My Elite Series season is over. I am home getting to know my wife again and am now trying to decide what is next for me. I know I want to do some lure building using what I learned during our travels this season and in discussions with other Elite anglers. I have some ideas, and if you wish to see what I am doing you can keep up with new designs on my web site SissonsDesigns.com.
However, the following are the top 10 things every Elite rookie should know.
10) There is a reason that there are no 63-year-old rookies in professional sports. Time catches up with us all, and while my mind may say go, my body says no. Being in good physical condition is as important in this sport as any other. But this is marathon, not a sprint. Endurance is the key. You need to be able to get up before daylight and fish until dark, making every hour of your practice count. That’s the first half. The second half is being able to execute at the highest level the next four days.
9) Keep an open mind when preparing and practicing on the next body of water. Years ago there was a thing known as the home lake jinx. We think we know where the fish should be, and what they will eat based on earlier trips to the lake. For instance, we know where all brush piles are, and spend all our time trying to get the fish to bite, only to find out the fish were on a different pattern. I like to look at a lake and try as many different patterns as I can, time allowing.
8) Do your homework before the lake goes off limits. You will be fishing against the best bass fishermen in the world. Many Elite anglers will have years of experience on the water you are fishing. Most have built networks which help them to gain local knowledge on each lake. You need to do the same. The Internet is a great place to gather information. There are many blogs and websites which have a world of knowledge. I have spent hours using Google Earth to look at lakes from the air. One surprising thing is that while you are not allowed on the water during the off limits period, you are allowed to fly over it. Jeff Connella and I flew over the Arkansas River on the Sunday before practice started. The river was rapidly changing and Jeff and I were able to get up-to-date information.
7) It’s just fishing. Not! This is a job. If you are going to be successful at this level you must approach it as a full-time job. Besides being in shape and being smart about the fishing aspects, you have to be professional off the water as well as on. As an Elite angler, catching fish is only part of our job. Representing our sponsors and our sport is just important. I witnessed one of the best examples of this during practice at Lake Wheeler. I had just put my boat on the trailer and was tying it down when Kevin Van Dam pulled up to the ramp. As the sun was setting, after a hard day of practice I know he was as anxious as I to get something to eat and get ready for the next day. As he started towards his vehicle he had four or five fans approach him for his autograph. He gladly did this and talked with them for about 5 minutes. This happened two more times before he was able to get his truck and trailer to the ramp. As he got his boat on the trailer he was again approached and again graciously signed the fellow’s shirt and spoke with him for a few minutes. I have been in this business for a long time and know the importance of fan support. I commended Kevin on his actions and he said, “ It’s no big deal.” My reply was, “It’s a big deal to them.” Kevin really gets it and this is what makes KVD such a great champion.
6) You can’t do this by yourself. It can get lonely out there even in the middle of a crowd without a support group. Family, B.A.S.S., sponsors, service crews, and fans all play a part in this support group. Many fishermen travel with their family, others spend hours on the phone. My days began and ended talking with my wife, Linda, by phone. The B.A.S.S. crew was always there to help us get whatever we needed, and keep things moving smoothly. The service crews -our pit crews - kept us on the water. Whenever you push equipment as hard as we do things are going to go wrong. All of the crews jump in to help get an angler back on the water, whether it is the equipment they represent or a competitors. And having the fans whoop and holler when you hold up big fish from the Elite stage is a feeling I will never forget. Without the support of all these groups I question whether there would even be an Elite Series.
5) There is a giant difference between the Opens and the Elite Series. The biggest difference is the competition level. As an Open fisherman I always looked to see how I did against any Elite fisherman in the Open. In the Elites, they are all Elite fishermen! In the Opens, I was able to spend 4 to 5 days learning a new lake, and finding and refining patterns and fish. In the Elites this was compressed to 2 ½ days. In most Elite tournaments I felt like I was just figuring out the fish by the end of Day 2 of the tournaments. For me the biggest difference was the back-to-back tournaments and trying to fit in practice on new lakes during the off time. This led to fishing burn-out. One period I was on the road for 7 weeks either fishing or driving, with 5 days off at my mom’s house. This is where the mental toughness, as well as endurance, plays a big part.
