Of all of the tournaments on the 2017 Bassmaster Elite Series schedule, Cherokee was the one that scared me the most. Last year my quest for the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title was derailed by a 90th place finish at Bull Shoals/Norfork, so I was wary of digging too big of a hole for myself right off the bat. That’s why my 13th place finish was such a relief. Of course I would’ve liked to have fished through Sunday, but looking back on the way that my tournament played out, it was a huge confidence booster.
To put it bluntly, my practice was terrible. I had nothing going, and if I’d stuck with my original game plan I probably would’ve done terribly. On my best practice day I only landed two bass. I tried to make the fish bite shallow, but I couldn’t make it happen. I knew that it was going to be won out deep, but I couldn’t find schools of fish out there, either.
My only option was to scrap everything and just treat the first day of the tournament like a fourth day of pre-fishing. A few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to make that leap, but given my more recent success I was confident that with enough time I’d eventually figure things out.
On the first day of the tournament I found one good group of fish and caught 16 pounds pretty easily. I also saw a bunch more on my electronics. I figured that 16 pounds a day would have a good chance of winning, and I had nothing else to go on so I decided to lay off and save them. The next morning I arrived and couldn’t get a bite, but rather than rotting on that spot or panicking and trying to start from scratch, I just looked at my mapping, analyzed the depth and type of structure that had produced for me, and then made the decision to go someplace similar. It sounds simple, but once again it’s not something I would’ve been able to do earlier in my career and the 14-10 that I caught that day pushed me into Saturday’s cut. Then I added another 15-03 on Saturday to move up six more places. I only missed the 12 cut by 7 ounces.
This was my first tournament with Humminbird’s Mega Imaging, and it made all of the difference in the world. I’ve “video gamed” up north before, and I’m comfortable with smallmouth, but these fish were different than the ones I’ve caught up there. In the North I’m usually fishing a drop shot and at least the weight is on the bottom. In this situation, you had to keep the little jig and minnow style bait suspended over the fish. Sometimes they’d come up two or three times before they ate it. Other times, they went over it, and when that happened they’d never come back and bite it. It was very gratifying to figure all of that out, and the tools that I have on my boat made it possible to put the puzzle together.
Now that it’s over, the biggest feeling I have is relief. I worried about that one all offseason and spent a lot of time preparing for it. It didn’t set up in my wheelhouse at all, so if I had to rate how happy I was on a scale of one to 10 I’d probably be at an 11.
As my career progresses I’m trusting my instincts more and more, and it has allowed me to fish more freely and decisively. Rather than getting locked into what the fish “should be” doing, or what they were doing yesterday, I’m making both minor and major adjustments. They don’t always pay off, but more often than not it seems that they put me in the right position to get the job done.
Now we’re headed to Okeechobee and then back to Texas, venues where I’ll be able to put the spinning gear away and power fish the way I like to do it. I hope that I can keep my mind as agile when I’m back in my comfort zone.
No, I didn’t win at Cherokee, but this time 13th felt like first.