Do's and don'ts of tournament competition

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Garrick Dixon

I strived to be aware of my decisions on the water — both good and bad — to figure out what worked and what didn’t for me on the Elite Series. While I learned to repeat the good decisions that led to strong finishes, I didn’t pay close enough attention to the bad ones. Often, I waited until after the tournament — or worse, the season — ended to reflect back on my poor decisions.

By then, it was too late.

If I had learned to spot and correct my mistakes daily, I might still be competing on the Bassmaster Elite Series.

Here are my do’s and don’ts for competing at the highest level of the sport.

Don’t: Force your strengths

I know many anglers who believe in fishing their strengths at all times. While I agree it’s important to fish one’s strengths, I’ve learned forcing them when it’s not the right time can lead to missed opportunities.

During the St. Lawrence River tournament last year, I dedicated my entire practice to fishing a drop shot rig — my greatest strength — for smallmouth in the river. After two futile practice days, however, I considered spending my final practice day looking for largemouth in the river’s grass-choked bays. I thought if I could find an area where I could quickly catch a largemouth or two, it might help, especially if I failed to catch a limit of smallmouth in the river.

Instead, I stayed in my comfort zone and never fished another technique or pattern. On Day 1 of the tournament, I caught five keepers, but on Day 2, I weighed just four fish — missing a check by a pound and a half.

Later, I discovered many of the anglers who were drop shotting in the river also struggled to get bites. Rather than relying solely on a drop shot rig, several of those anglers were able to fill their limits targeting largemouth in the bays. I feel I would have stood a better chance at weighing a limit on the second day if I had been versatile.

Instead, I forced my strength when it wasn’t producing well enough for me to rely on alone.

Don’t: Stick with bad habits

I often shook most of my bites off during practice, especially during tournaments where anglers complained how hard it was to get bit. When the Elites visited the Chesapeake Bay last season, most of the field predicted low weights and few limits for the tournament, so I felt confident getting a half-dozen bites each practice day. I, however, never set the hook. Instead, I pulled back lightly — careful not to set the hook — trying to gauge their size. Most felt solid, but I wasn’t certain.

After the scales closed on Day 1, I realized the fishing was better than most of the anglers had claimed.

I should have known better. I caught just two keepers each day and was forced to release several non-keepers back to the bay. If I had set the hook during practice I would have realized many of my bites were non-keepers, and would have continued searching for bigger fish. Instead, I was content just getting bites when so many other competitors said they weren’t.

My habit of shaking fish off during practice was difficult to break. I was too concerned about other competitors seeing me catch fish and moving into the area, or didn’t want to risk not being able to get bites in the same exact spots during the tournament as I did in practice. Rather than worrying about what I couldn’t control, I should have focused on gathering as much information as possible, which included setting the hook on some fish during practice. Then I would have been able to make better decisions on the water.

Do: Stay positive

Despite making bad decisions, I made good ones as well. The most helpful was choosing to fish with a positive attitude. Yes, attitude is a choice. If I lost a big fish next to the boat or failed to catch a limit on the first day of the event, I didn’t let it control my attitude because I knew my attitude affected every decision I made throughout the tournament.

During my rookie season, I was in second place after Day 1 of the Mississippi River Rumble. On Day 2, I returned to the same area where I caught my fish from the previous day and saw the water had stained from a rainstorm earlier that morning. I fished in the soiled water for five hours catching just one bass and started to get discouraged.

However, I refused to let my sour attitude spoil my ability to make good decisions. I moved to a different part of the river and caught four more keepers to fill my limit.

Staying positive kept me focused and allowed me to continue making good decisions. I salvaged what could have been a disastrous Day 2 and remained high in the standings by changing areas and making sure I weighed in a limit.

Do: Be aware

Aim to make good decisions and learn to recognize the bad ones daily. Soon, you’ll recognize what’s working and what’s not.

Only then can you start making better decisions on the water to become a better angler.