By Todd Ceisner
Everything about how the 2015 Elite Series season got started lined up just the way Mike McClelland had hoped it would.
He got off to a fast start with a Top-10 at the Lake Hartwell Bassmaster Classic followed by a runner-up finish at the Sabine River. He then cashed a check at Lake Guntersville and headed off on the West Coast swing. He was upbeat and confident with designs of challenging for the Angler of the Year title.
What followed was a sequence of finishes never seen before in the Arkansas native’s illustrious career. Starting with the West Coast swing at the Sacramento River and Lake Havasu, McClelland closed the season with six straight finishes of 70th or lower.
Not only did it take him out of contention for the Angler of the Year Championship, it effectively ended his hopes of earning a berth to this year’s Classic at Grand Lake, one of his favorite fisheries (he finished 5th there in 2013).
As this year’s Classic draws closer and the countdown to the season opener at the St. Johns River begins, McClelland says he’s spent much of this offseason rehashing the reasons why his season went south so fast.
“I went back and reviewed my finishes and it wasn’t that I didn’t catch them,” he said. “I had maybe one day without a limit. I just didn’t get the bites I needed to make the difference. It’s been said so many times that one bite is what makes all the difference. I just wasn’t getting those one or two bites to lead me in the right direction.
“When you start doubting every move and you’re struggling to get bites, you have to evaluate everything you’re doing. When you’re getting bites, but no quality like I was, you just have to brush it off.”
At 48, McClelland has been through his share of highs and lows during his career and it’s taught him to not overreact either way.
“I’ve had ups and downs in my career and there are definitely some things that you learn over the years,” he said. “It’s a roller coaster and you have to ride the highs and endure the lows. When things get dismal, I don’t let it get to me too much. I know the caliber of fisherman I am and I am confident I can rebound.”
After two events last season, McClelland was 9th in AOY points. He knew there were still plenty of tournaments to come, but his confidence was building as the schedule shifted to the West Coast.
“I really was confident,” he said. “Even after Guntersville, I had my sights set on competing for an AOY title. When we made that West Coast swing, though, things didn’t go my direction. The thing that was frustrating about it and makes me and a lot of other anglers step back and take a look at in competitive fishing is the talent level and competition continues to get stronger each year.”
He limped back east with finishes of 79th and 78th on his ledger, but he still felt like he could get it going again at BASSFest at Kentucky Lake.
“Up to the point of Havasu, I wasn’t bent out of shape,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I’d lost complete confidence or done anything wrong. Things just weren’t falling into place. BASSFest is where I started to get frustrated. I’d had success at Kentucky Lake. I felt like I had a chance to win there one year so I know I’ve been around them.”
His 89th-place finish was his worst of the season and worst outcome since a 2005 Bassmaster Tour event at Lake Guntersville.
“It was back to the same thing – I was catching a limit pretty handily, but getting a quality bite I was out in left field,” he said. “One thing when I look back at the year and compare it to other years where I had success, I feel like I wasn’t out on the edge enough. When you look at the guys who did well, those were the guys who did something a little different. The guys who won were doing something outside of the norm.”
He recalled the 2008 Elite Series tournament at Kentucky Lake in which he and Jeff Kriet were among a small group throwing a pre-rigged shad-imitator swimbait.
“We were considered on the edge for throwing that,” he said. “I’d never put a lot of thought into it because I just thought more guys were applying more baits like that than we were.
“It’s not like I feel like I fished safe last year, but I fished the norm. I fished the conditions based on prior results and one thing we have to start considering is as we fish more, the seasons have changed a bit. The weather that last few years has been a little goofy so you can’t fish places the same way as in the past.”
A perfect example was the Chesapeake Bay, which was one event he was fired up for. He’d taken a scouting trip there prior to it going off limits and was blown away by the number of fish he caught and others he saw. The conditions had changed dramatically by tournament time and he wound up 81st.
“It was one of the most frustrating events of the year,” he said. “To see how good it was in June and to see how tough it was to catch them when we went back, it was pretty frustrating. I caught them so good and saw so many hundreds swimming around on the (Susquehanna) Flats, I figured it would be an absolute slugfest. I felt like I’d found enough to get through, but I was wrong.”
Rejuvenated and Excited
While McClelland works to put his 2015 struggles behind him, he has a significant reason to look favorably ahead to the new season.
That’s because Mike’s son, Justin, will compete in the Central and Northern Bassmaster Opens, against his dad. The two will travel together as Justin gets a taste of the Opens for the first time. The two had an agreement that until Justin earned his college degree, he couldn’t compete in the Opens.
“It’s going to be a fun year for us,” McClelland said. “He’s been wanting to do this for years and now that he’s done with school, I’m looking forward to spending time on the road with him and doing some learning from him. It’s really lit a fire under me.”
Justin has enjoyed a measure of success competing in regional circuits around Arkansas and Oklahoma, but Mike is excited for him to get a taste of national-level competition. He also feels it could breathe new life into his competitive side.
“I’ve taught him for a number of years and I think this will refuel my fire to see his burning desire as a rookie coming into the Opens,” he said. “I’ve spent so many years on the road during his learning years of fishing that I haven’t gotten to fish with him or around him much. There’s only a handful of times a year we get to get in a boat and go fishing.”
Don’t be mistaken, though, the elder McClelland isn’t ready to let youth prevail just yet.
“It will be a competitive thing,” he said. “He’s driven and wants to beat dad and dad will do everything in his power to make sure he doesn’t.”