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Preparing for tough tournaments

If it was always easy, it wouldn’t be fun. That’s something I tell myself often, and it’s definitely something I’ll be telling myself during this week’s the St. Croix Bassmaster Central Open at Red River.

This tournament is shaping up to be one of the year’s more challenging events based on the season and the fact that big bites will be hard to come by. I think there’s a very good chance that 10 to 11 pounds a day could win this event and a 2- to 3-pounder will be considered big.

This is my 12th year fishing the Central Opens, and this division traditionally has some very tough, late-summer, river events. I’m not saying I’m an expert in this scenario — I have my hits and misses with it — but so much of this is mental.

You have to keep a positive outlook, you have to keep searching for new water every day and trying to get bites. Along with that, you have to remind yourself, “We’re not on Toledo Bend in March. You’re not going to catch 40 a day and catch great big ones.”

Every bite is crucial, so staying positive and mentally focused and being at peace with the fact that there’s only so much you can do is important. You can’t wish 5-pounders onto your line.

Honestly, I struggle with that mindset — it comes and goes. I’ve worked on this, and I frequently remind myself to keep a good attitude and keep searching for bites — and clues.

In a tough tournament, you know the weights are going to be lower and bites will be at a premium. Downsizing baits, fishing slower style baits and anything else to put the numbers in your favor, that’s what you have to do.

The other hugely important adjustment I make for tough tournaments is I try to never catch fish in practice. I try to find fish — I just don’t want to catch them. Sore mouthing a fish in practice greatly decreases his likelihood of biting when there’s money on the line.

With my Texas-rigged flipping baits, I replace a hook with a Hitchhiker — a metal coil that screws into the top of a bait. With my treble hook lures, I remove the hooks or roll the points inward. If I get a frog bite, I don’t set the hook.

That may sound extreme, but you don’t get any points for catching a fish before the tournament. On the other hand, I’ve found that practicing for these tough tournaments actually helps prepare me for tournament day.

Here’s what I mean: The next time you go fishing, when you get a bite, don’t set the hook — just let the fish swim around with the bait. It will truly enlighten you to see how long they’ll swim around with the bait.

A lot of times, we’re so amped up on tournament day that the first time you feel that little tick, you jerk. But if you let that fish swim around, you can get an idea of how big it is.

In tough tournaments, I find it impressive that you have to figure out how to get clues, how to find some activity and how to get bites. You just don’t want to catch them, because each one you catch — especially on shallow cover — is one you could’ve caught on tournament day.