Two decades of Bassmaster Classic lessons

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Bassmaster Marshal

When I fished my first Bassmaster Classic, on the Louisiana Delta in 2003, I was 37 years old. Compared to today, I had no clue what I was doing. At the time GPS was just coming into widespread use on bass boats, and I was running 120 miles each day back and forth to Bayou Segnette. I could’ve been lost forever, eaten by an alligator or shot by one of those backwoods locals inhabiting a house on stilts. You talk about scared — that was my state of mind. I was more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

As I embark on my seventh Classic this week at Ray Roberts, I’m now 54 years old, and I’m not nearly as scared. That’s not the only thing that’s changed. The event and the popularity of our sport are so much bigger than they were back then. The Classic is still our Super Bowl, but it’s played on a far bigger stage worldwide. 

Some of the anglers I’ll be competing against this week were in diapers back when I fished that first Classic. I had more hair then, and the ones I had were dark, but I’ve earned my grays on the water. I’ve been exposed to just about everything bass fishing can throw at you, and that means I’ll sleep soundly heading into the event. I won’t be up all night before the first day of competition like I was in 2003.

That nervousness surprised me, because coming from a career as a firefighter I’d been through the ringer. The Classic certainly wasn’t life-threatening (except for those alligators I mentioned above), but it was a different kind of pressure. 

So what do I know now that I didn’t know then? Well, I know that if I make it to the final day, I’m going to have to make some major changes to my approach. That’s all I can say about that — those young guys will have to learn their lessons the hard way, like I did — but I’m prepared to shift gears.

Unless you go all out you can’t win an event this big. I learned that lesson at Guntersville in 2014, when I was in seventh place heading into the final day but ended up 23rd. I was on the right fish, but I didn’t catch them that last day. I spun out because I got some really bad news right before launch. That’s not an excuse, but I watched as Randy Howell came from behind me to claim the title and realized that I’d let an opportunity slip through my hands.

I’m also vowing to keep an open mind and to fish what’s right in front of me. My boat and camper are packed with more gear than just about any tackle store because I refuse to go in with any set-in-stone preconceptions. But at the same time, I have a pretty good idea of what it’ll take to excel. I’ll practice with that in mind.

Lake Ray Roberts has a lot of standing timber, and over the past five to seven years I’ve spent a ton of time getting better targeting bass in timber, so that works in my favor. They’ve had a ton of rain down there, so things should be changing day by day and hour by hour, and the things going on during practice could be obsolete by the end of the tournament. That’s why I’m not ruling out any technique or any part of the lake.

Like many of you, I’ve visualized myself holding that Classic trophy for decades — both before I qualified for the tour and since I fished my first Classic. Because of my age and the number of years that I’ve competed, I know that my time to finish the job is limited.

I never took it for granted, but as I age each time I qualify it becomes easier and more important to utilize the many lessons I’ve learned over the year. I’m prepared to have a good week in Texas.