The win at the 2022 St. Croix Bassmaster Central Open at Ross Barnett presented by Mossy Oak Fishing was different. I’ve had this conversation with friends, family and companies, but I almost got as good a response from this win as I have my two Bassmaster Elite Series wins. Winning against 225 anglers that are superstars – including other Elite guys and other professional anglers – to go out there, put a puzzle together, fish around that much pressure and get a win is huge for me.
We only live about four hours away from Ross Barnett, and my mom, dad, wife and baby daughter, Lane, got to come. I have always told my wife that if I ever had a kid, I was going to win a tournament that year and hold her up like Simba in The Lion King. It was really cool to hold her up and fit that niche saying, if you have a baby, you are going to win a tournament.
I haven’t won an Open before, and I always wanted an Opens trophy on my mantle. It felt good to get that win and be able to say I’ve won at that level. Now I can focus on claiming the next two trophies: the Bassmaster Classic and a Bassmaster Angler of the Year.
I signed up for the Central Opens for the shot at making the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic at Tennessee River presented by Huk in case I had a bad year on the Elites, which I have had so far. Getting the Classic berth out of the way relieved every pressure in my body. Everything was going to have to go perfect for me the rest of the year to qualify and this win took all of that weight off my shoulders. At the end of the day, that is what we are fishing for.
Second of all, I got paid more than $52,000, and that doesn’t suck.
I had only been to Ross Barnett one time, and I had the lake broken down before I got there into areas I thought I could win. I didn’t think that would be up the river just because with 225 guys up a river system that small, it was going to get beat up. I thought it could be won out of Pelahatchie Bay, and I caught some good ones in practice there. But I didn’t think I could catch 15 bass out of there.
The area I chose to fish was the east side of the main lake. I thought it had enough room and enough area that if I broke it down into enough little spots, I could win off multiple spots. Then it would be luck of the draw on my boat number and who found what. I broke it down into five little sweet spots on that whole side of the lake where I thought I could pull up, put my Minn Kota Raptors down, just sit there and possibly catch 12 to 25 pounds.
I knew there were going to be 100 boats on that east shore, so you weren’t going to be able to hit all of the sweet spots and go frogging and flip reeds and fish trees and have a shad spawn bite. If you moved around, you were going to get beat.
One of those sweet spots is where I caught almost a 26-pound bag the first day, and my second-best spot was where Neal Gilmore caught more than 26 pounds. The other sweet spots I never got to fish. I tried to go to the spot Neal was at first, but there were four or five boats there, so I kept going. There were two or three boats on the next spot I had. At the third one, I pulled up and put the Raptors down, and it just worked out. I had 26 pounds at 9:08 a.m., and I cut my hook off.
I think my bag and Neal’s bag were the two biggest bags that have been caught on Ross Barnett in years. My co-angler the first day fished the lake often, and he said, “I don’t remember the last time a bag this big has been weighed in here.” I’ve gotten that feeling from a lot of the guys who have written on my posts as well, so I was definitely surprised, but I didn’t know. In practice you don’t catch them all, especially with that many people fishing around you. I caught one 4-pounder, and I left. I could see how the grass was growing, and I could feel the shell.
With that many boats on that small lake, I knew it was going to take around 16 pounds a day to win. So, when I caught almost 26 pounds the first day, I knew if I went out and caught 12 pounds a day I was going to be hard to beat. I went out Day 2 and caught under 11 pounds, but I had a limit and didn’t waste a fish. Going into the third day, in my head I needed to catch 14-plus. I caught one big one in my sweet spot, and I knew it was over. I left there at 9:38 and I went junk fishing. I caught one flipping reeds, one skipping a swim jig, just stuff I never fished and two frogging after that.
I have to give a big shoutout to Johnson Outdoors for my Minn Kota Raptors. All three of my wins have been with Raptors or Talons down, and on Day 1 I got to my spot and put them down and only picked them up when I left. Without those shallow water anchors, I couldn’t sit still and line up my casts or keep some pressure off my spot. That was a huge key.
When you go to a tournament like that, I went from fishing one spot to junk fishing everything, so I had to have a couple rods on the deck. In the mornings, I was throwing the Halo HFX 7-foot, 3-inch Medium Heavy signature series rod. At the same time, I had to have a frog on the deck, a flipping bait and a swim jig. When that clock went off in my head, I didn’t want to be pulling stuff out, so I had the same exact setup ready to go on my deck. I had that same rod ready with a frog, Carolina rig, swim jig and I could flip with it. It is such a versatile rod. So big shout-out to Halo with that HFX line. It lets me be simplistic with my setups.