Recently, during one of our many long days of driving, I started to think about how much can change in a short period of time as a pro angler. My life is a perfect example of that – a year ago at this time, I was somewhere down in the sixties in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. I was in real danger of missing the Guntersville Classic, a tournament that I desperately wanted to fish. I wasn’t out of it completely, but it was going to take a few breaks to get there. Now, a year later, it’s hard to recall that desperation because I’m back in a good groove again, but at the time it was very real to me.
Let me set up for you a couple of key events that helped shape my future, one a dismal loss and the other a much needed win. First the loss that lit the fire in me and really gave me a greater desire for a win than ever before was the Elite Series event on Oneida Lake in New York. I had a great game plan right out of the gate for that tournament, and I had the lead going into the last day by 2 1/2 pounds. That final day I failed to catch my fifth fish and I lost to Boyd Duckett by 6 ounces. That final afternoon I was the most disappointed I’ve ever been in my 20 year career, not because I lost, but how I lost.
With three hours to fish that day, everything had changed and my pattern had fallen apart and I knew it. I decided to make a long run to the other end of the lake to hit another area out of the wind. As I was headed north, I had that feeling in my gut that I needed to go flip for largemouth in a grass bay area that I saw a picture of in my mind. I immediately thought of several reasons that made me not trust my feeling and I continued my run. I didn’t get a bite for the next two hours and that inner voice was wearing me out saying I needed to go to that flipping spot before it’s too late.
With less than an hour to go, I made the move and instantly caught a big one. Now I was kicking myself for not listening sooner, but still had 35 minutes to fish. Then I caught another good one and with 20 minutes to go; I knew I was one bite away from winning my first Elite series event. Unfortunately, I never got that bite because I ran out of time and in the end lost by 6 ounces. If I had only trusted that voice the first time I heard it, and went to that area then, I truly believe I would have won that event. That day taught me to never doubt that feeling again and the next time it happened, I would be ready.
Fortunately, Robin had pushed me to enter the Bass Pro Shops Northern Opens; and 10 months later in a magical week on the James River, everything came together and I was given a chance again on the final day of the event. I had been leading again by 2 1/2 pounds and my spot dried up. Once again, I saw a picture flash in my head of the area I needed to be and this time I listened immediately and made the move. I caught several good fish in the last two hours and won the event by 6 1/2 pounds, thereby earning a spot in the Guntersville Classic which I won. This Open win was so sweet to me because it was another chance to get it right and learn from my mistakes at Oneida.
I’d won major tournaments previously – an FLW Tour event in 1998 and a Bassmaster Elite 50 in 2004 – but those had been so long ago that it almost seemed like they were in another lifetime, so I needed this win for my confidence.
I know that the “win and you’re in” format of the Opens rubs some people the wrong way. It’s a big carrot for a lot of people to chase so I understand why B.A.S.S. enacted that rule, and I fully support them for it. From my perspective, though, I can’t overstate how much the James River win meant to me. Not only did it put me into the Classic, but it resuscitated my season and truly served as a building block to my career defining win on Guntersville.
After the James, I closed out the 2013 Elite Series season with checks in the remaining three events, plus checks in the last two Northern Opens. Included among those finishes were Top 10s on the Upper Mississippi (immediately after the James) and on St. Clair to finish out the Elite Series year. I double-qualified for the Guntersville Classic by finishing 23rd in the Elite Series AOY points, and it all started with the James River victory.
This season started with a bad finish after winning the Classic, but I bounced back quickly and I’m sitting in 16th place in the Toyota AOY points race. It’s all about learning from your mistakes everyday and not beating yourself up too bad when you make those mistakes because my story is living proof that with the right attitude, faith and perseverance, anybody can be a champion.
It’s a good lesson for anyone to learn; whether you fish weekend events or the Elite Series, you need to capture whatever momentum you can out of every little success and bring it forward. Success breeds confidence and confidence breeds success. It doesn’t have to be a win. It could just be learning a new technique or developing a bulletproof pattern. You have to remember the building blocks of success start with the failures of yesterday.
Ultimately, for me, it’s all in God’s hands. His will and timing are the biggest factors of all. However, if you don’t make the most of your learning experiences, you are letting yourself down. For a long time I let my near-misses define my career, but once I turned that corner at the James River, my confidence has been at a whole new level. Good luck and God bless!