Struggles up north

I went into the 2023 Bassmaster Elite Series Northern Swing like a dog next to the dinner table, drooling as I waited for a prime rib. I’ve had a lot of success on smallmouth waters so naturally I was excited. I’m confident and comfortable up there because I love big water, big smallmouth and the complicated efforts necessary to get them into the boat. I’ve spent years honing that craft.

That’s why it was so disappointing to see my season fall apart up there. I barely snuck into the cut at Lake St. Clair, ending up 46th. Then I finished 56th at Lake Champlain and a disheartening 91st at the St. Lawrence River, a venue that has produced some of my greatest memories.

It’s still pretty tough to talk about it because when I think back to our time in New York I can feel the frustration building up once again. This was my worst Elite Season in almost a decade. At this point in my career, I’m used to finishing in the top 10 in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. Missing that by a wide margin feels like I let down myself, my family, my sponsors and my fans.

I recognize that finishing 33rd in the points race is not the end of the world. I’ll still get to fish the Bassmaster Classic in 2024, but I don’t consider this to have been a successful season. That’s hard to say, especially in the heat of the season, because many of my friends and peers were fighting their own battles – which might mean they failed to make the Classic or even failed to requalify for the tour. I’m trying to keep things in perspective.

Normally I don’t look at the points race during the season, but at the St. Lawrence I had to break that habit after catching 11-04 on Day 1, which had me in 101st place. I was so stressed about the possibility of missing the Classic that I had to look. I figured it would help me know what I needed to do on Day 2. When I saw that I was still inside the cut – although just barely – it was a relief. I knew that there was not much room to go down. I rebounded on Day 2 with 22 pounds, and while that only moved me up 10 spots in the tournament, it was enough to secure my lucky 13th Classic berth.

Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on my season, I’m working to assess what went wrong and to celebrate the small wins. This is a sport where you’re going to lose far more than you win, or even come close to winning. I realize that in 2023, I made some AOY-caliber decisions, but I didn’t execute up to that level.

Seminole is a perfect example. I was doing the same things as winner Joey Cifuentes — fishing a drop shot and jerkbait in trees — but when I’d lose a big one I’d lose confidence and go do something else. At Champlain, I found an area that had big fish, but not a lot of fish. On the first morning I proceeded to lose just about every fish that bit, and I found myself behind the eight ball by the afternoon. By that point the wind had picked up, and I couldn’t really move around the way I wanted.

In 2022, the breaks went my way, and it made a positive difference in my points total. This year I had an equal number of mishaps and suffered the consequences in the opposite direction. I didn’t change my rods, my line, my hooks or any of that. It was the same gear that I’ve used to win over $1,000,000. As crazy as it sounds, it goes back to momentary, almost imperceptible mental lapses. A lot of times while I was fighting one fish I’d be thinking about catching the next one — that’s a path to disaster in this sport.

It’s going to be an eventful offseason with baby number two expected here shortly, and while I don’t want to miss a minute of it, I’m excited for 2024 to begin. It’ll be a fresh start in February, and rather than dwell on what went wrong up north, I’m going to focus on what went right.

I consistently put myself in the right areas, using the right techniques, to catch the winning fish. That’s the hardest part of our sport. Execution is much easier to fix, and I fully intend to get back on the right track from the beginning.