Just when I think I have it all figured out, this sport throws me a heaping portion of humble pie.
With my recent deep triple-digit finish at the Bassmaster Open on Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma, I was left wondering how I could feel so confident in my approach, yet fall so short.
To be fair, I’ve had my share of terrible finishes over my career, and I make a concerted effort to make sure the “bad” events help fuel my future successes instead of slow my progress. However, this one hurt. I felt like I had reached a breaking point.
It was the best thing that could have happened.
Opens Reality Check
A tournament trail is a tournament trail, right? If you fish at the tour level like I did on the FLW Tour, then the MLF Pro Circuit, you would think that your formula for consistently cashing checks would work anywhere, but I realize now that is far from reality.
Moving over to fish the Opens Elite Qualifer Division this year was a decision that was fueled by my desire to fish on the Elite Series and my dream of being on the Classic stage. To be honest, I really thought I would knock it out of the park this year. My confidence was strong and the schedule looked dynamic and exciting. Everything was lining up.
Fast forward to now. I’ve had three decent events and two true bombs, which pretty much statistically puts me out of the Elite Series running for this season. So what happened?
Well, a reality check happened! The Opens are hard. They are probably the most difficult tournaments in the sport. Not because the competition is better than any other – though it is certainly as stout as any. What I realize now is the Opens format is just flat-out different, and until present, I didn’t think I would need to change my game much to compete. That was a strategy that certainly didn’t age well.
The truth is the Opens are much more difficult due to one key factor - pressure!
Just think about it. On the Pro Circuit we had a 150 or so angler field with no co-anglers, two days of practice and an off day. With those parameters, my shallow-water power-fishing style worked pretty well the majority of the time because the fish weren’t being caught by everyone during practice and they had a day to rest in between anyways. Sure, the difference between a hot bite the first day of practice and the first day of the tournament was often notable, but still the pressure was relatively low.
Now, look at the Opens. You have 225 talented boaters and 200 co-anglers who sometimes will practice too, no information off-limits prior to practice, and then you get almost five days of official practice. It’s pretty easy for me to see the difference now.
Looking back at all my tournaments this year, it is glaringly obvious that I’ve had too heavy-handed of an approach trying to force my shallow power-fishing strengths. I should have noticed it earlier, because every single practice has turned out to be a real struggle to get my strengths going shallow. I’ve made them work to some success at a few events, but others I felt completely lost.
It happens the same way every practice. My first day fishing my strengths and beating the bank result in a good practice day, with fish willing to bite, but by days 4 and 5 of practice, I’m left scratching my head and scrambling to figure out a backup plan, which usually consists of the same brutish, non-finesse approach anyways.
I’m not saying that my strengths aren’t relevant in the Opens, but they are a much harder sell, and to be consistent, I now know I can’t strictly rely on my favorite power tactics. I must adapt.
I fished the Opens for several years before going to the Tour/Pro Circuit, and even back then I felt that there was something that I was missing to propel me to the next level of success on that trail, but even then I feel like my power-fishing strengths were more stable back then compared to now.
The hot topic right now is forward-facing sonar technology. Without a doubt, the advent of LiveScope is changing the way the sport is played. I’m not one to complain about the technology because I think it is so super cool, but I now know that it is a part of why it is harder and harder to find success doing the same old things I used to do.
I initially thought I would see the pressure up shallow cool off due to more anglers adopting this technology that can make it easier to catch more offshore fish. What I didn’t anticipate happening was the shallow bite getting tougher because the forward-facing sonar can help shallow anglers be more efficient fish-catchers as well. The result is a changing landscape across the board.
Many view this change as being negative, but to me it is just change, and as a competitor, it is up to me to hold myself accountable when I’m not evolving at the same pace as the sport – and I most certainly haven’t been doing that. Sure, I’ve been using LiveScope since 2019, but the way I've been using it has not tapped its potential in the slightest.
This is why I've now started to focus my energy on learning more about how to get an edge with this tech.
The way I look at it is, it’s not the technology's fault that I’ve sucked at some of these events. It’s not the level of fishing pressure in the Opens that has tripped me up.
If I were to start putting blame on those factors, I would quickly lose my edge, since the best edge you can have in fishing is adaptation because it is what the fish do every minute of every day by default. The fault solely lies with me, and how I’ve allowed myself to grow stagnant in my fishing education that I used to devote all my waking hours to.
Playing the blame game is a form of giving up, and is essentially telling yourself that you don’t have control over those things. Well, I do have control, because I know it’s my doing that left me at 175th at Eufaula.
Last week felt like the low point of my career, but it may actually end up being one of the most important events of my life due to the revelations it provoked in me about how I need to proceed from here.
So now, let’s go fix this and keep learning because I love my job and I don’t ever want to feel like I didn’t put in the work to succeed again!