Gaining confidence on the Elite Series

I think the phrase that describes the start of my rookie season is “sticking to my guns.” I’m very thankful that I was able to finish in the money at my first two events on the Bassmaster Elite Series, and both times I did well by remaining committed to a game plan.

At Cherokee Lake, things just came together for me, and I finished 25th. I didn’t have a good practice, but I found one deep spot where I got about six or seven bites a day.

When you’re not getting many bites, it’s hard to not abandon a game plan, but I knew that leaving and trying to find new spots in a tough winter fishery was not a good option.

I faced a similar scenario at the second event on Lake Okeechobee, where I finished 39th. I had one spot — a massive eel grass flat of about 700-800 acres where I was catching spawners in 2 to 2 1/2 feet of water.

This was an area where I thought I had the capability to catch a big bag. Even though I didn’t do that on Day 1, I caught almost 20 pounds on Day 2, which pushed me into the Top 51 cut.

I was fishing a YUM Dinger with a 1/4-ounce weight, and in most instances, I couldn’t see the fish I was targeting. The holes they were spawning in were visible, so I would just Power-Pole down and flip to a hole, almost like I knew there was a fish there.

Again, it was about sticking to my guns and not departing something that was working.

It was definitely rewarding on a personal level to do well in these events, but it was even more gratifying to see my dad’s excitement for my success. He had a tough one at Okeechobee, but he was so excited that I had almost 20 pounds on Day 2 that he didn’t seem to mind.

Of course, he wanted to make the cut, but that’s a good example of how the support goes both ways for us. It’s kind of a win-win for both of us if one of us makes it. We feel like we have skin in the game either way.

Another interesting moment from the Okeechobee event was in the weigh-in line when I found myself sandwiched between Gerald Swindle and Greg Hackney. You’re thinking “The guy in front of me won Angler of the Year last year and guy behind me won Angler of the Year two years ago, and on either side are countless big names,” and they’re just talking to you like you’re one of them.

It’s kind of surreal. I grew up around this sport, so I didn’t think I’d be wowed by anyone, but these guys are the best in the world. And I’m standing there in line talking comfortably with them.

It’s strange because I’ve never really been concerned about acceptance. I’ve known so many of those guys since I could walk. But, for me, the anxiety comes from wanting to prove myself as a rookie.

When Greg Hackney or Gerald Swindle or Kevin VanDam has a bad day, it’s just a bad day. It doesn’t impact who they are as anglers.

It’s different when you’re a rookie and you don’t have all those achievements backing you up. When you have a bad day, it’s hard to keep it from getting in your head. But you can’t let the bad days define you.

So, while I’m not really concerned about acceptance, I’m more concerned with approval from myself that I belong there.

I’ve gotten off to a good start, but at the end of the season, two checks won’t mean much if you don’t catch ‘em at the other seven events. The goals for the season are to qualify for next year’s Bassmaster Classic and to win Rookie of the Year. Anything on top of that will be icing on the cake.

I’m in good position to accomplish both of those goals, but there’s still a long year ahead.

I will say that I knew going into the season that having two events before the Classic would either raise my confidence or shoot it. I feel that I have definitely raised my confidence, so that will be a benefit to me.

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