As I pre-fished for the All American Kayak Classic earlier last Thursday, I was having a great time. The weather was gorgeous, I was fishing water that I knew well from the last couple of years, and I was finding success in a pattern that had paid off for me in every one of the three tournaments I’d fished there before. Even better, in observing those around me, I didn’t see anyone fishing the same areas. My new good luck charm (I got “ducked” the day before, it’s a Jeep thing) appeared to be working his magic.
While I practiced for the main event, I watched the leaderboard during the Shootout to get a feel for how the field might fare. While one particular Field was faring quite well (congrats on your first win Kate!), no one was putting up huge numbers. I was over 80″ on the day, had caught solid fish in three locations, and was close to two other spots that had produced well previously. And the bass were biting my favorite crankbait!
The Classic was shaping up well. Or so I thought.
Day 1 brought cold weather and dense fog. I unloaded my Nucanoe before dawn, had everything rigged and ready, and headed out for my spots right at 6:30 AM at first launch. I had decided to hit all my spots in one circuit to save battery, so I stopped at one of the two alternate spots where I’d had previous success, and waited for first cast.
I launched my first cast right at 7:00 AM. In the dim glow of my nav lights, I whacked a tree that had snuck up on my right. Backlash on the first cast.
Maybe it was an omen. Maybe I was just an overexcited moron. Either way, I untangled the mess and worked the area over with the crankbait for about 20 minutes.
Bass were nowhere to be found, so I moved on to alternate spot number two and began casting. It didn’t take long to hook up with my first fish, a 9″ dink. With a 12″ minimum, it wouldn’t score, but it was proof that the crankbait bite was on at least. I continued to work the area and found a pocket where I picked up three more in quick succession, including my first keeper, a solid little 15.25″ largemouth.
Less than 45 minutes in to the tourney I’d had four bites on the crank with one keeper. Not the start I’d had in 2020 (when I finished 11th), but still enough to boost my confidence.
Spot number three was a bust. Despite catching two 15″+ bass there the previous day in just a few casts, the crankbait was simply not producing fish there. With temperatures being cooler, dense fog and no wind, I knew it had to be the conditions.
On to my primary spots. I motored across the lake with anticipation. These two spots had produced dozens of fish between practice and my last tourney, and I knew that’s where I’d vault into contention. I arrived and started casting.
Boom! Solid bite! A fighter that ran deep. I worked it to the surface and realized I had the wrong species, a solid 16″ white bass. No big deal, they were prevalent in practice too, so I kept casting at every stump and piece of wood in site. Another hookup came a few casts later, this time the right kind, but at 11.5″, just a little too small to score. Another hookup minutes later; again, short of being scorable by just a quarter inch.
I rounded a point, and peered through the fog toward the rest of my primary area. Uh-oh.
I was not alone. A fellow competitor was there.
I cursed myself for trusting my prime spot would go unnoticed. I secretly hoped that this unknown fisherman would be using a losing technique, and that my fish would go uncaught. I motored on past, and fished a few hundred yards down lake (spying back every now and then, hoping they’d move on).
As I worked new water unsuccessfully, time ticked away. My competitor moved on, so I moved in.
Boom! Fish on. Another slightly short fish. Boom! A better one; my second keeper at 14″. I worked the area thoroughly, but only managed the two bites. Three hours into the tourney, and I was barely keeping pace for five keepers. The fish were biting, but there simply wasn’t enough quality. None of my spots were producing well, and I had a dilemma: stick with what I know, or venture out in hopes of finding better success on new water?
I opted to hit the rotation again. Two more bites from my spots over the next hour, but both short of the minimum. The clock kept ticking.
My brain kept turning, and it concluded “you’ve got to try new water.” I motored to new spots, and continued to pick up short fish. Just before noon I found another keeper: 12.25″. I checked the leaderboard and wasn’t completely discouraged. I was sitting in the mid-30’s of 170+, and no one was running away with things. The next three hours would make or break my day.
“Don’t eliminate yourself on Day 1”, I told myself. “Keep covering water. Keep casting. The bites will come.”
They did. Several more shorts. Another 12″ fish at 12:30. Four on the board with 2.5 hours left to upgrade.
My brain spoke up again. “Let’s get crazy, go for broke in the back of creeks,” it told me. Shad were everywhere. Surely the better fish would be chasing.
