California dreaming for 2015

I recently returned from the Anglers Marine Bass-A-Thon in southern California, and it was almost like a cultural exchange program. At times I felt like avid tournament fishermen out there had no idea what I was talking about. We were talking mostly the same language, but somehow it just didn’t register. On the flip side, I looked at some of the foot-long swimbaits and rats they were selling, and I wondered if they were really going to use them for bass or just mount them over the fireplace. It’s a different world out there, despite the fact that a bass is the same whether it’s in Maine or Montana.

Even though I’ve lived in Alabama and Florida throughout my professional angling career, the West Coast influence has played a surprisingly large role in my development. In fact, until I started to think about this column it didn’t even dawn on me how much I’ve been affected by West Coast natives like Brent Ehrler, Aaron Martens and Brett Hite. I may not like finesse fishing at all – in fact it pains me to say that I just spent a bunch of money on some new spinning reels – but I’ve won money in my career on 6-pound line when I probably would’ve missed a check if I hadn’t tried it.

The big bait stuff appeals to me much more than the light line techniques. It was hard to wade through the 10,000 big swimbaits they had at the show, but I spent a lot of time checking them out. I probably spent about $700 or $800 on them. That wasn’t as much as my good friend Bryan Thrift, who spent over a thousand bucks on the big baits. Rumor has it that Edwin Evers holds the record for a non-westerner at Bass-A-Thon with purchases that added up to $1,800. (Edwin, if you were keeping that a secret from your wife and I somehow messed things up, please know that I am truly sorry.) Of course, when a single bait can cost $200 or $300, it doesn’t take long to rack up a pretty big bill.

Another part of the culture shock that I experienced was when I learned just how dedicated some of those western pros are to the sport. We’re pretty spoiled here in my neck of the woods. Within 30 minutes of my house, there are three or four tournament-quality lakes that I can fish. At Guntersville, you could probably find a tournament to fish just about every day of the week. In fact, I’d bet there’s something out there every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. It might not be for big bucks, but you can quench your appetite for competition with an endless series of Tuesday and Wednesday nighters. In the Southeast it’s possible to make a decent living fishing without ever leaving home. In California, on the other hand, not only is it a pain in the butt to have a boat, but they often have to drive 10 or 15 hours just to fish a “local” tournament.

That distance is why a lot of anglers like Aaron Martens and Justin Lucas moved east to Alabama to further their tournament careers. As Skeet, Ish and others have proved, it’s not strictly necessary to do it, but it definitely helps … especially if you’re a young gun like Justin. It gives you the opportunity to evolve as an angler, and there are incredibly diverse waterways including Logan Martin, Smith Lake, the Tennessee River chain and the Coosa River chain virtually at your doorstep.

While most of the Elite Series pros still live outside the West, I do think it makes sense to head out there once in a while. Yes, it’s an arduous drive, but if we’re truly going to be a national tour, we need to fish their waters, too – maybe not every year, but every two or three years. That’s why I’m pretty excited about the 2015 season.

I’m sure Havasu will turn out to be a pretty good tournament. It’s a very picturesque desert lake, and with the weekend of the tournament falling during spring break, I bet we’re going to see some scenery beyond what it usually offers. The one that I’m truly excited about, however, is the California Delta. It’s one of those legendary fisheries like Okeechobee or Guntersville, one that I’ve always dreamed of visiting. It’s vast and fertile and has a lot of big fish, a recipe for a great event.

For years, some of the western pros have done well in eastern tournaments using techniques that were then foreign or unfamiliar to the rest of us. My hope is that I can go out West and fish my way and make it work. Beyond just doing well, that would be particularly gratifying. No matter what happens, I’m pretty sure that I won’t be moving to California. I’ve tried on a flat brim hat and it just wasn’t my look. On the other hand, those guys have been cashing checks on “our” waters for a long time, and the drive home won’t be quite as long if we’ve given them a little dose of their own medicine.