By Todd Ceisner
Editor's note: In observance of the Thanksgiving holiday, a new First Cast article will not appear until Monday, Nov. 26.
One of the hallmarks of the Bassmaster Elite Series, since its inception in 2006, has been the scheduling of tournaments in consecutive weeks – “back-to-backs” as they’re aptly named.
Some competitors live for the two-week grind that comes with having tournaments one after the other while others favor a schedule that’s more spread out such as FLW has adhered to with its Tour circuit. There are plenty of factors that go into having a successful back-to-back sequence. From packing the right variety of tackle for both events to eating right and not overworking oneself in practice, any number of things can alter the recipe for running the two-week (or longer) tournament gauntlet.
Counting this year’s Mississippi River/Lake Oahe doubleheader, there have been 28 instances of four-day, full-field points tournaments scheduled one after the other since the start of the Elite Series. The practice was more prevalent in the years immediately after the Elite Series was born – 2018 was the first time since 2013 that there were multiple back-to-backs in one season – but it’s still something B.A.S.S. is willing to incorporate when the calendar and venue proximity allow.
The 2019 Elite Series schedule has three back-to-backs on it – St. Johns River/Lake Lanier, Lake Hartwell/Winyah Bay and St. Lawrence River/Cayuga Lake – the most in one season since 2011.
According to a BassFan analysis of angler performance in Elite Series tournaments held in consecutive weeks, some anglers clearly have fared much better than others, on average, in back-to-back scenarios. Kevin VanDam, for instance, recorded six of his 10 Elite Series victories in the midst of back-to-backs with three coming on the back end of the doubleheaders.
Van Dam is one of 37 anglers who has competed in all 28 regular season Elite Series back-to-backs. He leads or is tied for the lead in five statistical categories related to performance in those events. They are:
> Average finish in first event (20.64)
> Overall average finish (25.29)
> Most top-50 finishes: 45
> Most top-12 finishes: 22
> Top 12 in both events: 6 times (tied with Skeet Reese)
With his move to the Bass Pro Tour in 2019, however, VanDam (among many others) is likely to have competed in his last Elite Series back-to-back. Of the Elite Series holdovers, six have competed in all 28 back-to-back sequences.
While the Elite Series schedule was the focal point of this analysis, it’s worth noting that from 2010 to 2015, the Elite Series and FLW Tour schedules did not conflict, which allowed several anglers to compete on both trails simultaneously. As a result, those anglers faced a number of sequences during which they competed three weeks in a row (nine times during that span), four weeks in a row (four times) or even six straight weeks (one occurrence).
Here is a rundown of some key categories uncovered by the analysis (min. 8 back-to-backs):
Best Average Finish – First Event
1. Kevin VanDam: 20.64
2. Skeet Reese: 25.00
3. Clifford Pirch: 29.25
4. Aaron Martens: 29.32
5. Bill Lowen: 32.35
Best Average Finish – Second Event
1. Ott DeFoe: 23.07
2. David Walker: 26.29
3. Edwin Evers: 28.00
4. Kevin VanDam: 30.33
5. Keith Combs: 32.07
Best Average Finish – All Back-to-Back Tournaments
1. Kevin VanDam: 25.29
2. Skeet Reese: 30.01
3. Aaron Martens: 31.36
4. Ott DeFoe: 31.79
5. Edwin Evers: 33.30
David Walker has had both good and bad experiences with back-to-back tournaments.
