By Todd Ceisner
It didn't take James Elam long to prove he had the chops to compete with bass fishing's best. It also didn't take him long to realize he had a lot to learn about what it takes to survive at the sport's highest level.
Coming off his rookie season on the Bassmaster Elite Series during which he cashed three checks and finished sixth among first-year pros, Elam is entering the 2014 campaign with a few less nerves, a little more confidence and a list of lessons learned from his first year in the big leagues.
"It was more nerves last year I'd say," he said. "This year, I'll be nervous of course, but I feel more at ease because I've done it before."
Elam's path to the Elite Series was actually intended to take him to the 2013 Bassmaster Classic at Grand Lake, where he's fished since his childhood. He entered the Central Opens in 2012 with the hope he could win an event and qualify to compete at Grand. Instead, he posted three finishes between 11th and 36th and earned an invitation to join the Elite Series.
Rather than continue to work at his family's custom machining shop full time and compete in tournaments around home near Tulsa, Okla., he opted to seize the opportunity.
"That's when I took the leap of faith," he said. "I liked it a lot last year. It was a lot of fun."
The highlight of his year came in the first event at the Sabine River, where he finished 17th.
"That was really a special event because it was the first Elite Series tournament I'd ever fished," he said. "It was also a little different because the weights were so low and I know I may have gotten lucky. I got lucky in the sense that I found some fish and they were hard to find. I understand that's a different kind of tournament than a lot of the ones we fish."
The 27-year-old Elam emerged from his rookie season with a newfound appreciation for how the veteran pros go about their business on and off the water . More importantly, he also got a feel for areas where he needs to improve.
When asked what lessons stick out most in his head, he quipped, "There are a lot of things. I've got a list."
Namely, he says he needs to be more patient, especially when things aren't trending in his favor.
"I've always tried to find the balance between being patient and getting a lot of ground covered," he said. "It's hard to find that middle ground. I think that maybe I wasn't patient enough last year. That was one of my main downfalls. What was really tough for me is I'd never fished outside of Missouri or Arkansas or Oklahoma until the Elites. Going to those new places, you eventually get it, but that was one of the main challenges.
"One of the major things I need to work on is getting past the second-day slump. After day 1 at a lot of the tournaments, I had the chance to be in the Top 50. I was really close either way. I was like, 'Don't blow this.' I was putting too much pressure on myself, so I need to learn how to deal with that better. I need to fish the same way as I did on day 1 and fish calmly and confidently. I wasn't as patient on day 2."
Elam mentioned that the challenges he encountered didn't always have to do with fishing. Going into towns he'd never been before where others have and finding his way around – where to get gas, where to eat, where to stay – and getting comfortable was also a big part of finding his way.
"I knew it was going to be tough and I was ready for it, but you can't really prepare so much for that," he said.
Above all else, though, the biggest takeaway from his rookie year was realizing how well-prepared everyone is when they arrive at the tournament venue.
"My biggest lesson was when you show up for one of these tournaments, you'd better be ready," he added. "In terms of being prepared and having all of your gear together – lures, line, rods, reels, everything. You don't have much time to practice and to cover all the ground you need to and see what you need to, that was the biggest lesson. I think I did a good job at it, but I can still get better, a lot better."
While at Oklahoma State, Elam served as the president of the school's fishing club. Not only did it allow him to compete against his peers from across the country, it gave him a glimpse of the business side of fishing.
As club president, it was his responsibility to organize meetings, reach out to companies to discuss sponsorship options and run the day-to-day business of the club.
"When you come in at the beginning of the year and you've got 40 guys and nobody knows each other except for a couple guys, you have to feel out who has a boat and who doesn’t and who's serious about it and who wants to fish here and there," he said. "Being involved on the college side, I learned a lot about the business side of it. Being the president of the club, it was two-fold so it helped me both ways. Dealing with all of that is not something I'm necessarily good at, but I had to do it."