"It's a cyclic sport where much of an angler's success is actually based on confidence. Unfortunately, you can lose that confidence in one bad tournament, and for some it may take months to recover."
The speaker is Elite pro John Murray, who, in his 29 years of professional tournament fishing, has had more than one slump, the most recent of which started at the Potomac River event in August 2007 and continued through the first five Elite tournaments in the 2008 season.
A "slump" in Murray's definition is finishing lower than 50th place in several consecutive events so that he doesn't collect any checks. Practically every tournament pro experiences slumps during his career and, surprisingly, says Murray, they often follow a successful season or come after several years of success.
"I think you get complacent and simply lose focus," notes the Arizona veteran. Maybe you get a subconscious belief that it's easy and you can do it all the time.
"In the first part of the 2007 season, I made six Top 12s, including back-to-back thirds at Erie and Oneida," Murray remembers, "and naturally, I was really feeling good about myself. Then, at the Potomac and at Toho I didn't make a check, and it continued through the first five tournaments of last season.
"It developed into a mind game for me, and I think it does for most anglers. You can have some bad luck, like losing a key big fish, but basically, I think slumps are based on emotions. Instead of thinking of ways to win, I was thinking of ways to lose. Even though I had decades of fishing experience, I was doubting my ability."
After a tournament, it's easy to see mistakes, Murray continues, but when you're in a slump this self-doubt makes it practically impossible to analyze conditions while you're on the water.
Realizing he was in a serious downhill slide, Murray purposefully and deliberately entered a tournament on Lake Mead following the Clarks Hill Elite last May. He had years of experience on the lake, and he fished his favorite places from the past with lures that had brought him success. He stayed alone and tried not to talk to anyone about the lake or the fishing.
"I absolutely returned to the basics," he says, "and I finished 14th. I came out thinking, Wow! I can still catch bass. I was excited. I went from there to the Elite at Lake Murray and finished in the Top 30, then followed with a 4th in the Elite at Wheeler. It turned my season around. I'd been 95th in the points standings and climbed into the top 50."
An angler can actually lose confidence in one event, according to Murray, who remembers his ill-fated trip to the Potomac. He'd done well there in previous events but couldn't seem to do anything right that week and finished in the 80s.
One of the first things a slumping fisherman usually does is ask for help from other fishermen, according to Murray, but while friends want to help, their advice can often make things worse. What happens is that by following their advice, an angler starts fishing in ways he doesn't really want to use, which, when combined with the growing lack of confidence, keeps the slump going.
"I think every fisherman's goal has to be to fish his own way, and if he changes locations or lures or presentations, it has to be his own decision," Murray emphasizes. "There is so much information out there, it is hard to fish your own way, so each angler has to decide how much information he wants prior to an event, and he also has to decide how to use that information in a way that still allows him to fish his own way.
"For instance, I like to look for 'outside' bass where I can use my electronics and fish jigs and plastic worms. That's one reason I love Lake Erie, where I have just three areas and I can fish at my own pace."
Still another key to solving slumps is building on any success, no matter how small. His 14th place at Mead certainly did not set any records, but that's not what Murray was looking for. An angler who catches 20 pounds one day but only two pounds the next shouldn't dwell on what went wrong that day but rather, what went right the first day.
And how is Murray faring during the 2009 Elite Season? He needed one bass to qualify for the Top 50 cut and fish the third day at Amistad, but he didn't get it, and he thinks there was a reason he didn't: with his wife in the hospital to deliver their first child, Murray was able to get home in time to be there when his son was born.
At Dardanelle, the second Elite stop, where he had never earned a check, Murray decided to camp in one creek all week, regardless of the outcome. He got four bites a day, finished 58th, and was not disappointed at all. He followed with a 28th at Wheeler and 17th at Guntersville.
"I've had lots of slumps over my career," he concludes, "and they usually come after a good year when I probably get lazy. Now, with so much money at stake in our entry fees and expenses, the added pressure often makes slumps worse.
"I tell fishermen to just go back to basics on a lake they know well, and really isolate themselves from the dock talk so they don't get influenced. While you can lose your confidence in one bad tournament, you can also re-gain it in one good tournament."