Best Average Improvement Between First and Second Events
1. David Walker: +28.64
2. Bradley Roy: +17.53
3. Ott DeFoe: +17.43
4. Paul Elias: +16.29
5. Kelley Jaye: + 16.25
Biggest Average Drop Between First and Second Events
1. James Elam: -35.75
2. Cliff Prince: -25.40
3. Clifford Pirch: -19.50
4. Hank Cherry: -16.125
5. Bill Lowen: -14.89
Most Top-50 Finishes in Back-to-Backs
1. Kevin VanDam: 45
2. Skeet Reese: 44
3. Aaron Martens: 42
4. Takahiro Omori: 40
5. Todd Faircloth: 39
Most Top-12 Finishes in Back-to-Backs
1. Kevin VanDam: 22
2. Skeet Reese: 19
3. Aaron Martens: 17
4. Alton Jones: 16
5 (tie). Steve Kennedy/Dean Rojas/Edwin Evers/Todd Faircloth: 14
Most Back-to-Backs with Top-50 Finishes in Both Events
1. Casey Ashley: 19
2. Kevin VanDam: 18
3. Skeet Reese: 16
4 (tie). Gerald Swindle/Aaron Martens/Dean Rojas/Greg Hackney: 15
Most Back-to-Backs with Top-12 Finishes in Both Events
1 (tie). Kevin VanDam/Skeet Reese: 6
3 (tie). Aaron Martens/Dean Rojas/Terry Scroggins: 3
Most Top-50 Finishes Following Sub-50 Finishes
1. Bobby Lane: 11
2 (tie). Ish Monroe/Jason Williamson/Boyd Duckett: 10
5 (tie). Mark Menendez/John Murray/Steve Kennedy/Paul Elias: 9
Best Average Finish Following a Sub-50 Finish (min. two sub-50s in first leg)
1. Ott DeFoe: 10.25
2. Keith Combs: 24.5
3. Kevin VanDam: 25.67
4. Bobby Lane: 27.07
5. David Walker: 27.75
Best Average Finish Following Top-12 Finish (min. two top-12s in first leg)
1. Skeet Reese: 13.56
2. Matt Herren: 16.33
3. Brent Chapman: 22.50
4. Scott Rook: 24.00
5. Kevin VanDam: 24.08
For the anglers who posted victories in the first part of a back-to-back, they had an average finish of 48.56 in the second half with just five – Tommy Biffle (2006), Mark Menendez (2009), VanDam (2010), Reese (2013) and Justin Lucas (2015) – following up those wins with another top-12 finish. For that select group, that meant 14 straight days of practice and/or competition.
For the anglers who claimed wins in the second part of the back-to-backs, they had an average finish of 44.89 in the first tournament. There have been four instances where a win in the second leg followed a top-12 showing the previous week – Hackney (2006), VanDam (2008), Reese (2010) and Martens (2015). VanDam and Martens have come the closest to pulling off wins in true back-to-back scenarios as both had runner-up finishes prior to victories.
Like It Or Not
Of the anglers contacted for this report, there was a diversity of opinions on whether they prefer back-to-backs over spreading events out across the calendar.
“I like them from the standpoint that you knock two events out in one road trip,” said Todd Faircloth, who averaged a top-35 finish across all 28 back-to-back sequences. “I’ve got three kids at home so the more time I can spend at home with them the better for me.
“I’ve seen where they help me and where they hurt me as well. For instance, after I won at the Sabine, we went to Falcon. I remember my wife drove me all night and we still didn’t make it. I felt like I was really behind. My tackle wasn’t prepped. We went from a dirty river to a slugfest. I finally got out Monday afternoon, but I felt behind. In those types of scenarios, it penalizes the guys who do well and caters to guys who struggle.”
Mike Iaconelli, who like Faircloth competed in the Elite Series from 2006-18, said back-to-backs weren’t his strong suit.
“For me, the back-to-backs are more of a challenge,” the New Jersey pro said. “There are a couple things at play – one is preparation. With the short turnaround and prep period, for my style of fishing … Jason Christie and Greg Hackney will fish out of a paper bag, they’re that good. I’m not that good. I need time to prepare. I want 30 rods because if I have any inkling that something might work, I want it in the boat. Throw in travel and sometimes they’re not close to each other. A lot of times the back-to-backs are in the summer, so we have the kids with us. We’ve got a camper, too, so with the kids and everything, that’s tough.”
“In general, I like them because when you hit the road, you hit the road,” added John Crews, who will return to the Elite Series in 2019. “Physically, I have no problems with it. I like it because I feel like I have an advantage there over some people. The toughest part is getting mentally refocused between events. Some of the back-to-backs we’ve had, what was working at the first one didn’t work the next week, but some guys will throw the same damn thing both weeks and have two good ones. I tend to think that’s just luck.”
Russ Lane had mixed feelings about back-to-backs. He averaged top-50 finishes in the first and second halves, but his results were an average of three spots lower in the back half.
“For money and time away from home, I’d say I like them, but for preparation and mental reasons I’d say no,” Lane said. “If you’re going to the same region it’s not too bad, but if we’re going from a lowland reservoir to a highland reservoir or from a river to a lake, it makes it more time consuming. What I try to do is I try to set my boat up where I have in my boat what I need for both stops.”
He pointed to the Grand Lake-Kentucky Lake sequence this season as one where the tackle requirements were polar opposites.
“This year, we had so many crazy conditions and circumstances,” he said. “I just couldn’t simplify anything, from organization to figuring them out.”
