of us really struggled, as did most of the field, including a lot of locals and a lot of Elite Series pros, stars like Greg Hackney and Ish Monroe.
Fortunately, the money cut was really low, somewhere around 2 pounds, and the top 30 only had 5 or 6 pounds, so I knew that if I put my nose to the grindstone on Day Two, I could make a surge. I had nothing else to go to, so back I went to the Susquehanna. I lost a 4 pounder right off the bat. It was like I'd been shot through the heart. I knew that fish would have made a difference. The bites were real subtle, and I caught the next two keepers that struck, but it wasn't enough. That one lost bite, one moment of time in 6 days of fishing, was my undoing. If I had it to do all over again, I'd probably head up there again. Then again, I later found out that several guys who practiced up there sore-mouthed limits of fish. I really think the pressure on the few key places killed it. It was a fragile area. But I can't control what other people do, and I hope that one missed fish doesn't end up haunting me.
13 fish, 31-06
By the time I left Dardanelle, I was kind of OK with the fact that I had struggled there. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing I hate more than having a bad tournament, but that's all it was, a single bad tournament.
I wasn't going to let that affect anything going forward. But still … two events and no checks. I needed one to get this Elite Series monkey off my back.
I had time to think about Wheeler on the drive over on Sunday. It was about six hours or so, which gave me plenty of time upon arrival to review my notes on wheeler and get everything ready — boat gas and oil, and tackle that would cover just about any situation I might encounter.
Some might say I'm anal, but I prefer to think of it as organized — the night before I make my lunch, get the coffee set in the coffee-maker and then I don't have to think about anything but fishing on practice and tournament days.
Even thought I'd been to Wheeler before, I didn't want to bite off more than I could chew during practice. A lot of these guys just break things down so much faster than I do. They can ride around looking at temperatures, water colors, water levels and figure things out from there. I like to find a comfort zone and then break that down, instead of the entire pond.
One thing I knew about Wheeler coming in is that they monkey with the water level big time. They can drop it two feet in a day. I was fishing another circuit's championship one fall and not only did they stop pulling water, but it backed up and rose two feet. As a result, I lost track of my fish. So in order to be on top of those changes, I got the number for the dam and called the operators every day.
I focused on the northern end of the lake, up near Guntersville, and while I caught a lot of small fish, there were some quality bites mixed in here and there. They were extremely shallow, on just about any wood you could find, but it had to be near a channel. At that point, the water was two feet low, so all of the buck brush and yellow flowers were out of the water.
The first day of competition started off miserably for me. It would be an understatement to say that I couldn't get any flow going. Mark Jeffreys and Harold Allen were filming me and I put on a show for them — but not the good kind! I lost four fish on the wood, two of them at the boat, including a six pounder.
The wind was blowing really hard so I had to turn the boat into the wind and pitch backwards. The bites were very subtle. I'm a die-hard line watcher but this was a typical springtime bite. You'd never feel the bite, they just had it. So a lot of times with all that wind I would have no idea there was a fish on and I couldn't catch up to get a good hook set.
Luckily, I rallied near the end of the day to put three in the livewell, including a beautiful 6-pounder, but even that fish was a comedy or errors. On my third pitch to a laydown, the line went sideways six inches. I set the hook and the first thing she did was make a beeline for the outboard and the Power Pole, a straight on charge for the propeller. I ran to the back deck.
Fortunately, my Marshall got out of the way, but I still tripped and went right over the back of the boat. My legs stayed in the boat, but my torso got dunked to the waist. I banged up my right hand pretty hard, but I managed to pull her up onto the deck, along with a big mouth full of nasty, muddy, pollen-covered water. My Marshall tried to keep a straight face, but he ended up cracking up. I might've even cracked a smile myself … a big fish will do that for you.
I ended the day with three keepers, one of only three competitors who failed to get a limit. I had a fourth that just touched the line when I caught him, but back at the ramp I couldn't get him to go again. I didn't want to lose the big fish, so I let the squeaker go. Fortunately, the weights were really bunched up, so even though I was 60-something, I was probably only about a pound out of the top 50.
