By Todd Ceisner
The year started on such a high for Keith Poche. He was the toast of the Bassmaster Classic after the first day of competition, leading the sport’s signature event in his first appearance, in his native Louisiana no less.
He hung in until the end, but wound up finishing 3rd, behind champion Chris Lane and runner-up Greg Vinson.
“Looking back, I was like, ‘Man, I can do this. This is me,’” he recalls thinking after day 1 at the Red River.
Since then, it’s been a rocky road through the first half of the Elite Series schedule for the third-year pro who now calls Pike Road, Ala., home. He’s made one 12-cut (Bull Shoals), narrowly missed two 50-cuts (both Florida events) and bombed (98th) at Douglas Lake. He’s currently tied for 60th in the Toyota Tundra B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year (AOY) standings, well off his 10th-place pace from last year.
If he’s to qualify for next year’s Classic, he’ll either need a victory or a furious second-half rally. The former college tailback says he’s up for the challenge.
“I’m fishing too lazy,” he said. “I’m glad I had that 98th. It’s time for me to step it up and get back to fishing. I need to settle down and work hard, just like everybody else. That 3rd (at the Classic) doesn’t matter any more. That’s over with.”
Florida Not His Friend
In four Elite Series tournaments held in Florida, Poche’s average finish is 47.25. In 2011, he made the 50-cut at the Harris Chain and the St. Johns River to open the season.
This year, a foul-hooked fish on day 2 cost him the 50-cut at the season-opener at St. Johns. The fish would have completed his limit, but he ran out of time and finished 52nd, 1 ounce out of the money.
At Lake Okeechobee the following week, he couldn’t get on anything solid, averaged 12 pounds a day and settled for 55th.
“I totally missed the deal,” he said. “I just didn’t execute. The patterns I was on weren’t the deals I should’ve been doing.
“Florida always gets me. I don’t know if I’m over-thinking it. I’m just not a good Florida fisherman, I guess. A few mental mistakes cost me my first two checks.”
He started heading in the right direction with a 12th-place finish at Bull Shoals, a lake he’d never fished or researched. It at least kept his head above water in the AOY race.
However, things went south at Douglas Lake earlier this month. He anticipated the better bites would be found in deep water, basing his guesswork on last year’s Southern Open there and from what pal Ott Defoe had told him.
He was correct that it’d be won out deep, but his all-or-nothing deep-water strategy backfired on him. After weighing 11-08 on day 1, he found himself in 51st. The bites on his primary spot dried up on day 2 and his secondary spot was being beat up by others in the field. He tried to go shallow and catch something to weigh, but that didn’t happen either. He wound up with a zero, pushing him down to 98th in a 99-boat field -- his worst career finish.
Poche is going to use his recent 98th-place finish at Douglas Lake as motivation to turn his season around.
“I didn’t practice shallow at all and I think that’s where I messed up because I wasn’t on a strong enough deep bite to have a good finish,” he said. “I had two areas where I thought I could catch them good, but I didn’t have a backup plan and that’s a mistake I made. I should’ve had a limit spot where I could pull in and catch a limit of 1 1/2- or 2-pounders and then fall back on the deep area.
“It was frustrating. I could see them there and I was like, ‘They have to bite sometime today.’ I would get that sick feeling in my gut that I had to so something. In the back of my mind, I was thinking about points and the opportunity to be in the Classic (again) and if I didn’t catch them I’m liable to fall to the bottom of the list and dig myself a hole.”
He’s trying to channel the frustration of the sour finish and use it to his advantage down the road.
“I could come up with a million excuses for why I’m not where I want to be right now,” he added. “Plain and simple, I just finished my 2nd year on Tour. I had an awesome year. I finished 10th in points and almost won the Bassmaster Classic. I was coming off a big high and it’s one of those deals where I’m learning to adapt with that success. Maybe I’m getting a little lazy. Maybe I just got comfortable and maybe this 98th-place finish will ignite me because I guarantee that won’t happen again.”
While he’s used the first four events to dig himself this hole, Poche has four more to dig himself out. And he’ll have to do it on largely unfamiliar waters.
Having never fished any farther north than Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia, the trips to La Crosse, Wis., the mystery lake (assuming it's somewhere in the upper Midwest) and Oneida Lake will be new experiences for him. He knows he has no choice but to turn things around if wants another shot at Classic glory.
“I went into Bull Shoals without any experience or knowledge and hardly any research,” he said. “I’ve figured out that some of my best tournaments are at lakes I don’t know much about. Heading north, I’m looking forward to it. I think it can play into my hands and I can have some good finishes. A bass is a bass and they do the same thing everywhere.”
“Making the Classic is not out of the question,” he said. “I really feel confident I can move up the standings these next four tournaments. I feel good about it.”