No matter what size tournament you’re fishing – whether it’s a $100,000 event on the Bassmaster Elite Series or a fun, little weekend tournament on your hometown lake – you’ve no doubt heard “the rant.”
It goes something like this: “I was catching fish like crazy during practice. But when the tournament started, they all just disappeared.”
I’ve heard the rant more times than I can count – often from my own mouth.
The good-practice, bad-tournament phenomenon is something that has happened to all of us.
In my mind, there are several basic reasons for it.
The first reason is because the conditions just change sometimes.
Something is off a little with the weather and/or the water, and maybe the fish have only moved a hundredth of a degree. But because you crushed them in practice, you’re locked into what was working then and you’re missing them now.
It’s happened to all of us – and the only way around it is to maintain an open mind.
Believe it or not, when I have a great practice, the first thing I ask myself is, “What am I going to do when I go to my best spot first thing in the morning and don’t get any bites?”
It sounds a little pessimistic, but you should go in expecting that to happen.
If it doesn’t – if you catch them like you expect to right out of the shoot – that’s great. But always be ready with a backup plan.
The second reason the fishing sometimes takes a nosedive on tournament day is because you’ve sabotaged yourself by catching all of your fish in practice.
If you’re on Kentucky Lake and you’ve located six big schools, it’s harder to hurt those fish. You can go out and catch them in practice and still be fine.
But if you’re catching spawning fish out of the backs of pockets, you’re going to go back and those fish aren’t going to be there, or they’re not going to bite because you literally caught the exact same fish that you’re now trying to catch on tournament day.
Don’t be your own worst enemy.
Unless you think you’re fishing for bass that are going to replenish, it’s really important to cut your hooks off during practice and shake off those bites to save the fish for tournament day.
This is a really difficult inner-struggle that anglers face. We’re wired to set the hook and catch fish when we get bites. But some of the best anglers on the Bassmaster Elite Series are the guys who specialize in getting bites during practice without catching fish.
If you’re on a new lake and you need to see the quality of fish it has, you can start with all of your regular baits with the hooks in place. But once you determine there are good fish in an area, you need to roll those hooks over or take them completely off to leave things the way you found them for the tournament.
Another thing that often hurts you on tournament day is other people catching the same fish you found in practice. A lot of them won’t even be in the tournament you’re fishing, but they’re certainly affecting your results.
A lot of them will, in fact, be fishing for the same money you are. You see it all the time on the Elite Series, and it happens on the local level too.
You find 15 schools of fish in practice or 15 spots that are holding fish.
Then tournament day rolls around, you draw Boat No. 87 and your first spot has got a boat on it. So does you your second spot. You can get on your third spot, but they’re not quite biting like you were hoping. So you go to your fourth spot, and there’s a boat there, too.
Your 15 spots turn into four, and three of those four aren’t as good as you expected, so now you’ve got one spot.
These factors are beyond your control, and there’s only so much you can do to deal with them.
The ideal thing is to find sneaky, subtle spots that other guys are overlooking. It might even be a tiny little spot within a spot that works best for you and helps you find the few fish who haven’t seen a lure since the competition began.
Another solution for fishing pressured water is just doing something a little different. You may need to go from a big football jig to a shaky head with a Berkley Bottom Hopper. In baseball terms, throw ‘em a change-up instead of a fastball.
The last thing you can do is start looking for totally new water. It’s one of the hardest things in the world to do when you thought you had 15 spots to rely on, but sometimes it’s your only option.
At the end of the day, if you find yourself talking about fish that disappeared on you, just remember you’re not the first one to make the rant – and you won’t be the last.