RIDGELAND, Miss. — After an extremely tough 2013 season, the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open on Ross Barnett was my last chance at making something happen. It was all or nothing.
This is my third year fishing in the U.S.A. on the Bassmaster Open circuit. My dream since I was 15 was to be the first Australian to fish against the best bass anglers in the world on the Bassmaster Elite Series and to eventually fish the Bassmaster Classic.
In 2010, after 10 years of competitively fishing in Australia, I sold everything I owned, saved for a year and made the move to the U.S.A. I devoted every second of the day learning these lakes and totally new species — largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass.
I was very lucky to have Fred Roumbanis take me under his wing and speed up my learning curve. Over the past three years, he has been a great mentor and friend. I watched Fred on ESPN for years. He was known in Australia as that bloke who won $100,000 on a frog.
In 2012, I fished the Northern and Central Bassmaster Opens, where I had a great year and almost fulfilled my dream. I missed the Elites by one spot — finishing ninth in the Central Opens points — just behind James Elam.
It was a crushing blow for me — coming so close — but it has only made me tougher mentally and has improved my fishing in every way.
I don’t think I was ready for the Elites. I knew another year of learning was needed, and after my 2013 campaign, I knew I was right.
This year was a lot different.
At every event, I came across situations that I hadn’t seen before and had a string of bad finishes. I got caught in a mental slump I couldn’t shake until the final Bassmaster Open of the year at Ross Barnett, where I finally put everything together and made a change.
I am faced with many hurdles and challenges every day in the U.S.A. while coming from Australia and adjusting to a totally new culture.
On the first day of the pre-fish for Barnett was no exception. News spread that one of the Opens anglers had been shot and killed that night trying to stop someone breaking into his boat. I didn’t know Jimmy Johnson, but I had seen him on the water and at the weigh-in on the Red River where he led the first day. I instantly felt saddened, like I had lost someone very close to me. I knew he was just one of us doing what he loved and he should have been out on the water that day fishing with us.
It was hard to stand up and make a cast while I tried to process the reality of what had happened. As a fisherman, I knew he wouldn’t want anyone to not fish.
It was an eerie day and a struggle on the water. Shivers ran up my spine as I made long casts, watching my frog fly through the air, thinking about Jimmy and how easily that could have been me checking on my boat.
There wasn’t another angler out there who wasn’t thinking the same thing. We all check our boats hundreds of times at night throughout the year.
Back at the ramp that night, there were groups of anglers crowded around their boats. I could hear the talk of what a great guy he was and stories being told of Jimmy Johnson.
As hard as it was the next day, I had to clear my mind and get to work. This was my last shot at a good finish before having to head back to Australia to work on the 2014 season.
Without a good finish all year, it would make it tough. With endless amounts of great water and lily pads for as far as you could see, I liked the way it was setting up.
I had found a great frog bite. There were schools of bass in small sections of the pads. You could fish for 500 yards without a bite, then have five or six blow-ups in as many casts and then nothing again.
I was excited to get out there. I’ve been lucky enough to have some frog lessons off one of the best frog fisherman I know — Fred Roumbanis.
I roomed with and worked with Gene Eisman over that week. We had a few other bites going and we were keyed in on some fish that were showing up on the dam by swimming a worm.
On that first morning, I was running my Skeeter/Yamaha at 70 mph up to my first frog spot, only to realize the wind had changed direction and had blown out all my good water. And with overcast conditions, the frog was out.
This had happened to me all year and I wasn’t able to adjust fast enough.
But not this time.
I put everything I had learned into play and fished the conditions, constantly thinking what the fish were doing, watching the wind and clouds and making continual changes.
I caught my bag on four different techniques for just less than 10 pounds, which had me sitting in 24th and well within reach of making my first ever final-day cut.
On the second day, I started on the dam where I caught my two best fish the day before, swimming a worm. I caught my five quickly and started to make small upgrades throughout the day.
It was around 11 o’clock and as the wind started to drop, the sun came out and it got hot and muggy. This was the most critical decision I made over the tournament. I was getting lots of bites on the dam and I’ve always gone by the motto, “Don’t leave fish to find fish,” but I wasn’t getting the big bites I needed to make the 12 cut and things were setting up for the frog bite I’d found to fire up.
The jackets went on and soon enough I was dropping off-pad and gliding into the lily field.
For the next two hours, I barely moved the boat and upgraded every fish I had in the livewell until I had almost 12 pounds and I was on my way back to check in.
I wasn’t sure it was enough to make the cut, and a gut-wrenching wait at the weigh-in continued until the last angler weighed in and I was sitting in ninth. Taking in that I had finally made a final-day cut after three years of near misses was the greatest day of my fishing career — and maybe my life.
Being at the third-day briefing was surreal, standing beside some of the legends of the sport: Keith Combs, Cliff Crochet, Steven Browning, Justin Lucas, Randall Tharp. What a rush to be fishing against these guys.
Day Three kicked off, and the conditions had changed again. The bite on the wall was on fire. I had my five by 8:30 a.m. and made a big upgrade at 9 a.m. with a solid 4-pounder. I had my first spectator boat on the final day. They were following our every move.
I had met the spectators at our hotel. After hearing my story, they cancelled their flights back to Minnesota so they could come on the water and cheer us on. It was awesome.
Every fish I caught resulted in loud cheers and yells like I’d just won the Classic. It was one of the funniest and coolest experiences I’ve ever had. The atmosphere was nothing like I’d felt before and I was having fun, which resulted in positive things happening all day.
Through the excitement of it all, my concentration never diverted for a second. I was 100 percent focused on every single cast, constantly imagining where my lure was, what the conditions were doing, how fast I was winding. I was finally putting it all together.
Reality kicked in when my one boat support crew yelled out to me at 1 o’clock “Front page of Bassmaster.com: Jocumsen has five, Tharp with two.”
I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. I’d seen a few of the Top 5 in the last hour and they were also struggling. It was a tough day. I knew I needed a miracle fish to win and anything can happen in fishing, so I wasn’t going to let up because these guys just don’t slip up very often.
There was 10 minutes to go, and I had one small fish in the well that I really wanted to get rid of, but time crept up and I was soon running flat out back to check in at 3 o’clock after one of the greatest tournament days I’d ever had.
As I was approaching check-in, I looked at the GPS time and I had 4 minutes to go. I recalled the guys from Minnesota telling me that they saw Mike Iaconelli make a move at the Red River Classic at 3 p.m. when he was due in at 3 p.m., made five flips at a duck blind and still made it back in before he was late.
He fished until the last second, leaving nothing out there. So knowing I had a few minutes left. I made a sharp left-hand turn for the nearest riprap wall. My co-aangler looked at his watch then at me like I was crazy.
I was on the deck making a cast before my Skeeter was off pad. On the second cast, I hooked up on a nice upgrade, swung it in the boat, let the small bass go, put the upgrade in and was heading back to the check-in on an adrenaline rush I could never explain.
A police escort through Jackson to weigh in at Bass Pro Shops was something special. My turn came to weigh in and I got to pull out a 4-pounder from the well and show the crowd.
I’d dreamt of that exact moment for almost 15 years. It was amazing. That last upgrade I made put me to fourth place overall, the highest place by any Australian in any major U.S. open bass tournament.
Just like Ike says: “Never give up.”
I’m back in Australia now working on support for the 2014 season. I hope to do all three Bassmaster Open divisions. It’s my last year on my U.S.A. Sporting Visa, and I need to make the Elites to continue my Visa. The pressure is on — and I can’t wait!
Whatever it takes.