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Weight off my shoulders

Winning the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Lake Oahe provides a ton of validation for me personally. I knew I could compete in the season-long standings and finish high. But to beat roughly 90 of the best anglers in the world head-to-head and actually close the deal … that is something I thought I had the ability to do, but there’s always questions in your head. Can it all come together at any given time to win one of the big blue trophies?

I wasn’t sure when and if it would happen. For it to happen on Lake Oahe, where the event was close to home, I was on cloud nine.

It’s no secret that I love smallmouth fishing. If I could do anything, I would choose smallmouth fishing any day.

It is a point of pride, especially with the tournament’s Top 10 having so many incredible smallmouth anglers. To be able to go somewhere that we didn’t have a lot of history on, break it down and come out on top, it is a feather in my cap. It made me feel like I did something really special.

To have my family there and to tell my mom and dad how much I appreciate everything they did for me on stage holding a blue trophy, I can’t think of any better way to drive that point home. Having them there so I could look them in the eye was really special.

My dad and I have been fishing tournaments since I was 15 years old. He let me take over the trolling motor, drive the boat and make the decisions from an early age so I could grow and learn how to make decisions. I’m sure he sacrificed a decent number of entry fees because of it. He was an excellent angler, and still is. He was winning a lot of events when I was growing up. For him to pass the torch to me and let me grow into this, I can’t thank him enough for it.

There were a few keys to getting this win. Pre-practice at the end of last year definitely helped. I got to know the layout of Lake Oahe and the way the bass set up. That said, the water being 4 and 5 feet lower definitely changed everything. It seemed the bigger than average fish were still in the same section of the lake, they had just slid out further. That helped me break down that 15- to 20-mile stretch during practice.

Keeping an open mind was also a huge advantage. In practice we had south winds, and then in the tournament, we had every direction of wind plus dead calm conditions. Having spent so much time smallmouth fishing, I knew deep-water smallmouth still move around a lot because of the wind. More than you think they would.

I think I had 18 different waypoints at the end of practice where I caught at least one fish over 3 pounds. So to be able to keep running those, even if the first day or second day wasn’t productive, was a big key. I was able to keep moving and fish confidently and figuring out what they were doing each day.

Then on the second day when I caught that giant 23-pound bag, I started on a hole I didn’t even get to fish the first day because it was covered up with boats. On Day 2, I caught two big ones right away before anyone got there. I was boating a 5-pounder as Lee Livesay pulled up. We sat about 40 feet apart from each other, and we both had phenomenal days.

Partway through the day when my spinning rod stuff slowed down, Livesay pulled out a Carolina rig and got two bites back-to-back. That was all I needed to see. That gave me another element to my patterns that I could use further down the lake on some of those other holes.

On Day 3, I made three really big late culls on a Carolina rig. I don’t know if I would have thrown it except for being next to Livesay.

After Lake Fork I was in 75th place in the Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year rankings. I knew it would be a big hill to climb. I did the math as to what I needed to do to get to the 500-point mark. I felt like I needed to land in the top 20 the next four events.

I was fortunate enough to finish 11th place at Pickwick and then 11th at St. Lawrence. At that point I felt like I had a little more cushion.

After the first day at Oahe, when I stubbed my toe, I was kicking myself. But on Day 2 I got back on track, I came back and I won. At that point, it was a bunch of weight off my shoulders, and realistically I felt like I needed a top 75 at La Crosse to make the Bassmaster Classic.

With the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Mississippi River immediately following Oahe, the win really hasn’t really sunk in. The guys congratulated me all week, which was nice. But we drove all the way home after the tournament. The next day, Bryan New, Jake Whitaker and I were at my place swapping our smallmouth stuff for river stuff, and we had to high tail it to La Crosse.

It was pretty much a pit stop, and I left the trophy there. I haven’t really had too much of a chance to sit back and think about it. I was trying to get inside the top 30 in AOY to get a little more of that money, and I was fortunate enough to do that by one place and one point.

I’ll probably take this week to relax and think about everything.