By Todd Ceisner
Over his first two years on the Bassmaster Elite Series, Stetson Blaylock’s results could be described as fairly pedestrian. He posted seven top-50 finishes, but only one was of the top-20 variety and he wound up with middling points finishes of 58th and 61st.
It was not the kind of output he envisioned after the 2016 season when he made the transition from the FLW Tour, where he grew into a household name in the sport during the first eight years of his career.
During the tumultuous offseason that bridged the gap between 2018 and 2019, the Arkansas native opted to decline an invitation to Major League Fishing’s Bass Pro Tour to stick with the Elite Series. That decision seemed to spark a rebirth of sorts for Blaylock, who made 2019 the best season of his career by a wide margin.
He amassed six top-10 finishes, including an unexpected win at Winyah Bay, and was an Angler of the Year contender right down to the final day of the season, ultimately finishing second to Scott Canterbury by eight points.
So how did Blaylock recapture the mojo that made him a perennial contender during his FLW Tour days?
“I think a lot of it for me was just being more confident in my abilities,” Blaylock said late last week as he made the drive to Palatka, Fla., to begin preparations for the Elite Series season opener at the St. Johns River. “The last couple of years, I had good tournaments, but it was almost like I had a monkey on my back. I made the right calls a few times and just missed top 12s.”
But last year, not only did he make the right call on multiple occasions, but they frequently catapulted him into contention to win nearly every time.
“At (Lake) Lanier, my practice wasn’t good and it just happened in the tournament,” he said, recalling his 8th-place finish there. “I was like ‘Okay, this is what I remember from FLW with how things come together. One thing led to another and six top 10s later here we are.”
He said the BPT vs. Elite Series decision weighed heavily on him, but he ultimately didn’t want to step away from B.A.S.S.’ top circuit feeling as though he didn’t accomplish what he set out to.
“For me, it was a long-term decision,” Blaylock added. “I couldn’t get peace either way. I felt like I had unfinished business and if I left, I would feel like I was leaving too soon.”
After all the success he enjoyed last season, Blaylock must now grapple with the classic question that many athletes and teams face after a successful season: Can he do it again?
No doubt his confidence will be sky-high when the 2020 season kicks off at the St. Johns River later this week and he’s hopeful the momentum he built in 2019 will be evident as well.
“I think it’s a little bit of both,” he said. “When I had good years at FLW, they were pretty consistent. You get in that mentality of making the top 10 every time. When you do that, you put yourself in position where a few right decisions get you there more times than not.
“At the same time, I get away from fishing for two months (over the winter) so you have to hit reset and hope you can pick back up where you left off.”
If he’s able to do that, he’ll be one to watch come the first week of March when he competes in his first Bassmaster Classic at Lake Guntersville.
“I want to fish these first two like I’ve never made a Classic,” he said. “I need that same fire I had last year.”
Earning a Classic berth was one of the major factors in Blaylock’s decision to return to B.A.S.S., but he’s not going to let how he fares in the first two Elite Series tournaments dictate how he approaches the Classic.
“I don’t really care if I finish dead last in these first two,” he said. “I know after last year, your season can change with one event. Yes, I want to get off to a good start, but the Classic is something I’ve lived my whole life for. It’s time to get there and make that deal happen.”
Goals Are The Same
With the 2020 slate due to begin this week, Blaylock says he’ll relish the opportunity to crack the St. Johns River code after posting a season-low 52nd-place finish there to start 2019.
He knows it’ll be different – Florida fisheries are notorious for changing year to year – but he’s fished in the Sunshine State enough times to know the right mindset to have.
“It’s good to come back to a place where I had what I consider a bomb last year,” he said. “Florida is one of those places where, more than any, you can’t go off practice. Some years I do right and some I do wrong. I never can get consistent there. I either catch them good or not at all.
“I’m taking it as a fresh start. My confidence is still there. A lot of it comes from making a decision and living with it … just do it and go catch ‘em. Looking back, I very easily could’ve had a good event with a couple bites that I let get away. There were a couple bed-fish I worked on and left and came back and watched somebody else catch. I think I still had the fog in my mind from the previous two years and I was not able to make good decisions on some places.”
After the St. Johns, he went on a tear, finishing outside the top 25 just once over the final nine events of the season. He says the success he experienced won’t change his goals for the upcoming season.
“Obviously, I want to gain those eight points and make that up and I want to know in my mind that I can get every point I can get,” he said. “Also, I don’t want to let a day 1 where I’m in 56th define that tournament. I need to go out next day and try something new to make that ground up because I will need those extra points along the way to make it something special.”
The fact that he was such a force from February through September last season showed how versatile and talented Blaylock is. He stopped short of saying he took pride in that performance because it can breed a false sense of security, but he hopes to display the same sort consistency again.
“When you start thinking you’re invincible, you get crushed,” he said. “It’s different in a sport where you control everything, but in fishing, if your mind wanders for a minute, you can ruin a season. It was special to do it in all those places, especially in circumstances where I wasn’t feeling it. In life, you learn from mistakes and have stuff that comes up and you fight through it and persevere.
“I’ll feel better when I’m able to look back at the end of 2020 and say how did I do that two years in a row? It’s hard to do it one year, much less multiples. I just want to ride the wave of momentum.”