By Todd Ceisner
(Editor's note: BassFan will observe Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, so a new First Cast story will not appear until Tuesday.)
Dennis Tietje wasn't sure how his body and mind would respond to being back on the water and the road full time last year. He felt confident things would hold up, but he wouldn't know for sure until he put himself through the unique rigors that come with being a pro bass angler.
Tietje had taken a medical exemption and sat out the 2012 Bassmaster Elite Series season to recover from a partial discectomy (that's doctorspeak for back surgery) in November 2011. He was being cautious taking the whole year off, but looking back now, he says it was the right decision.
He passed all of the physical and mental tests on the water during his comeback season and posted the two highest tournament finishes of his Elite Series career along with a career-best points finish.
"Last year, there was a lot of anticipation about how I would do and how the back surgery would hold up," he said. "It was kind of scary on my part, but I never let that bother me going into it."
He's more than 2 years removed from surgery and he said last week that he's still pain-free. As he looks forward to the 2014 Elite Series season, he's anxious to continue to build on the momentum from last year as his back ailment drifts further and further into the past.
"Looking forward, I have to put that behind me and I am really excited about coming back again and competing," he added. "There are a few lakes I've been to and a few I haven't been to. I'm feeling good again going in and I'm focused 100 percent on what I need to do."
Tietje made his Elite Series debut in 2010 and across his first two seasons, he managed just five money finishes with no placements higher than 41st. At the same time, he dealt with pain and discomfort in his back severe enough that on many instances he opted to not make long runs because of the pain he'd have to endure. In essence, he was competing with a handicap. He quickly realized that he had to make a choice.
"I didn’t want to make a 20-mile run because I knew it was going to hurt," he said. "I didn't want to go through the rigorous boat rides and everything you needed to do. Sometimes I ended up staying within a half-mile of the (launch) and you can't do that.
"It's like fishing with your hands tied. You just can't compete at that level if you have limitations. Saying that, I hated to take the year off, but yet it was necessary because it was to the point where I either had to fix it or quit."
Pain-Free and Focused
Tietje entered the 2013 season full of anticipation and pumped that the schedule was kicking off in his backyard at the Sabine River in southeast Texas. He was literally the only Elite Series angler who'd spent any meaningful time there fishing for bass previously.
After a miserable first day that saw him weigh just one fish, he bounced back with nearly 25 pounds over the next 2 days to qualify for the final day, eventually finishing 12th, his career-best placement on the Elite Series.
The best part, however, was that no longer was his time on the water clouded by discomfort and indecision. He was zeroed in on the job at hand.
"At the end of the event, I realized I hadn't even thought about my back the entire deal," he said. "That really set the stage for the entire year and the entire year went the same way. I felt good and I fished good and when your mind is clear like that … the only way to compete at this level is to be totally focused on what you're doing."
He posted two money finishes at Falcon Lake and Bull Shoals Lake before stumbling mightily at West Point Lake, where he placed 92nd. He'd worked his way up to 32nd in points following a 15th-place effort at the St. Lawrence River, but another finish in the 90s at Lake St. Clair took him out of contention for the Bassmaster Classic.
"I went through some absolutely grueling boat rides that really tested my back completely," he said. "During those times, I felt completely fine. I'm not saying I run around like I did 10 years ago, but it never hindered me in what I needed to do to compete.
"Before it was constantly in the back of my mind. You need to be focused on strictly fishing at this level. I did that all year and it showed. The tournaments I did bad in, I did bad because I made bad decisions. I didn't do bad because I had something bothering me physically. It came down to decisions. That's the difference in the end. You can't bobble with these guys. I bobbled in one tournament and it cost me the Classic."
No Smallie Slouch
While his finish at St. Clair was what ultimately punctured his Classic hopes, his experience at the St. Lawrence was equal parts eye-opening and satisfying. His previous experience fishing for smallmouth was limited to a Federation tournament he'd fished years ago in South Dakota. He had little to no reference points when it came to deep-water smallie fisheries.
He poked and prodded some of his Elite Series pals for some simple smallmouth tips.
"Kevin (VanDam) told me a little bit, but nothing can compare or gets you ready for what you experience there," he said of the St. Lawrence. "I've spent years fishing deep at Toledo Bend and when I was able to take my ability to fish deep, it didn't take me long at all to realize that when I could find a school of deep fish at the St. Lawrence, those smallmouth are so aggressive, I had no trouble at all learning how to catch them. It was incredible."
He was 3rd after day 1, but eventually slipped to 15th, missing the Top-12 cut by less than a pound. It was the first tournament he could remember in which he didn't need or use a baitcasting outfit.
"Doing it with a spinning rod was probably the hardest thing," he said with a chuckle. "I've never had to force myself to use one and I've never competed in a tournament where that's all you threw. When I showed up and had five spinning rods on my deck and no casting rods, everybody kind of laughed. It was outside my comfort zone.
"It's the neatest type of fishing I've ever done – catching that size fish on light line and tackle. I think that's the real deal."
> Regarding the 2014 Elite Series schedule, Tietje is upbeat about half of the venues, especially Toledo Bend and Lake Dardanelle, where he was the top-finishing Louisiana angler at the 2001 B.A.S.S. Federation Central Divisional. "There are about three or four on the list that I consider myself in the fight," he said.