By Todd Ceisner
Not much gets Ott DeFoe off his game these days.
The current points leader in the Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year chase, DeFoe prides himself on being able to break down a given fishery and focus on where his best opportunities lie for the tournament. More often than not, he comes away with a top-50 finish and a nice payday.
That’s happened at every tournament so far this season. One would think that with two top-12s and another finish of 15th under his belt that everything would have fallen in his favor so far.
That’s largely been the case, except for day 3 at Ross Barnett Reservoir in Mississippi. DeFoe had made the day-2 cut in 46th place with 23-11, leaving him plenty of room to move up the leaderboard and gain more AOY points.
The morning was slow as he was fishing a backwater area up the Pearl River where the water conditions had changed. Hence, DeFoe only had one fish and he was struggling to get anything going.
“I went in there and there had been a couple guys crappie fishing,” DeFoe said. “They were super nice and said if they were in my way, I could say so and they’d leave. I told them not to worry. I go back and there are some other guys bass fishing and they go past me and start fishing. It was a small area and it is what it is, but I allowed that to bother me much more than it should. It was hard to turn that off.”
DeFoe eventually turned and started to fish his way out of the area. He noticed the locals turned as well and were fishing behind him.
“The one guy catches a 2-pounder and I was like, ‘Don’t say anything,’” DeFoe said, trying to talk himself out of getting spun out.
He couldn’t hold in his frustration, though, and muttered, “It doesn’t matter because they’re not going to bite now.”
“It was 10:30 and as soon as I said it, I knew I wouldn’t catch another fish the rest of the day,” DeFoe said. “My mental state was done. I let my emotions get out of check for 5 minutes and it undermined the rest of my day.”
He wound up slipping to 51st with only one fish that day, but it’s really been the only dim spot in an otherwise sterling season so far for the Knoxville, Tenn., native.
“It definitely has been a good year to this point,” he said last week during a Major League Fishing event. “It’s been good, but Barnett still stings. Having one fish on day 3 and giving up a lot of points.”
While he did relinquish the points lead to Jason Christie for two events, DeFoe bounced back with a 15th-place showing at Lake Dardanelle and will carry a nine-point advantage over Jacob Wheeler into the circuit’s Northern swing when the schedule resumes at the St. Lawrence River on July 20-23.
Right Bite, Right Time
DeFoe says one thing that has stood out to him this season, and even going back to the second half of the 2016 campaign, has been his knack for hooking (and landing) key fish at key moments.
Last year, during his win at the Mississippi River, he caught a 6-plus pounder on day 2 to anchor his bag that day. Back in February at Lake Okeechobee, where he eventually finished 2nd to Timmy Horton, he caught a 6 1/2-pounder with 5 minutes left on day 2.
“There have been instances like that at nearly every tournament,” he said. “Another big thing is usually I’m a day-2 comeback guy. This year, on day 1 I’ve hit them good, but struggled to keep it going. Having a good start feels like the rest of the tournament goes smoother. Definitely getting those key big bites at big times and landing them is big.”
Over the past 13 full-field Elite Series tournaments, he’s placed in the money 12 times. The one missed cut came last August at the Potomac River, where he was 6 ounces shy of fishing on day 3 and had to settle for 51st. In his last 13 tour-level events, he has nine top-15 finishes.
It’s a comparable run to the one he put together (15 checks in 16 full field events) upon moving to the Elite Series in 2011 after five seasons of competing on FLW’s top circuit.
“It’s been similar to those first two years. I remember catching big fish here and there and a 5-pounder here and there goes such a long way and does so much for your confidence,” he said. “That and catching fish late in the day. It seems like some years you can’t get a fish late in the day to cull and some years, every good fish is in the last 30 minutes.”
Capturing his first victory in the full-field Elite Series at La Crosse, Wis., last summer was an eye-opener, DeFoe said. He’d won a post-season All-Star event and a Bassmaster Open, but winning at the highest level of the sport carried much more meaning and showed him the importance of fishing the moment.
“One of the biggest things I learned from that and in general over the last year or two is how many fish I used to leave in an area,” he said. “I’d go through an area on day 1 and catch a decent bag and then say, ‘I’ll save it for tomorrow once I get in check range.’ Many times I’ll come back on day 2 and the conditions will have changed and the fish aren’t biting and I have to find something new. I’m worrying less about tomorrow now and more about today.”
DeFoe knows the week of ICAST will be dominated by talk of him leading the Elite Series points race. He’ll take it in stride and try not to let it affect his mental preparation for the next event (practice for the St. Lawrence River starts the Monday following ICAST).
“I’m just staying grounded,” he said. “I know that’s all anybody will want to talk about, but when I’m not there, it won’t be what I’m thinking about at all. I’m trying to separate the business on and business off the water.”
When asked if he were to place a bet on himself in Las Vegas to win the AOY, he balked.
“I wouldn’t go to Vegas because that’s a good way to lose,” he said. “It’s a crapshoot. Even if I finished 30th in points, I’ll be hard on myself for not having done better. If I win, I’m still going to say I should’ve won by more due to Barnett.”
DeFoe has history at all of the lakes left on the schedule, except for Minnesota’s Lake Pokegawa, which will host the Angler of the Year Championship. While some view past experience as a positive, DeFoe is indifferent.
“I don’t like history, honestly, but at the same time it should always help,” he said. “My anxiety level is higher when I don’t have any, but for my way of fishing it typically works out better. The first time we went to Waddington, I finished 3rd, which was my best Elite Series finish at the time. The next time we went there I did terribly, so I’m hit and miss up north.”