For John Cox, the KISS principle might be amended slightly to Keep It Shallow, Stupid. The 36-year-old Bassmaster Elite Series pro does keep his approach simple, and that, along with a supportive family, has him laughing with every catch.
Through six events, Cox, of DeBary, Fla., hasn’t caught a bass deeper than 4 feet, just how he likes it, and he’s used a short rotation of baits. Determination to fish his preferred methods this year has put Cox in contention at events and in the point race.
“When I first saw the schedule, I was really happy and excited about it,” Cox said. “It’s been going good so far … the wheels might completely fall off, but this is how I try to fish all year.
“Normally, I have some bad ones, but to be this far in the season and be second in Angler of the Year? It’s just been one of those weird years.”
Cox, who stands one angler away from the Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year lead, has posted four Top 10s. Recalling recent AOY speeches at Night of Champions, Cox said it struck him that many winners mention surprise finishes and that most everything seemed to go their way in the season.
“I feel like that’s how it’s been going,” Cox said. “I’m not going to change anything. I fought with it a lot.”
Anglers have long struggled mentally with fishing their favorite way at every venue. Sometimes it’s hard to go against the prevailing pattern, and Cox said overcoming those demons has sunken in. He aims to fish shallow no matter what.
“It’s taken a long time to figure that out,” he said. “I seem to do really bad when I’m doing something I don’t like to do. So that’s where I’m just going to stay up shallow, and if I don’t catch enough, ‘Oh well,’ at least I got to throw at something.”
In past seasons, Cox said he might have defeated himself before even getting to a fishery, thinking negatively like, “Oh man, I gotta go to St. Lawrence and fish deep. I gotta go to Pickwick and fish deep.”
“I don’t have to dread any of the tournaments now,” he said. “I think over time, it’s learning what I do better at. When I get out there in the middle of the lake, I’m not really good. It loses my attention, compared to if I’m up shallow, seeing fish swimming, seeing turtles. I got so much stuff catching my attention, keeping me focused, I just really like it.”
Cox got off to an awful start on the season with just over 23 pounds after two days on the St. Johns. It turned on Day 3. Catching two lunkers, a 7-pound, 13-ounce and an 8-5, Cox hit a milestone with 31-15 that helped him climb to a fourth-place finish. At the Harris Chain, Cox had the big bass of 11-0 in taking seventh, then he duplicated that finish at Santee Cooper Lakes to take the AOY lead.
“We started off really rough at St. Johns,” he said. “I had every chance to win that tournament, and not winning was very, very discouraging. Geez, if I can’t win when everything like that happens … But it did set a good pace for the year. It made me fish a little harder. We weighed in an 11-pounder and caught a 32-pound stringer, so it’s been pretty good.”
Despite his worse finish of the year, a surprising 33rd at Chickamauga where he’s won several events, Cox held the AOY lead. Brandon Palaniuk took over after Lake Fork, where Cox started well but finished 32nd.
“The miracle was when we went to Pickwick,” he said, noting checks there are rare for him. “To go there, and it being so hot and having such an awful practice … then the mayfly hatch happens the first day of the tournament, that was amazing.”
At Pickwick, Cox went against the grain of ledge fishing. He fished banks in Bay Springs, “a completely different lake down there,” and made a big move on Day 2 with 22-3, the biggest bag of the day. He jumped up from 33rd and finished fifth to gain two points on Palaniuk.
“Getting through Pickwick with a Top 10 made up for every boo-boo that we had along the way,” he said. “I have so many bad feelings about the rest of Pickwick. Even if I got on something up there, I didn’t want to remember running an area and not catching them there.”
The plan won’t change despite the switch to smallmouth. Cox has geared up for the Northern Swing, starting with this week’s Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at St. Lawrence River. Out of Clayton, N.Y., the monster smallmouth of Lake Ontario call, but Cox said he will resist, even though two years ago he sat, fruitlessly, where Taku Ito won last year.
“I didn’t get to fish last year at St. Lawrence because I got disqualified for fishing the other circuit there,” he said, noting he led that other event. “I’m 100% committed to smallmouth — six spinning rods on the deck. I’m just going to fish the river for smallmouth.”
But he expects to expand his depth to “maybe 5 or 6” feet. Cox added the St. Lawrence might be everybody’s favorite lake, even though it can play head games — an angler might be happy to catch 20 pounds only to find himself in 40th place.
“Whoever wins will probably break 100 pounds,” said Cox, noting Canadian waters are open. “I think it can happen. It was so good last year, and one of these times we’ll hit it when it’s on fire.”
Cox is looking forward to the final event on the Mississippi River out of La Crosse, Wis., yet still has much to learn about the second-to-last tournament on South Dakota’s Lake Oahe.
“I didn’t even know where South Dakota was until I was mapping it,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s way out there.’ I thought they were right next to each other.”
Close on the maps is almost nine hours of drive time. But from what he’s seen on maps, Cox is thrilled to be launching from Mobridge in the middle part of Oahe, where he found some likely starting points. He knows the next two events are critical if he has any shot at AOY.
“I can’t fall off the wagon,” he said. “The next three are all in Palaniuk’s wheelhouse. I think if we can stay close in these next two, 15 points or so, I think when we get to Mississippi — I really like flipping grass — I feel maybe that’s where I catch them.”
No matter where he finishes in AOY, Cox most likely will maintain his big smile and hearty laugh. His numerous appearances on Bassmaster LIVE have shown him to be one of the most jovial, least-stressed anglers on tour.
Why is that, Mr. Cox?
“I wake up and just feel like I need to be pinched,” Cox said. “I’ve worked some awful jobs. I worked on a paving crew as soon as I got out of high school, and then I painted. Me and (team tournament partner) Keith Carson, we painted nasty apartments for so long.
“It’s just incredible. Every time I get to go I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, are you serious?’”
And he gets to go a lot. Fishing two circuits is a rarity, but he’s uncertain how long he can keep it up. There’s been hectic drives between venues, no practice before tournaments and even that DQ. Since he competed on the St. Lawrence last year within the 28-day off limits, he was disqualified from the Elite there and took a zero. Cox still made the Classic, and he will most certainly qualify for his fifth this season.
Cox said there’s no way he could manage it all without his family, who support his passion and bust his chops simultaneously.
“Without my family helping me do it all, there’d be no way,” he said. “Melissa does a lot of the driving. She has like hundreds of pictures where I’m passed out in the passenger seat. It looks like my neck’s broken.
“I know I’m probably not going to be able to do it for too long. I’m getting older, but we got it down. The girls are good.”
The lifestyle of traveling pro angler isn’t for everyone, but Cox knew it was for him since winning two crisp $20 bills in his first tournament when he was 12. So yeah, he’s going to chuckle some more whenever he lands a nice bass.
“It’s just the dream,” he said. “Every time I’m up here, I’m just so thankful. I get to come to these places, and the fishing is just awesome.”
Cox appreciates that he’s living a charmed life, and it’s working even better now that he’s keeping it simple. And shallow.