By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
The man who's served as Joey Cifuentes' mentor since Cifuentes got serious about tournament bass fishing is one of the best to ever play the game. Larry Nixon, a fellow resident of north-central Arkansas, repeatedly told him there was one thing he needed to do to take his career up a notch.
"He kept saying, 'Joey, you have to win a tournament,''' Cifuentes said. "He said that's what it was going to take to move up to that next level."
Cifuentes accomplished that, winning his second Bassmaster Elite Series event last month at Lake Seminole in Georgia. The 34-year-old former college baseball player had put himself in contention several times during his six previous tour-level campaigns with FLW/MLF, but had been unable to close the deal."
He caught a massive 26-01 stringer on Day 2 at Seminole and stayed atop the leaderboard the rest of the way. He had a stressful final day, as several high-quality fish came unbuttoned, but he eventually compiled an 18 1/2-pound sack that left him almost 9 pounds clear of the runner-up, Japanese rookie Kyoya Fujita.
"It's just a huge weight off my shoulders because it's something I'd been wanting to do," he said. "I'd had some opportunities that slipped away from me.
"It's been a long time coming and I'm very thankful."
Won't Change Approach
Cifuentes, whose background includes some cattle-herding and who's recognizable by his wide-brimmed cowboy hat, started his Elite Series career with a 19th-place finish at Lake Okeechobee the week prior to his victory. He's currently 3rd in the Angler of the Year (AOY) standings – 16 points behind leader and Okeechobee winner Tyler Rivet.
His goal for the remainder of the campaign is to keep the same mindset that he brought into the first two derbies and not allow the victory to alter his approach. He's already had a discussion about that with veteran Bill Lowen, who picked up his long-awaited first win fairly early in the 2021 campaign and then finished inside the Top 40 just once (35th) in seven events the rest of the way.
"He mentioned that after he won his tournament, he changed the way he fished," Cifuentes said. "He said he was going out trying to catch big fish to win the tournament instead of taking care of the job, which is catching keepers and taking $10,000 back to your family.
"I fish every tournament to make the Top 50 and get that $10,000 check. If an opportunity presents itself, like it did at Seminole, then you go for the win. That's another thing that (Nixon) told me."
First Outing For Fun
Cifuentes' relationship with Nixon dates back nearly a decade. The father of one of his baseball teammates had traveled and pre-practiced for tournaments with "The General" years before and Cifuentes kept bugging his friend to get his dad to set up an outing.
"I just wanted to be able to say that I did it," Cifuentes said. "That was all I was after."
Nixon took a liking to him and in 2015 Cifuentes began traveling with Nixon on the FLW Tour and fishing as a co-angler. After experiencing great success from the back of the boat (4th- and 6th-place finishes in the points), he moved to the front deck in 2017 and qualified for the championship event three times.
Now both are competing on the Elite Series, with Cifuentes having qualified via last year's Southern Opens and Nixon having accepted a "Legends Exemption."
He's thrilled that he's already achieved the goal that Nixon told him he needed to reach. Losing those fish on Day 4 was nerve-wracking, but a sense of calmness eventually overcame him – even before he thought he'd caught enough to secure the win.
"I was going to accept it, no matter the outcome," he said. "I'd gotten a lot of time on Bassmaster LIVE – a lot of good coverage. To make a Top 10 in my second event, it was all good no matter what happened; I'd made my family proud and everything was going to be okay.
"That being said, I really don't think I would've won if I hadn't been there and done that in some other tournaments and lost them. I had the confidence to stick to my areas (stump fields where he caught mostly prespawn fish on a dropshot rig) and not run off and do other stuff."