Every once in awhile you need a wake-up call – a reminder that you’re still a work in progress.
Tournament fishing is full of these reminders, and they are an unfortunate necessity in order to progress as a competitor in a game that is constantly changing and each event is distinctly different.
The recent Bassmaster Southern Open on Chickamauga was such a reminder.
Heading into practice, the promise of plentiful numbers of massive Florida-strain largemouth was foremost on my mind. Additionally, warm spring weather and the promise of a strong shallow bite was getting me pretty excited.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that my preconceived notions were in a way correct, but the strategy for achieving my desired result of a solid finish was not so clear.
Naturally, the first thing I started doing was plying shallow techniques, but I quickly learned that despite the presence of a great number of spawning bass, the bite was by no means a given. Aside from the bass spawn, there was also a heavy shad spawn in the morning, and that made getting a few bites early a bit easier. But overall, the fish that were not locked on beds were very difficult to get to bite.
I eventually did find a strong pattern fishing laydowns in spawning pockets using several techniques, with the most productive and efficient being a brightly colored floating worm. However, as practice progressed the laydown pattern started to wane, and without any other “easy” pattern materializing on the bank other than bed-fishing, I opted to spend a good deal of time finding an offshore pre- and post-spawn pattern.
I ended up finding some hydrilla that grew in only a few locations on the main river. Though I felt confident that keepers were relatively plentiful, I wasn’t seeing anything over 3 pounds.
By the end of practice, I felt that my best shot was to try for a limit early on my offshore spots, and then move shallow to upgrade. Deep down I knew something wasn’t right with my game plan, and I knew I was underestimating the ultra-shallow bite.
Going into day 1, I was my ever-confident self, but I was also skeptical of the two patterns I had settled on. I knew that timing and making the right decisions quickly would make or break me, as I felt I needed a minimum of 15 pounds to stay in the hunt for a good finish and a check.
My first stretch of main-river hydrilla was down near the dam, and I made quick work of the 35-mile trip with my Yamaha-powered Phoenix. I was in good spirits, playing some David Bowie loudly on my stereo during the morning commute.
After I put the trolling motor down, and after finding the right cast over the grass line, I quickly caught my first fish on a Z-man Project-Z ChatterBait, but it was a short. Although I had to throw that fish back, I figured it was a good omen for the bite on that stretch of grass. However, after another half-hour without a bite on reaction baits, I felt it was time to slow down.
I picked up a shaky-head and a Carolina rig and started slowly working the grass edge, casting from on top of the shoal and dragging from inside the grass to the inside edge. I immediately started getting bites, but they were all 14-inch fish. That was a stark change from practice, when each fish I caught using the same tactics produced solid 2 1/2-pound fish. The thought that my timing was backwards kept gnawing at me.
After a couple hours, I finally accepted that my timing was off and I had to make a move. I knew that without any current moving, the offshore bite would be difficult, but since my best shallow locations were way upriver, I had to stop on at least one of my other main-lake grass beds to see if the bite was any better. Unfortunately, it was not. In tournament fishing, these types of decisions need to be made quickly in order to salvage a bad rotation, so I was already making major mistakes.
With the midday sun beating down on me, and knowing my timing was completely off, I abandoned my offshore areas and started toward the Hiwassee River. On my way I pulled a U-turn as I passed a main-river ledge I had caught a fish on during practice, and in short order I pulled in my first keeper on the Carolina rig. I ended up catching another handful of non-keepers and decided to head on my way to my shallow pattern.
The first tree I had marked was the only one in the back of a shallow bay, and I immediately caught my second keeper on the floating worm. I thought to myself, “rebound time!”
Unfortunately, I ran all my best stretches in the Hiwassee and couldn’t produce another keeper. With little more than a half-hour left, I made the quick run back to the river ledge where I had caught my first keeper in an effort to salvage the day with a limit. I returned to a hot bite, but unfortunately they were all fish that were excruciatingly close to legal, but were just a hair too short. I was able to squeeze out one last keeper to finish the day.
Of the 25 or so fish I caught, three small keepers were all I could muster.
25 Or Bust
I’m fishing the Opens for one reason – to qualify for the Elite Series. With a little adjustment to my day-1 timing, I knew I could easily conjure up a pedestrian limit, but honestly I knew that’s not what I wanted, or needed, to do.
In order to keep my hopes of an Elite Series berth alive, I had to catch a minimum of 25-pounds, and I could only think of one way to make up that kind of ground at that moment – sight-fishing.
Now, I’m really not a sight-fisherman, and I always preach about fishing your strengths, but to this very moment I believed that sight-fishing was the way to salvage my tournament. I did see a few decent fish on beds in the Hiwassee the day before while fishing shallow, and I didn’t see any other tournament boats, so I figured that river would offer the best opportunity for me to find some fresh bedding fish.
Since I did have a co-angler who paid his hard-earned cash to be in the event, and the morning’s low light wasn’t conducive to sight-fishing anyway, I started on one of my hydrilla lines for about half an hour in hopes of one of us catching a quick few keepers. No dice – just shorts once again, and without current moving, I knew that bite was off until further notice from the spillway operators. It was the same poor timing as the day before. Talk about beating a dead horse! Off sight-fishing I went in the Hiwassee.
Being at the bottom of the standings, I was feeling no pressure to catch anything less than 5 pounds, so I kept my eyes toward the dingy Hiwassee water, desperately looking for the large green shadowy figures of lunker bass.
As I was looking for beds, going with my “go big or go home” mentality, I picked up a swimbait and would randomly cast it just to keep a bait in the water. I actually had a little action on it, too, as I caught one scrawny-looking post-spawner. I also lost a fish over 5 pounds at the boat, as well as losing a 4-pounder that I saw hit it, and I briefly had it on, but those fish were of little consequence because I knew unless I had three other solid fish to go with them, they still wouldn’t matter toward my goal.
As far as the bed-fishing went, there were several factors that were working against me that a seasoned sight fisherman would have recognized. First, the water was dingier on the Hiwassee, making visibility obviously difficult. Second, the water was rising fast, and so the beds were much deeper than they had been in practice, which added to the visibility issues. Finally, the water up the Hiwassee was considerably warmer than the lower lake, so most of the fish had already spawned out, from what I could see.
Deep down I knew that my choice of location was incorrect, and with the time I had left I had little opportunity to recover, though I tried desperately.
On my way back to the scales I stopped on a new river ledge and caught my second, and final, keeper of the day on a jerkbait.
Lessons From Failure
Obviously I do not like doing poorly and falling short of my goals, especially in an event that lined up so well for my shallow-fishing strengths, however. I also realize that these kinds of events are a reality for everyone in the sport.
In fact, I feel like the events that tear you down are the ones that truly make you a better angler. I know I’m better than a 161st-place finish. I know I could have done better in this event, but if I had lucked out and caught a couple big fish and had done better I would have overlooked the things that I really need to work on – like becoming a better sight-fisherman.
In the end, it was a pretty epic fail in terms of straight stats, but it was a true success in terms of the lessons I learned and the motivational fire it ignited in me going into the next event. Also, I am proud of myself for fighting for my goals at all costs instead of settling for saving face the second day.
On to the next ...
(Miles "Sonar" Burghoff is an aspiring tour pro and co-host of the TV series "Sweetwater." To visit his website, click here. You can also visit him on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (SonarFishing) and Instagram (@sonarfishing).