After four years on the Bassmaster Elite Series tour, James Elam is not yet a household name. But as he prepares to fish his second GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK'S Sporting Goods, he knows that he’s potentially just a week of effort away from changing that situation.
“I guess I’m not a flamboyant guy like Swindle or Iaconelli,” he said, referring to his relative anonymity, despite a B.A.S.S. career that has included an Open win and Top 10 finishes in each of the last two Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship tournaments. “I feel like I haven’t really done anything yet. I need to win another tournament. That puts you on the map. Until I do the things that Ike and Swindle and KVD have done, my name won’t jump out.”
His first major opportunity to achieve that status came at last year’s Classic on Grand Lake, close to his Tulsa home. With a wealth of experience on Grand and a substantial fan base in the audience, he caught a limit that weighed 13 pounds, 13 ounces on Day 1, enough to put him in 14th place within striking distance of the leaders. The next day, though, he struggled to bring in a single fish, dropping him down the scorecard to 30th.
“The fishing went wrong, but I’m still really happy and thankful to have fished it,” he said. “I’m looking back on it in a positive way. It’s just fishing. You can’t always do well at will. I had a really good practice, and I was all-in on what I was doing. I just didn’t have a great tournament.”
He qualified for his second Classic by finishing 23rd in the Elite Series points race this year. On the heels of the mildly disappointing finish at Grand, he struggled in the season-opener on the St. Johns River, ending up 84th, before reeling off four straight checks.
Even when he missed the money in 2016, he still garnered valuable points. He finished in the mid-50s at Texoma, the Potomac River and the upper Mississippi, avoiding the types of bombs that can undo a strong run. He said that he believes that he’s reached a turning point in his career.
“At the end of my third year, three quarters of the way through the season, I realized that I would not be able to make a living at this if I didn’t make a move,” he said. “I blocked everything out and just focused on the fishing. There was more pressure, but everything slowed down. The mental part of this is the biggest deal, and I’ve settled down a lot.”
The season ended with a fifth-place finish at the AOY Championship on Mille Lacs, less than a month after his 30th birthday. It marked his top finish in Elite Series competition, bettering his previous best – at Wheeler four months earlier – by three places. While he was over 9 pounds behind runaway leader Seth Feider, Elam was less than 3 pounds behind runner-up Brent Ehrler.
While it was encouraging to end the season with a great finish after barely missing checks in the prior two events, and in three of the previous four, he would’ve loved to keep going at that point.
“It was good and bad,” he said. “It bugs me if I don’t do well or meet my goals, so it was great to end the season on a positive note. If you end the season on a bad note you’ll be on edge all off season, so wrapping up well was pretty satisfying. On the other hand, when you do well like that, you wish you could keep the momentum going.”
Another challenge was that he had shoulder pain by the end of the season and needed some downtime to recuperate before embarking on the 2017 season. He’ll have two regular season Elite Series events, at Cherokee and Okeechobee, to tune up his game and prepare for his second Classic.
With a second consecutive solid season and two more events under his belt, he’ll head into the Conroe Classic more fully aware of the time demands that the sport’s biggest event places upon its competitors. He’ll also have less pressure on him, owing to the fact that it’s not his first time at the dance, and the local spotlight will focus on the Texans more than the Oklahomans. Additionally, even though he’d never fished Conroe prior to qualifying, he’s downshifted his approach to scouting the waters.
“I spent a week straight on Grand,” he said of last year’s pre-practice. “On Conroe, I just drove around for one day. We have longer to practice (for the Classic than for a regular Elite Series event), and more time to figure them out. I’m not trying to dial in the fish before I get there.”
Despite the limited exposure to Conroe, he believes that it will set up well for his skill set. “The bass will be within two weeks of some stage of the spawn, but I honestly don’t think there will be a lot of sight fishing. It’s a stained water lake and that’s how I grew up around here. We don’t sight fish a whole lot around here, but we do fish for spawning fish that you can’t see. I think that will play into my strengths.
“I’m going to go out and do whatever I need to do to try to win,” he concluded. “The guys who end up first through fifth are all probably on the winning fish. It just comes down to decisions. I need to put myself in that position.”