My Finest Hour: Welcher’s Champlain turnaround spurs AOY win

While Bassmaster Elite pros strive for excellence throughout each event, the right combination of variables occasionally align to create the opportunity for superlative performance.

While Bassmaster Series Elite pros strive for excellence throughout each event, the right combination of variables occasionally align to create the opportunity for superlative performance. Success hinges on seizing the moment, rising to the occasion and turning in a truly memorable performance. Here’s an example from reigning Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year, Kyle Welcher.

Event: 2023 Bassmaster Elite at Lake Champlain

Coming off a 45th-place finish at Lake St. Clair — his lowest of the season — the pro from Opelika, Ala., arrived at Lake Champlain one point behind current AOY leader Brandon Cobb. Calling Champlain “the turning point” of his season, Welcher said it all came down to identifying and correcting a handful of miscues.

“I made some mental mistakes and then some bait mistakes and some pacing mistakes (on Day 1) and caught 16-9,”  Welcher said. “On Day 2, I caught 21 pounds and that moved me up from 60th place to 34th. On Day 3, I caught ‘em again and that moved me up to 25th.”

With Cobb placing 32nd at Champlain, Welcher headed into the season’s final event at the St. Lawrence River with a six-point AOY lead. He’d go on to place fifth at the season-ender and clinch the title by a healthy margin, but Welcher said he’s certain his Champlain recovery was essential to his crowning achievement.

“Without that adjustment, if I don’t catch ‘em good on Day 2 at Champlain, I do not win AOY,” Welcher said.

Scenario: Fishing the Inland Sea, near multiple competitors that were chasing fish on forward-facing sonar, Welcher targeted a grass edge along a small island’s perimeter. He found that his fish were moving from deep water, up to the grass edge to feed in 16 to 20 feet.

“There was really no key set spot, they were swimming around and chasing bait,” Welcher said. “I had to move around and find where they had swam to.”

The challenge: With a dynamic playing field, Welcher was unable to dial in a definitive target zone. This drove him to overthink his plan and spend too much time moving and not enough time fishing.

“On Day 1, I probably made 15 or 20 different stops on all kinds of stuff and never could get it going,” Welcher said. “That was kinda the problem I had — I tried to run to the sweet spots where I found them in practice, but that was not the deal.”

Key decisions: With Day 2 postponed by inclement weather, Welcher had time to regroup and reset his strategy. His plan — quality over quantity.

“On Day 2, I fished three or four spots. I got in one area with a 200-yard stretch, and I just trolled down it until I found them. Then I stayed in the 200-yard stretch for Day 2 and Day 3,” Welcher said.

Describing his key stretch as having isolated boulders and occasional moving, Welcher said he actually benefited from competitive proximity.

“My area was really close to where half the field was fishing and I felt like, as they were fishing the main school of fish, they were pushing those fish toward me,” he said. “When the fish would get boat shy and leave, more and more fish were coming toward me every day. I was the only one on this exact stretch.

“I got into an area where I had the most confidence, I settled down and I fished more than where I had caught ‘em on Day 1. And after I realized the fish had relocated and they were moving around more than I thought, I just chased them around the last two days.”

Timing error corrected: Welcher credits much of his turnaround to a mental refinement process. Essentially, Day 1 saw him fish the right area at the wrong time and then abandon it.

“I had so many places where I thought I was going to catch them, I didn’t feel like I needed to spend the time to relocate them (on my main spot),” Welcher said. “On Day 1, I saw a really good school and I lost a good one out of them, I caught a 3-pounder and then I couldn’t get them to commit.

“I went through my best area in the wrong time of day. In practice, they were biting really good early and late, but I was there around 9:30-10. I was right between the feeding windows. If I had just stayed there, I really feel like I could have caught 20 pounds on Day 1.”

Bait adjustment: Complementing his decision to lock down on a good spot, Welcher said a bait change also proved critical to getting bit. Alternating between a drop shot and a Damiki rig, he fished the latter with a larger bait on Day 1, but found that downsizing on Day 2 opened up the opportunities.

“I tried to use a bigger bait because I was throwing at a school of fish and I thought the biggest ones would be more likely to bite a bigger bait,” Welcher said. “That worked in practice, but in the tournament, I could never hook them on a bigger bait.

“They would bite the bigger bait, but they wouldn’t commit. I went to a smaller bait, and they committed better.”

Welcher surmised that changing conditions may have dampened the fish’s mood. After sunny, calm practice conditions, a windy and dimmer tournament complexion likely dialed down the sight-oriented smallies’ aggression.

The impact: With the AOY title within his reach, that Day 1 stumble took the wind out of Welcher’s sail. Wisely using the weather day he analyzed his performance and figured out what needed to be done put him back on track to reaching his career’s biggest moment.

“The momentum was a big deal,” he said. “After Day 1, the momentum just stopped because I had a really bad day for Champlain.

“The first half of the off day, I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know how I’m going to catch ‘em.’ Then halfway through the off day, my attitude changed. I went out there (on Day 2) and I caught ‘em and I got the momentum back going into the St. Lawrence. I was super confident.”

Takeaway: Considering how he was able to turn things around at Champlain and position himself for year-end triumph, Welcher said …

“If I could go back, what I would tell myself would be, ‘Don’t get rushed, trust the process and make the adjustments that you know you’re supposed to make,’” he said. “That’s what I should have done on Day 1 and I didn’t do it, because I got a little rushed; I got a little anxious.

“You never do well when you’re like that.” Now, Welcher has an AOY trophy to prove it.