What Lanier meant to me

If you want to know what professional bass fishing is about, look no further than the first two weeks of my 2019 Bassmaster Elite Series season. Fishing is like a roller coaster ride. The highs and lows come fast, and sometimes you just have to hold on and have faith that good things are around the corner.

Finishing 62nd at the St. Johns River was a perfect example of a valley in fishing. I was beat up by my fellow Elite Series anglers, and I somewhat doubted if I still remembered how to catch a bass in competition. I was extremely frustrated and determined to do better. 

Fast forward a week I’m standing on stage at Coolray Field hoisting a big, blue Elite Series trophy over my head after catching 69 pounds on Lake Lanier. The best part of my week was that my family was there and got to share in that moment. My wife and son are my backbone. 

You have to be thankful for every positive finish in this sport because it’s not easy. The 2019 Elite Series isn’t easy. If anyone ever says that, they are flat-out wrong. Rick Clunn has fished 449 B.A.S.S. tournaments and has won 16 times. You lose a lot more in this sport than you win, but the hunger to succeed lives in all of us, so we push forward and compete.

I can finally say I made it. This is my fifth year on the Bassmaster Elite Series and I’ve competed on numerous Championship Sunday’s, but to execute and win when the opportunity presented itself is special. Fishing is a performance-based sport. Winning doesn’t solve everything, but it opens up a lot of possibilities. 

I was confident in my chances to win my first Elite event when I left the dock in third place on Championship Sunday. I had prayed about it and left it in God’s hands. I prayed that His will would be done in this situation and I would accept the outcome humbly. 

Bassmaster photographer Andy Crawford took a photo at the dock of my hand with Bible verse Psalm 37:5 (Editor's note: See photos). It read, “Commit thy way unto the Lord and he shall bring it to pass.” I know that my successes are blessings from above and the failures are reminders of everything He has allowed me to do in this sport. They humble me.

I fished Lake Lanier exactly like I enjoy fishing smallmouth lakes at home in Connecticut. I’ve been honing this finesse swimbait technique for a long time when it comes to rod, reel, line, jighead and swimbait. I ran a 1/2-ounce Do It Molds Herring Underspin Swimbait head, minus the blade on the jig head.

The hook is key. It’s a Gamakatsu jig 90 style 111, and I change the size based on the swimbait. For example I use a 3/0 for 3-inch swimbaits, 4/0 for 4-inch and so on. It has the absolute best hook with the perfect balance of sharpness, diameter, barb size and more.  

The only way you can get that comfortable with a setup is if you make it yourself because you customize it to the exact specs you want. I rigged a 3.25-inch Reins Fat Rockvibe Shad swimbait in Bluegill on the jig head. I used a Dobyns 764 Champion Paul Mueller’s Smallmouth Special rod, which will be on the market in near future. Using a 7-foot, 6-inch spinning rod allowed me to cast farther, cover more water and get a good hookset on those spotted bass in 30- to 45-foot depth range. 

The biggest key to my special week on Lanier was my electronics, though. You weren’t able to graph the spotted bass while idling because they were boat shy. Instead I relied on my Garmin Lake Vu HD mapping and pulled up on fishy looking areas and went hunting. By hunting I mean I would utilize my Garmin LiveScope on my trolling motor to pan around and quietly scan my spots without spooking the schools of spotted bass.

I could see exactly how many bass were around each area and how they were positioned. It was remarkable how easy they spooked if you got close to them with my boat. I set my LiveScope shooting distance to 80 feet and it helped stay off of the fish so I wouldn’t spook them. I explained that in detail on Bassmaster LIVE because it was crucial. 

Winning my first Bassmaster Elite Series event is a blessing because it solidifies me as an angler. Even though I qualified for the Elites through the B.A.S.S. Nation, every angler doubts how good they actually are until they prove it at this level. Every single Elite angler has a craft or a technique that they excel at because of the sweat equity they invested when no one was watching. Finesse swimbait fishing is that for me. I didn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle in practice at Lanier, but I knew I was close.

My tough St. Johns River finish was just as crucial in my Lanier win as anything else. I wasn’t going to settle in practice. I practiced to win and fished with that mindset all week. I had to.

This was a breakout moment for me. Once you win, you believe more. You believe that dreams can come true, you believe in yourself and you rely on God even more. Winning at this point in my career shows me that I can do this and that the Bassmaster Elite Series is where I belong and want to be forever.