Dreams solidified at Smith

DALLAS — I’m writing this back in Dallas, Texas, after making the drive from Smith Lake, Ala. I’m on cloud nine after making my third final-day cut in my last four showings at a Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open presented by Allstate.

I honestly feel like I’m in a dream. It was an amazing week and maybe the most influential tournament of my career. This one has really made me believe that I have what it takes and that I belong here … and maybe the last two I just didn’t get lucky. Feeling like I belong here is what I have been chasing for the past few years. I think having that feeling is important in order to be successful.

These moments in fishing can be rare. I need to soak the feeling in as much as possible and roll the positive energy into the next Open on the Red River. The week leading up to Smith Lake was one of the most hectic weeks of my life — endless driving from state to state, dropping my brand new Skeeter FX off at Brad’s Boats in Oklahoma. Organizing the wrap, Power-Poles, registration and insurance was all just the start. But everything lined up at the last second, and I was ready to leave Sunday morning.

I made the 12-hour drive across to Jasper, Ala., for my second Bassmaster Southern Open.

I got my fishing license and bought some more warm-weather gear as we prepared to spend the first day of practice in the coldest conditions I had ever experienced. Sunday night as I lay in bed was the first time I had ever looked at a map of Smith Lake. I just hadn’t had time to do any research at all.

This didn’t concern me as I used the opportunity to fish this tournament as if it were a Bassmaster Elite Series event in which I hadn’t seen the lake before with just 2 1/2 days of practice. I had no pressure (points wise) as I had a 130th-place finish at Lake Toho.

Ice age

Monday lived up to expectations. It was the coldest I had ever been in my life from daylight to dark. Underneath two sets of gloves, two sets of socks, feet and hand warmers, six layers of clothing, I still could not feel my hands or feet all day. My body ached from the cold, and I was getting tired on the water, which never happens to me. But I think my body was shutting down from the cold.

I fished hard all day for not a single bite and, for the first time ever, I was pretty happy to be back in my truck with the heaters on high.

The next day, not a lot changed. Sleet and rain came through all day. JP, a young kid from Louisiana fishing as a co-angler, fished with me. As he was walking down the dock, he didn’t realize it was covered in ice and slipped onto his back, slid around like a hockey puck and almost went into the water. He recovered quickly and once he was OK, we laughed about it. It was especially funny when we realized I got it on my GoPro. That night, we replayed it over and over in slow motion.

I had gone two days without a single keeper. I had half a day to figure something out. I fished until 3 p.m., when I had to leave to go to the briefing. I was feeling a little better after getting a few bites on an umbrella rig and a Carolina rig around main-lake points.

Winging it

At blast-off on Day 1, conditions were different again — clear skies but a 10- to 20-mph wind. Here’s what I’ve learned over the last few years: Don’t get stuck on what you find during practice or get down about not finding them. So I put my head down and fished the conditions.

After I put two in the boat on the Carolina rig, I could feel the wind picking up. I went straight to the windiest bank I could find that led into a spawning bay and stated casting the A-Rig, filling out my limit with one decent spotted bass. Some of the best water was in behind the docks and I wasn’t able to get the Hog Farmer rig back there. So I changed to a single swimbait on my Millerod Spin Freak and skipped it under the dock wires.

This is where my tournament changed. Sometimes you have to have a little luck on your side.

I made a long high cast in between two docks. As I was rolling it back, I realized it was over a dock line, 8 feet in the air. I slowly paddled my swimbait toward the wire when a 4-pound-plus spot smoked it off the surface. I set the hook with 10-pound PowerPro and 11-pound fluorocarbon leader and just kept the pressure on as the fish battled underneath the dock. Then my braid got jammed into the dock wire so I couldn’t wind and the fish couldn’t run. I thought for sure the line would break. I was on 100 percent on my trolling motor as I passed under the wire, grabbed my line from the other side and hand-lined it back from under the dock, eventually getting her in the net.

That was by far one of the coolest fish captures of my career. That fish gave me put me at just less than 12 pounds, and I was sitting in 48th place.

Vital decisions on the run

The next day I needed to make a jump and I knew largemouth had played a part in some of the bigger bags. It was 10 o’clock and I hadn’t had a bite from the finicky spotted bass.

I made a decision to drop everything I knew and head up the river and try for some largemouth. I found some timber that had blown up on the bank and I flipped two largemouth quickly, then as it cleared up, I threw a square bill along the rocks and filled my limit out for 10 pounds.

As I was going down the bank with my square bill, I turned into a cove that had a waterfall running at the back from the recent rain. I discovered a clear water line and quickly noticed the water temp jump from 49 on the main river to 54. I put my square bill down, picked up the Hog Farmer Multi-Rig and caught two upgrades on back to back casts. I then ran every pocket I could find with running water and upgraded every fish in an hour and a half. I ended up with a nearly 15-pound bag.

I was ecstatic that I had made some great decisions and knew I was going to get a check, which is huge for me to be able to stay in the states and on the trail. Once I weighed in, I went back to my hotel room after washing my boat and truck, preparing to leave for Dallas early the next morning.

I called my good mate and rod sponsor Ian Miller back in Australia and was giving him the play-by-play rundown of how the day went. He told me I was still in 11th, but I told him I knew there were some big hitters coming up and they would drop me out of the cut. As I was saying it, I heard tournament director Chris Bowes in the background say, “and that’s the last angler” followed by Ian saying, “You’re in!”

I ran as fast as I could, unhooked my boat and was heading to the Top 12 meeting.

I couldn’t believe it.

I finished the tournament in 11th place and it was another incredible experience, weighing in at Bass Pro Shops on the final day and feeling very lucky to fish another day.

Bring on the Red!

Next one up is the Central Open on the Red River. I’m sixth in the Central Opens points, so a good finish here will be huge for me. I’ll be spending a lot of time between now and then on the river.

This has been such a great start to the season for me, and I believe staying positive, fit and healthy — physically and mentally — has made a huge difference.

I have to make the Elites this year.

Whatever it takes!