Compete to improve

If you want to be the best tournament angler you can be, and possibly elevate yourself to Bassmaster Elite status, there’s only one way to make that happen. You have to compete in tournaments and compete often.

You can acquire new techniques and other bass expertise while “fun” fishing. But only tournaments can teach you how to make good decisions quickly under pressure. Weeknight derbies at local lakes, single-day weekend tournaments and B.A.S.S. Nation events are a great place to get your tournament mentality on the right track.

If your goal is to become a professional tournament angler, you need to compete in different parts of the country. It’s one thing to be a hot tournament stick on your home waters. But when you step up to big time derbies like the Bassmaster Opens, you’ll be forced to get out of your comfort zone. You’ll be traveling across the country and taking on widely varying bass habitats.

I learned my bass fundamentals in my home state of Ohio. It’s also where I began competing in tournaments. Although I eventually got to where I was cashing checks regularly, I didn’t have the skill or knowledge to be competitive fishing the Bassmaster Opens. That didn’t stop me from signing up to fish the Northern Opens in 2013.

Part of that is due to my brother Fletcher. He began fishing the Opens in 2011. In his first season he won a Southern Open at Lake Norman, earned a birth to the 2012 Bassmaster Classic at the Red River and also qualified for the Elite Series. I wanted some of that.

One reason for Fletcher’s immediate success is that he was head over heals about bass fishing long before I got into it. He was a much better tournament angler when he began fishing the Opens than I was.

Because I was well aware of my shortcomings, I knew I was going to take a beating in the Opens initially. That proved to be brutally true. I wanted to do well, of course, but the main reason I joined the fray was to accelerate my learning curve. I wanted the experience of fishing different bass waters across the country. I wanted to get a taste of fishing against top-level tournament anglers.

I stumbled and made countless mistakes, as I expected I would. I didn’t get discouraged because I knew every mistake was a lesson I would never forget. After every bad tournament, and there were many, I took note of what I did wrong and what the top finishers did right.

In 2014 I competed in the Southern and Northern Opens. From 2015 through 2017 I competed in the Southern, Northern and Central Opens. I occasionally finished in the money through 2016. In 2017 all those hard knocks finally paid off. I finished in the top five three times and qualified for the Elite Series.

My final Southern Open tournament of 2017 was at Douglas Lake in Tennessee. I finished second there thanks to the mistakes I made when I fished Douglas the year before. I prefer to fish shallow, but I tried to catch them deep in that tournament.

I learned afterward that some of the top finishers did well fishing shallow. When I came back to Douglas in 2017 I kept my lures in water no deeper than 3 feet. It was one of those hard lessons that paid off in a big way.

Another advantage of fishing the Open tournaments over that five-year stretch is that I visited lakes that I’m likely to fish on the Elite Series. One of those lakes is Fort Gibson in Oklahoma. I fished a Central Open there in September of 2015 and finished in the top 40. Now that the Elite event at Fort Gibson has been rescheduled for this September, what I learned there at the Open tournament should put me a leg up.

Fishing all the Bassmaster Open tournaments as a pro requires a significant investment of time and money. I was fortunate to be in a position where I could do it. A more cost effective way to get pretty much the same experience is to fish the Opens as a co-angler. That may actually be a better way to go because you get to fish with two or three different anglers. You’re likely to learn more from them than you would by fishing as a pro.

Another option would be to fish low entry fee tournaments at lakes where Open and Elite Series tournaments are often held. Buddy style events help you share the cost. However, they don’t prepare you for fishing with a co-angler as you must do as a pro in the Bassmaster Opens. Many co-anglers are capable anglers, and they will invariably catch some of your bass. That means you must find more than enough fish to carry you through a three-day tournament. It’s just one more thing you need to learn on your journey to becoming an Elite pro.

Whatever route you take, don’t be afraid to do poorly. I learn more from bad tournaments than I do from my good ones.

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