With the big blue trophy in front of me as I write this, the thrill of my first Bassmaster Elite Series victory is still sinking into my mind. Even though I’m only in my second year on the Elite Series, it feels like this win has taken forever to arrive. I’d come close several times before, with two runner-up finishes last year including at the St. Lawrence, but being able to seal the deal is special.
Thanks to everyone who has called or texted and especially to those of you in Canada who’ve been cheering me on for my entire career. I’ll get back to you eventually, but by the time I got to Champlain on Sunday night I had just enough time to get my tackle ready, grab a few hours of sleep and move on to the next Elite event. This is a sport where you can never rest on your last achievement. They all count equally, and after a tough start to the season I have no room for further struggles.
If you followed the tournament, you know that it was a battle from the start. Paul Mueller, who already has two Elite Series wins to his name, put 27 pounds on the scale on Day 1, including a 7 pound, 13 ounce beast. His total was 1 ounce more than I had. Then I came in with 24-12 on Day 2, and again he beat me by a small margin – just 5 ounces – to stay ahead by the weight of a few gobies. I figured he must be on the mother lode.
I kept the pressure on with 23 pounds even on Saturday, but Paul didn’t let up. He added 24-13 to extend his lead. But I felt that with rough weather coming, that was my best chance to upend him. Normally we all worry about what big winds and rough water will do to our fish, but I felt that mine were stable. Maybe his would get more difficult.
I elected not to make the run to my best quality fish on Sunday, but rather to stay in an area where I knew there’d be numbers, and almost certainly a 22-pound-plus bag of smallmouth. That proved to be the right decision. Even though I had my worst day of the week (22-12), Paul let off the gas a little bit and allowed me to sneak into first place when it really mattered.
The win was the most important thing, but of course I slightly regret the fact that I didn’t hit the century mark with smallmouth. While I think the rough water allowed me to come from behind, I truly believe that if we’d had a calm day one of us would have hit or exceeded the 100-pound mark. While the St. Lawrence is familiar water to me, the changing boundaries forced me to fish it like it was someplace new. In the end, about three-quarters of the stuff I fished was new to me. Cory and I never got in each other’s way, and we both got to fish on Sunday. That’s a big deal for the family.
One of the keys to my win was just taking my time in the rough stuff. Believe it or not, those super-big waves aren’t very hard to navigate, and they’re not necessarily hard on your equipment, because you have to go slow. The worst ones are the 2- to 3-footers. That’s when you assume you can plow through them and you end up busting up your gear.
Of course, it helps substantially that I have supreme confidence in my gear. Last year I had some motor problems during the season that cost me valuable points, but the Mercury I’m running in 2020 is bulletproof. Same with my Ranger boat. I know that if I make a mistake and fill it with water it’ll continue to float upright.
At this point in my career I’m relieved and proud to have earned my first Elite Series win. I’ve been around long enough to know that the field is competitive top to bottom. In order to win you have to make your own luck as well as get a few breaks along the way. At the St. Lawrence, I had two hooked smallmouth jump into my boat. That had never happened before in my life. When it’s your time, it’s your time.
Now I need to keep the momentum rolling at Champlain and then at St. Clair. I’m still not inside the Classic cut, and I want to have a little breathing room by the time we roll south, where I expect the fishing to be tough. This is the perfect way to start, and it gives me the confidence that I can close another one out.