Big fish, big win at James River

Winning the St. Croix Bassmaster Northern Open at James River presented by Mossy Oak Fishing sounds like it was just my turn. It took me 10 years to win a major tournament in the United States, and this was my 10th cut in a Bassmaster event.

I never thought my first win would come on a tidal fishery. I did not grow up on a river or tidal system. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t even know how many pounds I would need to win. I was going to be happy with 14 pounds a day, that’s how bad it was.

In practice, I had one big bite, but it gave me the opportunity to figure them out. That one fish gave me an idea how big the fish are in the James River. In another river, you would be good with 13 pounds a day, but this river has some giants.

I’m just trying to get used to short practice days. We only have three days of practice for the Bassmaster Elite Series every time. I just felt like I had to figure something out during the tournament. Practice is just an idea of how to start, and everything was happening in the middle of the day in the tournament. I used to find fish and find a spot in practice, but it never held up three days in a row. I didn’t have enough to win.

Anywhere I go, I want to have the fish to win the tournament. I try to figure that out and not practice the area too hard. I didn’t have much time anyway because I started in the Chickahominy River in practice. When I got in the James River you couldn’t waste any time to find a spot or a detail.

The biggest reason I stayed closer to takeoff was to try and give me enough time to figure it out the day of the tournament. On the first day, I tried to get used to it and see what time they would bite. I would fish in that situation and get better each day.

Eighty to 90% of the first day, I threw a buzzbait. Buzzbaits catch big fish in a river whether it is tidal or not. The water was a little clearer than I thought and that allowed the bigger ones to blow up on it. The fish were pressured, and they weren’t fresh enough to hit the ChatterBait or something simple. You have to trick them somehow, and I feel like I know how to relate to those kind of bass.

I caught 17 pounds the first day and felt like it was my best day ever on the water. But I was still sitting in 19th place. I wasn’t doing good enough to win the tournament, so I started Day 2 doing something a little different. I tried to catch a limit with a squarebill and a spinnerbait. I had a limit pretty quickly, but they weighed 12 pounds.

I kind of knew the first 30 minutes of incoming tide I could get the big ones on the buzzbait, so I went to where I fished Day 1 and caught a 4-pounder and a couple 3-pounders. Then I tried a bigger swimbait. The fish wanted to eat some big food.

I caught 19 pounds at Chickamauga on a big swimbait the week before, and I had one still tied on. I picked it up and that was the biggest turning point in the tournament. I caught a 4-pounder on it, and I felt that was what I had to do to break 20 pounds.

Everyone else was throwing a Megabass Magdraft or other softshell swimbaits, but I went with a hard shell. I knew no one else was doing it. I caught a hickory shad in practice and saw so many people fishing for them. They came from the ocean and were spawning downstream. It was perfect timing to fish a bigger bait for bass. Every fish I caught was chunky and healthy.

I was pretty confident after the second day because I figured something out and felt like I could get to 20 pounds again. I made sure I got 13 or 14 pounds first thing in the morning on Day 3, and then I went back where I was at the perfect time. I lost a 5-pounder back there. I went back to the main river and picked up the big swimbait for the rest of the day. With 30 minutes to go, I caught the biggest one yet. I didn’t realize I had 24.

I was talking to Brandon Lester earlier in the year, and now I know how he was feeling. I don’t have to worry about qualifying for the Classic in the Elite Series. You still have to catch them to stay in the Elite Series, but the only thing I’ll do the rest of the year is chase a blue trophy.

I never even touched someone else’s trophy, so I didn’t know how heavy it was. Now I know how heavy a Bassmaster Opens trophy is. Now I want to feel how heavy a blue trophy is.