Winning left me at a loss for words

Winning the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Lake of the Ozarks is still surreal to me. It’s a dream I’ve had since childhood, and now, it’s a reality.

Throughout the final day, everything unfolded perfectly yet unexpectedly. Fishing new water is something I have had to overcome in higher-level events. This was the first Bassmaster event where I fished new water the majority of each day.

I wasn’t 100% sure I could win. However, I was confident in my approach — presenting the bait correctly in the right spots. But winning a Bassmaster event, securing a spot in the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic at Grand Lake presented by Toyota, earning a significant prize and establishing a strong presence in the industry left me overwhelmed on stage. I couldn’t process all the emotions at once; it was truly a surreal experience, leaving me at a loss for words.

I owe this success to an amazing support system of sponsors, family and friends, including Powerhouse, K&K Customs, Douglas Rods, Chaddy Boys, Missile Baits, Redfin Polarized, Power-Pole, Phoenix Boats, Montcalm Marine and many others. Their unwavering support has been invaluable throughout my journey. I can’t forget to mention my girlfriend, Caroline, and my loved ones, who played a crucial role. On stage, I was so engaged and in awe of the moment that I completely forgot to speak.

I’m looking forward to reviewing the footage because my entire day is a blur to me. I was so engaged in catching those bass that I can’t recall much of the tournament at all. It’s a remarkable experience, and unless you’ve lived it, it feels like an unattainable achievement. It’s challenging to put into words. Winning a Bassmaster event, whether an Open, an Elite or the Classic, seemed outlandish to me. I wasn’t even thinking about victory when I took the lead. It’s different for seasoned pros like Jason Christie, Greg Hackney, Kevin VanDam or Brandon Palaniuk, who have tasted victory before and know what it’s like.

My first Top 10 finish at the Chesapeake Bay last year serves as a prime example. I felt rattled and under immense pressure on live television. I was new to the industry and the sport. However, making mistakes and learning from them taught me that I can succeed again. I’m not boasting, but now I know what it takes, and I believe I can achieve it at any level. I found my stride as a fisherman last year and learned to stay calm and composed on the water, which has been crucial for my success this year.

There were two moments that stand out in my mind from the tournament. The first was when I filled my limit on the final day. I flipped in and caught a 12-inch spotted bass, put it in the livewell. I had a 1-pounder, a 2-pounder, two 4 1/2s and that 15-ouncer. I continued down the same stretch of docks, and I flipped in and caught a 5-pounder and culled out that 12-incher. I had an indescribable feeling when I culled that fish — if this isn’t meant to be, then I don’t know what is. I then pulled offshore to a point and caught a 3-pounder to cull out a 1-pound line burner. Everything was just clicking.

The second moment was when Ronnie Moore asked me what it would mean to me to fish the Bassmaster Classic when I was on Bassmaster LIVE, I was looking at my Live Scope and almost started crying. That was when I thought I really might have a chance to win. (I would have given Ronnie a hard time if I lost after that question)

Coming into the event, I wasn’t super confident about fishing Lake of the Ozarks. I was overwhelmed with how spread out it was and how many docks were on the lake. I flip docks and fish around them a lot in New York. But these were in such deep water and looked different. I found myself getting spread thin and spinning out a bit in practice. However, I knew the general zones I needed to focus on. This turned out to be critical because I was able to see a lot of the lake, and I didn’t get super confident in any particular stretch. 

Each day, I found a section of the lake where the fish were biting. They were biting a jig, which is how I wanted to catch them. Sometimes the jig had to be worked differently, and I figured that out by looking at my electronics. You can see how you need to work the jig to get them to react. It is such a versatile bait.

I was using a Missile Baits Chunky D on the back of a 3/4-ounce jig and was able to swim it by docks. I was able to drag it on rocks. I threw it in the brush. I did all the things I needed to do with it and having the confidence in a bait like that is really important. I think someone could have won that tournament on a drop shot, or a lot of different things, but having confidence in that one bait and having confidence in my general areas of the lake was crucial. If you switch your baits too much, you start second guessing. 

The cloud coverage really hurt a lot of guys. They were catching them on glide baits with the sun being high, and it was easy to get them to bite that way. I think it would have been a very different tournament if we didn’t have cloud cover on Days 1 and 2. On Day 1, they were biting the jig on the fall, Day 2 I was swimming the jig and Day 3 I was dragging it. Each day a crucial bite came doing something different with the jig.

Overall, I am content with my growth as an angler. I certainly have a tremendous amount to learn. However, I know I am ready for the Elites. If it doesn’t happen it is okay because I know I can win, and I can compete with the best. I have proven that to myself over the past two years. I feel like I am ready to be at the highest level of the sport, and I believe it is going to happen, whether that is at the Harris Chain or next year.

This win has given me clarity and confidence, knowing that I can compete with the best in the world, including the talented field of Opens anglers.