1:00 arrived. Fishing a rock wall in just a few feet of water with nice stumps, I got bit. BIG BITE!
The drag screamed on my reel. The fish stayed down. I fought it. It battled back. Finally I could see it.
I had a giant drum. Non-scorable. Ugh.
Minutes later, the same routine. Another large drum.
All this familiar water. All these memories of catching good fish on the crankbait. No bites except white bass and drum as 3:00 approached.
My optimism faltered. “It’s not happening today.” Mistakes compounded. Time ticked by and finally ran out as I fittingly untangled another mess of crankbait hooks and braided line from the end of my rod following another encounter with a sneaky tree.
I’d only posted four fish for Day 1. Of all the times to come up short a fish in a tourney, it was in a two day event. Though not officially eliminated, I knew my tourney was over.
I slowly made the trip of shame back to the ramp and loaded my gear. I’d fallen well short of my goal. I was frustrated. Ticked off at myself. Criticizing every mistake I’d made. Realizing the right bites just weren’t there. Resigning myself to my failure. “That’s fishing.”
I made my way back to my hotel, and checked the final standings after the photo deadline passed. I was only in the mid-60’s, as lots of anglers struggled, but was definitely out of contention with over 25″ separating me and the leaders.
Day 2 loomed, and I struggled to come up with a plan. Should I go back and try to figure out what went wrong on Day 1? Should I try a new spot and fish blindly? Should I just pack up and go home, knowing that I could sleep in my own bed and “do something useful” with my day?
Ultimately I decided I’d stick it out. I launched further up lake in an area I’d hoped would not be that busy. I pledged to myself to stay out of everyone’s way and try to use the day to get to know more of the lake. After all, my tourney hopes were shot, so no need to get in the way of others, right? Just learn more about the lake, knowing that knowledge might come in helpful in the future.
So that’s what I did for Day 2. I launched well after everyone else, endured rain and misery, and covered almost 10 miles of water. I landed about a million white bass, but not a single largemouth. I plummeted in the standings, but told myself it was okay. I wasn’t really trying that hard. It still stung.
The tourney celebration helped turn my day around. I saw friends that placed, and congratulated them on their success. I watched someone take home a new kayak, knowing that the joy I experienced last year as the lucky raffle winner was being experienced anew by someone else. I found peace in seeing others succeed, and came to grips with my own failure.
The lessons? There are a few.
Tactical tunnel vision kills. As I talked with friends and listened to the winners talk about their success, I learned that I was fishing good water. In 10 days fishing in similar conditions at this lake for prior tournaments, the only sustained success I’d had was on two magical crankbaits, which I threw all tournament long. I never switched things up, and that tactical tunnel vision cost me. I never once picked up a spinnerbait, chatterbait, or jig, even though in the back of my mind I knew I probably should.
The more important lessons?
Tournament fishing isn’t all about winning. Though it scratches a competitive itch of mine, and it’s something I truly love when it’s going well, I don’t take well to falling short at all. That’s not a reflection of anyone but myself.
I’m intensely competitive, and a perfectionist at heart, which is a bad combination in a sport where winning is rare. I’m not naive enough to believe I’m going to win every time; in fact, I’ve yet to notch my first victory. But I love being in the hunt, and that’s how I define success.
Sometimes, that’s simply not going to happen in tournament fishing. You’re going to fall short. You’re going to pick a bad strategy. Sometimes you’re going to simply put the right lure inches in front of decent fish, and they’re just not going to bite.
How do you prepare for that?
In my case, I should have started by telling myself to lower my hopes a bit. A good practice doesn’t mean that your plan is going to work on tournament day. The gap between expectations and outcome defines our response. When it’s a huge deviation to the positive, we experience elation. When it’s a huge deviation to the negative, let’s just say our response is generally pretty crappy. Manage that gap, and you can help manage your response.
But moreso than that inward focus?
Find joy in the success of others.
Sometimes you’re the one with the good day. But when it’s not your day, that simply means that it is going to be someone else’s. Revel in their success. Share in their happiness. Make sure they know you’re happy for them, and do your part to make their day even better.
That’s what sets the kayak community apart, at least in my opinion. There are some really great anglers, no doubt. Some really fun competitions for sure, and even some big money to be won.
But the heart of it all is the kayak fishing community.
Be part of what makes it great. Make a difference in someone else’s day every time you get a chance, and keep kayak fishing great!
(If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading my rambles!)