Bottoms up on the Mississippi

After terrible seasons, four Elite anglers find confidence on Mississippi River

FORT MADISON, Iowa — For six events, four Elite Series anglers struggled to make a check, and three quarters of the way through the season, they found themselves at the bottom of the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings.

Iowa has become a place of redemption for them. One came looking forward to a shallow bite igniting his cold season. One came trying to capture the consistency that characterized his past two Elite seasons. One came hoping to requalify for next year's Series. One came as a rookie trying to learn more and justify spending another season fishing against giants.

"I really hope I get a chance to fish next year," rookie Luke Gritter said after the Day Two weigh-in saw him finish the day in 42nd place. "I think I could be a lot more competitive. I've learned more in these first six tournaments than I did in my past six seasons of fishing."

Gritter has struggled on his first season on tour, and came to Iowa sitting in 94th in the TTBAOY standings. He knew he had to make a move on the Mississippi, both to requalify for the Elite Series in 2010 and to cash a check and help defray some of the expenses piling up.

Day One saw Gritter bring in three fish for 6 pounds, 5 ounces, and he backed that up with three more keepers on Day Two at 5 pounds, 7 ounces, putting him inside the 50-cut for the first time all year.

"The river fishes the way I like to fish: shallow, muddy water with fish tight to the bank," Gritter said. "Making this 50-cut is an awesome accomplishment, but I lost too many fish this tournament. I should have had 10 pounds a day. I don't think I've ever seen 10,000 dollars jump off the hook that many times."

Fortunately for Gritter, he will have another day to capitalize on his mistakes. A tip from Casey Ashley might help him bring in every bite that counts.

"I talked to Casey at the weigh-in and he said that I need to let the fish take the bait longer," Gritter said. "When they hit the bait, I need to let them swim up into the bushes and get buried and then go in after them. I don't know about that — I'm not a big snake fan and there are plenty of snakes up there."

Snake attacks aside, Gritter has finally put himself in the position he envisioned being in more often this season and as he continues to mature and gain experience on the Elite Series, he expects to be a top-50 force in the years to come.

Pete Ponds entered the Genuity River Rumble in 81st place in the TTBAOY standings, knowing that he needed a good finish if he wanted to be an Elite angler in 2010.

"To requalify is one of the main factors in doing well this week," Ponds said. "That, plus cashing a check. We're struggling with a lot of expenses, so getting a check is really important. I'm actually surprised I'm doing well here because I try to do something different than everyone else."

His strategy is to pay attention to what other anglers are doing and find something different that can help him catch fish behind them. That strategy has paid off in the crowded conditions on the Mississippi River, and Ponds made the 50-cut in 40th place with 12 pounds, 1 ounce.

"If you see everyone in there flipping bushes and you flip bushes, you will get the same result," Ponds said. "I'm not going to say what I'm doing differently right now, but at least you need to be using a different bait."

Like Ponds, Scott Campbell had cashed two checks already on the Elite Series this year, and similarly, rough goings the rest of the way had him mired in 86th place in the TTBAOY standings entering the event in Iowa.

Campbell backed up his solid Day One with a 12-pound bag on the second day and made the cut easily in third place overall.

"A good finish here is crucial," Campbell said. "The year has been pretty rough and I've had some tough breaks. The last few events have taken heavy weights to do well and I just haven't ran into a school of better fish."

The change from whackfests to a tough, river bite was a change in Campbell's favor. The resident of Springfield, Mo., sets his goal at catching five fish each tournament and for a change, meeting that goal resulted in an above-average day.

"I like tough tournaments," Campbell said. "I've always managed to catch five fish each day — working hard enough at it to at least get a limit. Tough tournaments seem to fit right into my style."

Campbell is locking up to pool 18, but since half of the field has been doing the same, the conditions there are equally crowded. He is optimistic that a big bag is still possible from the spot that he mined his last two bags, but knows that pressure has been taking its toll on the limited fish present.

"I think the area is capable of consistently bringing out 12 to 13 pounds," Campbell said. "It's just a matter of finding five fish that haven't been yanked out yet. It's not easy and I'm fortunate to have what I've got."

What he's got is 23 pounds, 8 ounces, currently only 9 ounces behind leader Alton Jones. Not only does Campbell have a good chance at earning a nice check this week, but he is also within striking distance of his first career Elite Series victory, one that would help Campbell forget about his rocky season to this point.

Another angler just waiting for a shallow, tougher event was veteran BASS angler Zell Rowland. Entering the event in 97th place in the TTBAOY standings, Rowland was glad to finally leave the land of the ledges and try to work some of his shallow magic on the finicky Mississippi River bass.

Two consistent bags of 9 pounds and 7 pounds, 13 ounces has Rowland in the 21st spot going into Day Three.

"I'm really a shallow-water angler and this kind of tournament plays into my forte," Rowland said. "I'm fishing really hard and I've found one little area that has been productive. I'd love to know what's swimming in there when the deepest area is only 3 feet. I've caught fish working up and then back down banks."

The Genuity River Rumble marks the first time Rowland has cashed a check all season and the last time the Montgomery, Texas, resident won a tournament was back in 2005 on Lake Guntersville before the inception of the Elite Series.

Since then, the tour has focused often on making stops where deep-water, offshore fishing has dominated, something that Rowland didn't adjust to as well. Back up in the shallow water of the Mississippi River, Rowland has found his home and has been able to get away from the back fortune that has plagued him this season.

"It's not like I haven't been on the fish to do well," Rowland said. "I've had three tournaments where I have had the fish on, but just lose them. It seems like when an angler is having bad luck, the harder he tries, the worse it gets."

All four would like to make the Mississippi River the place where they were able to turn the season around and even though they are well out of Classic contention, making checks and fishing next season will go a long way after the way 2009 began.