Learn from the pros’ mistakes

Four Elite anglers in their boats during competition

Fish loss happens. It’s part of the learning curve, part of the collective experience that’s supposed to make us better anglers. Still, it hurts. If you think Bassmaster Elite Series pros are immune to such heartbreak, think again. 

Costly losses probably happen less frequently at the sport’s highest level. When they do, you can bet the Elite pro instantly recognizes what went wrong and notes how they’ll avoid such mishaps down the road.

Four Elites shared their examples and offered instructional insights that’ll help you minimize your loss incidents.

Impatience doesn’t pay

Like many, Drew Cook enjoyed tugging on a few legitimate Lone Star giants during the 2022 Bassmaster Elite on Lake Fork. Having missed the cut by two spots and just over half a pound, Cook remembers a particular fish that could have made a significant difference, had he given himself a little more time to establish effective positioning.

On Day 1, Cook caught success by throwing a SPRO Little John 90 DD across an offshore point with about 22 feet of water covering mostly bare bottom. The point had a few stumps, and while the main school was hugging this wood, Day 2 revealed a satellite group holding separately on the opposite side.

“I had an early boat number so I stopped and idled the point, and I saw six or seven fish by themselves,” Cook recalled. “Since I was the first one there, I decided to make a few casts on this group of fish and then ease around and line up on the school.

“My first cast, I hooked a big one about 8 to 9 pounds. I had just stood up, put the trolling motor in the water, made the cast off the back left corner of the boat and started reeling before I moved the boat around. As I was turning the boat toward where I had thrown, the fish bit.”

Out of position to properly respond, Cook watched the fish jump three times and spit his crankbait on the third leap. The fish, he said, only had the back treble hook in its mouth, but Cook knows a more effective angle could have helped him boat this day maker.

“I should have waited just a little bit, got set up and then made my cast,” Cook said. “It was a super long cast anyway, but when you’re not able to get all the meat of the rod into it, that makes a difference.

“Maybe the hook didn’t make it through the fish’s lip to get the barb, and I was just holding him on the point,” he continued. “If I would have had more pressure when he bit to drive the hook all the way through, I could’ve had a better opportunity to land him.”

Lesson learned: Cook knew he should have made a more patient approach, but he let eagerness override his judgement.

“You definitely want to get in there quick because time is money, but always expect to get a bite and be in position to capitalize on the bite.”

Know when to pull the plug

Hunter Shryock said his biggest regret from the 2022 season came during the final event on the Mississippi River. He ultimately ended up one spot out of the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic and attributes that to an error in judgement — plus a fish he actually caught, but should have released.

For two days, Shryock caught all of his weight on a hollow-body frog, a presentation he called a high-risk, high-reward proposition. With Days 1 and 2 producing bags of 14-5 and 13-11, Shryock needed another solid day of 10-plus pounds to reach Championship Sunday.

“I locked that frog in my hand, but it was cloudy conditions, which is not good when they’re under mats, because they can’t find it as well,” Shryock said. “I had enough blowups and misses to have another 14 to 16 pounds, but they just weren’t committing.

“I don’t know if there was a single thing I could have done differently with that frog, except abandon it and go do something else.”

Shryock would eventually do just that, but not until late in the day. By then, he was short on time and boated only four keepers for 9-12.

Looking back to Day 1, Shryock boated a 2-pound fish that was tongue-hooked and ended up dying in his well. Anglers cannot cull a dead fish, however, if Shryock had released the injured but still living fish, the opening day’s hot frog bite almost certainly would have yielded another keeper and saved him the 4-ounce dead fish penalty.

That 4-ounces alone would have gained Shryock one spot in the final tournament standings and lifted him into the Classic cut, after adjustments for double-qualifiers. A closer look at the math shows an even bigger advantage lost.

“Making the decision to not get rid of that fish cost me the Classic,” Shryock said. “At the end of the day, I ended up catching them really well, and I culled a 2 3/4-pounder for a 3-pounder.”

Since the dead fish penalty made the 2-pounder weigh 1 3/4, Shryock could have used that spot in his limit for the one he culled later in the day. Netting a full pound would have pushed him even higher in the standings and locked in his Classic berth. 

Lesson learned: After abandoning the frog on Day 3, Shryock never caught another keeper. Had he made the change earlier, he may have been able to finish his limit and possibly improve his quality.

“When I felt (the frog bite) going away, I should have made a change,” Shryock said. “You need to make a decision early enough to give the (alternative) time to develop.”

Knot coming back

Chris Zaldain also left a piece of his heart on Lake Fork — along with a pricy piece of tackle. Ever the diligent student of the game, the Texas pro immediately recognized his mistake.

Zaldain spent a lot of time throwing a Tater Hog Hog Father — a 9-inch glidebait that retails for $275. On Day 3, that presentation enticed a 6-pounder that would have catapulted him into the Championship Sunday cut. Instead, Zaldain lost the big fish and the big bait.

Zaldain said he had complete confidence in the 25-pound Seaguar AbrasX fluorocarbon on which he threw his glide bait. The problem, however, traced back to maintenance and inspection.

“AbrasX is an excellent line, and sometimes it’s hard to cut even with scissors. But when you’re throwing larger-than-normal baits with a lot of hardware on a stumpy lake, that line gets nicked or compromised,” Zaldain said. “In this instance, I hadn’t checked my knot in hours, and I was throwing this big bait trying to make the Sunday cut.

“I finally got a big bite, and I go to boat flip it. As that rod is loaded with all the weight of that 6-pounder in midair, the line snapped and the fish threw that $275 glidebait. The fish went one way, my line the other and the bait another way. I lost the fish, lost my bait, broke my line and did not make the Championship Sunday cut.”

Lesson learned: Noting that any cast could hook the fish that advances your tournament efforts, or establishes your personal best, Zaldain points to diligence as the key ingredient.

“Don’t be lazy,” he said. “No matter if you’re throwing a crankbait in the rocks with 12-pound test, or a giant glidebait shallow with 25-pound test, make sure you check your knot. 

Faux finish

Stetson Blaylock wraps up with a straightforward example of getting duped by a big smallmouth. At Lake Champlain, he enticed two big bites back to back from fish hiding under an anchored sailboat. Regrettably, Blaylock said he fell for the fish’s strategy of quickly rising within scooping distance, only to erupt into a fury of activity that created a window of escape opportunity.

“Both of these fish fooled me — I thought they were done when they really weren’t,” Blaylock said of his premature attempts to lean over and grab the deceptive smallmouth. “The problem is, you’re out of position because you’re down there trying to lip ‘em and grab ‘em.

“That doesn’t allow you to jump back up and get into a more efficient position to work the fish and let them fight more.”

Lesson learned: Blaylock said he’s found that smallmouth success typically hinges on patience and good judgement, born of experience. “It’s a split-second decision of, ‘Do I reach down there and try to get him quick, or do I fight him more?’”