Salvage time

Whoever said "Practice makes perfect," was definitely not a professional bass fisherman. I've been at this business for quite a while now, and I can tell you that no matter how long I have to practice or how hard I work at it, there's just no getting to perfect.

Our last Elite event on the Mississippi River out of La Crosse, Wis., was a great example of that, and it gave me the idea for this column.

To say that I had a bad practice period on the Mississippi River would be an understatement. I completely misjudged the fish, where they were in relation to the spawning cycle and what they were going to be doing once the competition rolled around. The result: I was essentially hitting the water cold on Thursday when the tournament started.

Ordinarily, that's a bad thing. Years ago, when I was just getting started, I'd have taken that bad practice and turned it into a terrible tournament by trying to force the bass into doing what I wanted them to do, even if they didn't want to do it. I'd struggle through the first day with little to show for my efforts, panic and bomb in the second round and be completely surprised at the methods, locations and baits that eventually won the event.

No more.

For those tournaments where practice doesn't work out, I now have another game plan, and I think it could work for you, too. I'm talking here about those tournaments where you're accumulating points and trying to qualify for a season-ending championship or angler of the year title. Tournaments where a bad performance lingers past that weigh-in.

For those events where practice has fallen way short of what you wanted, it's time to get into "survival mode" and to find a way to salvage the tournament. You're probably not going to win this way, but you can avoid a really bad finish that could ruin your chances of qualifying for the championship or winning AOY.

It starts not by doing something, but by not doing something. You must not get hung up doing what you think the bass want. Instead, you need to be constantly striving to figure out what they want.

On the Mississippi River, I had preconceived ideas about where the bass would be and what they would be doing. It turns out they were a lot further behind in their seasonal patterns that I anticipated. I didn't put that piece of the puzzle together until after official practice was over. By then I had no time to develop a successful pattern before the tournament started.

Instead of spinning out and having a really bad tournament, though, I stopped doing what I thought the bass wanted and started tuning in to what they actually wanted. I turned the first day of competition into a late practice round. After all, I had already eliminated a lot of water and a lot of methods.

Every day on the water, I learned a little more and got a little stronger. At the end of Day 1, I was in 41st place with a limit weighing 12 pounds, 7 ounces. On Day 2, I had another limit weighing 13-0. It gave me 25-7 for two days, good enough for 26th place and a check.

Now, instead of driving home and wondering what went wrong, I was still fishing on Day 3 and still figuring things out. I made a more adjustments and it was my best day yet — another limit, this one weighing 13-6. I moved into 23rd place and earned a fair number of AOY points.

No, I didn't set the fishing world on fire after my unsuccessful practice, but I salvaged what could have been a disastrous tournament, earned a check, picked up some points and left the event feeling pretty good about my performance. What I lacked in speed by not getting on a strong pattern quickly, I made up in perseverance.

And that means a lot out here ... and probably where you fish, too.

Cliff's notes:

Fish the conditions you have, not the conditions you wish you had.

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