Ferguson back in the flow

DETROIT, Mich. – Art Ferguson recalls that when he qualified for the 1990 Bassmaster Classic on Virginia’s James River, he felt excitement and stress, but most of all he thought he “knew it all.”

Apparently he did not know it all at that time. The 25 year-old Federation Nation qualifier finished 40th overall, second to last, that year in Richmond. It was his first time on tidal water and his inexperience showed. Since that time he’s fished numerous tournaments where the water ebbs and flows as influenced by the moon, but still views tidal rivers with a wary eye. Accordingly, when he saw the James on this year’s Northern Open schedule, he was less than thrilled.

“That place was a nightmare to me,” he said. “The cool thing is that I went into the event with no stress. I kept an open mind and did some new things.” Amidst a field chock-full of top locals and tour-level pros, he made the top twelve and emerged with a sixth-place finish. While he still maintains the lean figure of his youth, the creeping strands of gray atop his head reflect an increased experience that he’s learned to leverage to his advantage.

There’s no body of water upon which Ferguson has more experience than Lake St. Clair, site of this week’s Northern Open, and it shows – heading into the final day of competition, he’s comfortably ensconced in ninth place, a little more than 6 pounds off the lead. As the only angler who has made the final day cut in both of this year’s Northern Opens, he will likely emerge from this event with the lead in the Northern Open points race. The next and final Open is at Cayuga, a lake Ferguson has never fished, but he won an Open in 2003 at nearby Lake Oneida, so he expects that the New York foray will set up well for him.

Looking ahead in the take-off line this morning, Ferguson noted the presence of Andrew Upshaw (fourth place, 42-03) and Jonathon VanDam (fifth, 41-04), both approximately 20 years his junior. “They’re just young kids,” the 47 year-old pro and guide said. “I think I probably look at them the way people like Rick Clunn and Roland Martin must have looked at me. Not that I’m as good as Rick or Roland, but I see them and they’re excited and aggressive. The way people network today, it scares me. Someone can show up here who’s never fished St. Clair and know a lot about it.”

While the learning curve has been accelerated somewhat, Ferguson hopes that his years of guiding on St. Clair will provide him with the boost needed to make another jump up the standings. He was one of only six anglers to weigh in over 20 pounds yesterday, and combined with his 18-14 from Day One, he leapt up from 20th place into the Top 12.

“I’m fishing real intricate little spots,” he said. “I haven’t really fished my lake fish, though, and with the wind not blowing I should be able to move around a little bit more today.”

The other critical concept that has benefitted him this week is his understanding of water movement. While he couldn’t figure out the clockwork of the tides on the James River 22 years ago, on St. Clair he has an intricate knowledge of “what the current does to the fish.” He’ll attempt to move with them today and intercept five oversized smallmouths. While he has a lot of ground to make up in order to claim his third B.A.S.S. win, he said that bridging the six pound plus gap isn’t impossible: “If I can go out and have 22 or 23 pounds and the leaders only have 15, that’s the difference.”

Recalling two decades of top level competition, Ferguson held his hands out to the side, palms up, and moved them up and down in opposite directions. “I’ve had my ups and downs in life,” he said. “You can put my career on a scale and there have been some peaks, but there have also been some down times. From 1999 to 2000 and again in 2003, I had some peaks, but I fished poorly during the recession and there’s not a worse time to be fishing bad. I’ve had a couple of bad years. When you’re doing poorly, there’s financial pressure, which is one of the hardest things in fishing. It makes you question whether to make a 20-mile run and spend $20 more on gas. Sometimes it’s not as glorious as it seems.”

Right now, Art Ferguson, age 47, seems to be riding a youthful high, fishing well on waters that he likes as well as on those that have occasionally tormented him. He might go out today and bust a monster limit, but no matter what he catches it’s been a good year so far.

“I’m just going to go out today and try to have fun,” he said. “Hopefully it’ll open up some opportunities.”