Reflecting on the 2023 season

John Cox

Reflecting on the year 2023, it was a productive year. Anytime you don’t lose money or break even and actually put money in the bank, it is always a good year. I can’t complain about the year in that respect. 

You always want to win, and I feel like there were some missed opportunities that I’m going to try to learn from in the offseason. I’ll see how I can come back in 2024 stronger. A lot of the issues I had were my own stubbornness. 

Lake Murray was one event I thought I was going to win. It felt good; everything felt like it was setting up for me to have a shot. When you are able to win at one of these big tournaments, a little bit of magic has to happen. You get lucky — you make a good stop and get a couple of the right bites. You pull in at the last minute and catch a big one. Something like that must happen.

Earlier in the week I had things like that go my way. I was throwing a Jerk Shad on a spinning rod, and a big one came up and got it. I set the hook and the line snapped. I picked up my other rod, saw the fish swimming down the bank away from me, fired out in front of him and it ate my The General. I caught that one, and it ended up being a 5-pounder. 

My final day at Murray started off slow. But, when I started moving, I would make a stop and there would be a 5-pounder, a 4-pounder, one about 7. It all lined up perfectly except I didn’t catch the 7-pounder. Those couple of lucky moments just didn’t happen on the final day. 

But the event that sticks out to me the most is when we were at the Sabine River. I made this crazy, awful run — as far as I could possibly run in my boat without getting gas on Day 1. I think it ended up being 110 miles roundtrip. I get all the way there, through the obstacles, all the shallow water. But I picked up a tarp on the way down with my prop and didn’t have a knife to cut it off, so I had to jump on the shore to untangle it. Somehow, I caught 7 pounds, came back and was in 50th or something like that. That was a miracle I even made it back. 

On Day 2, I didn’t make the long run, and I had a great day. I caught a bunch of keepers and jumped all the way up the standings. I was close to the Top 10. Everything went right. Going into Day 3, the conditions changed, and it got calmer and sunnier.

The whole time I knew I needed to pick up a Frittside and fish for 7 or 8 pounds, but I was determined that I was going to have another incredible day like Day 2. I kept flipping and threw a lot of big baits. The whole time I knew I needed to change, but I didn’t. I caught two fish that day, and it really hurt me. I fell out of making the Top 10, and to that point in the season, I was doing really solid. That one kind of threw me off for a little bit. 

One tournament, however, worked perfectly in my favor. After Santee Cooper Lakes I went straight to Lake of the Ozarks and won the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit event with just a half a day of practice. It was so similar to those tournaments. A lot of things went right there. I hooked one on the outside of the mouth, unhooked it, dropped him back in and he went back. Three hours later I went back and caught it. That was a 5-pounder. Those magical moments happened there.

I was just fishing that week. I thought if I could get a check it would be great. It goes to show, when you think about all the times you catch them in practice, like gosh if I could have just had those practice days during the tournament. But you are in a completely different mindset in practice. If I had gotten all three days of practice when it was cold, it might have been a different outcome. But since I didn’t really know anything, I was in search mode the whole time.

My forward-facing sonar rode with me in the truck all year. When I got to Champlain, I knew it was going to be dominated by it, but I enjoy fishing Champlain catching largemouth and smallmouth shallow. I knew I could possibly get a check with it, but I knew I could frog and flip a 1-ounce weight the whole time. I honestly had the most fun those two days I got to fish there. In practice I caught the biggest largemouth I ever caught out there. 

It might have been my worst finish all year, but it reminded me of when I was a kid going up there and watching Denny Brauer win. I just don’t want to lose that. The season was going so well to that point that I didn’t want to do stuff that I don’t love doing. So, I didn’t put forward-facing sonar on my boat. 

Part of me wants to put the forward-facing on and try to do it. But even when SideScan came out, that was my worst season I think. I was fishing out quite a bit. The thing is, before a lot of that, half the tournaments every year I thought I could have won. Now, I’m fishing 18 to 20 tournaments a year, and there’s maybe one where I think I could have won. 

As far as the Bassmaster Angler of the Year race goes, I have had a lot of seconds and have several Top 10s. It is such a hard thing to win. The tournaments where I’m like, “I’m not going to do that because I don’t want to,” you can’t be like that to win AOY. Even now with forward-facing, I feel like if you want to win AOY, you have to embrace it and do it. I thought of that in 2023 too, because I was right there for most of the season. And I thought about how epic it would be to win it without forward-facing. It would have been insane. 

I’m not going to give up on winning AOY, but realistically, unless I’m going to make some changes or am willing to go fish deep, chances of me being able to win it are slim. I should be able to hang in there somewhat close.

I would say going into 2024, I need to work on my stubbornness, but I don’t know if I want to change what I’m doing. I almost feel like I’m at a point in my life where we might have a tournament where there are five fish in the entire lake on the bank, but I’m willing to ride it out up there and maybe something will change. I don’t think I’m going to change any of that. Some of my best wins have been when everyone thought the bass were out, something happened and the bass moved shallow. 

What makes me slightly nervous, and excited, for our 2024 schedule is the unknown. I don’t know what to expect. A lot of the lakes, you see when the events are, and you can guess the stage the bass will be in. But in 2024, except for the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain, I’m not sure about some of these tournaments.

Like for Smith Lake in June, I don’t think I’ve been in Alabama in June. We are going to Texas early and Florida in April. I think the fishing will be so good when we go there in April. I think it will really surprise people. I’m excited for it.