It seems like a pattern has arisen in how I finish out my MLF Pro Circuit seasons. Apparently, it’s my “modus operandi to rally at the TITLE Championship to end the season on a high note.
Although, on paper, my first two TITLE showings didn't really set the world on fire, on both occasions I'd started with a dud of a first day, only to make big second-day rallies that would at least bolster my confidence and leave me with a positive outlook going into the following year.
This year I was able to overshadow the volatility of my 2021 season by capturing my first Top-10 finish in our league’s marquee event.
Looking for Redemption
When the schedule revealed that the TITLE would be held on the Mississippi River out of La Crosse, Wisconsin, I knew I wanted to get another shot at the fishery.
The second-to-last event of the 2020 season was held on the famed river where shallow-water power fishing is king – which happens to be what I consider my wheelhouse – and to my surprise I logged my worst finish of my pro career. So, this year I wanted to make sure I took what I learned from the previous year to make sure I didn’t fall flat on my face again.
One of the big mistakes I think I made in 2020 was not looking at the different pools available to fish. At that event, instead of at least looking into pools 7 and 9, I decided to stay on 8, which is no doubt a great pool, but for whatever reason it didn't jive well with me during that week.
This year I wanted to at least check out one of the other pools, so I started my short two-days of official practice on Pool 9. I fully intended to do a quick run-around of 9 and then head up to see 7 as well, but with only two days of practice and with low-water conditions slowing my efficiency when it came to navigating the labyrinth of creeks, sloughs, backwater lakes and river channels, I decided I would focus my efforts on just 8 and 9.
My practice on Pool 9 was not very encouraging in terms of quality, but I had found several schools of keepers, which excited me more than what I was seeing in Pool 8, where I was getting very few bites at all.
Going into the event, I knew I wanted to make the run to Pool 9, and once I caught my limit, I might lock up to Pool 8 to make a cull or two.
This year’s TITLE was kind of a hybrid format between the Pro Circuit’s traditional five-fish limit formula and the BPT structure, where the 50 anglers were split into two groups of 25, and groups A and B battled it out for two days to decide who would advance to the Knockout Round, while the winners from both groups' Qualifying Rounds got to advance directly to the Championship Round.
With this unique setup, I knew that strategy would play a big role. My whole idea going into the tournament was that you either wanted to barely catch enough to make the next round, or barely catch enough to win your Qualifying Round, so as to burn as few quality fish as possible for the Championship Round.
I was in Group A, and for the first day my goal was to catch around 12 pounds. My day in Pool 9 started out very slow, but quickly started to turn around once I dialed in where big schools of bass had relocated with the falling water.
I had one school that was on a very unassuming “sand drop” in a slough where the water went from little more than a foot to about 4 feet deep. I caught a limit quickly on a half-ounce white and chartreuse Z-Man JackHammer ChatterBait, with a pearl Diezel MinnowZ trailer, and a shaky-head with a green pumpkin Z-Man Big TRD or ZinkerZ.
The next area I visited was a place where I never found fish in practice, but with the low water a large school had set up on a small 2-foot drop outside a backwater bay. In what was the best shallow-water school I think I’ve ever found, I proceeded to catch around 15 keeper bass on as many casts and ended up catching about 15 more before getting to my target weight and leaving in an effort to conserve fish for the second day. I ended the day with a little under 12 pounds and was sitting within the Top 10, where I had hoped I would be.
Day 2 started with a 2-hour fog delay and I was anxious to get through the lock and to my school I had left biting the first day. They were still there and I quickly caught my limit on the ChatterBait. Unfortunately, by the time the bites stopped coming, I had only about 9 1/2 pounds, so I started trying to find new water. Fortunately, my area in Pool 9 had a lot more places with the type of sandy drops I was looking for.
Around 10:30 I got a bite that would completely change how I approached my strategy for the event. While fishing the same white and chartreuse JackHammer in a new area, I hooked into a behemoth I never expected. I hadn’t caught a fish over 2 3/4 pounds all week, but now I found myself battling one of my biggest fish of the year. After a brief fight, in a surreal moment, I lipped a massive fish that ended up being big fish of the event, weighing in at 5-11.
Once I put that fish in the well, I knew that I needed to change my strategy from just barely catching enough to make the Knockout Round to catching just enough to win my group. From there, I put it in to overdrive and went looking for new groups of fish. I ended up culling several more times to catch my day’s weight of 14-13, when I got a call from fellow competitor Jacopo Gallelli saying he was in need of a ride back to the weigh-in. From there I locked through to Pool 8 a little early, picked up Jacopo, and we both fished a bit before heading to weigh-in.
I ended up being last to weigh in, and I was about as anxious as I’ve ever been on the stage. I knew how much winning my group and moving on directly to the final day could mean for my chances at letting my fish rest and potentially winning the event. In the end, I edged out Zack Birge by 1 ounce to win the Group A Qualifying Round.
It felt like I had won the whole tournament.
With two days off before the Championship Round, I had plenty of time to get all my tackle dialed in.
Though I was very excited knowing that I was probably around the greatest number of fish, I was also aware that I might not be around the type of quality needed to win what was now a one-day event. With weights zeroed out for the final day, I knew I likely needed over a 3-pound average to have a shot at the TITLE.
Without a fog delay, I was able to get to my areas quickly. As expected, it didn't take long to start filling the livewell, but also not surprising was the fact that all my bites were small.
By 11 o'clock I had cycled through all the areas I had high hopes would produce some better fish, with very few substantial upgrades. Finally, in the same area I caught the 5-11, I hooked into another monster Mississippi River bass. It turned out to be around 4 1/2 pounds, and though that gave me a little hope as to the possibility of catching a big bag, I never found another one to go with it.
I ended up with around 12 1/2ounds and knew that I had no chance of winning.
In fact, I wasn’t even close! Turns out that the biggest bags of the event were caught that day, topped by Jimmy Washam’s incredible sack weighing almost 18 pounds.
In the end I found closure in the fact that I fished well, and it turned out I just wasn’t around the winning quality of fish.
Overall, it was an amazing week full of fun times with a great host city in La Crosse. I also had fun hanging out with my friend and fellow competitor Matt Stefan and his family, who let me stay with them, as well as having my wife Katie drive up for the final day.
Once Katie and I got home, it was a mad-dash to get our house moved before I left for Alaska for my 17th season working at the Baranof Wilderness Lodge. We ended up selling our house the following week.
Now, as I’m typing this up, I’m sitting in my small cabin in southeast Alaska, warmed by a crackling fire in my wood stove and the memories of the good times had during yet another great season on the Pro Circuit. Life is good.
(Miles "Sonar" Burghoff is an MLF Pro Circuit competitor and the 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).