On Day Two I was to be the first boat out in the third flight. I had been No. 50 on Day One. This put me at 51. I didn't have to make a long run, but with the bad weather we ended up getting, I think BASS made the right decision to postpone.
On top of that, I was pretty beat up and sore from my pratfall the day before, so it gave me a day to heal a little. I went back and rested, then took a drive, went to the tackle shop, but mostly it was a day to relax around my house on wheels.
On Saturday, we got to fish again and it was beautiful first thing in the morning. I went to my area and the water had come up around two feet. Fortunately, the fish had our day off to acclimate to that. It didn't take me long to figure out that they'd moved into the pockets next to the channel wood I'd been fishing. I caught around 11 pounds pretty easily.
I'd done the math and figured it was going to take 23 or 24 pounds to make the top 50, so my goal was 14 pounds. With 20 minutes to go I went into a pocket slinging a homemade black buzzbait with a gold blade (deadly in muddy water conditions) and nailed a 4-8.
On my scale, I had 13-6. BASS gave me a little bit less than that — I knew I'd be on the bubble. But I was surprised that I had jumped up to 36th. What an incredible relief. Who knew that a 36th place position could be so important to my confidence and to my career?
What it really boiled down to is that I adjusted and made the decisions necessary to jump. Maybe that's not a big deal for KVD, but at this point it's HUGE for me.
I knew that I was around the type of fish I needed to jump up even further. We still didn't know if there'd be competition on Monday, so I fished Sunday as if it was the last day of the event. I figured I needed 17 pounds to put me in the top 12 — that proved to be right, but I couldn't live up to my end of the deal. I caught a limit, but it weighed about half that.
I was boat No. 36, and by the time I got to my area Greg Hackney and Aaron Martens were already there. That told me that it was a good place — those two don't end up anywhere accidentally — but it also told me I'd have to scratch and claw for every fish I caught. Hackney later told me that he caught seven fish in there before I arrived. I also later found out that Aaron won a tournament around there a few years ago.
My first fish was a three-pounder on a buzzbait in the exact same place I caught the 4-8 the day before. Then I caught one almost two pounds the same way. I thought it was going to be ON. Wrong.
I don't know if I could have caught the 17-plus that I needed if I'd had the area to myself, but it would have been interesting to find out. To tell you the truth, if BASS had just fished the top 12 on Sunday, I would have been happy with a 36th-place finish.
The money for 48th was exactly the same, but the 12 position drop kind of rained on my parade. Financially, it was awesome. I really needed it — it put me in position where all of my entry fees are covered for the year — but you never want to go out on a down note.
Next up on the Elite Series is Smith Mountain Lake, but before that I'll make the two-day drive home where I have a full page list of chores to do — rotate my tires, get the truck serviced — and then head down to Elk Neck State Park to fish the Northern Open on the Upper Chesapeake Bay.
When do I get a minute to breathe?
A 49-year-old rookie on tour
In most sports, rookies enter the league in their early twenties. In cases like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, even teenagers can go pro. By the time they're in their forties, they've wrapped up their careers and settled into a life of jet-setting and autograph-signing. But bass fishing is a little different: technically, there aren't any age limits. So that's how you find me, Mark Burgess, competing for the BASS rookie of the year title at age 49.
I'm not new to fishing, but I've finally achieved my ultimate goal by making it to the Elite Series, and despite a long list of reasons that told me not to do it, it was an opportunity I simply could not pass up. I know it's not going to be easy — I'll be away from my family for long periods of time, living in my slide-in camper alone. I've also left behind a successful business as a rep for various companies including Skeeter Boats. The business is still mine, and it's in capable hands, but on a day-to-day basis my primary concern is catching fish. It shouldn't be all-consuming, but there just aren't enough hours in the day to keep up with everything and still compete against the Kevin VanDams and Skeet Reeses of the world.
