From a physical standpoint, not much has changed for John Sappington over the past 2 1/2 years since he returned to pro fishing following his near-fatal boating accident. He still endures pain in his shoulders, neck and back, and he takes several different medications daily to curtail the discomfort.
But from a psychological perspective, the 2002 FLW Championship winner
is back on his game. He's made some adjustments to his approach to tournaments that have restored his faith in his own abilities, and he's logging high finishes again.
He's ended up 16th or better in three of the five FLW Tour events thus far and will enter the regular-season finale at the Detroit River at No. 6 in the Angler of the Year (AOY) race. In the BassFan World Rankings presented by Tru-Tungsten, he's climbed from 212th place to 72nd since January.
"It was a long dry spell, and the biggest thing has just been getting confidence back in myself," said the 43-year-old from Willard, Mo. "It all came down to my practices – when I first came back, I wasn't having good ones.
"But that started to change toward the end of last year. I'd go out on the first day of practice and catch a good bag, and then go out the second day and do it again. It was all about making the right decisions and having the confidence to adapt to the conditions."
Renewal of Faith
Sappington's accident occurred in February 2004 during practice for the second Tour event of that season at Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin. His boat struck a ferry cable, and he suffered five broken vertebrae in his back, along with a broken neck. He spent significant time in intensive care.
He'd logged seven Top 25 finishes in his 15 prior events, including his FLW Championship victory at Louisiana's Cross Lake. But after a full year off for recovery, he failed to crack the Top 40 in 18 consecutive tournaments and finished 114th or worse in 10 of those.
He snapped that string this past March with an 8th-place outing at Fort Loudoun-Tellico – his first Top 10 since Cross. He's sustained the momentum with a 16th at Norman, a 12th at Beaver and a 39th at the Potomac River.
"It was almost like there was something keeping me from catching (fish) before, and it might have been my own mind," he said. "I was bitter for awhile – there was a lot of, Why me?
"But I've really put my faith and trust back in God, and it's Him who's leading me. It's not me making all these decisions by myself – He's definitely helping me."
Not the Same Game
Sappington said the Tour has changed considerably since the time of his accident, and he's had to alter his style somewhat to get back in the game.
"Before I got hurt, most of the tournaments we fished were geared toward the power-fisherman," he said. "During the time I was kind of out of the loop and everything, the fishing's changed more toward a finesse style, and I've had to adapt to that to catch fish a lot of times.
"It's usually my last resort – I don't bring it out until I absolutely have to – but (the fish) will bite it. If you see me starting off a tournament fishing a shakey-head, that means I've had a tough practice."
Nowadays, his practices are focused primarily on locating fish. He takes the baits-and-techniques stuff day by day.
"When I find areas that have fish, I'm not getting hung up on how I'm going to catch them. I'm fishing every (tournament) day for what it is and taking each one just like a practice day. In the last four tournaments, I caught fish in ways that I hadn't even practiced.
"People tend to get too hung up on this jig or that crankbait or this type of retrieve. I just go into the day with my rods in the locker, and once I get out there I adjust to what the conditions are and fish them."
Sappington is confident that a win isn't too far off, but he'd like to drop some weight first.
Ignoring the dock talk has been a big key for him as well.
"I've totally alienated myself from any type of talk whatsoever this year. I might ask people how many pounds they think it'll take to make the cut, but as far as how they're catching fish, I don't care and I don't want to know.
"I'm back to the way I fished before (the accident), where if I didn't catch them, it wasn't anybody's fault but mine. I want to be left out of the loop."
Ready to Win Again
Sappington has been through a lot, both physically and emotionally, in the nearly 5 years since his FLW Championship triumph. But the indescribable feeling of that win has never ebbed.
Because he can't exercise as much as he used to, he's about 30 pounds heavier than he was back then. That concerns him a bit now that he's confident that another victory is in his near future.
"I'm going to win a tournament here pretty quick," he said. "I'd like to win a regular-season event, but I'm going to win another championship at some point, whether it's this year or next year or whenever.
"I hope I can lose some weight before I go up on that stage. I might even have to shake off some winning fish until I'm not so fat."
> Sappington's only poor outing this year was a 114th at the season opener at Travis. "I really felt like I'd do good in that tournament and I had a pretty good first day, but I bombed the second day. I just didn't adapt quickly enough."
> He now limits his practices to 4 days. "Physically, I'm not conditioned to practice for a week and a half or anything like that. I've got so many pains that by the time the tournament got here, I'd be falling down on that end. And this way, everything I'm finding is fairly current. I make a lot of my decisions on the last full day of practice."
> Another highlight for him this year was catching the largest fish (11-02) at the Professional Anglers Association-sanctioned Toyota Texas Bass Classic.