With it being Thanksgiving week, I’m thinking of a few things from this year that I’m thankful for. First and foremost is my family — my lovely wife, Kelly, and our little boy, Davis, who just turned 1 in September. So much has happened during his first year, and we’re just super thankful for a healthy and happy little boy. Life on the road can be stressful, but having a family waiting for you provides that motivation to work hard and then get back to the ones you love.
On the competitive side, I am very thankful that I qualified for the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic on the Tennessee River. It’s always a big deal anytime you qualify for the Classic, but with the 2023 event taking place 40 minutes from where I grew up, it’s going to be extra special.
I can still remember how much it stung when I did not qualify for the 2019 Classic on the Tennessee River. I think that is why I put so much pressure on myself this year to qualify. I started out with two good finishes in the Florida events, but I bombed the next three at Santee-Cooper, Chickamauga Lake and Lake Fork.
The tournament on Lake Fork was especially frustrating because I have two fourth-place finishes in previous Elite events there, and I consider Lake Fork one of my favorite lakes. With three bombs in a row, I was feeling the effects of the intense pressure of my Classic goal.
I went home after Lake Fork and spent a lot of time talking with family. They encouraged me and helped me figure out a way to manage the pressure. I also called Jay Yelas — one of my fishing heroes from my childhood. As a Classic winner, he understands the pressure I was feeling.
I’ve always respected Jay’s style, and we’ve become friends during our time together on the Elites. His insight was very helpful. Between Yelas’ and my family’s help, I was able to refocus and get my season back on track. That started with a top-30 finish at the next event at Pickwick.
What makes this comeback story even more rewarding is my Classic qualification came down to the final 2022 Elite event on the Mississippi River. I needed to finish in the 30s or higher to make the Classic and, even though it all worked out just fine, it was stressful.
My best area from practice was in Pool 7, and locking through adds a lot of extra stress because you had to worry about the barges. The first day went super smooth; there was no barge traffic. I caught my fish quickly and landed inside the top 20.
On Day 2, we had an hour and a half storm delay. While we were waiting for the storm to pass, I was on the app where you track barge traffic, and I saw that a barge was blocking the lock.
Once we finally took off, I ran to the lock and sure enough, a big barge was there. The lockmaster said it would be a long time to lock the barge through. I burned a couple of hours just fishing around that area until I was finally able to get in the lock. By the time I reached Pool 7, it was about 10:30, and I had an early check-in that day.
I was able to catch my fish fairly quickly again. Shortly after noon, I pulled up the app again to check the barge traffic and saw that there were barges everywhere — they were coming from all sides.
I left Pool 7 much earlier than planned because of all the barges. I’m glad I did because right after I locked through, a giant barge went in and another one was trying to lock from the other direction. If I had waited and locked back later, I really don’t know if I could have made it back to the weigh-in on time. I’m very thankful that it all worked out since qualifying for the 2023 Bassmaster Classic all hinged on that one day.
Looking ahead to the Classic, I’m going to make sure I enjoy the experience by minimizing the pressure and just appreciating the opportunity to fish a Classic in Knoxville, Tenn. Even though we live in North Carolina now, I’ll always consider East Tennessee home.
It’s gonna be a lot of fun fishing waters I’m very familiar with in front of family and friends. My main goal is to have fun because good things happen when I’m having fun on the water.
So, to wrap this up, while I have so much to be thankful for, I’m particularly thankful for learning a valuable lesson about how to manage the pressure that goes along with our sport. Hopefully, this wisdom will guide me to success at next year’s Bassmaster Classic.