By Eric Jackson
Tournament fishing, at any level, can be fun, entertaining and challenging, as well as frustrating. It is a test of both strategy, implementation of strategy, tactics, and adaptation to the unknowns. While it may not be for everyone, many people love the extra challenge and layers of complexity it brings to their hobby or profession of fishing.
While I have been fishing my whole life, I am new to tournament fishing. I like to win, and mostly like the preparation that goes into creating a winning strategy and learning the winning tactics. I also am a big fan of competition day where you get to put yourself and your strategy to the test. This is what drove me for the past 35 years in my whitewater competition career and what also drives me today in fishing.
My most recent tournament was the Riverbassin National Championships right here in TN where I was able to fish close to home in rivers I am familiar with. I trained almost daily, trying different sections of the different rivers in the area and found some amazingly large Spotted Bass on several sections and was able to put up over 60″ of fish (three fish averaging over 20″ long) in the last few training sessions, fishing for 5 hours each. What I didn’t do was to find Large Mouth Bass and didn’t know where to find them in my area. I committed to the strategy of catching Spotted Bass and had a plan of two different locations. Rock Island on the Caney Fork where we (Steve Fisher and I were on a team as well as fishing as individuals) could fish for 1 hour and in that hour in training I was able to catch a limit every time. From there we would shoot over to the Collins River, a tributary to the Caney Fork and run a 4-5 hour section that I was able to catch another 4-5 large Spotted Bass and Smallmouth Bass in on the two trips I did down it. Here is a video of training on the Collins:
I was having great luck fishing with the Strike King Swim Jig in sexy shad, using a Menace trailer in white as well as a Hack Attack Structure Jig in Green pumpkin with Menace Trailers in a variety of greens/browns. The swim jig was my go-to for open water and the structure jig was my lay-down flipping jig.
From my training, I had a winning plan. First cast on the Caney Fork at 7am- likely catch a limit by 7:45, load up and shoot over to the Collins River with Steve and I leaving his truck at the take out and mine at the put-in- catch another 4-5 big fish and another 10-20 smaller ones each. Load up at 2pm and make it to the check-in by 3:30. I had the locations, I was able to catch what would be the winning bag the final three training sessions in a row, and I had a team member that was fired up and ready to rock on my program.
Competition Day: We were in the water at 6:45 am and i was in position to cast at 7am. When my phone hit 7 am I made my first cast to the bottom of a rapid, where the Spots can’t get any further. BAM! I huge hit on the eddy line only a few feet from where I threw the Swim Jig. I set the hook hard and snap! My line broke clean off. I had just put a new 12 pound floro leader on 30 pound braid and tied on the jig the night before. It made no sense to me but obviously I somehow had a knick in the line, or something. Frustrated because there are typically only 2-3 big fish at the bottom of each rapid we intended to hit and I just turned the first big one of the day off from wanting to eat any time soon. It was my first cast, so I replaced that leader and started over, using the same exact color of Strike King swim jig that has been catching the big ones for the past week. My second cast I get another hit, but am a little anxious and set the hook too fast, losing it. I cast the small target area, that you can cover in about 20 casts really well another 10 times before finally getting my third hit and this time catching it. It was only a 14.5″ Spot, one that won’t do me much good if I hope to win, but at least I had something in the boat. Steve and I switched sides, and on the way over he had a 17″ spot already from the other channel with the rapid coming in. I fished that channel for another 20 minutes and didn’t get a hit. Steve fished my channel and got a few hits on a wacky worm ( Ocho) but didn’t hook up somehow and I think they were likely really small spots where he got the hits.
It was time to move to the Collins to assure we can fish the entire thing and still make it to check-in on time. Steve was hoping to spend some more time on the Caney Fork, but I was ready for the next river.
We arrive at the take-out of the Collins (VFW) and there were three other trucks there. I knew my other friends fishing there, Jase and James were planning on fishing the section below the VFW and had my fingers crossed that this was what the other competitors were doing. The Collins is only about 30 feet wide and can’t handle a crowd if you want to catch much.
Steve and I begin fishing down the Collins and there are so many awesome looking spots with grass, lay-downs, deep pockets, etc.. Steve catches a little Red-eye bass right away, but the hits were coming far apart and nothing big hitting. I finally started catching some in the deeper pockets about 3 hours downstream and got my limit, but they were all around 14″ long or less. Where are all of the big, fat spots that I was catching earlier that week?
Steve and I round the bend and there were two competitors on the edges of the next grass section. Hmm… OK, so we were fishing behind people. We paddled past them and since we tend to fish fast, kept going and I was expecting the bite to pick up, but it didn’t… Around the Next bend was another two fisherman, and then another two, and then a group of 4! OK- so, I made a poor plan and executed it poorly! I really didn’t think this section would get much traffic, if any, but it ended up being very popular.
My plan was flawed in that I planned on spending a lot of time on a river that I didn’t get to early and try to lead the way down, but showed up 2 hours into the tournament and was fishing behind over 10 people on a river that can’t handle more than 2-4 max before the fish shut-down. Looking back at it I had what was almost a great plan, but I needed to fish the Collins first and then fish the Caney Fork. The section of the Caney Fork we fished didn’t have anyone else go to it. We could have lead (I fish really fast) the entire way down the Collins and caught a limit and have access to big fish before they were targeted and either caught or scared. Then going over to the Caney Fork, where the Afternoon bite is usually just as good as morning, if not better and try cull any smaller fish with bigger ones.
I felt bad for Steve, who followed my lead in this event also had to fish for leftovers for 5 hours. I finished around 26th place versus the first place that any of my 60″ training runs would have produced. I am glad, (believe it or not) that I didn’t win, or get my 60″ that I expected. It was very helpful for me to have three major issues (broke a line, missed another big fish, fished an area that was already fished hard by a lot of people) in one tournament to learn from.
I went out with KC to the Caney fork and he caught a 17.5″ Spot the next day, showing that a 7 year old can do it, too, and that catching fish can go really well or really poorly depending on how you prepare and execute. The right lures, the right locations, but the wrong order of fishing them was the difference between an abundance of big fish and, well, not many and not very big fish.
My next tournament will likely be the FLW Walmart Pro Tour event at Okeechobee in Florida in February. This is a bigger stakes game with an entry fee of $4,200 and 160 of the top pro fisherman fishing out of bass boats. I’ll be in my new Ranger with an Evinrude G2- 250 hp motor, Raymarine Electronics, and Power-Pole blades. Equipment is top notch- lake is top notch- competition is top notch… Can I create and execute a strategy to perform well in my first Pro level bass tournament? Only time will tell! What I do know is that I am hooked and enjoying the entire process of trying to be the best fisherman I can be, and love fishing with my friends, team mates, and family!