I'm also the only one out here from New England — Massachusetts to be precise. I get some funny looks when the boys down south hear me talk, but the toughest thing is the driving. All of the anglers down in Tennessee and Arkansas will log a lot less time behind the wheel this year than I will. As long as the price of diesel doesn't rise too high, I should be OK, though.
I've noticed that a lot of the journals here on Bassmaster.com are written by the stars of the sport — people I respect and admire like Alton Jones, Denny Brauer, Aaron Martens. I hope to walk in their shoes some day, and getting there is going to be fun (but not easy). Hopefully by sharing this I'll give you the opportunity to live out some of your dreams vicariously through me.
I've actually been working on this project for a few months, but something always seems to get in the way — laundry, tackle prep, just getting from one spot to another — so I'm going to dive right in. We're almost halfway through the season and I've barely had a chance to breathe, so here's the tale of the tape so far:
5 fish for 10-08
When I got up to Dardanelle, it was a new lease on life. Amistad was behind me and the slate was wiped clean. More importantly, I was in a rhythm of tournament fishing — got my camper set up at the State Park and then I went out and got groceries.
Saturday night I had dinner at Clark Reehm's house. We met last year at Skeeter pro orientation, and even though we're from different parts of the country and have nearly 20 years difference in age, we get along very well. Just like me, he gave up a good job to chase his dream and now he's living with his parents in Dardanelle to make a go of it. His parents are very nice people and were exceptionally hospitable. Pat Golden was there, too.
On Monday, it was back to the "office." I started off in the back of Dardanelle Bay and I hadn't gone 50 yards when I caught a 7-pounder on a black buzzbait with gold blades. Fun, but you have to save bites like that for the tournament! My best five that day were probably close to 17 pounds. They were all on shallow flats in the backs of pockets near a drop-off. For the most part, I caught them on shallow-diving crankbaits and spinnerbaits. I had 14 bites that day.
Tuesday was a different story. I tried running the same pattern but couldn't get bit at all on moving baits. They had pulled tighter to the available cover, and after a while I figured out that I could flip a Woolly Hawg Craw to just about any little piece of wood or stump and get bit. I stuck about 15 pounds of fish, including a 5-pounder, but fortunately I was able to swim a lot of them, too, getting a look at them without sticking them with the hard steel of my hooks. Once I got that established, I moved to the back sides of some of the rock jetties and learned that they were holding fish, too. This was shaping up better and better.
On Wednesday, I only stuck two fish, chunky 3-pounders that would be the basis of a good tournament limit. I was ready — my shallow fish weren't going anywhere and I was certain that more were coming in by the minute.
I had a middle of the pack boat number and when they called me, I pointed the Skeeter to the back of Dardanelle Bay where I caught big mama on Monday. There were a lot of boats back there and it was obvious that we'd all have to play musical chairs, but there was a spot available on a bluff where I'd caught two on a spinnerbait on one pass during practice, so I started there. I made a pass down there this time and couldn't get anything to bite. Frustrating! So I went over to where the 7-pounder was and a friend of mine was fishing nearby. He said he had one fish already. We passed each other and shortly thereafter I got to where I'd caught the big one. I flipped my shakey head in the exact same spot and saw my line swim off. With all of that anticipation, my knees got weak, but it wasn't the big girl. It was a plain keeper, and while it put me on the board, it wasn't going to put me near the top. I worked that area hard looking for the big fish, or any bigger fish, but that was all I could muster. One fish for 1-14 — that won't earn you many checks at this level.
I have to admit that my confidence was shaken quite a bit. I needed a big bag to keep going. My backup pattern, the rock jetties, were covered with boats and I didn't try to edge my way in. Brent Chapman was there. Mark Tucker was there. They both did well. I should have taken my turn.
On day two, I was boat number 23 and everything just seemed to go a lot better. I had four keeper bites and I put them all in the boat. They ended up weighing 8 1/2 or 9 pounds — to tell you the truth, I don't even know where that put me, but it can't be good.
