Controlling your nerves

In any type of competition there are nerves. Nerves that you have to control. The sport of bass fishing may be the hardest when it comes to controlling the excitement and the failures of the game. In this series of columns that I will be writing for, I will take you through the mental aspects of landing “the big one,” and vying for an Bassmaster Elite Series title.  

From the time I was in the seventh grade, until high school graduation, I competed on rodeo circuits across the state of Florida. Two of those years, I was fortunate enough to win every event of the year that I competed in — roping, steer wrestling and cutting horses. I don’t know if you have been to a rodeo before, but the pace of the events and the timing of decisions can really weigh on your nerves. But it taught me to control my nerves in most high stress situations.

Soon after, I went from wearing Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, to wearing a ball cap, shorts and flip flops on the front deck of a bass boat.

Heck, I bought my first bass boat before I even had a truck to pull it — I loved fishing. But I didn’t anticipate the mental equivalency of wrestling a bull, to wrangling in a 10-pound bass — or losing a 10-pound bass, for that matter.

The main lesson is learning to control your nerves, even when the situation may not go your way. Get back on the horse when it throws you off — ride it harder. Make another cast as soon as your bait comes out of a giant’s mouth — don’t dwell on it.

Think about it as a positive, you’re around quality fish, so just slow down and fish — you could very well hook into a game-changer on back-to-back casts.

The last time the Elite Series visited my home waters of the St. John’s River in 2016, which happens to be the first stop of the 2019 season (we will focus on that in a later blog), I had all of the reasons in the world to lose it. And by lose it, I mean lose it mentally. 

My game plan the first day was going as planned, I caught a quick 13-pound limit and went searching for spawning bass I marked in practice. The last day of practice I marked an 8, 9 and two 5-pound class fish. The first bass I catch in the area, was a male guarding a bed around 4 pounds — I go to put the fish in the livewell and my worst nightmare had happened — I killed all of my fish. I simply turned on the wrong livewell switch, it was no mechanical problem, and as a professional angler — especially on your home waters — you never want to kill any fish.

In B.A.S.S. competition you cannot cull dead bass, so I was stuck with what I had plus dead fish penalties. I called Trip Weldon, B.A.S.S. Senior Tournament Director, and explained the situation and asked him if I could continue to look around the rest of the day and he allowed me to continue to practice.

Momentum was not going my way, my nerves were torn, but I knew wasting the rest of the day was not going to do me any good. I kept fishing, mostly looking for new spawning bass that I may not have seen in practice.

When all hope was lost, I found two 10-pound bass locked on their spawning beds. I have to admit, not being able to catch those two bass that day was pretty hard, knowing the best anglers in the world were looking for that same pot of gold. 

When you are searching for spawning bass in practice, a lot of times they leave before the tournament starts or adjust in their spawning process, where they are nearly impossible to catch, but I knew by observing the way these bass were positioned on their bed with accompanying males — they most likely would be where I left them. 

I finished the day in 95th place in front of my hometown crowd, all because of one simple user error, when I could have had a 30-pound day.

With the support of my lovely wife, Kelley, and children, Syler and Gracie, we kept it together.

On Day 2, I launch and head straight to the first 10-pounder I had marked the day before, the fish was there, I caught the male first, and gave the female about 30 minutes to settle down. I went back, worked on her for nearly an hour before she bit, I set the hook and I lost her.

I did not break a rod over my leg, or bang my head against the windshield, I controlled my nerves.

I went straight to the other 10-pound bass and caught the fish on the first cast. The bass weighed 10-8, helped me to the largest bag of the second day with 23-01, and is still the biggest bass to hit the Bassmaster scales since that day.

Dwelling on the past is not going to help you in bass fishing, I can look back and say, “What if I didn’t kill my fish on the first day?” But what good is that going to do? Jumping from 95th on Day 1 to finishing sixth in front of my hometown crowd, and watching the legendary Rick Clunn hoist the blue trophy, was good enough for me.

I look forward to kicking off the season in front of that same crowd of family and friends, double-checking my livewells and hopefully lifting up my first Elite Series trophy.

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