The lies that big fish tell

Put a hundred of the best fishermen in the world on some primo waters, and we’re bound to see a parade of huge bass, right?

In most years, yes. This year, not so much.

The eight 2013 Elite Series tournaments have featured some amazing fish catches, storylines and boat rides, but with the exception of Falcon the expected parade of big ’uns has essentially been canceled. Falcon, of course, is always an outlier. In Zapata, sevens are virtual nuisances, eights don’t raise eyebrows, and nines don’t impress. Matt Greenblatt’s 10-pound, 13-ounce Carhartt Big Bass was an awesome fish, but even the fans and pundits were left scratching their heads. What, no 12s?

At the seven other regular season events, the biggest bass weighed in was Tommy Biffle’s 6-12 at West Point.

No sevens at West Point, the Sabine River or the Alabama River.

They didn’t hit the 6-pound mark at Bull Shoals, the St. Lawrence or St. Clair.

At the Upper Mississippi, the big bass winner didn’t even push the scales to five.

Examined only on that level, it would seem to be a disappointing season. It’s the tree shakers that create highlight reels, even more than rides through the Alabama River rapids, and a season that’s not littered with 8- and 9-pound largemouths, and 6-pound-plus smallmouths would seem to be the fishing equivalent of a slam dunk contest that turns into a series of well-executed bounce passes and layups.

I like big fish as much as the next fan – more, if I’m the one catching them – but the longer I watch the sport the more I realize that big fish are flukey. Sure, there are guys like Kelly Jordon who excel at targeting them and he has a bunch of big bass awards to his credit, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that the guy who catches the single biggest bass will win the tournament, or even make the cut to Saturday.

The guys who make cuts to Saturday and Sunday are the ones who plug away, catching limits every day and averaging a few extra ounces per fish over the other top finishers. You don’t need a kicker in the bag every day, although it helps – more important is finding that class of fish that’s just a bit fatter and healthier.

It reminds me of the old professional bowling cliché: “Strikes are for show, but spares are for dough.”

Matt Greenblatt, Bradley Roy and Kelly Jordon all bowled strikes at some point this year, earning Carhartt Big Bass awards at Falcon, Bull Shoals and the Alabama River, respectively. None is currently qualified for next year’s Classic. I’d bet that any of them would trade the big fish check for a shot at the big dance. A big bite helps but fishing is – to borrow the worst of all sports clichés – a game of ounces. More than most, in fact, since it’s the impartial scale that makes the final judgment.

Tell Kurt Dove that ounces don’t matter. He missed the cut to Saturday at the St. Lawrence via a tiebreaker, having tied for the 50th spot. He missed the cut to Saturday at Bull Shoals by one spot and 4 ounces. He finished 50th at Sabine and he was 49th at West Point. The end result was two checks for $20,000. A few ounces one way and it could have been $40,000. A few ounces the other, perhaps a few crawfish or shad spit up in the bottom of the livewell, and it could have been a goose egg.

Tell Jason Williamson that ounces don’t matter. As of now, he’s the first man outside of the cut for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic, just three points behind Fred Roumbanis. If Williamson’s catch had weighed just 9 more ounces at Bull Shoals (over three days), he’d be in. Or combine 2 more ounces at the Sabine (over two days) with 8 more ounces (over four days) at Falcon and he’d be planning to prefish Guntersville.

Tell Edwin Evers that ounces don’t matter. At the final regular season event on St. Clair, he made a gallant attempt on Day Two to overcome a subpar first day, but ultimately he fell 8 ounces short of making the cut to Saturday. If he’d weighed in an extra pound either day, that would have moved him up 14 places. If his 10 fish had averaged just 4 ounces more apiece, an amount probably imperceptible to most of us, he would’ve ended Day Two in 32nd place and could have slammed the door with another good catch on Saturday. Of course, that didn’t happen. His dreams for this year were ended by a few ounces here, a few ounces there.

I bet none of those guys spends the offseason thinking about a Carhartt Big Bass award they missed. Perhaps I’m wrong and Dove broke off a 7-pounder at Bull Shoals or a 6 1/2 at the St. Lawrence. Or maybe Evers had a 6-plus evade his grasp at St. Clair. Maybe Williamson could have picked up three points simply by catching one more big fish, but he could just have easily done it with a few ounces here, a few there, by virtue of a good culling beam.

For some, missed opportunities come on the first day of the season and their memories are lost to a season of thousands of miles on the highway and thousands of casts on the water. For others, like Evers, it could come on the last day, a nasty piece of punctuation that sours an otherwise exemplary season.

Aaron Martens, now a two-time Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year, is one who knows the value of ounces. Of course he knows how to catch big fish, too – when he won at the Cal Delta in 2007, he had a 10-pounder and an 11-pounder on the same day, and this year he had the big bass at the Upper Mississippi (although it was the “smallest big bass” of 2013). But if you talk to him after he wins, or even after one of his seconds, he usually talks about the meaning of small differences.

At a tournament in which cookie cutter bass rule the day, you’ll hear Martens talk of the need to catch 2 1/2-pounders as opposed to the endless stream of 2 1/4-pounders. I’ve never heard any other pro who is so acutely aware of what individual “average” fish weigh. I suppose that’s why he has two AOY titles and lots of big fish hunters have awards and memories, but not necessarily so much of the big hardware. A big fish can put you over the top, but titles are built on the backs of unexceptional keepers stacked together.

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