What a way to start the year! I’ve made no secret of the fact that I wanted to win a high-level event. In late 2013 I won the Bassmaster Wild Card to qualify for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic, and that just whetted my appetite for bigger things. Now, by winning the first B.A.S.S. Open of 2015, and thereby becoming the first qualifier for the 2016 Classic, I feel that I’m really starting to show that I can compete anywhere, anytime, against anyone, and have a fighting chance to come out on top.
This wasn’t an easy tournament for anyone, as you can see by all of the top sticks who had one good day and then struggled on the next. Most people said it couldn’t be won in Toho. I disagreed and while everyone else bumped boats in the locks, I stayed in the first lake and did what I do best – flip heavy grass.
During the course of my practice, I came to the realization that Toho was where I’d fish throughout the tournament. It was clean from one end to the other and the vegetation looked good everywhere. I spent some time in Kissimmee and thought that I could cut a check there, but it didn’t have the consistent big fish potential of Toho. After a 30 pound day in tough conditions, my mind was made up that I’d live and die in the upper lake.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Florida in recent years, and I’ve learned that you have to focus on several main things this time of year. First of all, are the fish bedding? That doesn’t mean you’ll sight fish for them, but it tells you where to look. Or are they offshore, like when Gerald Swindle won on the shell beds? Finally, are they coming and going from shallow areas? Toho is usually the last lake in the chain for the fish to move up. They still like to go shallow, but at this time of year there are typically a few more pre-spawners there than in the other lakes. It’s also critical to watch the wind – that’s what killed my chances two years ago, when I didn’t look out for it and many of my best places got blown out.
During practice, it’s all about keeping the lake honest, making sure that no likely pattern escapes your attention. I quickly learned that the offshore bite wasn’t happening and that while there weren’t a tremendous number of big fish up shallow, I could get a big bite here and there. I gradually learned that most of the fish were in transition – not shallow, not out in the open – and over time I revealed little pieces of the puzzle by checking out different areas and different types of vegetation. The important connection was that every place I got a good bite had clumps of hydrilla connected to the bottom.
his being Florida, a drastic cold front rolled in ahead of the tournament, dropping the water temperature from 72 to 57. As it crept back up, though, we got a sunny day and I busted a 30 pound bag. That told me that I had it dialed in.
On the first day, it was just a matter of surviving. With 145 boats locking down, it felt like I had Toho all to myself, and my 16-12 had me in 12place. That was higher than I thought it would place me.
Day Two’s weather report called for sunshine and I had a long day of fishing. I expected that meant that the afternoon bite would be strong and while I didn’t really catch much before 10:30, after 1 o’clock the fishing was insane. Between 1:30 and 4:30 I probably caught 45 fish. The key was my one decent bite, a 4 ½ pounder, that brought me up around 14 pounds. That fish told me what I’d do on Day Three….if there was a Day Three. I wasn’t sure that I’d hold onto my place in the Top 12 and I was packed and ready to go home, but was pleasantly surprised to find out that I’d actually moved up three places, to 9. Tackle prep was easy that night – retie my two flipping sticks and get a good night’s sleep.
When I got up at 4am, I could see that the conditions were perfect for a good day of flipping. It was crystal clear without a breath of wind. I started off on my good stuff, and when the sun had just barely gotten up at 8am I caught my first fish. Ten minutes later I caught a heavy 4 pounder and I knew I’d made the right decision. Then 30 minutes after that I caught another heavy 4. At 10 o’clock I caught a third carbon copy of that fish. I still had a couple of small guys in my limit, and I told my co-angler that I needed 25 pounds to have a shot at winning. It was crucial to fish slowly, and that’s hard to do when you’re trying to make up ground.
Sometime between 12:30 and 1, I headed to one isolated clump I remembered and that’s when I caught the fish I needed. It was 7 ½ pounds, a true game-changer that gave me a shot to win. I still had one about a pound and a half in the livewell, and I needed to get rid of it. Ten minutes or so later I caught another one and culled, but it only gave me about 6 or 8 more ounces. I had 90 minutes left but could never upgrade again. I was absolutely heartbroken, thinking that I had given up my chance to win. The truth is that it was tough out there, and when the chatter started at the weigh-in site I got my hopes back up again. It turned out I didn’t need one more big fish. With 22-03 I held off Florida native Bobby Lane by almost 3 pounds.
I’m thrilled to be able to report on this big win, and in hindsight, I think there were several keys. First off, even though Kissimmee is a big lake, only certain areas were productive and the tremendous pressure hurt those areas. Second, I forced myself to slow down. Talking to some other competitors after the event, I realized that many of them succumbed to pressure and fished faster when the bite got tough. That’s a recipe for disaster.
I won the way I like to fish, with a 7’11” Denali J2 Series flipping stick in my hand. I paired it with a Shimano Ci4 casting reel (7.6:1) spooled with 40 lb. test Gamma Torque braided line. My key bait was a Missile Baits Baby D Bomb in Bruiser Flash (black/blue) with a Reins 1 ½ or 2 ounce tungsten weight, depending on the thickness of the cover. I’ve switched from a 4/0 Gamakatsu Super Heavy Cover flipping hook to a 3/0 and I feel that has improved my hookup percentage substantially. It may go against the grain, but it works for me.
One final equipment note: The first tournament after I picked up my last boat, a Phoenix 920, was the Wild Card that I won. This was my first tournament in my new Phoenix 921, and I won it, too. I’m going to lobby Gary Clouse of Phoenix to build me a new boat for every tournament now. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Seriously, this win is huge for my confidence heading into both the 2015 Classic on Hartwell and the 2015 Elite Series season generally. Not only does it provide some financial help, but it allows me to fish without any pressure. That could be dangerous for me or for the competition – that remains to be seen – but I’m going to take some chances and see where that leads me. I’m fishing well and I’d like that success to snowball.
Next up is the Hartwell Classic. With a handful of Classics under my belt, I know that it is a tournament like no other. We’re so busy during the week that it feels like you only have two hours to fish rather than eight. The lesson I take from this win on Toho is that when that’s the case, you focus on things you do well, in areas that you know can produce. It sounds simple, but it’s harder than it sounds. By focusing on the known variables, I was able to win this week and I’m going to carry that mindset forward.
1st Place; 5 fish, 52-07