Mentally, I'll admit that I'm shaken. It's been a rough time. I wasn't necessarily convinced that I'd be gunning for Angler of the Year at this point, but now it's officially out of the question. You're going to have bad tournaments once in a while, but it's tough that it happened in my first two Elite Series events. I've talked about it with Clark Reehm and Dave Wolak, and they've both been a big help, but it's still tough to get over. As soon as you're off the water, you have to forget about the last tournament, put it behind you and focus on what you have to do to make the Classic. I'm still convinced I can get there. More than anything, I just want to prove to myself and to everyone else that I belong out here.
Financially, things are tight. You can't do well at this level just fishing for a check, but given the economy right now and my own personal finances, it seems that more of us do that than we'd like to admit. Fortunately, my brother Scott did something this week that absolutely caught us by surprise. He owns a construction company and a truck equipment business and he showed up at my house unannounced and handed my wife a check for ten grand. He believes in what I'm doing and support like that goes a long way. I still have some deals that I'm trying to work, and while they're not dead, they're not coming together as quickly as I'd like.
Wheeler is next and the bottom line is that I have to catch some fish. These guys flat out catch them every tournament. They seem to find them a lot faster than I do, but what can I do except fish harder every tournament and build on the positives?
Week off? What's a week off?
At the Elite Series level, if you're not hustling every minute of every day — either working on your tackle, working with your sponsors or doing something else productive — everyone else is getting ahead of you.
I was done in two days in Del Rio, and while I was satisfied with my performance and adjustments in some respects, at the same time my performance didn't earn me a check. That's one more $10,000 gap I'll have to make up.
On Saturday I worked the "Ask the Experts" panel for BASS. It was a lot of fun, a great chance to interact with the fans and get my name out there a little more. Then I headed over to the nearby Skeeter dealer and talked about the boats. I was paid up at the campground through Monday morning, so when I got back I took my time getting organized. You'd be amazed at how many things there are to do after a week of dawn-to-dusk activity, but I still had a few minutes to relax.
Monday morning I got up and drove up through San Antonio and Austin to Kilgore, Texas, where the Skeeter factory is located. It was a gorgeous 9-hour ride and for the last few hours I took the scenic route, a two-lane road that really showed Texas scenery at its best. It also gave me time to reflect on my last decade or so of effort. In 1998, I was the Massachusetts Federation Champ and that's when I signed on with Skeeter and made my first trip to the factory. Since then I've been a bunch of times and while I remember it like it was yesterday, it also seems like a lifetime ago.
I slept in my camper in the Skeeter parking lot and then spent the day in the factory going over some business and spending time with friends. I had lunch with Ben Jarrett, the national sales manager and one of my biggest supporters.
Once the business side of things was completed, I wanted to get out and fish for some big Texas spawners. I knew they were getting down and dirty at Toledo Bend and Rayburn, but those were a little out of my way. I thought about hitting one of the smaller bodies of water near Kilgore, but ultimately they convinced me to go to Fork. I had been there for the PAA event and it was more or less on the route to Arkansas so it seemed like a good idea. But it didn't seem quite as smart Wednesday evening when I'd fished all day without a bite. I hadn't even seen a hint of a fish. Little did I know that Clark Reehm, his dad and another friend were there too, and the only bit they'd had all day was a single 7-pounder.
I thought about pulling up stakes and pushing on up the road, but I'm glad I didn't. I stayed and fished Thursday and Friday and it was just phenomenal. I witnessed what they're talking about when they say the fish moved up overnight. They were everywhere. I didn't catch anything real big, but I had a blast. I was glad I stayed and reflecting on what I learned there made the six hour drive to Dardanelle fly by.
Del Rio, Texas
10 fish for 20-10
When I left Massachusetts a week before the Amistad tournament I figured that the bad weather was firmly in my rear-view mirror. After all, I was headed to Deep South Texas, where the bass grow big and you can wear shorts year round, right? Wrong. By the time the tournament started, it was probably nicer at home than it was in Del Rio, but as an Elite Series angler there's no option of waiting for the weather to improve. These guys catch fish no matter what the conditions — after all, this is the major leagues — and excuses aren't acceptable.