Dean Rojas has been one of the steadiest performers in back-to-back scenarios. He averaged top-40 finishes in both the first (34.96) second events (37.85). Only Casey Ashley, VanDam and Skeet Reese have logged more top-50s in both ends of back-to-backs than Rojas, who did it 15 times, including at the Mississippi River and Lake Oahe this season.
Todd Faircloth recorded 39 top-50 finishes in 56 Elite Series tournaments that were held in consecutive weeks.
He also experienced the roller-coaster ride that back-to-backs can deliver as well. Before he won at Oneida Lake in 2008, Rojas had finished 97th at Lake Erie the previous week, so he was able to get things corrected despite a quick turnaround. Only David Walker has finished lower in the first part of a back-to-back only to post a victory the following week.
“I love them because a lot of great things can happen in two weeks,” Rojas said. “If you bomb you can redeem yourself. Second, if you do well in the first one you can roll through the second one with the momentum you’ve built.
“The third reason is the guys get tired. It’s all about mindset and staying the course and for two weeks, doing what you need to do. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 25th or 35th or 45th, it’s a victory, all because you were willing to overcome the obstacles of being tired and being on the road and fishing different fisheries. That’s what makes a professional – you understand what’s in front of you.”
Momentum, both good and bad, is a key factor in how back-to-backs shake out. An angler can leave home prior to the first event in an unfavorable position in the points standings, but return home after the second tournament with a renewed optimism after two solid outcomes. Ish Monroe saw that scenario play out in 2015, when he competed on both major circuits (in addition to the Major League Fishing Cups).
He finished 47th in points on the Elite Series, but had a much better season on the FLW Tour, where he wound up 7th in points.
“Momentum is a true deal,” he said. “The last time I fished FLW (and the Elites together), I literally got one day or no practice for all the FLW events. It was a good year. I was going from a good Elite tournament and had little to no practice at FLW, but I was feeling good about my fishing.”
Busy Is Good
Back when the Elite Series and FLW Tour schedules didn’t conflict, Monroe was one of the anglers who eagerly competed on both circuits. Some years, he maintained two tournament-ready boats to make shifting between circuits, especially tackle management, much easier.
“When you get in a groove and you’re fishing back to backs, you can make a lot of money,” Monroe said. “When you’re off that groove and you don’t do well it can keep funneling into bad events.”
Over the years, Monroe displayed an ability to bounce back from poor finishes. Ten times he followed up a sub-50 Elite Series finish with a top-50 finish in a back-to-back situation. Among them was at the start of 2012. It began with a thud – a 96th-place finish at the St. Johns River. Rather than stew about it, he was able to clear his mind and went on to win the following week at Lake Okeechobee.
“At the St. Johns River, I was still trying to key in on everything,” he said. “All of sudden, it’s a bad finish. I had two days off and a short drive to the next event. I left Saturday morning mad at the world. I got (to Okeechobee) early, got settled in and cleared my head so I was able to be focused and prepared. I had Sunday to do tackle and start to prep for the next practice. Mentally, physically and emotionally, you’re focused on having a good event.”
He's also experienced the opposite as well. In 2006 and 2018, Monroe posted wins in the first half of a back-to-back, then experienced a dropoff in the second half.
“In 2006, that was the first tour event for me (at Lake Amistad),” he said. “Then we had a long drive in between. I missed the first day of practice (at Rayburn) from being mentally and physically burned out. This year, it was the same scenario (after winning at La Crosse). You just won and all of a sudden you have an 8- to 10-hour drive. Sure, we get a day off, but you’re still dealing with the business side of bass fishing. You can’t ignore that stuff because if you want to be successful and you ignore those calls, those are missed opportunities. I actually picked up a new sponsor during that day.”
Monroe said he’d prefer more back-to-backs provided the venues were separated by a reasonable distance.
“One time, we went from Clear (Lake) to the Delta and that was perfect,” he said. “It was 100 miles, so you could go win the tournament and your tackle is pretty much the same. You just drive to the next venue and be ready to go the next day.”
It’s not always that easy, though.
Over the years, B.A.S.S. has attempted to keep travel distance to a minimum when scheduling back-to-backs. On some occasions, the first event has started on a Wednesday and ended on a Saturday, allowing the finalists to get to the second venue in time for the start of practice on Monday. Other times, the start of practice for the second event has been delayed one day – those tournaments have operated on a Friday through Monday schedule – to allow the finalists from the first event to arrive.
John Crews' lone Elite Series victory came during the first week of a back-to-back sequence in California in 2010.
