For Elam, closing time came at the right time

With his season slipping away, and a chance that his consecutive Bassmaster Classic streak would end at three, Oklahoma pro James Elam dug deep into his mental reserves. He found a last burst of energy and not only kept the string alive but also won his first tour-level event, leading the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship at Lake Chatuge from wire to wire.

“I normally don’t look at the points, but I did this year after the Chesapeake Bay tournament was canceled,” he said. After a good start, he’d missed the money at Kentucky Lake, Travis and the Sabine River. With only one full field event – and possibly a berth in the 50 boat Chatuge tournament – left to make up ground, he was in 43rd place overall in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings, outside the Classic cut looking in.

“I wasn’t going to fish any differently,” he said. “With this group you always have to try to catch them like you’re trying to win.”

He characterized the St. Lawrence, where he finished 11th, as a “make or break” event, but Chatuge is where he finally got the break he’s been waiting for.

It didn’t bother him that he was fishing against the top names in the sport, a field chock-full of Classic winners, past AOYs and living legends, none of whom would cede any ground voluntarily. Moreover, perhaps this was a time for a changing of the guard.

Justin Lucas, just 32 years old like Elam, was leading the AOY race, and would go on to win it decisively. Elam’s close friend and road roommate, Josh Bertrand, yet to turn 30, was in second in the year-long standings, and had just earned his first Elite Series win in August on the St. Lawrence River.

Elam had no reason to think he couldn’t close an Elite event out, except that he hadn’t done it before. 

Nevertheless, he had no qualms about competing against the best of the best on one of the sport’s biggest stages. He’d been in contention heading into the final day of both the 2017 and 2018 Bassmaster Classics, on Lake Conroe and Lake Hartwell, respectively. He’d also shown a particular aptitude for excelling in the season-ending AOY Championships. His best Elite Series finish to date came in last year’s championship on Minnesota’s Mille Lacs, where he finished second to Keith Combs. In 2016 he’d earned his second-best Elite finish there when he finished fifth. In 2015’s AOY Championship on Sturgeon Bay he came in a more-than-respectable 10th.

For a pro from Oklahoma, a state more closely associated with muddy rivers and fluorescent hard-thumping spinnerbait blades, he seems to do exceptionally well on clear water smallmouth and spotted bass fisheries, even though his two Open wins came in his home state.

“All of those waters — Chatuge, Sturgeon Bay and Mille Lacs — are very different from each other,” he said. “But if you look at my career, probably 75 percent of my high finishes have come on smallmouth. I can catch fish mid-depth and shallow, but my confidence is offshore in the summer and late summer when it can be tough. I like to fish offshore for bunches of fish, and I like to fish a pattern.”

He estimated that he had 30 viable schools located by the end of the practice period, and he felt that he was around the type of fish to do well, but he’d been burned by that feeling before.

“There have been so many times I’ve found the right fish to win, but so many things can go wrong,” he said. “Three or four times I could’ve won if I hadn’t had to share my fish with other fishermen. One was a largemouth event, but most were smallmouth events. But that’s the thing: If you find good places they get found by other people.”

By the end of the first day, when he’d slid into the lead with a 16-pound, 10-ounce limit that put him 1-10 in front of the nearest competitor, he “saw the potential” and knew that he had “the right game plan.” Using a topwater, a hard jerkbait, a soft jerkbait and a spoon, he added 16-14 on Day 2 to extend his lead to 2-03.

Then he had a day off.

The former high school All-American wrestler kept himself busy with sponsor engagements and tackle preparation, but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to just ride out the tournament’s third period with a conservative approach. He also knew that a cadre of the world’s best and most accomplished anglers had placed a bullseye on his back.

“It probably would’ve been easier to come from second,” he said. “There were a lot of local boats out there following me on Day 2, and then I didn’t know what they were doing on Saturday.”

Earlier in his career, the “what ifs” might’ve weighed on him, but as his career has progressed he has increasingly drawn on the mental toughness that guided his wrestling success. Indeed, but for that mental strength, drawn from years of cutting weight and living a disciplined lifestyle before, during and after the season, he might’ve collapsed when things didn’t go his way that final morning.

“I ended up not catching my fish on the third day on any places where I’d caught them the first or second days,” he said. “I had to have backup stuff. There was a full moon and the fish just weren’t biting that morning. The numbers weren’t there, and my early morning stuff didn’t work. I was running the fire drills.” 

For an angler who saved his best performance for the final event of the Elite Series season, he saved the best portion of that event for the last few hours of competition. He waited for an opening and then attacked. 

“I had those 30 schools, but a lot of them were getting fished,” he said. “One hadn’t been, and at about 1:30 I caught three big ones in a row. That put a smile on my face. I realized that the bite had just been pushed back a little bit.” His 15 pounds that final day allowed him to extend his final margin of victory to nearly 4 pounds.

As he lifted the blue trophy, the stress of his prior inability to win at the sport’s top level fell away.

“You don’t know how long you’re going to be able to compete against the legends of the sport,” he said. “That had been weighing on me heavily for the past year or two. But there’s always going to be some adversity. I’ve learned to block out what hurts and embrace what helps. 

“The mental mindset that I learned from wrestling is that when you get kicked, you get back up, and on the Elite Series you’re going to get kicked a lot.”

This time, after the kicking was done, he was the last man standing.