This one was different

Heading into last week’s Bassmaster Central Open at Sam Rayburn, I knew that I had to win to salvage my 2022 season, but driving to weigh in on Day 3 I was sure that it wasn’t meant to be. Lately, it seems that any time I’m in position to break through, I end up on the wrong side of the ledger. Someone else busts a big bag or experiences the day of a lifetime to come from behind. No one did that this time around, and thanks to three consistent days on the lake, I’ll be headed back to the Bassmaster Classic for the first time since 2020.

I’ve been fortunate enough to win multiple times at high levels of competition throughout my career, but this one felt different. Usually when I win I take the lead early on and then blow it out. I’ve seen guys like Jason Christie and Kevin VanDam sneak into the cut, lurking just close enough to make a last day, come-from-behind charge. That hasn’t been me … until now. This time I was that guy, which makes the win extra sweet.

The 2020 and 2021 seasons were maddening because in each instance I missed the Classic by one place in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings. There weren’t any great disasters, and I didn’t do a lot wrong, I just didn’t capitalize when I needed to do so.

This season started OK, but after that I had a bad streak – poor finishes at Santee Cooper, Pickwick and Chickamauga, as well as a subpar event at Fork – and I fell down the AOY leaderboard. Some of those poor results reflected gambles and others were from poor decisions, but either way I was out of the Classic again.

I had a chance to redeem myself at the Elite Series stop on the Upper Mississippi, where I felt that I was on the winning fish, but eventually I fell less than a pound and a half short. That really hurt. At that point, even though we still had Rayburn left, I just wanted to get the season over with. Obviously, I’m glad that it didn’t end there.

What thrilled me about this Opens victory was that in addition to coming from behind it also represented a maturation in my fishing. When I’ve done well in Texas before, on lakes like Rayburn or Falcon or Conroe or Toledo Bend, usually it’s been because I went all-in on a big fish pattern. I bet on my ability to have a massive 28- or 30-pound day and ride that to the trophy.

This time around, however, I relied on more of a balanced approach. I could slow down with a worm or a jig or go shallow with my Thunder Cricket just to survive, and then spend three or four hours throwing a big plug looking for the win. During practice I had some three-fish days, but they were the right caliber of bass. I knew that if I could spend some time figuring out “limit spots” then I could bank on those to fill in the gaps.

It played out correctly on Day 2 when I only got one bite on the crankbait, but it was a 6-pounder. That same day I had two 1-pounders in the livewell with 40 minutes to go, so I went shallow and caught five bass. Two of them weighed 2 1/2 pounds apiece. That 3-pound difference put me in the Top 10. Five or six years ago I might not have gone to the bank, but I’ve matured a bit and learned that sometimes it’s all about getting to the next day.

This will be my ninth Classic, my ninth shot at winning the sport’s biggest individual event, and I want it desperately. As many people have said before, it’s the easiest tournament we have to win. That’s not taking anything away from it, but with only three days and 50 or so competitors the odds are really good. Unlike an Open where one of the 200-plus competitors can stumble onto something exceptional, or an Elite Series event where we have four days of competition, over the Classic’s three days a big bite can change the whole tournament. It can’t be diluted quite as easily.

I’m especially glad that we’ll be fishing the Tennessee River out of Knoxville, Tenn. When the Elite Series visited that venue last year I felt like I left something out there. I finished 13th, but I’m haunted by a 5-pounder that inexplicably came loose from my vibrating jig. That’s a bait where I almost never lose a fish, but in that case I did. I wasn’t on the fish to surpass Gussy, but with that one I would’ve easily made the Top 10 and had a legitimate shot at a second- or third-place finish. I fully intend to pick up where I left off.

Before I sign off, I need to thank my wife, my sponsors, my friends and the fans who stuck with me and encouraged me over the past few years – and actually throughout the duration of my career. This is a humbling sport, and you quickly learn who your friends are. I’m fortunate to have a bunch of them, and I look forward to many more years of rewarding their support.