Neither arrangement is ideal, especially since most of the anglers are the ones driving between events, but the additional day allows for all competitors to arrive at the next venue with time, albeit limited, to rest and prep for the following event.
According to BassFan research, the average distance between launch ramps used for tournaments involved in back-to-backs since 2006 has been 299.8 miles. There have been five instances where the venues were 500 or more miles apart. Of the three back-to-backs on next year’s schedule, one will involve travel of 400 or more miles – the trip from the St. Johns River to Lake Lanier – between venues. Currently, there is no extra day built in to accommodate anglers who qualify for the final day at the St. Johns River.
“Just suck it up and keep going,” said David Walker when asked how he manages fatigue that inevitably sets in during the course of a two-plus week road trip.
“It’s different for everybody,” added Faircloth. “If I come in by 1 p.m. on the last day of practice for the first event, I do all my tackle prep before the meeting. If not, I’m not in bed by 10 p.m. Sleep is imperative, especially when you’re doing two weeks in a row. Eating right is key, too, but that’s a hard thing to do when you’re on the road. And there’s something to be said for being in shape.
“I remember working for my dad doing concrete and roofing. I remember fishing Saturdays and Sundays and I was more worn out than a five-week roofing job. It’s crazy how it drains you down. Mentally, it’s exhausting. You’re always thinking what’s the next process or what I should be doing. There is always something going on in your mind. The stress of getting points and cashing a check is real.”
Prepare For Anything
As far as the most challenging aspects of a back-to-back, the mere task of packing the boat and truck can be a daunting proposition, especially if the two venues are polar opposites in terms of geography and fishery type. It’s something longtime pro David Walker, who’s spent time competing on both the FLW Tour and Elite Series and will join the BPT in 2019 has wrestled with.
“I think getting ready for two events that most of the time have nothing in common (is the toughest part),” he said. “Taking with you what you’re going to need, that’s the first hurdle. Then you have to pack all the stuff for two events into one vehicle. Some guys are better at that, but I get more focused on what might work better at one event. Then if you’ve not been to one of the venues, it’s throwing things at a wall to see if sticks.”
“Just the way I fish I’d put more emphasis on the first one,” added James Elam, who experienced eight back-to-back sequences in his six Elite Series seasons. “Mentally, it’s hard to switch gears. I struggled with that, but I’ve gotten better at it. At the end of the year, I write down things I think I can improve on and that was always a weakness of mine the first few years. You try to get ready for both at the same time and a key is having a lot of stuff ready before. You know you’re going to take a lot of stuff in and out of the boat so you’re preparing for that turnover, gear wise and mentally.”
Walker agreed that the mental side is critical to success, especially in back-to-backs.
“When it comes to competing, attitude and momentum has a lot to do with it,” Walker added. “A bad finish can do one or two things – it can motivate you or beat you down.”
In 2011, Walker’s first year on the Elite Series, there were four back-to-back sequences, the last of which occurred at the Arkansas River and Lake Wheeler, two wickedly different fisheries.
“We went from flipping around the bank to Tennessee River ledge fishing,” Walker said.
He absorbed a 98th-place finish at the Arkansas River, a result of getting stuck in the lock on day 2. That finish basically put him in a must-win situation the following week at Wheeler to make the 2012 Bassmaster Classic.
“I stressed about the points every day to the point it drove me crazy,” he said.
With his back to the wall, Walker delivered a victory at Wheeler and clinched a Classic berth in the process, capping off a topsy-turvy back-to-back with a satisfying outcome.
“Tournament fishing amplifies everything,” he said. “The highs are higher and the lows are lower. That sequence there was what makes you want to get up and do it again.”
John Crews says there’s a noticeable difference in how he’s approached the second half of back-to-backs after posting a strong finish in the first one versus how he prepares for the second one after a sub-par showing the first week. When he won at the California Delta in 2010, it was the first leg of a back-to-back that concluded at Clear Lake. He remembers the sequence like it was yesterday.
“That win was such an emotional high and you get a ton of attention and you feel obligated to reach back out to people,” he recalled. “I didn’t end up getting on Clear until after lunch on day 1 of practice. I didn’t want to neglect that part of it. I wanted to cherish it and take care of those responsibilities, so I didn’t rush it.”
He said his readiness for the Clear Lake event suffered as a result as he finished 72nd.
“I got close minded,” he said. “No matter where you went there you were catching fish and we saw blimps swimming around and I had a hard time shifting out of that.
“On the flip side, when you miss a top-50, there’s nothing you want to do more than to get back out there and kick their ass and the back-to-backs give us that opportunity.”