After a few days at Falcon Lake testing all of my equipment, I got settled at a campground in Del Rio prior to the three-day practice period. I got into a groove pretty quickly on the water, too. On the first practice day I found an area on the Mexican side that produced a 5-plus and a 3-plus. My best five that day were a little over 14 pounds, which I figure wouldn't do much in the tournament.
On the second day of practice I fished a totally different area, this time on the U.S. side, and ended up with about a pound less, so I decided to spend the last day, really more like 3/4 of a day, on the Mexican side to expand what I'd found over there. I didn't have a bite, but that's not as bad as it sounds. I spent most of the time throwing a big multi-segmented swimbait looking for the big girls to show themselves. I wanted to know if they were there, but I didn't necessarily want to hook them. In fact, I would've been pretty upset to sore mouth a monster in practice.
That night the weather took a turn for the worse. It was in the 40s, quickly dropping into the 30s. Matt Herren and I took a ride over to the ramp. There were 4-footers crashing down on it. I really didn't know if we'd be able to launch. On the one hand, I knew that the tough conditions could hurt the bite, on the other hand, with the lake high and cold I thought it might take some of the "hammers" out of the equation. Everyone would have to work hard to get what they could.
They didn't end up canceling the day, but launch was a mess. Those big waves were rolling directly onto the ramp and I took about four of them over the back of my boat as I drove it off the trailer. Fortunately, I brought my cold-weather gear with me, so with polypropylene undergarments and neoprene gloves (with heat packs!), I could focus on maximizing my day.
I'd located probably a hundred bedding bucks and marked them on my GPS, but I wanted to focus on the big females that just had to be waiting to move up. I ran to a deeper spot on the Mexican side where I'd caught the 5-pounder. It was just protected enough from the gusting winds to allow me to fish it correctly, but in 2 1/2 hours I caught only one small keeper, and I had to measure that one to make sure it was 14-inches. I ran around the corner where I'd seen a bunch of spawners and caught three decent ones in there, then ran back to my deep spot to try to fill out my limit with a kicker. I fished it from every angle, with a big Fat Free Shad and a 10-inch worm, but I couldn't get bit. On the way back in, I stopped at the mouth of another pocket and caught my fifth fish, which brought me to 10-09. That put me at 70-something in the standings, and I felt like it would take 26 pounds to make the first cut, so I wasn't completely out of it. With a 15- or 16-pound bag I could get to Day Three and on that lake there's always a chance of a 30-pound bag to make the next cut, too.
On the second day, I decided to forego Mexico. Instead I stayed on the U.S. side and fished some south-facing pockets on the north side of the lake. I figured those big females had to be out in those drains into the spawning pockets just waiting to move up. But I fished those deeper drains, some points and humps until noon and never had a bite. I had a 4 o'clock check-in so I headed into a pocket where I knew there were some beds and I caught eight fish in an hour, all on a shakey head with a 4-inch Yum Houdini worm (green pumpkin). Then I headed out deep to try to cull up, but it just didn't happen. That day, I had slightly less, 10-01.
While the finish wasn't what I wanted or expected, I don't really feel bad about my performance. Most of the guys who did better than I did had the same limits I did, with the addition of a 7-, 8- or 9-pounder. One fish like that and I'm sitting here with ten grand in the bank. I wasn't counting on that check, but it would have been nice. I'm committed to the process and I made my next payment this week. Going into every event, the goal is to win. If you can't do that, you want to make the top 12. If you can't do that, it's top fifty and a check. At the very least you want to catch a limit each day and end up as high as you can. I'm no longer an "Elite Series Virgin." My equipment performed flawlessly. In particular, my Shimano rods and reels allowed me to land every fish that bit in a tournament where a lot of guys were crying about lost fish.
There's no time to go home, so I'll head to the Skeeter factory for a bit, fish a few more days here in Texas, take care of some business and then head up to Dardanelle with my game face on. Hopefully the next time you hear from me I'll be able to report something big.