By Todd Ceisner
When it comes to breaking down his fishing performance during his return to the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2013, Kurt Dove is quick to draw an analogy to one of his favorite pastimes college basketball.
"Say you have five awesome players, but you can't get all of those players to play together correctly to have a good performance consistently," he said. "I need to get all five of those great players playing together. Sometimes, I get two or three guys playing well, but to finish in the top 25 percent or higher you need the whole team playing strong and playing together. That's what I'm trying to figure out how to put all the puzzle pieces together to get to that level."
It wasn't the triumphant return to the tour level he'd been hoping for after re-qualifying through the Northern Opens a year ago. He averaged a 68th-place finish across the eight events, cashed two checks and had two 51st-place results, meaning he was first out of the money at Bull Shoals Lake and the St. Lawrence River.
Looking back, he said he's taking it as a learning experience to apply to next year and that when compared to 2008, when he last fished the Elite Series, the level of competition now is significantly higher.
"When I looked back at everything, if you try to forget everything that happened, you don't continue to learn as much," he said. "When I look back, there are some things I could've done a little bit differently to have more success. The key thing is strategy."
Dove fished the Southern and Northern Open divisions each of the last 3 years and enjoyed a fair bit of success with six Top-20 finishes to his credit (all in Northern Open events). In the Opens, there is no off-limits period like there is for Elite Series venues, meaning competitors can put in as much time on the water as they wish prior to competition.
Dove likes that aspect of the Opens and attributes some of his success to the open-ended practice period. However, when the scene shifts to the Elite Series, he's found it more challenging to formulate a sound strategy heading into competition. He's an analytical guy by nature and he says he tries to "think of everything" and that distracts him sometimes from where his focus needs to be.
"When I look back over the last couple of years and from when I fished the Elite Series from 2006 to 2008, the common theme is a short practice period has been tough on me," he said. "The skill level of the anglers is higher on the Elite Series, but quite frankly it's all about bringing back the five biggest fish you can every day. Strategically, I've got something going in the Opens, which I typically practice 4 or 5 days for, that I'm not able to accomplish in the Elite Series practice timeframe. I really feel like going forward, the things I need to change have to do with strategy and how I approach the water with the shorter practice period."
Bottom line, his attempt to bring his Open practice mentality and cram it into 2 1/2 days on the Elite side just hasn't worked out.
"That approach isn't working," he said.
Going about modifying his preparation, he says, will be a three-step process that includes some paper map study in addition to on-the-water scouting in some instances, along with making adjustments that keep with a strategy but also account for changing weather factors.
"Just being able to concentrate more on a specific section of the lake instead of trying to cover the whole thing,"
The last thing he wants is to feel what he felt at the Mississippi River this year. He was so focused on flipping and frogging that he lost sight of how much of a factor current is on the mighty Mississippi. He wound up 99th dead last.
"As I'm idling out after they called my name on Thursday, I was wondering where do I need to go," he said. "When you're idling out at that point, you know things are all bad. People say you have to fish with an open mind and that's right, but you better have a good idea of where and how you're going to do that. If there was one tournament where I was completely off the charts and it showed in my performance, it was that event.
"I didn't do enough pre-scouting to understand some adjustments that could take place on that body of water. Again, I just wanted to flip and frog and that's all I wanted to do the entire practice period. I'd go into these giant bays and say, 'Oh my gosh. Look at this place. They're going to be in here.' I'd fish in there for an hour or two and not get the production I thought I needed. I just thought around every corner, 'This is going to be the one.' The stuff looked beautiful.
"I'd say 90 percent of the 50 guys who cashed a check in that event caught fish that were current-related. Even though they caught them out of the grass or around the grass, it had everything to do with how the current was running by that particular area."
Okay With Near Misses
Dove's primary goal entering the season was to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic and it will again be at the top of his list for 2014. He just didn't string together the consistent finishes necessary to challenge for a coveted berth in the Classic.
He was happy with progress he made on the mental side, though. For example, he took 51st at Bull Shoals, missing out on a check and an additional day on the water by 4 ounces. Earlier in his career, such a result would've put him in a tailspin mentally. Now, he's able to shrug off the key upgrade he lost at the end of day 2 that could've earned him that check.
"I tried to fish too shallow," he said. "I needed to back off and be fishing where my boat was and not where I was casting to. Even when you're not doing well, you're always learning more in every tournament. Mentally, it didn't hurt me nearly as bad as it would have 3 or 4 years ago. One thing I've realized is if you tinker around the cut line sometimes you're going to wind up on the good side and sometimes you're going to wind up on the bad side. It didn't fluster me as much."
At the penultimate event at the St. Lawrence River, he put together a fabulous practice one of the best of the season. Catching fish was no problem whatsoever. He came into the tournament thinking 18 or 19 pounds and possibly more was certainly doable.
When competition started, however, he strayed slightly from his practice approach and it was too late before he realized his error.
"One thing I noticed I was doing that was different from practice was I was getting too amped up for the tournament," he said. "I was catching them drop-shotting and fishing current and humps. One of the keys was not moving the bait a whole lot. You almost had to dead-stick your bait. It helped tremendously to get bites and you work on those things and get dialed in during practice, then you're so amped up for the first day to run 35 miles up the river and for the first 2 hours you're wondering why you're not getting a bite. It's because you're jiggling the rod tip 400 miles an hour.
"That's another process just relaxing and understanding what worked in practice and not getting too amped for a tournament day. It can be just a small thing like that."