With three of the 2019 Bassmaster Elite Series tournaments in the books, Winyah Bay will be a make-or-break event for a lot of the field. I count myself among that group, because I’m currently in the middle of the pack in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings. I need a good finish here to get inside the Classic bubble.
Anyone who thought that this year would be a cakewalk for the returning pros should be pretty surprised. Some of the best up-and-coming anglers on the planet – whether they came from FLW, the Bassmaster Opens or the college ranks – have joined the tour, and they’re talented and hungry. Everybody in the field deserves to be there, even if you’ve never heard their names before. Look at guys like Drew Cook, leading the AOY race, or Brandon Cobb, who won at Hartwell. Brandon averaged more than 18 pounds a day for four days, an average which would have been more than enough to win any of the three Classics B.A.S.S. has held there.
My own finishes have me a bit confused. I started off strong with an 11th place finish at the St. Johns, a river that has been tough for me in the past. Then we moved into a portion of the schedule with two spotted bass fisheries where a lot of people expected me to do well, and I did not get the job done.
At Lanier, I was crushed to finish 69th. The big spotted bass there simply kicked my butt. When it was far too late I learned that I didn’t fish deep enough. Those blueback chasers live deep, they suspend deep, their whole life is deep. They might move up shallow to spawn, but as soon as they’re done they’re “out” again. The vast majority of the time if you’re throwing toward the bank you’re casting in the wrong direction.
Then we went to Hartwell and I quickly got on a pattern where I could catch 100 spotted bass a day, but the best five would probably weigh 8 or 9 pounds, maybe 10 if you got lucky. I knew that wouldn’t do me any good, so I resolved to spend 30 minutes catching a small limit of spots and then I’d head to the pockets looking for a couple of kicker largemouths.
During practice the water was high and there was submerged grass about a foot under the water. I knew that if I flipped that grass for an extended period of time I could get 15 to 20 bites, including two or three that would be the right quality. Unfortunately, they dropped the water about 6 inches, and the fish pulled out of it. My flipping bite went up in smoke.
I fished so hard to catch a big one the last two days, and it blew my mind that I couldn’t get a few of the bites I needed. It got so bad that with an hour to go on Friday I looked up at the sky and pleaded, “Lord, is a 4-pounder too much to ask for?” A little while later I was rewarded with a good one that smoked a wake bait. That pulled me up to 45th place, which is nothing to brag about, but it provided some key points that could make the difference in earning a Classic berth.
Seriously, after the St. Johns I had visions of competing for the AOY title in my head. I would’ve lost my home if you’d bet me that I wouldn’t do well at Lanier and Hartwell.
Now it’s on to Winyah Bay, a fishery where I did not do particularly well in 2016. The fact that I’ve been here before should help me a little, at least in terms of getting around, but I heard that the main area I fished last time had a fish kill – so the experience might not be worth much otherwise. I saw some results from a recent local tournament and apparently it’s fishing tough right now. It took 12 pounds to win, and the competitors were guys who fished two to a boat and knew the sweet spots. In 2016, it only took 8 1/2 pounds to make the Elite Series cut here, and it could be tougher this time around. That makes it anybody’s game.
I love the low-weight tournaments where you have to grind things out and figure out a technique or a place that’s off the beaten path. I’ve made a career out of fishing a jerkbait in places where most of my peers wouldn’t do so, and that may prove to be my strategy this time around, but I also love flipping, frogging and topwater.
Rather than being discouraged by two tough events where I expected to be at the top of the leaderboard, the new energy on the Elite Series has me reinvigorated and ready to attack a challenge. You’ve never been able to struggle for even a day if you wanted to remain competitive on this tour, and that’s proving to be the case this year again.