By Todd Ceisner
For much of his Elite Series career, which dates back to the 2007 season, Jason Williamson has fished mostly with one solitary goal in mind – winning.
To borrow a line from Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” That’s been Williamson’s mantra over the years and he makes no qualms (or apologies) about his approach, which served him well as he collected two wins and a runner-up finish in the span of 14 events between March 2009 and May 2010. Since then, however, the fish-to-win mindset hasn't led the tall South Carolinian to any more blue trophies.
He’s fine with that. He’s logged just three top-12 finishes in full-field Elite Series tournaments since his last victory at Clarks Hill Lake. His points finishes have also reflected the go-for-it strategy with only one top-30 finish in his first nine years on the circuit.
“I’m a little different from other guys,” Williamson said. “I fish to win every event. I’ve learned over the years to be more of a points fisherman, but growing up, I didn’t try to points fish and back up and punt and go to a brush pile and throw a shaky-head. You can tell by how many times I’ve been in the Classic how hard-headed I am.
“I just fish for big ones or try to at least,” he added. “I like to feel that I’m putting myself in the position to win everywhere I go. When practice doesn’t go well and I don’t think I’ve found the winning fish, I keep trying to find a way to win.”
In March, he’ll compete in his second career Bassmaster Classic, a reward for his second-half rally in 2016 that carried him from 63rd in points with three events left to 29th at season’s end.
After a season-worst 82nd at Cayuga Lake, he closed the season with a 19th at the Potomac River, a 14th at the Mississippi River and took 7th at the Angler of the Year Championship at Mille Lacs Lake. It was the first time in his career he’d strung together three straight top-20 finishes and it resulted in him earning a trip to Texas to compete at Lake Conroe.
“Cayuga was a big eye-opener for me,” Williamson said. “I laid off some fish on day 1. I probably could’ve caught 18 or 19 pounds, but other guys were around me and I was doing something different and I didn’t want them to see me doing it.
“It lit a fire under me. That was the turning point for me. I told myself I had to make better decisions and work harder because the places we go, 17 or 18 pounds isn’t good enough anymore.”
Williamson’s only previous trip to the Classic was in 2011 at the Louisiana Delta, where he finished a distant 47th in the event in which Kevin VanDam set the modern record for heaviest winning weight. He went for the win there and came up short, but that’s how he’s wired.
“I have a Classic mentality at every event,” Williamson said. “I don’t want to finish 31st because nobody remembers who finishes there or 5th. I don’t even remember who was 2nd at the Classic last year.”
In recent years, as the level of competition in the Elite Series has increased, he’s tried to find a middle ground between focusing on winning and knowing when to salvage the best finish he can.
“As time has rolled on, the competition has improved,” he said. “It’s almost like you have to fish for the win to make the Classic. You have to be good everywhere and you have to catch big ones everywhere. You don’t have any advantages anymore. I’ve had to learn how to fish around the United States because when I started, there was a Lake Murray or Clarks Hill (home lakes) on the schedule, but that’s not the case anymore.
“It all goes back to work ethic and keeping my nose to the grindstone. There were a couple years I could’ve worked harder, but I didn’t. I finally realized that to be successful I need to work all the time. The competition has gotten better and I want to be better, too. It’s a hard balance.”
His failure to qualify for more than one Classic before this year hasn’t weighed on him, though.
“I don’t look at it as not making the Classic has been detrimental,” he said. “Sure, I’d love to make it every year but in the whole scheme of things, the Classic is not everything to me where it might be to someone else. I enjoy going and I’m trying to be a better points fisherman to be at the Classic because that’s our Super Bowl and we need to be there. I feel blessed to be able to go again.”
Giddy For Conroe
When the conversation shifts to bass fishing in Texas, Williamson can’t get enough. Four of his seven top-10 Elite Series finishes, including a win at Lake Amistad in 2009, have come in the Lone Star State.
He has yet to wet a line at Conroe, but he’s already anticipating it’ll suit his power-fishing style and he especially likes that it’s a lake with defined boundaries.
“I have been in Texas in March and April and have had success,” he said. “It’s on a lake, not a system like the (Louisiana) Delta so I’m looking forward to it being on a lake in Texas. My confidence level there is high. I will spend a decent amount of time over there trying to learn my way around. At that time of the year at Conroe, the locals will be tough but it could be time for a South Carolina guy to win and I hope that’s me.”
The early spring timing of this year’s Classic rather than a late winter tournament has Williamson thinking big.
“When it’s March, fish are up shallower either spawning or post-spawn and throwing a jig shallow is what I like to do. All of those (Texas) lakes have really big fish in them. That’s why it’s maybe the best bass fishing state in the country.
“There’s such a positive vibe at the Classic. The possibilities are endless. We could have a great start to the season and have a lot of momentum and that could be a game-changer.”
More over, he’s excited for the opportunity to have his family soak up the Classic experience with him in a big city like Houston.
“My kids are getting older and for them to get to go and see their dad compete means a lot as well,” he said. “There is nothing like putting your boat in and knowing you have a shot at it all. My sons are ate up with fishing and for them to be involved in it with me, it means a lot.”