By Todd Ceisner
A lost fish here. A botched boat flip there. A 2-pound penalty for violating a no-wake zone.
The little things added up over the course of the season for Dylan Hays and ultimately derailed his charge to qualify for the Forrest Wood Cup, held a couple weeks ago at Lake Ouachita just down the road from his home in Sheridan, Ark.
“It’d have meant a ton to me,” Hays said. “I live an hour from there and I’ve fished there for 15 years and have competed in a lot of tournaments in August and September there so I’d have been comfortable with it. And my family could’ve made the trip. My grandma said she was saving her pennies to come to Hot Springs, so I kind of feel like I let her down. With the smaller field on a lake I’m familiar with and a style I’m familiar with, I would’ve liked to get a shot at it.”
The second-year pro is taking it in stride though, especially after finishing the season with back-to-back top-15s, including a runner-up showing at the Lake St. Clair smallmouth beatdown to close out the year. Despite missing the Cup by two points, he’s taking an optimistic outlook into the offseason. Knowing the Cup is back at Ouachita in 2019 only adds to his motivation for next year.
“It was definitely a positive for me,” he said. “I started the season solid somewhat and then had two really bad ones in a row. I could’ve kept going down that road, but I didn’t. That’s what I’m most proud of – not letting that happen.”
Ultimately, had he won at St. Clair and just swapped spots on the leaderboard with eventual winner Chad Grigsby, he’d have still missed the Cup – by a single point.
“It wasn’t meant to be anyway,” Hays added. “There were so many things that had to happen that didn’t happen.”
Namely, Grigsby and Todd Castledine, both also needing top-10 finishes to have a shot at making the Cup, had their best tournaments of the season.
“If they don’t make top 10s there, they don’t make the Cup,” he said. “What stings the most was I caught enough bass to make it. Last year, I finished in the 60s (in points) with two bombs. This year, I had two bombs, but if I can just turn those into 100s instead of 140s, I make it. It just comes with time and experience.”
“You can have one of those in a season, but you can’t have two. Guys who’ve been doing this a long time don’t have any or any like that.”
Confidence-wise, Hays has noticed he’s more secure in his decision-making on the water now with two years under his belt. It’s been one of the biggest challenges of adjusting to life at the Tour level.
“I did a better job this year versus last year,” he said. “For example, at Lanier this year, I got a check, but at 11:30 on day 2 I hadn’t had a bite. That tournament could’ve gone either way. I stayed with what little deal I had figured out and had a good event. A year ago, I might not have done that.”
Conversely, at the Harris Chain of Lakes, he struggled on day 1, but opted to switch gears and nearly doubled his weight on day 2 to improve 82 places and go home with a $10,000 payday.
“I thought I had something solid figured out, but I threw it all out and with a longer day 2, I had a few things marked that I hadn’t fished on day 1, so I just went for it, knowing I could only fall another 20 spots,” he said. “I caught a big bag and made a check. A year ago, I might not have thrown out my practiced and fished wide open like that. Having that confidence helps because what you found last Sunday doesn’t always matter come Friday or Saturday.”
After surviving the Florida swing to start the season with two top-70 finishes, Hays notched a top-50 result at Lake Lanier to gain more momentum. As the calendar flipped to April, though, his fortunes quickly turned.
A season-low 160th at Lake Cumberland, where he’d finished 25th a year ago, was a head-scratcher for him. Two weeks later, he failed to crack the 10-pound mark either day at Smith Lake and wound up 142nd. Suddenly, all the good vibes from the first half of the year had evaporated and he had slid down to 71st in the points standings with two tournaments left.
He says the Cumberland event is the one that haunted him the rest of the way. On day 1, he was hit with a 2-pound penalty for not obeying a no-wake zone that had been identified in an email FLW sent to competitors. To make matters worse, that was the only day all season he failed to catch a limit.
“That day is what cost me,” he said. “If I bring in five, I make the Cup. When I first started fishing the Tour, I met Jeff Gustafson in a gas station parking lot and we got to talking. He said if you want to be consistent and make the Cup, catch a limit every day.
“I finished in the 20s there last year, but I was on a different pattern this year and probably had one of my best practices of the year. After the first three of four spots, I hadn’t had a bite and I guess I got spun out and just ran out of time.”
No Worries After All
When the 2018 Tour schedule was released, Hays said the two events that worried him the most were the final two – Kentucky Lake and Lake St. Clair.
He’d never done the ledge-fishing deal on the Tennessee River and knew he’d be up against a field full of anglers with waypoints galore and plenty of experience at Kentucky Lake.
“Plus, it was an in-between time and they could’ve been shallow or deep,” he said.
As it turned out, he managed just fine, notching a 14th-place finish by averaging just over 15 pounds per day.
That moved him up to 63rd in points heading to St. Clair, where he knew he needed a dynamic tournament and others to stumble to clear his path to Ouachita. Last year, he fished the Northern Division of the FLW Series to gain some experience chasing northern smallmouth. He wound up 10th in points and cashed checks at all three events, including a 20th at the 1000 Islands.
“That helped me tremendously in how I attacked Lake St. Clair,” he said. “I wasn’t overwhelmed by it as much. It’s so featureless that they can be anywhere. It’s tough to break down in three days much less try to cover the rivers and Lake Erie.”