To say that this has been the weirdest, most challenging season in my tournament-fishing career is an understatement. Actually, I could take a whole bunch of different words – disappointing, bewildering, surreal – and run with them, because they all fit.
As I write this, I sit 99th in Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Points. Ninety-ninth. In years past, I challenged for AOY titles and championships, but this year, I’m challenging to make the Top 100s.
The most accurate way to look at my 2016 season so far is sort of like a buffet of “bad:” bad decision-making, bad circumstances, bad timing, bad luck. I can look back at all five of the Elite tournaments this year and identify an instance where things went south, and I thought to myself: “Wait … what in the world just happened?”
The weirdness started way back on Day 1 at Winyah Bay. I had finished 24th at the St. Johns River to start the season – pretty respectable – and came into the event in South Carolina feeling like I could catch 10 to 12 pounds a day.
I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t know hardly a thing about that fishery going in but was confident in my ability to run down to the Cooper River and find enough fish to stay in the hunt.
And I zeroed on Day 1.
Wait, what? Zeroed? I’m pretty sure I’d never zeroed before on a tournament day in my entire life, but there I was putting my boat on the trailer after the first day with a big fat “0” next to my name. I’m at a loss to explain that day, because I’m not really sure how it all happened. All I know is that it always comes down to decision making, and that particular day on the Cooper River, I obviously made some horrific decisions.
I recovered a little with 12 pounds, 3 ounces on Day 2, but Day 1 was such a monumental disaster that it didn’t really matter.
Wheeler Lake might seem like the highlight of my lowlights this season, but I actually felt pretty good about that tournament. I made good decisions that week, caught a whole bunch of fish, and generally had a great tournament as far as the fishing went. Things obviously took a major turn for the worse with my disqualification from that event, and I won’t kid you, I went into the Toledo Bend event wondering if maybe I was on an episode of Pranked or more accurately, The Twilight Zone.
Taking off from Cypress Bend, I felt pretty sure that I was going to catch them good off docks, but after seven hours on Day 1, I had caught one fish (I ended up with two fish for a whopping 2-3). On Day 2, I went out and did virtually the same things in similar parts of the lake and caught 17-8 off docks in just a couple of hours.
All of a sudden, it was easy again, and I was left looking back at Day 1 asking the question again: “How did that happen?”
By the time I started Day 1 of the Toyota Texas Bass Classic on Lake Ray Roberts, I had taken on a whole new mindset. You know that country song “My Give A Damn is Busted”? Well, that’s a pretty accurate description of how I approached that tournament from a day-to-day fishing standpoint. Not that I didn’t care how I did, or that I wasn’t competing hard, it’s just that I didn’t put any pressure on myself to fish a certain way. I didn’t feel like I absolutely had to catch them there, or had to get into the Top 10. I simply left the launch every morning telling myself, “Luke, just go have fun.”
It seemed to work out pretty well: I finished third at the TTBC, the highest I’ve ever finished at that event, and had a great time doing it.
And I guess that’ll be a key for me the rest of the Elite season, maintaining that free-wheeling mindset that allows me to fish my very best. I know for a fact that I fish smarter and more efficiently when I’m working with a clear mind and fishing each day for what it’s worth. It’s really hard to fish that way when AOY points are on your mind, and you’re putting pressure on yourself to perform a certain way. You tend to push too hard, and you tend to fish a little scared.
And I’m obviously not very good at fishing scared.
So what do I do the rest of the season as far as day-to-day competition is concerned? Simple: I fish like I did at Wheeler.
I spent most of my time there just enjoying myself, stopping on random banks here and there and catching a bunch of fish all day long. Although the AOY points from that event don’t reflect it, I fished the way I like and got the right kind of results.
Heading into BASSfest on Lake Texoma, I can tell you that I’ll go out for the first day of practice with 15 rods on deck and just see what happens. We’ll see how it all works out the rest of the season as we head to Lake Cayuga, the Potomac River and the Mississippi, but I feel like I’m the most dangerous kind of competitor right now: One who doesn’t have anything to lose, who can just fish with a clear, open mind.
I’m looking forward to it.