By Todd Ceisner
Prior to this season, the only in-person exposure Garrett Paquette had to the Bassmaster Elite Series was the 2013 tournament at Lake St. Clair that he attended in his native Michigan. It was won by Chris Lane, but Paquette, then a teenager, had seen enough.
“I told myself I’ll never go to another Elite unless I’m fishing it,” he said. “And I stayed true to it.”
Indeed, he did.
Paquette, now 24, punched his Elite Series ticket last year with a strong showing in the Bassmaster Opens by finishing 3rd in points in the Eastern Division. That performance also clinched him a spot in this year’s Bassmaster Classic, which gets started March 15 at the Tennessee River in Knoxville, Tenn.
In a way, he’s glad he kept his distance from the high-profile tournament scene as a way to fuel his desire to reach that level himself, but with the Classic and all its trappings right around the corner, he wonders if abstaining was the best idea after all.
“Now that I’m going to the Classic, I almost wish I’d gone to one to experience the frenzy,” he said. “There’s a lot of everything and distractions and excitement to deal with. I wish I’d seen that before to know what I’m getting into.”
For now, though, he’s going to abide by the “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” philosophy and prepare as he would for any other tournament and try to enjoy the experience, all the while going head to head with many of the sport’s top anglers.
“In an event like this, if you don’t feel a little nervous or antsy, you’re in the wrong sport,” he said. “You need to have a little something burning down there.”
Preparing for the Unknown
Paquette hails from Canton, Mich., a town of 91,000 situated equidistant between Ann Arbor and Detroit. He grew up doing what many boys in Michigan do – playing hockey. Between competitive travel teams and his high school team, he’s been in plenty of pressure-packed environments, but he knows nothing will compare to the scene that will play out at the Classic.
“I’ve played in a lot of pressure situations and experienced that, and I know how to deal with all that adversity,” he said. “You can’t let one little thing affect your experience.”
Aside from hockey, he developed a passion for fishing during his childhood. Big-water salmon and trout fishing in northern Michigan quickly took a backseat to chasing bass. Hailing from Michigan, he naturally followed the exploits of Kevin VanDam. This Classic will offer the first chance to compete against one of his fishing idols.
“I think everyone from Michigan who fishes is a huge fan of his,” he said. “It’s just natural. I tried to model a lot of my fishing style based off him, but I quickly realized it’s not possible. You can’t mimic him, but I try to follow his theories on rods and hooks and how he works baits. I try to fish fast and don’t have a lot of patience. It’ll be really cool to fish against him.”
He knows he has to guard against getting caught up in the awe factor of being in the Classic. That can detract from his intention of standing out in the field of 52.
“I am a huge fan of the sport,” he said. “Anyone in the tournament, I know all of their stats. It’ll be a really cool experience to go against guys I haven’t fished against yet, but I’m not someone who settles for anything less than perfection. (Finishing) 2nd is the same as 50th to me.
“When I do well, I want to fish perfectly. I’m going to control what I can control – my decisions and effort – so when I step away I can be satisfied with how it went down.”
Adjusting to Faster Pace
Paquette emerged from his first two Elite Series events in 58th on the points list. It was not the start he was aiming for, but it’s understandable considering his lack of competitive experience at the venues. After finishing 69th at the St. Johns River, he improved 35 spots to place 34th at Lake Lanier.
He noticed right away the speed at which the Elite Series moves is much different compared to the Bassmaster Opens.
“The speed at which you fish and finding fish (is way different),” he said. “In the Opens, you can practice as long as you want. In the Elites, you have to cover water and fish as fast as possible to establish a pattern, then move fast to find more areas to hold up for a four-day event.
“On the flip side, when you’re actually fishing, I think the fish bite better because you don’t have longer practices with 200 boats with pros and (co-anglers) out there. With just 75 of us out there, the fish aren’t so pressured where you‘re fishing finesse tactics sooner than expected.”
His first taste of the Elite Series at the St. Johns was a sour one, due to a good practice session that betrayed him once the tournament rolled around.
“That’s not where I wanted to finish there,” he said. “I had an okay day 1, but I just never adjusted. I was one of the few guys who had a good practice, which in Florida can be bad because the fish move so much. When they got in those shallow reeds and cattails and it seemed like every fish in the system went in there, I was stuck fishing on the outside. I just didn’t make the adjustments that a lot of guys did.”
The following week at Lanier, a place he scouted in December, he fished deeper than anticipated and worked his way up to 8th place after day 2.
“Then I ran out of areas to fish,” he said. “Both of those events are pretty disappointing. I usually start slow, then climb up each day. It seems I’m going in the opposite direction, which doesn’t sit well.”