The end of my tournament season was really busy, starting off with the Elite Series Angler of the Year event in Escanaba, Michigan. I didn’t have much to gain or much to lose because I’d already solidified my position in the Bassmaster Classic and was out of the running for the AOY title. Nevertheless, we’d heard that the Bays de Noc were great fisheries with monster smallmouths and that you could catch them any way you wanted – dropshot, topwater, Chatterbait, swimbait, etc. That excited me, even though there wasn’t a lot of money at stake.
Unfortunately, despite it being a large body of water, it fished quite small. There was some ultra-productive water, but also a lot of dead acreage. When the wind blows it fishes even smaller and it definitely howled while we were there, to the tune of three canceled days. We finally finished up on Monday and that led to a long drive to North Carolina for the final Southern Open of the year.
I have a fair amount of experience on Norman and it was no secret that the tournament was likely to be won on docks this time of year. There are docks everywhere, so the goal was to isolate the area that had the best chance of producing the winning weight and then dial in its potential over the three days of competition.
During the practice period, I narrowed down my approach to two main presentations: For the first hour or so, when there were low-light conditions, I’d hit up to 20 or 30 spots with a ½ ounce white Lunker Lure buzzbait, trying to catch fish that had pulled up to feed overnight. If I could catch three or four keepers doing that, then I could pick up my ½ ounce Lunker Lure Limit Series jig and hit the docks. Tipped with a Missile Baits D Bomb, it very closely mimics the bluegills and crawdads that hide in that shade.
I was pretty confident that I was around the right caliber of fish, but I knew that my ability to make the top twelve would depend on whether I got a quality bite each day. On the first day of competition I got it, a 3 ½ pound largemouth that had me in 3rd place with 13-08. Then on Day Two the weather changed. It was cloudy and rainy and the fish were looser on the docks. Using the buzzbait and the jig, along with a Sammy 115 topwater, I added 11-03 and remained in 3rd place.
Heading into the final day I was only a little over 2 pounds out of the lead, but on Norman that seems like a huge deficit. There was no reason to abandon my game plan. After the rain exited it was clear and windy. My topwater bite was ok, but the jig bite died as a result of the front, so I switched from the bigger jig to a Lunker Lure shakey head tipped with a 4-inch Zoom Finesse Worm to finish out my limit. I knew that I probably couldn’t win on the little worm so once I had five in the livewell I went back to the jig. It just didn’t work out and my catch of 7-12 dropped me to 7th place.
Andy Montgomery performed masterfully to earn the win. He has a lot of history on Norman and lots of places to visit, so as my fish depleted he kept expanding. Overall, though, I’m pretty satisfied because a top ten on Norman is something to be proud of.
That tournament ended the year for me just as I started it – strong. By finishing 4th in the points in the Southern Opens I requalified for the Elite Series that way, as well as through the Elites themselves. Also, I’ll be fishing the Toyota Texas Bass Classic on Lake Fork in May as well as the February Bassmaster Classic. I feel very blessed. I’ve worked hard to advance as an angler and it’s gratifying to see the fruits of those labors.
Of course none of this would’ve been possible without the help of my sponsors. A 1 ounce Lunker Lure jig fished on Denali Rods and Gamma Line gave me the confidence to swing hard all year long. Jasper Engines and Transmissions enabled me to be out there doing what I love to do. My Phoenix boat and my Humminbird electronics did not give me a moment of trouble, allowing me to focus 100 percent on my job. Few other anglers have that kind of support system.
After Norman, we headed straight to Hartwell to do a little bit of pre-Classic scouting. I didn’t fish much, instead spending hours upon hours graphing with my Humminbird 1198, both side-imaging and down-imaging, trying to refamiliarize myself with the lake’s contours. When I arrive for the official practice, I want to know not only how to navigate safely, but where every little ditch and brushpile might sit. I’ve had a great season, and that leaves me fired up about the next one.
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Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year Championship, Bays de Noc, Escanaba, Michigan
39th Place; 10 fish, 26-05
Bassmaster Southern Open, Lake Norman, Charlotte, North Carolina
7th Place 15 fish, 32-07