4) There are no secret spots. If you’re in a spot where no other Elites are, you’re probably in the wrong spot. Several times this year I found myself in this situation. Each time it turned out bad. On the St. Johns River I had found good bedding fish about 20 miles from Lake George, where most the big fish were found. I knew nothing about the 20 year moon and how it affected the tides sucking out all the water from where I had found the fish. Those tides really sucked. At West Point Lake I had found good fish using jerk baits on the ends of lay downs in deep water, on the main lake. Again I thought I had this to myself. I was right. It was the second day of the tournament I realized the water was rising and the fish were moving up. Jeff Connella and I found a bend in one of the oxbows on the Arkansas River where we thought we had a good chance. The first day we both had a couple of good fish we stuck and numerous other bites we shook off. We fished around other areas but were able to watch this area for the next 2 days. We saw a few fishermen go in but nothing we were worried about. The first morning there were about 15 boats on this ¾ mile stretch of the river and we all got a fish or two off it, but not what I expected.
3) The Elite fraternity. This is a group of men who compete against each other at the highest level, who will take every legal advantage to win, and will stop with thousands on the line to help a fellow fisherman in trouble. My first experience with this was at Lake Harris. The second day I had some trouble. I called B.A.S.S. Tournament Director Trip Weldon and he asked if there was any one around to help. I called Jeff and he was not close but he told me not to worry, there was a unwritten rule, no one left behind. He was right. I was asked if I needed help several times and had no trouble making it back on time. In another tournament an angler told me he was struggling and really needed a good finish. One of his fellow anglers had caught a good sack and shared the hole with the struggling angler. He ended up 11th for the tournament. Sure there are times when you hear about conflict. This is competition at the highest level with lots of money on the line. Usually this is quickly resolved, and all is forgiven. With livelihoods, AOY, pride, and futures on the line these brothers compete by day and share a beer and fish stories at night.
2) The Elite anglers are good — really good! They are at the top for a reason. They amaze all of us tournament after tournament. No matter where we went, no matter what the weather, no matter what the water conditions, someone always came in with a giant bag. We fished one tournament where temperatures were in the upper 20s when we left and in the 70s when we weighed in. We fished a river system which went down 3 ½ feet during our tournament day. During the Toledo Bend tournament it took me about an hour and a half to go the fifteen miles back to the landing in seas I haven’t seen since my offshore fishing days. I believe experience is the key. They have fished so many different places, at different times of the year, in all types of weather, and at a level where they had to catch fish. They are always on the cutting edge developing new ways to catch fish because all of the fish which could get caught the old way, have been caught. They are always honing their technical skills, making pinpoint casts, skipping under impossible docks and bushes, flipping into impossible places.
1) Getting to fish the Elite Series is truly an honor and a privilege — a dream come true. Remember the excitement of Christmas morning as a kid? Remember getting your first car, your first date, your first … well you get the idea. There are very few things in my 63 years which compare the excitement of fishing the Elite Series. There is no one thing I can point out but the entire experience was great! The fishermen are a bunch of great guys. Spending the season with them is an experience I will hold close. The B.A. S.S. organization is as professional as it gets. The personnel are always there to help, even when you do not know you need it. Imagine trying to get a group of 99 fishermen and 99 Marshals all together in one place in each boat, in the proper line up, going out on time, and all done very early in the morning. While traveling across the country I got to see and fish all types of challenging water, met many fans and felt the support of these fans at all of our events. Standing on the Elite Series stage, holding up good fish with all of the fans support was the greatest. There will be a new group of rookies and I will be envious that I am not there fishing with them because it has been an honor and privilege fishing with the men of the Bassmaster Elite Series.