What do The First B.A.S.S. Northern Open at Douglas Lake and my quest for the Elite Series in 2015 have in common? They’re over. That’s right. What began with me catching a six pounder on my first day of practice, ended when I checked in on day one Thursday with my first zero I’ve ever had. When I first arrived in Dandridge I was told “You’re either gonna love this lake, or you’re gonna hate it” and I can honestly say I felt both.
At the end of the day Tuesday I was nervously feeling over confident. I had a huge school of big fish, I knew where they were hanging out, what time they ate, and how to catch them. I only briefly checked on them Wednesday morning to make sure they were still there before taking my boat out at 11 am. I say nervously because I had tournaments in the past where my great practices turned into horrible events and I had a lot riding on this one. It was my first Open as a boater, and The Weather Channel was coming to film me at the weigh-in on Thursday, interview me after, and follow me all day Friday.
No pressure at all.
I have a really late boat draw, near 160 out of nearly 190. From the very beginning I’m conflicted. My big school is at the far back end of Muddy Creek. I know other anglers saw me catch a 5 pounder there on Sunday, and while I know those fish won’t eat until 9 or 9:30 am, I’m afraid that if I don’t go there first thing, I will find someone else on it. I might find someone on it anyhow. I have other areas, but they’re smaller fish, nothing I found in practice is like this area: caught two big ones, and saw one near 10 pounds not 40 yards away. So I go there first, and I’m the only one there.
By noon we have nothing. I can’t find a fish on my graph. It’s a ghost town, both in terms of my fish and my confidence. The one thing that has always been my strength, my perseverance, is but a memory, and I’m left with nothing but a growing fear that my worst nightmare will come true. I run the lake, hitting almost every waypoint I have, and between the two of us we only catch two keeper largemouth. And mine is on the edge. I measure it 8 times, and 6 times it’s short. With an awful pain in my stomach I throw it back. I go on a tear, and catch 8 fish on 9 casts, all of them four pounders, all of them smallmouth.
None of them big enough to keep.
True heartbreak has now taken over.
At the end of the day, I limp back to the dock with my first zero. The Elite Series dream left another year away, yet again. I know I’m better than that, and that I can compete at that level. I was staying with Chris and Woo Daves while I was down there. Chris said “You’re gonna be real nervous when they film you. My first ever Classic I rolled up to my first spot, camera on me, I dropped the trolling motor, turned around, and stepped right off the boat!”
So did I, in a sense.
When I looked back at the data from my personal weather station later that night I saw spike in temperature of about 7 degrees. What I didn’t expect was for that small increase to drive my fish out towards the main lake. I learned a hard lesson, and knew that moving forward I would have to commit to fish that were already out of the creeks. Those fish were already in their summer homes and would be less impacted by small increases like that.
I’m more relaxed than I’ve ever been. I have nothing to lose. I can only improve from Day 1. I skip the big fish, and go run my points and secondary points. My co-angler for the day is in good shape and I want him to do well. Those memories of being in his shoes are still too fresh for me. I spend more time talking to the camera than I do fishing, putting him in good position to hit points, docks, pontoons. He has a decent limit and is culling fish by 9, an added bonus to being boat 59. I decide to go check on my big fish, just because it’s close to their lunch time if they in fact return, and if they do, they have the kind of weight that can change your tournament in a hurry.
And sure enough, they’re there.
But so are thousands of gizzard shad. Big gizzard shad, some of them look like they would almost keep. The water is boiling all around us, and I have never seen anything like it. I’ve seen smallmouth on Oneida crush shad at the surface, but those are small, tiny in comparison. These shad are huge, and the fish busting them are giants. I manage a straggler off a point that’s 2 pounds. Nothing else touches anything we throw at them. That’s the pain of shad that big and in that size school: bass have more than enough food and will rarely eat your lures. The cameraman, producer, and boat operator are in awe, it’s an amazing sight to behold, and it brings me a strange peace to know that I was right all along, and had found winning fish.
We run to a few more spots, all produce mediocre fish, and decide to finish the day near Shady Grove, where I lose one of my biggest fish of the week on my last cast, two feet from the boat.
I remember watching that fish slowly fade into the darkness, as if even she couldn’t believe that she’d gotten away, and thinking to myself This whole week will end just like that: where I was on the verge of accomplishing my life’s dream, but had to watch it slowly slip away.
Just one more year. I can handle that. Until then, I’ll be swinging for the fences at the next two opens. With water that’s much more my style, where brownfish that weigh 4 pounds cash checks, and where I’ll better understand the data from my weather station.