By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

Sheldon Collings’ to-do list for his rookie season on the FLW Tour consisted of two bullet points really. They were:

> No bombs (any finish of 100th or worse);
> Win Rookie of the Year.

After six events, it appeared as though he’d be able to stamp the words “Mission Accomplished” across his checklist. Then along came Lake St. Clair, a fertile fishery notorious for coughing up big stringers of smallmouth and a place Collings had not seen before. He liked what he saw in practice and figured 18 to 20 pounds per day was feasible.

The 20-year-old from Grove, Okla., sacked a modest 15-09 on day 1, but that was only good enough for 127th place. Suddenly, both of his goals were in jeopardy as other rookies got off to strong starts. Matt Becker, who trailed Collings by 73 points prior to St. Clair, opened with 20-08 and was in 26th place. Tyler Stewart and Cody Hahner, third and fourth, respectively, in the ROY race, also had strong starts.

“On day 1, I ran all the way to the mouth of Lake Huron and pulled up on a spot and on my first cast caught a 5, then a 4,” Collings said. “Then the school disappeared, so I ran back down the river and into St. Clair and filled my limit.”

Collings knew he needed a bigger stringer on day 2, but he stumbled for the first time all season, coming in with two fish for 3-07, which led to a 170th-place finish and the disappointment that comes with failing to achieve his primary goals.

“On day 2, I drifted in St. Clair all day and never did any good,” he said. “I pulled up on what I considered a limit spot and my co-angler caught 21 with close to a 7-pound kicker. I expected to do a heck of a lot better, but I didn’t fish my strengths. I didn’t run to the mouth of Huron. I should’ve done the same thing, but I put too much thought into it. I thought I needed big bag to win Rookie of the Year when in reality I only needed 15 pounds. Basically, I got my butt kicked by my co-angler.”

He was 22nd in Angler of the Year points prior to St. Clair, but slipped to 46th at season’s end – he wound up 4th in ROY points – denying him a chance to say he qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup via points in his first season. It was the ultimate double whammy for a young angler. Instead, Collings will head to Lake Ouachita thanks to his 11th-place finish at the 2017 FLW Series Championship.

“I was tore up about it and am just now getting over it, but I would rather win the Cup than Rookie of the Year any day,” he added. “It’s what we all shoot for and that’s more of a big deal for me. I was upset about Rookie of the Year, but the Cup is the biggest tournament in bass fishing and it’s also $300,000.”

Despite the disappointment emanating from the season finale, he said having the Cup ticket in hand allowed him to be more at ease on the water throughout the season.

“(Having the Cup made) allowed me to fish with less stress,” Collings said. “Everybody else has been stressing all year to catch 12 (pounds) this day or 14 that day to get this many points. It’s been nice as a rookie to just go out and fish. That’s a lot less stress I had to put on myself. It made it easier on me.”

Ignoring the Chatter

The season wasn’t without its challenges, though. Of the seven tournament sites, Kentucky Lake was the only venue he’d seen previously. In addition, he had to navigate the landscape of ever-present muddled chatter known as dock talk.

With finishes ranging from 20th (Smith Lake) to 73rd (Harris Chain of Lakes), Collings was unfazed by the plethora of new lakes he encountered. The dock talk was another matter, though.

“The biggest challenge was hearing the dock talk and how it was this bait and color in this depth of water,” he said. “I’m open to anything so it was like, ‘I’ll go do it for a whole day and waste that day.’ The next two days I’d do I what I want to do.”

He said the dock talk was the loudest at Lake Okeechobee and at the Harris Chain.

“Those were the two toughest tournaments I’ve ever fished in my life,” he said. “I had fished a couple Florida lakes before, but nothing like those with nothing but grass. I basically relied on what people told me to do.”

After that, the schedule trended more to his strengths as he settled into life as a Tour rookie.

“Once we got to Lanier, it was more my style with a spinning rod and shaky head and dropshot,” he said.

Four Close Calls

For any FLW Tour rookie, a good start to the season is critical. So, too, is finishing in the money.

While Collings had a solid first half of the year with four straight finishes in the top 75, he found himself just outside check range each time. At Okeechobee, he missed a $10,000 payday by 14 ounces. At Harris Chain, the deficit was 1-06. The difference at Lanier (six ounces) and Lake Cumberland (five ounces) stung just the same.

“That hurt,” he said. “They were still good finishes, but being so close to getting a $10,000 check and having it slip out of your hands by one or two places or a fish or two was hard. I’m fortunate to have support from my sponsors and family and they kept telling me that I’m right there and they’ll start coming.”

Sure enough, with a 19th-place effort at Smith Lake, Collings banked his first Tour payday. Admittedly, he attacked the first few events with a money-first mindset, meaning he stepped outside his comfort zone a bit. At Smith, he fished his strengths and it paid off.

“In the other tournaments, I fished differently trying to cash a check,” he said. “When I put the other stuff down and fished how I wanted to, I caught them.”

At Kentucky Lake, he pulled off a 100-place rally on day 2 with a 20-01 stringer to finish 46th and strengthen his grip on the lead in the Rookie of the Year race.

“I still can’t complain,” he said. “This is my first year on Tour. I wasn’t coming out to make money. I should’ve had that mindset, but I didn’t. I didn’t expect to cash checks in every event. I’m just a 20-year-old trying to make a dream come true. Cashing (at Smith and Kentucky) helped. That calmed me down.”

Part of New Generation

Collings hopes to add his name to the list of anglers to come out of Oklahoma and build a successful pro career around his tournament performances. He calls Grand Lake home, but has developed an affinity for finesse fishing, which runs contrary to what others from the Sooner State prefer.

“(Before St. Clair), I’d never been up north before, but I knew if I can have a spinning rod in my hand and look at my electronics and dropshot on fish, I’m perfectly content,” he said. “You don’t hear that from a guy from northeastern Oklahoma.”

He said it’s a product of being part of a technologically-proficient generation.

“Being younger, it’s all technology with cell phones, computers and iPads,” he said. “I really learned how to read a graph this year. I used to despise it because I couldn’t read them. I learned how to use it to find a bass on 2-D, SideScan and DownScan.

“I have known how to dropshot on fish for two years, but this year I figured out how to find schools in 30 to 50 feet and know how they’re set up to catch them. Being younger and knowing how to read it, it’s a huge tool for me.”

Grand is just one in a diverse family of lakes in northeastern Oklahoma that he’s been able to develop his skillset on. At Grand, he’s refined his finesse game, but can also flip flooded willow trees.

At Tenkiller Lake, he can chase big smallmouth off bluffs in clear water. He can fish grass at Lake Eucha. Same with Lake Spavinaw, where frog fishing and punching are popular techniques.

“Northeast Oklahoma has everything a guy needs to learn,” he said. “If I wanted to learn how fish different lakes, this is the area you can take knowledge from and go all over the world. It’s why a lot of big names from here are so good elsewhere because we have access to diverse lakes close to each other.”