Luck vs. skill

Rick Clunn once made the statement “There is no luck in fishing!” Whether or not he still believes that, I’m not sure. But I can tell you this: From what I recently experienced, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

For those of you who read my columns — particularly the one I write for — you know I sometimes blame bad luck for certain occurrences that stand between me and success. Perhaps it’s an excuse for performing poorly. In any event, I share these anecdotes so others can see how unpredictable or uncontrollable situations can occur during competition, and ultimately decide the outcome.

In 2014, my season was bookended by luck, and I'm fortunate to report that it was good luck ... at least this time.

Big Time Luck

You've heard the saying, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Perhaps that best sums up what happened to me during this year’s Elite Series opener on Lake Seminole.

That’s where I caught a 10-pounder. And though many of you may have seen or heard about that fish, I bet few of you knew that I lost it twice before finally getting it to the boat.

I discovered the big female during practice. She was paired with a large male in an isolated backwater pond, and both appeared to be extremely aggressive. I marked the bed and moved on to look for others.

Since it was the first day of practice, I figured she would be long gone come tournament time. But when I returned around noon on the first day of competition, amazingly, I found her still there … and still very aggressive.

She bit on the very first cast, but when I set the hook, the lure popped free from her mouth. On the next cast, she bit again. This time I pulled her to the surface before she ripped off 10 feet of line, eventually tearing off in a clump of lily pads. At that point, I felt all was lost. I threw my rod down and collapsed to the deck in frustration.

A few minutes later, I regrouped, re-rigged, and made another cast, hoping to catch the male. As soon as the lure touched bottom, my line went tight and the battle was on. But it wasn’t the male. It was the giant female ... again!

The behemoth bass wrapped itself in several clumps of lily pads, trying to repeat her escape, but each time I managed to pull her free. Eventually she came to the boat and I lifted her aboard. On the very next cast, I caught the male. It weighed 6 pounds!

If catching that giant wasn’t luck — or perhaps divine intervention — then I don’t know what is!

Consider the Odds

That brings me to Cayuga Lake and the regular season finale of the 2014 Elite Series. Going in, I was 39th in AOY points — not bad, but not nearly a lock to qualify for the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship, where only the Top 50 would earn a chance to go to the 2015  Bassmaster Classic.

Here's the 5 pounder from Cayuga that really made a difference for me.

My practice session on Cayuga was fair at best. Although I found fish quickly, they didn’t appear to be the right size to compete.

As practice wound down, I went into survival mode. In order to advance to the year-end championship, I knew I’d have to make the most of what little I had found.

My two best patterns involved cranking submerged grass in the morning, then skipping docks in the afternoon … neither of which were unique to the field. Most everyone had figured out these same basic tactics.

As luck would have it, I drew out boat number 106, which was dead last in the take-off order. We all knew Cayuga would fish small, so drawing out that late meant I’d be fishing leftovers.

When I arrived at my starting spot, I found Matt Reed and Mark Davis already parked on the best area — a 100-yard stretch of submerged grass in about 10 to 15 feet of water. With the sweet spots taken, I meandered in and around them, trying to squeeze out a few fish.

By 10 o’clock, with only four average-sized bass in the livewell, the crankbait bite quit. From there I headed to the docks, and that’s when things began to improve.

The bite was slow but steady, and I was able to cull numerous times. By late afternoon, when most of the other competitors had already left for check-in, good fortune kicked in.

On one particular dock, I skipped a 4-inch Senko between the catwalk and an adjacent boatlift. The cast was slightly off target, but I let the lure sink anyway. After no response, I started to retrieve the lure for another cast when it suddenly snagged a metal brace. I tried popping the line several times, but the lure wouldn’t release. So I motored toward the dock, when suddenly, the line took off — a fish had taken the bait and I was now engaged in a tug of war.

For a few moments my line sawed back and forth across the metal support, and I could see it was a good fish. But by the time I got close enough, the fish pulled free and my lure was — once again — hung on the dock.

While untangling my lure, I noticed the bass still sitting there, directly below me. I recall telling my Marshal, “I have the worst luck!”

Disgusted, I pushed away from the dock and retied my line. A few minutes later, I skipped the bait back under the dock and instantly hooked up with the same fish again. This time it came swimming right out from beneath the dock and into my hands. It weighed more than 3 pounds, which at the time I desperately needed.

Two docks later, I skipped the Senko beneath a Jet Ski lift in super shallow water. Almost instantly, another bass struck, and as I set the hook I inadvertently flipped the anti-reverse switch and the reel spun backwards into a pile of loose line. There I stood, handcuffed, with no way to fight the fish. With no other option, I began hand-lining and managed to wrestle the fish to the boat.

That one weighed 3 1/2 pounds!

In a matter of minutes, I went from a probable 90th place finish to 50th … just inside the cut.

A Lucky Strike

On Day 2, I started once more next to Mark Davis and Matt Reed. Two other competitors showed up, so the grassbed was now crowded.

And here's the same Cayuga lunker as I prepare to bag it and take it to the weigh-in line. Better to be lucky than good? Maybe!

Like the day before, I meandered through the boats, cranking over the top of the grass. My first fish was a fat 3 1/2-pounder. It came quickly, too. But after that, the bite died. I tried forcing the crankbait pattern, but when I saw the others scratch out a few bites by slow worming, I changed up.

At one point, I made a long cast, engaged the reel, and with my free hand grabbed a bottle of water. While chugging its contents, I felt a slight tug on the other end of my line. I immediately dropped the bottle and set the hook. Seconds later a 5-pounder rose to the surface and jumped. My heart was now in my throat.

Five-pounders on Cayuga are like 10s on Falcon, and I wanted this fish bad!

After what seemed like an eternity, I finally pulled the 5 over the gunnel, and that set the pace for the rest of the day. I caught and culled countless 2-pounders and easily made the cut to the weekend. Even better, I improved my position in the AOY standings.

Because of all this good fortune, I'm now headed to Bays de Noc and the AOY Championship where I hope to qualify for my ninth Bassmaster Classic.

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