Cayuga lessons

As I left Union Springs, New York, after the final regular season Elite event, the A.R.E. Truck Caps Bassmaster Elite at Cayuga Lake, I took with me a really nice feeling of comfort from the enjoyable surroundings of the western New York region. However, balancing out those positive thoughts was some disappointment in my performance at this tournament.

I was really hoping to move on to the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship, but this event was a good example of how, even at the Elite level, you’re constantly learning, improving and refining your game. I feel like I’ve been at this long enough to have a high level of confidence in my abilities, but I also know that my job demands that I never stop absorbing more and more details that can make me a better angler.

Cayuga gave me a big lesson on that point.

I’ll start by saying that our job as professional fishermen is to show up and find a group of fish you can win on. Considering how good all these guys are, you also have to find a school that no one else has found.

During practice, my main objective is to find as many spots with winning fish as I can. On Day 1, I did that. I had the best practice day I’ve had all year. On the second day, I worked to expand what I’d found and continue getting better on Day 3.

With my 2015 Bassmaster Classic spot secured through my Elite win on Lake Dardanelle, I was trying to fish the tournament to win it, so I was eager to get after it. Unfortunately, my results didn’t reflect the potential.

I go to my first spot and I’m confident that my sponsors have provided the best equipment I can use. I get the bites, but I just don’t get them in the boat.

I’m pretty even-keeled and I don’t get spun out easily, but you lose one here, one there and before long, it snowballs.

During the day, we anglers usually say “I hope I get another bite,” but by the end of that first day “I was saying 'I hope I don’t lose another one.'”

Now, tournament winner Greg Hackney was fishing similar grass areas and (obviously) his results were very different. I recall standing in the weigh-in line on that first day and one of the younger Elite pros asked me why Hackney is so proficient on grass lakes.

My response was simple: I see a bed of milfoil, but Hack sees 10 different things going on there. He’s fished it a long time and he knows how to find those sweet spots in the grass.

I found just such a spot on Day 2. I caught a good fish, ran to another spot like that one and caught a 5-pounder. By then, it was too late and I realized I just missed the boat in this tournament because I hadn’t recognized one of those key details early enough.

But, as I learned, it’s even more that than. Hackney’s not just good at getting bites in the grass, he’s good at getting fish out of the grass. That’s a key point he explained to me in the weigh-in line.

I was standing next to Hack on the second day and I told him that I had lost several good fish in the grass. Well, he just gave me that Greg Hackney grin and said: “You swung on ‘em, didn’t you?”

He was right. I was trying to set the hook like I do when I’m flipping laydowns, docks or any other shallow cover. But, as Hackney explained, in heavy grass you have to let them eat it and come tight before you set the hook or you’ll pull the bait away from them.

Now, I’ll admit, that’s just not in my makeup. If I feel a bite, I swing on that fish. That’s just how I’ve trained myself to react. But, in this type of habitat, that response cost me.

On the upside, enduring this tough finish rewarded me with invaluable knowledge. It’s my job to catch fish and doing that requires a constant refinement of my skills.

My hat’s off to Greg Hackney for a great win and my hat’s off to Union Springs for hosting a nice event in a really pleasant part of the country. But most of all, my hat’s off to Cayuga Lake for helping me learn a lesson that I promise you I will not forget.