By Todd Ceisner
Cliff Crochet sat comfortably on a stool, hunched forward as his forearms rested on a small round table inside what amounted to a makeshift lodge inside the cavernous Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla.
At his fingertips was an assortment of new baits introduced at ICAST by Luck E Strike, the company responsible for the lodge in which Crochet lounged. Over his right shoulder was a faux stone fireplace and chimney, complete with a trophy pike mounted above the mantel.
The din of the crowd meandering through the aisles at ICAST was effectively drowned out by the rustic cabin-in-the-woods vibe inside the so-called booth. As chilled out as the mood was around him, when talk shifted to his performance on the water this season, the Louisianan's face lit up and his posture straightened.
For the last several Elite Series seasons, Crochet got off to strong starts, but tended to fizzle out once the schedule shifted north or to bodies of water that didn't suit his strengths or style. Last year proved to be his best season on tour as he leveraged a great start into a great season that saw him finish 10th in points and easily punch a ticket to his second career Bassmaster Classic. He felt like he'd turned a serious corner.
This season, the usual quick start eluded him he finished 57th at the season opener at Lake Seminole and he was forced to play catch-up, especially after finding himself in 98th place after day 1 of the second event at the St. Johns River. He caught 22-03 on day 2 at the St. Johns and rallied to finish 32nd, effectively rescuing his season.
From there, he's kept it on the rails save for a 78th at Table Rock Lake. He posted back-to-back Top-12 finishes at Toledo Bend and Lake Dardanelle and enters the northern swing of the schedule 18th in Angler of the Year points.
"I'm happy where I'm at because the last couple of years I had a hot start and faded," he said. "Then last year, I started hot again and was able to finish. The common thread was always a strong start.
"This year, it was a big difference from the past 4 years. It was new territory. I was scared I was going to throw the season away in the first two tournaments, which is normally my strong point."
Crochet missed paychecks in two of the first three events this season, the first time that's happened since his rookie season in 2010. But he kept his wits and didn't let the 78th at Table Rock gnaw at him.
"It wasn't a big deal," he said. "I had a 76th and an 85th last year so I figured if I could make Seminole and Table Rock my two worst finishes, I'd end up with a good season."
There was a three-week break before the next event at Toledo Bend and he used that time to "chill out" and get his mind right before he tackled one of his favorite fisheries.
He caught 21-10 and sat in 9th place after day 1, which sparked him to a 12th-place finish.
"After day 1 there, I was comfortable and confident," he said. "I knew everything was going to be alright. After a shaky start, to make a 12-cut, that calmed me down a whole bunch."
From there, he headed to Lake Fork for the Toyota Texas Bass Classic (he finished 44th) and then went straight to Lake Dardanelle the following week. The momentum from Toledo Bend came with him as he racked up a 7th-place finish to move into the Top 20 in points.
"The water was high and muddy and we had nasty weather," he said. "It was a comfortable situation and I had confidence coming off a 12-cut.
"To go into the middle part of the season and get back on track was big for my confidence. It was a confidence-booster and now I'm not counting points at the end of the season. It's all about finishing. The biggest deal was it felt real good I know this will sound crazy to start slow and gain momentum as the season has gone on."
Over the last two seasons, Crochet's batting .500 on cashing checks in Elite Series events held on northern fisheries. It's still a region he's learning and he's still getting accustomed to certain techniques, but if his experience from last year taught him anything it's the need to learn from mistakes and apply that knowledge right away.
"You can always get better, but I've seen it enough now that I at least have an idea of what I'm doing," he said. "I'm somewhat comfortable doing it. It's not a totally new deal for me like it was the first time I went up there."
At last year's St. Lawrence River event, he tried to key on largemouth after having a good practice fishing shallow. That pattern quickly fizzled, though.
"I didn't realize those fish didn't replenish and when you caught one out of some pads, that was the only fish in there," he said. "I guess I didn't realize how good of a fishery it was. It was definitely a learning experience.
"The next week, I went to Lake St. Clair and I knew I'd made the Classic so I took what I learned at the St. Lawrence and applied it there. I caught deep smallmouth offshore, so that was cool to learn it and flip it around the next week."
With the Delaware River and Cayuga Lake next on this season's schedule, he's going in thinking largemouth will play a bigger role.
"On the northern swing, you automatically assume smallmouths just because it's up north," he added. "That's not what it's going to be. The Delaware River will be cool. I didn't go up there (to scout) because I wanted no history going into it. I'm comfortable doing that and there's very little information about it and I like that aspect. It'll be a little bit like the Sabine River (in 2013).
"Cayuga is similar to Oneida and I like Oneida. I fished Cayuga last year after we heard that it might be on the schedule. I wish I would've spent a couple more days there. Even though we're going north, I think those will still be largemouth tournaments."
His goal is to cash checks in both and continue the momentum he built in the spring.
"I have some cushion, but I'd like to get up to 10th or improve on it," he said. "It's a hill to climb, but it's doable. It's a whole lot more fun shooting for goals or trying to improve on last year than counting points for the Classic because I've done that before and it's not a lot of fun."
> Crochet is due to get married this fall and he admits preparing for the next phase of life is weighing on his mind. "Come November, it's 'Welcome to the adult world,'" he says. "It's not just writing a couple notes and life is good. Come November, you have somebody else counting on you. I have a good one, though. I way out-punted my coverage."