For the third straight year the Bassmaster Elite Series will start off at Florida’s St. Johns River. I’m hoping that my performance this time around is more like the one that produced an eighth-place finish in 2019 than the one that left me in 55th last year.
Prior to 2019 I had quite a bit of experience on Florida waters like Okeechobee and Kissimmee, and I was able to use that to do well my first time in Palatka. I could flip and pitch and punch and look for spawning bass, which are techniques that I consider among my strengths.
Last year, however, the St. Johns threw me a curveball. I put almost all of my eggs in one basket, and by the end of practice I had a lot of spawning fish located. I thought I was on the way to another top finish. Unfortunately, we had a bunch of storms with high winds roll in and that blew all the water out of my best areas. Those beds that had been in 2 or 3 feet of water were dry on tournament day. I had to scramble to catch what I brought to the scales.
That finish, combined with a 68th-place finish in the next Elite event at Eufaula, put me in a deep hole, and while I was eventually able to climb back up into the Classic field, I couldn’t make a charge at Angler of the Year. My goal starting off next month will be to avoid falling into that kind of early deficit.
Fortunately, I feel like I learned a lot from my negative experience at the St. Johns. This time around if it’s really tough or we get inclement weather I know how to survive and leave Florida with a better start. My understanding from what I’ve read online is that the water is back up, which should spread guys out and put my favorite techniques in play, but if things change I won’t be afraid to adapt along with them.
At Eufaula, I made a different mistake. I found a bunch of fish offshore during practice, and they were still there when the tournament started. I didn’t want to be seen catching them in practice, so I never fished, and when I returned they just weren’t the right caliber to be competitive.
While those learning experiences were hard to take, there were other times when I could really sense my growth and improvement as an angler. I’ve increasingly allowed the combination of knowledge and instincts to work together. In the middle portion of the season I had five straight finishes in the top 13, including three straight — and four of five — in the top 10. That’s a lot of Sunday showings, and I’m proud of that stretch.
My mental game was strong. For example, at Champlain, I drove over a spot in practice that looked promising, but it was very windy and when I fished there I didn’t catch much. During the tournament, the lake turned to glass and I got a hunch that the spot would be “on.” I returned and caught 5 1/2- and 4 1/2-pounders. Those fish were game changers for me.
Even with little things like that, I’m still kicking myself for small mental mistakes. At the St. Lawrence, it was windy on the last day and I chose not to go out to the lake, where I was confident that I could catch 20 pounds. I stayed in the river and fell from sixth to seventh with just 16-07. If I’d have gone out into the lake and caught 20, I would’ve moved up to third. Sometimes even when you finish in the top 10, you know you could have done better.
Last season was a crazy year because of COVID, and while I can’t blame any of my intermittent struggles on that, I do hope that 2021 will be a safer and more predictable season. The fact that things got stretched out so much into the fall meant that we had a shorter offseason than ever to get our boats and tackle ready. I want to be totally prepared when we head down to Florida.
My goal is to capture the AOY title that has eluded me the past two years, and I can’t stumble out of the gate if I want to achieve that.