The uncertainty surrounding the fishery at Winyah Bay led to a lot of sleepless nights for me before and during the practice period. I knew that one bad decision had the potential to ruin my season, and that’s a lot of pressure to shoulder early in the year. To say that I’m thrilled with my sixth place finish is something of an understatement, but at the same time I’m still a little confused by my performance because it didn’t follow the typical Keith Combs playbook.
Normally my strategy at any tournament is to try to put myself around the fish to win, even if it means taking a big risk. I didn’t do that at this tournament. While conventional wisdom said that it could only be won in the Cooper River – and that’s where Britt won it – I spent my entire tournament in the Pee Dee and Waccamaw Rivers, areas where even I didn’t think it could be won.
I’d visited Winyah Bay before it went off limits, and I made the run up to the Cooper River. It had beautiful water with massive grass flats. It almost reminded me of a mini-Guntersville with the addition of natural current. On the first two days of the official practice, I found a stretch of water in the Pee Dee that I was comfortable with. It had four or five backwaters that I suspected would be productive. The only problem was figuring out the impact of the tide. I was going to go to the Cooper on the third day of practice but something told me to figure out that stretch of the Pee Dee. I’m glad that I did. I fished around what turned out to be my key area that morning and didn’t have a single bite on low tide, which I expected to be the best. Later I returned on high tide and got my only three bites of the day. That clued me in and was the key to my whole tournament.
I felt like I could get eight or 10 bites in five hours of fishing on the Pee Dee, which would probably produce a 9- or 10-pound bag. The problem was that I didn’t know if that kind of weight would put me in the hunt or leave me struggling to get into the Top 50. It also meant that I had to fish clean and efficiently. If I only came in with 4 pounds on Day 1, there was no opportunity to make up any real ground, whereas if I’d gone to the Cooper the size of the fish there meant that a few key bites would allow me to get back into it.
Fortunately, I got the sign that I needed pretty early on the first day of competition. After fishing around without a bite for about an hour, I caught three keepers in a row. Then I caught my fourth fish and was surprised that it turned out to be a 4-pounder. I’d seen it in practice and figured it to be about 3 pounds, but it was so thick and deep that it weighed quite a bit more. That provided a big boost to my confidence.
I was able to remain consistent throughout the event. In fact, Gerald Swindle, who finished one place behind me, was the only other angler to weigh in double digits every day. While that kind of consistency is great for an Angler of the Year campaign, it doesn’t excite me. Heading into the last day of competition, there were really only three fishermen who had a chance to win, and it didn’t feel good not being one of those three. Winning excites me.
Everyone has different goals out on the water. Some anglers just want to get points or checks. Others want to make the most of an event without making a two-hour run. My goal is to always be around the best quality fish on a given body of water, and because I was so focused on survival in South Carolina, I got out of my comfort zone. It worked out this time, and there’s a lesson to be learned from that result, but I don’t expect to follow that path again much in the future. It may have saved my season, but it’s not who I am most of the time.