I called Ott DeFoe around lunchtime on Sunday because I knew he’d be available, likely looking through the windshield of his truck at some of the 500 miles of terrain between La Crosse, Wisc., and Pierre, S.D.
If he’d had his way, Ott likely would’ve been saving that drive for the wee hours of Sunday night, after weighing in a big bag of Mississippi River bass, but he had missed the cut to Championship Sunday by an ounce. He ended up 13th overall, the third time that’s happened in six Elite tournaments this year, in addition to a 14th place finish at the Sabine in which he also missed the cut by an ounce.
Sundays have been driving days for the DeFoe family this year, and while they’re not happy about it, they’ve become strangely resigned to it. Ott weighed in 44 pounds, 8 ounces of Mississippi River bass over three days, and as soon as he came off the stage his wife Jennie told him that if someone else weighed in 44-09 they might as well leave and get packing. Cliff Pace came in with exactly that amount, and the DeFoes set their sights on Oahe.
Jennie’s statement was grounded in humor, not fatalism, because at this point in her 32-year-old husband’s career, they are playing with house money. He’s earned a check in nearly 80 percent of the B.A.S.S. events he’s fished. He’s qualified for seven consecutive Bassmaster Classics and is on target to qualify for number eight, which will be held in his backyard.
DeFoe’s repeated failures to make the cut to Sunday this year surely sting. Indeed, he told me that each time it’s happened this year he’s likely had the bites on Day 3 to make it. Nevertheless, even for the most hardened competitor, it has to hurt a lot less than missing the cut to Saturday, when not only do you have to suffer the indignity of sitting on the sidelines while half of your peers fish, but it also comes with a $10,000 price tag.
The price tag for Ott finishing 13th as opposed to 12th is probably not that great in the grand scheme of things. Had he matched Pace’s catch and won the tiebreaker, he still would’ve been more than 5 pounds out of the lead, and more than 4 1/2 pounds out of fourth place. He wouldn’t have been mathematically eliminated, but it would’ve been a difficult climb when everyone was catching decent limits. Financially, the difference between 13th and 12th is not huge – $500, minus the cost of an extra night at the hotel or campground and the gas you spend fishing. On top of that, in some scheduling scenarios, it might’ve cost him some practice time at the next event. Nevertheless, if you’d asked 108 Elites before the tournament if they’d rather finish 13th or enter the last day in 12th, but far out of the lead, all of them would choose the latter.
“If you’re not fishing out there, you have no chance to win,” Ott said. “Whether you finish second or 12th, at least you were there. Finishing 12th or 13th probably doesn’t make any difference with your sponsors. You have no camera in your boat, so you’re not getting more coverage, but you have a chance to win, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Indeed, while the math might’ve worked against him, had he been fishing instead of driving on Sunday there would have been a chance. In 2013, Jason Christie entered the final day at Bull Shoals in 11th, more than 5 pounds out of the lead, and ended up winning. Last July, Aaron Martens entered the final day at Champlain in 19th (as the result of a canceled day, 51 anglers fished the final day of competition) and scaled those heights to claim the trophy. He entered that final day only 3-01 out of the lead, but with 18 anglers in front of him and a fishery where – like La Crosse – separation is difficult, it seemed unlikely.
The bottom line: You’ve gotta play to win.
It is said that “close” is only good “in horseshoes and hand grenades” but in professional bass fishing, staying close is what earns you longevity. You have to nibble around the edges consistently enough so that when the opportunity to make a move arrives you can seize it. As a result, even the best of the best are going to have a lot more near-misses than wins. There’s no greater proof of this truism than the fact that KVD, the G.O.A.T., has 34 second- and third-place finishes to complement his 25 wins. Ott may not have fished on Sunday, but he’s in seventh place in the AOY race, ahead of all but three of the anglers who did.
We talk about anglers “losing” tournaments, but in most cases a second or third or fourth doesn’t reflect a “loss” as much as some other angler’s taste of perfection. It’s not one winner and 106 losers – instead, there are little battles being fought up and down the leaderboard, with victories both reported and unreported. An angler who finishes 40th when he’s on nothing might’ve done more good for his season that the one who is expected to contend and squanders the opportunity, ending up 39th.
One of the highlights of Jason Christie’s career was the big win on Bull Shoals, but on multiple occasions he’s led the Bassmaster Classic heading into the final day and has yet to claim that crown. Likewise, Aaron Martens, a three-time AOY, is just as well-known for his four runner-up finishes in Classic competition.
Sometimes the difference between winning and “losing,” or 12th versus 13th, or 50th and 51st, is one spit-up shad, or an unavoidable dead fish penalty. No one can meaningfully target fish that weigh 2-09 to the exclusion of fish that weigh 2-08. The key is to be around the right ones, and sometimes you’ll land on the right side of the line, and other times you may fall a little bit short.
That’s why I found Ott to be so matter-of-fact about his near misses He’s not the type to be destructive or coarse or hostile anyway, and with his kids in the backseat he wouldn’t have gone there anyway. Even though he’s still young, he clearly knows that if you internalize the hurt too much, it starts to feed on itself. If you’re not prepared to finish outside of the Top 12 far more than you win, this sport is not for you.