Free-falling from the Classic lead

It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m finishing up some tackle prep before practice starts on Toledo Bend. It’s now been seven days, almost to the hour, since I lost the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods.

Obviously, most people are more interested in what it’s like to win a Bassmaster Classic, but I thought I’d serve up a little piece of what it’s like to lose the Bassmaster Classic since I’m owning that burden right now.

First of all I want to congratulate Jordan Lee on his win. What a remarkable performance on the final day to make history, coming from the farthest back to win the sport’s greatest crown.

So this blog is not about sour grapes, nor is it a list of excuses of why I didn’t win. It’s not an attempt to assign blame or an invitation to my pity party.  

This is about leading the Classic going into the final day and losing it by 1 pound and 12 ounces and finishing third.

I should have won the Classic.

I didn’t.

It’s my fault.

Simple as that.

I’m not going to act like it was no big deal or that I can just brush it aside and move on like nothing happened.

Losing the Classic is brutal.

It hurts.

And it probably will for a while.

I’ve had seven days to process it, and I’d be lying if I said I was over it. I’ve reviewed the tape a hundred times in my head, replayed every lost fish, analyzed and re-analyzed every decision for where I went wrong. It makes for some sleepless nights.

It’s so ironic, too, because in my last blog I ranted about not even being in contention to win an Elite Series event after two seasons. And right after that I lead the Classic for two days. Hey, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for: It doesn’t get any more “in contention” than leading the Classic going into the last day!

To some degree it’s familiar territory: I’ve led two Forrest Wood Cups going into the last day and let them slip away too, so you’d think I’d have grown immune to this sort of thing.

Not even close.

This one hurts far worse than any other of my near misses because a Classic title is the pinnacle of the sport – it solidifies a fishing career like nothing else can. There are only going to be so many opportunities to win a Classic, and I just blew one of them.  

I say I blew it, but honestly there is not a whole lot I would have done differently. On the final day I maybe should have expanded in my area a little more instead of being so committed to certain stretches. I made one gut gamble to try another place that did not work out. That cost me about 45 minutes of wasted fishing time. During the week I lost a couple of fish that would have helped the cause, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who lost fish in the Classic.

Actually, looking back on it, there were a lot of things that really went my way. All in all it was tougher tournament than many expected, and I think that really played to my favor. I figured we would see a handful of 25- to 30-pound bags over the first two days, but that never materialized. I ended up leading after Day 1 with only 23 pounds, thanks mostly to a 9-12 giant that I caught out of a bush. I was surprised to be leading after the first day and especially the second. But in the back of my mind, I could hear the time bomb ticking – I knew it was only a matter of time before someone brought in the kind of bag Conroe is famous for – and Jordan caught it.

So looking back, I don’t really see a place in the three days where I totally screwed up. But for some reason, it still feels like a huge failure to me. I think that’s because when you lose a lead in a tournament, especially the biggest tournament on earth, it’s deemed a failure.

But that’s the nature of the beast when competing at this level. For some reason the lows in this sport cut way deeper than the wins heal, if that makes sense. I’ve won tournaments and I’ve lost tournaments, and losses are always significantly lower than the wins are highs.

No one remembers who finished second at the Classic so third is certainly out of question. For that reason, when you’re leading the Bassmaster Classic going into the final day, it’s a real tightrope walk; you’re the only guy in the tournament who can fall, and trust me, you can’t see where that free fall will stop. It’s not like you look down and say, oh, well I could make a nice soft landing in second or maybe keep from breaking my bones in third. If you fall from the top spot at the Bassmaster Classic, you don’t stop until you hit rock bottom.

And I think that’s where I am now.

Losing the Bassmaster Classic has been hardest letdown in my career. However, if I was given the choice between climbing to third or leading the Classic for two days and falling to third, I’d still free-fall to rock bottom again. As painful as the last seven days have been, the exposure and support I got from leading the Classic for two days was amazing, so I wouldn’t have traded it for any other way.