By Todd Ceisner
The words stuck to Chris Zaldain like he was wearing Velcro.
"You cannot have a bad day."
The brief phrase, uttered by Kevin VanDam during a conversation he and Zaldain had following Zaldain's rookie season fishing the Bassmaster Elite Series, served as the touchstone for the Californian's breakout sophomore campaign in 2013. He took VanDam's words to heart and parlayed that way of thinking into an 8th-place finish in points, an improvement of 61 places over 2012.
"It stuck with me all year long," Zaldain said. "We were talking about how to do well when we fish so many diverse fisheries. I thought about it all through the offseason (last year) and it makes so much sense. If you take it one day at a time and all of a sudden you'll start moving up the points standings. If you can make the right adjustments at the right time in the heat of the moment and do not have a bad day, you'll be in the Top 10 at the end of the year. It really happened that way for me."
He had his share of bad days, but he didn't let them fester into a bad tournament or a bad stretch of tournaments. He opened and closed the season with results in the 50s at the Sabine River and at Lake St. Clair. In between, he shined.
"It was a breakout year because it had to be. It really did," he added. "Last year, I finished 69th in points and I was expected to do well. (Mark) Zona and all of the guys from California were like, 'You're going to kill it. You're ready for it.' It was very eye-opening when there were so many jitters. It was almost a relief to make the Elite Series. I didn't concentrate on the task at hand and really got stomped on. Sure, I had a couple Top-15s, but I really did get my butt kicked last year.
"I told myself if I wanted to survive and make this into something, I needed to concentrate better on the task at hand. Plain and simple, it was all about performance. I really had that mindset all year. I kept it fun and kept it fresh and I just made the right adjustments at the right time. I wasn't afraid to abandon plan A and go to plan B, C or D on the fly. That really took me a long way. It carried me all season."
As hard as he tried to adhere to KVD's "no bad days" mindset, Zaldain stumbled out of the blocks at the Sabine River, falling short of a limit both days. After weighing just one fish on day 2, he fell 1 ounce shy of making the Top-50 cut and finished 51st. It wasn't the start he was hoping for.
"That was the biggest turnaround point of my season," he said. "It lit that fire. Let's say I did finish 50th there. I wouldn't have been so desperate or been pushing so hard throughout the rest of the season. I drew a line in the sand for myself and said this would be my worst finish all year."
His pact with himself held up until he ended the season with a 58th at Lake St. Clair. By then, though, he'd clinched a spot in the All-Star event, next year's Bassmaster Classic, and this fall's and next spring's Toyota Texas Bass Classic (TTBC).
He bounced back from the Sabine with a 33rd at Falcon Lake the following week, then started to hit his stride with back-to-back Top-12s at Bull Shoals Lake (10th) and West Point Lake (6th), where he posted a career-best placement.
"Those back-to-back Top-12s gave me a taste of success on the Elite Series," he said. "I felt like from the start of practice at Bull Shoals to the end of the West Point tournament, I was making all of the right decisions at the right time. I was fishing the moment and practice was a huge key. I learned a lot about myself as far as practice goes. Yeah, you're utilizing those 2 1/2 days to practice, but you're practicing for the tournament. You're not trying to catch them that day. You're trying to stay one step ahead of them and in both of those tournaments, I did that."
Those two events, spread across 3 weeks in mid April and early May, lit the fuse on Zaldain's confidence. It was still burning strong right through the TTBC last month, where he finished 6th.
"That 3-week period, I felt like I was unstoppable. I made the right calls at the right time and it gave me confidence throughout the rest of the season that I really do belong here and it's really not as hard as it seems."
He senses his time to seize a victory might not be too far off now.
"Brandon (Palaniuk) and I talk about this all the time and what approach do you take," Zaldain said. "Do you take the approach of going for the win every time doing it his way? He's one in a million. He's had an unbelievable last 3 years, but I just can't do that. I feel like if I put myself in contention at every tournament with a Top-20 and every now and then give myself a legitimate shot at winning and execute then, I'll take my win that way. If I can keep making Top-12s, my day will come."
Power of Three
Zaldain says he's seen enormous benefits from having traveling partners on tour. For his first two seasons on the Elite Series, he's roomed with Palaniuk and Kevin Ledoux. They're all pretty close in age – Palaniuk's 25, Zaldain's 29 and Ledoux's 34 – and each brings a different element to the dynamic.
"It is highly beneficial and I recommend to all guys on tour, especially the new guys, to establish those relationships," Zaldain said. "I was fortunate in that we're all within (a few) years of age of each other so we all connected in that way. Also, we're all fairly new to the game. Establishing relationships with guys you're close to can be huge."
After a tough or great day on the water, he says it's nice to be able to reconvene with other guys going through the same stuff and use them as sounding boards.
"All three of us have different fishing styles and we all bounce ideas off of each other, patterns off of each other," he said.
Palaniuk, for example, is the textbook "hero or zero angler," Zaldain says. "He's going to go for the win every single time so it's fun to bounce ideas off of him knowing what he feels he needs to do to win a tournament."
Zaldain, however, has never been one to take such risks.
"I'm more of a consistency type of guy and growing up in California taugh me that," he said. "If you need 10 rods on the deck and need to use all 10 of them, so be it. I want to be sure I'm really good at all 10 of those techniques."
Zaldain describes Ledoux as being the one who is most willing to try the "off the wall" techniques, so it seems the three are a perfect match for each other. There is some sacred ground, though, that is never covered.
"No spots," he said. "We do not share spots. That's the best and quickest way to de-friend somebody. We'll talk about everything but fishing locations. It's been highly beneficial."
> Zaldain is looking forward to joining fellow Megabass pro staffers Luke Clausen, Edwin Evers and Aaron Martens on a trip to Japan in November. Not only will they get an up-close look at the company's overseas operations, they're expected to spend a couple days fishing the famed Lake Biwa, which produced Manabu Kurita's world-record tying 22-04 bass in July 2009.