By Nolan Minor
As I sit here at 2 a.m. with my thinking cap screwed on tightly, I want to preface all of this with one thing. I have nothing but love and respect for winner Nick Ratliff and his accomplishments during the 2018 Carhartt Bassmaster College Series Classic Bracket presented by Bass Pro Shops. In no way shape or form do I want to take away from that. I want to give some perspective from a place that isn’t too fun to be but is a unique opportunity as well.
The Classic Bracket is the pinnacle of the Bassmaster College Series. Ever since its creation, the bracket has been highly sought after by each individual who participates in the incredible tournament series. Two weeks ago, I was presented the opportunity that so many of us can only dream of, and it slipped away from me in the waning minutes of competition.
I had an incredible final day of competition. The way that it developed was something out of a fairy tale. I had an absolutely awful morning, and the short three-hour period of fishing was cut down due to weather, a big curveball that definitely didn’t make me feel any better. Due to the format of the Bracket, I got to learn exactly how far behind I was during our break period. I thought I was going to be way back, and boy I was right. Luckily I spent my fruitless morning preparing myself to hear that news, and I was ready to face the adversity and make a change.
When I was interviewed at the half, they asked me how I felt and what my plan was. Being 9 pounds behind is bad ... really bad! That’s where I found myself, and the conditions were the exact opposite of what I wanted. On top of that, my competition had been very vocal about wanting those conditions, and I knew he was far from done for the day. I knew I had to adjust, but it wasn’t a hard decision for me. I was basically forced to shift what I was doing, and I think most would have made a change too.
I only had one “spot” where I was confident I could catch fish on a slow moving bait, the opposite of the topwater that my fish catches had been primarily been coming on. I fished the spot multiple times during both previous competition days, and it had given up six keeper smallmouth - three of them being under a pound and only one of them on a “bottom bait.” During practice, I caught one big fish there on a football jig. I really hoped that I could get one or two of that size class before having to further adjust in an attempt to close the gap between Nick and I.
Upon my arrival, I decided to try the topwater one more time. Within my first five casts, I boated a 2-pound smallmouth. This really threw me for a loop. “Did the storm change their mood? Do I go back to chasing a topwater bite again?” It certainly was an idea in my brain, but I had to try something else first. I dug down to the bottom of my stack of rods beside the passenger seat and grabbed the rod with a football jig on it. I lined up and made a cast to the same spot where I caught one during practice.
I don’t remember if it was on the very first cast, but the fish were quick to tell me that the football jig was a good choice. The next 45 minutes of fishing turned into one of the craziest flurries I have ever experienced. I was getting a bite on every cast, not always hooking them, but when I did, it was a solid fish. I went from one 12-inch fish to the biggest bag of the event in probably half an hour. I was dumbfounded.
“When it’s your time, it’s your time” is a phrase that echoes around each time someone wins a tournament. I have never done so on a large scale, so I hadn’t experienced the feeling, but it was impossible not to think that what I was experiencing was that exact phenomenon. No one during the event had anything comparable to the flurry of fish I had, and I felt like I was running away with it. My total weight increased each day, Nick’s bag decreased from Day 1 to Day 2, and I was desperately hoping that the trend would continue.
The flurry slowed, and I decided to give my spot some rest in an attempt to let the bigger fish regroup after seeing many smaller ones get pulled away alongside them. I fished two other similar locations in close proximity, but didn’t find any more smallmouth. With an hour of fishing time remaining, I headed back to my spot. It didn’t take long to get a couple bites upon my return, but they weren’t upgrades. I downsized to a ned rig after a while, hoping to just get one more big bite from a fish that I knew was probably sitting right in front of me. Again, the bites I got weren’t enough to help.
My time eventually ran out, and it was time to head to the big stage. Nick and I had both said it would be a close race, but I doubt either of us thought it would be that close with that high of weights. We each bested the biggest bag of the event by over a pound, but ultimately, I was the one who came up short.
I really thought it was my time. Everything felt so right out on the water, but it just wasn’t so. In my final remarks, I said that I was glad to have made a run at it, and that it would have hurt worse if I brought in only two or three fish instead of the bag that I ended with. I can still attest to that, but I’m not sure which way would hurt worse. It was a crushing feeling to have such an incredible day and lose by such a small amount. After the reveal, I turned my phone on and saw that I definitely wasn’t the only one who thought I slammed the door before noon. However, the 2 pound, 11 ounce smallmouth that came across the yellow gunnel of Nick’s boat with 13 minutes of competition remaining was the one who had the final say.
Competitive bass fishing will build you all the way up to the top and then put you right back in your place. It is the most humbling sport one can participate in, and the emotions involved are as real as it gets. This one is going to hurt for a while, but I am certainly not going to let it slow me down. At this point, it will hurt until I get to the Classic. Whether that happens during college via the Bracket, after college via the opens or at the end of a season of Elite Series competition, I am going to scratch and claw my way there. Mark my words!