My first big zero

DANDRIDGE, Tenn. — What do the first Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open presented by Allstate at Douglas Lake and my quest for the 2015 Bassmaster Elite Series have in common?

They’re both over.

That’s right. What began with me catching a 6-pounder on my first day of practice ended with me checking in on Day 1 with the first zero I’ve ever had. When I first arrived in Dandridge, I was told, “You’re either going to love this lake or you're going to hate it.” I can honestly say I felt both.

At the end of the day Tuesday, a practice day, I was nervously feeling overconfident; I’ve had tournaments in the past where my great practices turned into horrible events. I had a huge school of big fish, I knew where they were hanging out, what time they ate and how to catch them. I only briefly checked on them Wednesday morning to make sure they were still there before taking my boat out at 11 a.m.

I had a lot riding on this one. It was my first Open as a boater, and The Weather Channel was coming to film me at the weigh-in on Thursday, interview me after, and follow me all day Friday.

No pressure at all.

Day 1: Ghost town

I have a really late boat draw, 160 out of nearly 190. From the very beginning, I’m conflicted. My big school is at the far back end of Muddy Creek. I know other anglers saw me catch a 5-pounder there in practice on Sunday, and while I know those fish won’t eat until 9 or 9:30 a.m., I'm afraid that if I don’t go there first thing, I will find someone else on it. I might find someone on it anyway. I have other areas, but they’re smaller fish. Nothing I found in practice is like this area. I had caught two big ones, and saw one near 10 pounds not 40 yards away.

I go there first, and I’m the only one there.

By noon, we have nothing. I can’t find a fish on my graph. It’s a ghost town, both in terms of my fish and my confidence. The one thing that has always been my strength — my perseverance — is but a memory, and I’m left with nothing but a growing fear that my worst nightmare will come true.

I run the lake, hitting almost every waypoint I have, and between me and my co-angler, we only catch two keeper largemouth. And mine is on the edge. I measure it eight times, and six times it’s short. With an awful pain in my stomach, I throw it back.

I go on a tear and catch eight fish on nine casts, all of them 4-pounders, all of them smallmouth.

None of them big enough to keep.

True heartbreak has now taken over.

At the end of the day, I limp back to the dock with my first zero. The Elite Series dream is left another year away, yet again. I know I’m better than that, and that I can compete at that level. I was staying with Chris and Woo Daves while I was down at Douglas Lake.

“You’re going to be real nervous when they film you,” said Chris Daves. “My first ever Classic, I rolled up to my first spot, camera on me, I dropped the trolling motor, turned around and stepped right off the boat!”

So did I, in a sense.

When I look back at the data from my personal weather station later that night, I see a spike in temperature of about 7 degrees. What I don’t expect is for that small increase to drive my fish out toward the main lake. I learn a hard lesson, and know that moving forward I will have to commit to fish that are already out of the creeks. Those fish are already in their summer homes and will be less impacted by small increases like that.

Day 2: Slipping away

I’m more relaxed than I’ve ever been. I have nothing to lose. I can only improve from Day 1. I skip the big fish and go run my points and secondary points. My co-angler for the day is in good shape and I want him to do well. Those memories of being in his shoes are still too fresh for me.

I spend more time talking to the camera than I do fishing, putting him in good position to hit points, docks, pontoons. He has a decent limit and is culling fish by 9, an added bonus to being boat 59. I decide to go check on my big fish, just because it’s close to their lunchtime if they return, and if they do, they have the kind of weight that can change a tournament in a hurry.

And sure enough, they’re there.

But so are thousands of gizzard shad. Big gizzard shad. Some of them look like they would almost keep. The water is boiling all around us, and I have never seen anything like it. I’ve seen smallmouth on Oneida crush shad at the surface, but those are small, tiny in comparison. These shad are huge, and the fish busting them are giants.

I manage a straggler off a point that’s 2 pounds. Nothing else touches anything we throw at them. That’s the pain of shad that big and in that size school: Bass have more than enough food and will rarely eat your lures. The cameraman, producer and boat operator are in awe. It’s an amazing sight to behold, and it brings me a strange peace to know that I’ve been right all along, and I’ve found winning fish.

We run to a few more spots. All produce mediocre fish. I decide to finish the day near Shady Grove, where I lose one of my biggest fish of the week on my last cast, 2 feet from the boat.

I remember watching that fish slowly fade into the darkness, as if even she couldn’t believe that she’d gotten away, and thinking to myself, “This whole week will end just like that, where I was on the verge of accomplishing my life’s dream but had to watch it slowly slip away.”

Just one more year. I can handle that. Until then, I’ll be swinging for the fences at the next two Opens. With water that’s much more my style, where brown fish that weigh 4 pounds cash checks, and where I’ll better understand the data from my weather station.