My first Championship Sunday

Alton Jones Jr. had a great event, finishing eighth with 74-9, to get himself back in contention to vie for a Classic spot via AOY points.

Finishing eighth at the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest was much more than a top 10 for me — it was a real shot in the arm and a critical change in momentum. I kind of felt like I was in a little slump after the last two events, so it’s great to turn it around there.

Fishing on my first Championship Sunday in my rookie season was really special, and it was a lot of fun doing it on Sam Rayburn, a lake where I have a good amount of history.

What’s interesting is that this tournament caught me off guard because I’ve never fished Rayburn this time of year, and I expected it to be an offshore slugfest. I can do that, but it’s not one of my strengths. Fortunately, it was a shallow deal. 

I think Brandon caught fish deep, but the rest of the Top 12 were fishing shallow the majority of the event, and that’s how I ended up catching my fish. I’m glad it turned out that way, because I burned the majority of my practice trying to make the deep thing work before going shallow the last day of practice and figuring out that this was where I needed to be spending my time.

A lot of these fish were targeting big gizzard shad and bream beds, so I was throwing a Booyah Pad Crasher, a Zara Super Spook and a big swimbait. Now, one of the hardest things at Rayburn is that you can put your boat shallow and everywhere you are, you’ll want to make 10 different casts with 10 different baits.

What worked for me was throwing the swimbait down the edge of the grass, throwing the Super Spook over the top of the grass and then throwing the frog at the bank. I’d switch rods every couple of minutes.

All three of those presentations are things I like to do. I wouldn’t say I’m extremely good at any of them, but they are things I have a lot of confidence in.

I also have confidence in my knowledge of Rayburn’s layout. That helped me last week because the fish weren’t in their typical near-summer patterns yet; in fact, I found my fish still hanging around the spawning areas. 

These were obviously postspawn fish, but they seemed to want to be around the best grass and that just happened to be in the ditches running into and out of the spawning pockets. So, I fished what I knew were the best spawning areas for big fish. 

My key moment occurred on Day 2 when I pushed into a spawning pocket with deeper grass, I hooked a 7- to 8-pounder and I lost the fish. I knew that this would’ve been a top 50 fish and I was so upset I threw my Miracle-Ear hat on the deck and had a little “moment.” 

Well, before I even put my hat back on, I made another cast and caught my biggest fish of the week — a 7-6. I said “Wow, there’s something to be had here.”

I went to the very next spot that looked like this and caught three 5-pounders, which anchored my 26-10 — the heaviest sack of Day 2. Losing that big one and catching that 7-6 on the very next cast; there was a very specific thing I was looking for and those two bites helped me key in on that.

All things considered, I think this tournament definitely played into my hands by having a wide variety of ways to catch fish and then having my history on the lake guide me to areas where I had the propensity of catching big fish. 

In this sport, when you get on a high, you have to ride it. This gives me a lot of confidence going into the next Elite Series event on Lake Dardanelle. Most importantly, this top 10 finish jumped me up about 30 spots in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points. Getting back into the game and looking at the post-season is a huge confidence boost. It makes me really look forward to Dardanelle and my next opportunity to improve.

I’m realistic that my Angler of the Year dreams are no longer there, but making next year’s Bassmaster Classic is the ultimate goal and that has now come back into reach. Also, I’m a ways back in the Rookie of the Year standings, but with five events left, anything can happen.