By Todd Ceisner
For all intents and purposes, Stetson Blaylock had a fantastic 2013 season.
He cashed checks in all six FLW Tour events, followed up his worst finish with back-to-back Top-10s, qualified for his fourth Forrest Wood Cup and second Toyota Texas Bass Classic, and trailed only Andy Morgan in the final FLW Tour Angler of the Year (AOY) points. Not bad for the 26-year-old from Benton, Ark.
Still, he's hardly satisfied.
He's already drawn up his to-do list for 2014 and at the top is to win AOY. Yeah, that's at the top of everyone's wish list, but a quick look at Blaylock's career arc indicates his desire to assume the AOY throne is nothing to sneer at. Two years ago, he was 14th in points. Last year, he slipped to 21st before rebounding in a big way this year.
Only a 56th-place finish at Beaver Lake this season prevented him from putting more heat on Morgan at Lake Chickamauga to close the year.
"It could've been better and when it was over, it really frustrated me," he said, reflecting on the Beaver result. "Looking back now, I feel worse because that's the one that cost me Angler of the Year. When the tournament was over, I was pretty upset with that finish. I was off to a good start and being able to fish Beaver close to home where I've fished 100 times. To finish 56th, I didn't like it. It fueled that fire, though, and I kept on chugging. I didn't expect to come back and finish 2nd in points. I scratched and clawed and got back up there.
"It's all about how strong you are mentally," he continued. "There are a lot of good fishermen out there, but not all of them can bounce back and keep things going and stay on top of it. I've had several good years now and in a way it's good and in a way it worries me. I see guys who've won Angler of the Year and then finish in the 100s in points. To me, I don't understand how that's possible and that's what scares me about this thing. When is that going to happen to me, when every decision I make is the wrong one? Hopefully, it won't ever happen, but it's in the back on my mind."
While Blaylock was happy with the consistency he showed in Tour events, two tournaments at the Red River the Bassmaster Central Open in April and the Forrest Wood Cup in August continue to confound him. The Central Open came 2 weeks after Beaver Lake and gave him a perfect opportunity to get that bad taste out of his mouth. He wound up 114th, an outcome that still irks him.
"I couldn't catch 'em," he said. "That kind of thing frustrates me. I know it was a smaller event and wasn't that far from home so it didn't cost me a lot, but that's not how I like to do it. It didn't let the wind out of my sails, but I felt like I was on a roll. Then I went in there and dumped a tournament. I had to stand back up and shake it off and carry on.
"The Red River is the only place I've ever been that makes me feel like I don't know what I'm doing. It changes so much."
After his stumble at the Central Open, Blaylock was sure he'd learned something he could apply at the Red in August for the Cup. He made a trip down before it went off-limits and came home thinking main-river fish would prevail over those swimming in the backwaters or lily pads. He was sorely mistaken.
"To be honest, this time it was all about making the wrong decision before I ever left the house," he said. "I went down and pre-practiced and saw all the lily pads. To me, it was going to be August and it was going to be hot. The main river should've been good. I told myself before I even left home that I'm not going to throw at a lily pad and I'll spend 90 percent of my practice on the main river. It wasn't the right decision. A couple of guys did really good fishing the main river and I'd sure like to know how."
Next on Blaylock's fishing to-do list is to win Angler of the Year.
When he returned for official practice, his confidence soared after finding a backwater pond that produced 18 pounds for him pretty quick one morning. He also had some fish in the 2- to 2 3/4-pound range on the main river. He even told his brother and practice partner, Keeton Blaylock, who qualified as a co-angler, that he couldn't recall being that confident before a Cup.
"It can't be this good," he told him.
He was boat No. 1 on day 1, meaning he had his pick of where to start. He opted for the backwater in Pool 5.
"Lo and behold, the only boat that came in there with me was Bryan Thrift," he said. "He started on one little spot and caught that 7-pounder and another 6. His co-angler caught a 5 or 6 and I saw it all go down. It hurt because I knew what was there. I just had to stay confident. I fished in there until 11 and caught but three little 12-inchers."
He scratched together 6-14 on day 1, then changed it up on day 2 and fished in pads. He wound up catching 10-06, his best effort at the Red, and finished 30th.
"Those fish on the main river I had, I would've sworn that 10 or 11 pounds would've been no problem and I wound up with 6-14 on day 1," he said. "You just can't do that. I don't understand where those fish go or if they just didn't eat or if they repositioned. It's the only place that makes me feel stupid every time I fish it. My mentality has to get better for that place and it was this year because I really felt like I had a shot to win there. I thought a Top-20 would be no problem."
Happy On His Own
Blaylock fished out of FLW sponsor-wrapped boats the first 4 years of his career, a different one each season. He grew weary of the constant change and when STP didnt return as an FLW sponsor in 2013, he started to build his own stable of sponsors. He couldn't be happier. While there is some security in having a team deal through FLW, he says the short-term involvement of some sponsors made him step back and examine what was going to be best for him moving forward.
"I'm happy to have had the team deals I've had and it stinks when those companies pull out and go away, but that's how it is," he said. "Am I happy with where I'm at now? Absolutely, because my family can travel with me and I don't have to work the Fun Zones and stuff like that. I will stay and hang around for the sponsors I have now if they need me to, but just having that freedom and not being tied down is good.
"For what you have to do, though, the team deals are a great deal. Anybody that has one and complains has a problem. I don't want to be the guy that says I'm glad I don't have one because they're good deals. At the same time, the freedom of not having one and for example, getting your own vehicle and being able to customize it how you want it and put your own wrap on it, you just kind of build an image. It is a little harder to build an image with a team deal because they're so here today, gone tomorrow. If you can do it through a team deal and build a career around it like some of the guys have, more power to them, but it just didn't work for me. I'm happy with where I'm at."
While Blaylock would like to see a few more fall events on the schedule, he's anxious to get to Texas for the TTBC next month. He tied for 21st in his only previous appearance in 2011. "I absolutely love Conroe," he said. "If I could wake up in the morning and say, 'Man I want to go fish exactly how I love to fish and do exactly what I love to do,' Conroe is that lake. It's really good deep, but it's really good shallow. If we get some cooler weather between now and then, there'll be enough fish shallow. I feel confident there and I'm looking forward to that. Hopefully, there will be a little more water in there this year and some more cover so you can fish new water every day."