By Todd Ceisner
Randall Tharp tried the square-peg-in-round-hole approach during the first Bass Pro Tour tournament nearly a year ago. It took less than a day of competition at the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes for him to realize he needed to change things up.
It had nothing to do with using braided line or fluorocarbon or a 3-inch bait versus a 4 1/2-inch version or choosing between a 1/4- and 1/2-oz. worm weights. The changes needed to take place between his ears. Known throughout his career as a guy who relishes decoding the big-fish puzzle, Tharp realized his old mentality needed a few tweaks.
“I was pretty vocal about not changing to suit the new format, but at the first event I was catching big ones and going backward on the ScoreTracker,” Tharp said. “On one hand, I’m telling people that while at the same time, I’m realizing it’s not going to work.”
He finished day 1 of Stage 1 in seventh place with nine fish that weighed 28 pounds, 11 ounces, a more than respectable total on a day where few knew what to expect. He was the only competitor among the top 10 that day to catch fewer than 10 fish, but his 3.1875 pounds-per-fish average was tops among the 80 competitors after the two-day Shotgun Round. There were 19 fish caught on day 1 that weighed more than 4 pounds and Tharp had four of them on his scorecard. Only one other angler had three. In a way, his old mindset worked, but he sensed it wasn’t sustainable.
He went on to finish 29th in the season opener, one of five top-40 finishes to go with a trio of top-15 outcomes. He secured the 30th and final berth in the Redcrest championship, where he finished 15th at the Mississippi River.
“It was a whole season of adjustments for me,” Tharp added. “I tried to fish like I used to and had some success that way, but realized quickly that I couldn’t be competitive or make the championship or have an opportunity to win without making some adaptations. That said, I made some adjustments and made the Redcrest – barely – so it was a success for me.”
Still Settling In
It didn’t take long for Tharp to sense how competition days in the BPT would be different from his FLW Tour and Bassmaster Elite Series days. From the time lines go in the water until the last cast, the constant pinging of the ScoreTracker puts immediate pressure on competitors and each little decision is magnified.
“The new format for me was exciting,” Tharp said. “The intensity and feeling you get in that format I’ve never gotten before in any tournament. The pressure to perform and the constant pressure of ScoreTracker, whether you’re on top or near the bottom, I like it. I’m craving it and I’m excited to do it again.”
Typically a cool and calm competitor who doesn’t lack for confidence, Tharp found himself early on experiencing something he’d not dealt with in a long time when it came to tournament fishing – nerves. He said that was the most eye-opening part of the first year experience on the BPT.
“I don’t get nervous for any tournament, but for the first couple or three I was nervous,” he said. “I’d known what to expect my whole career, but this was so different and it led to anxiety and pressure. I think I thrive on pressure and a lot of guys do, and that’s one reason I’m excited to go do it again.”
As much as he’s into the intensity and the fast-paced action, Tharp feels there are aspects of the MLF format used in the BPT that he’d be open to changing. Namely, putting a cap on the number of fish that count toward an angler’s daily weight at 10. Tharp said the topic of instituting a daily limit in BPT events has been discussed among anglers this offseason, but it’s not known if MLF will implement any such rule change.
Tharp likes the premise behind the Heavy Hitters tournament that was recently announced because it will incentivize catching bigger fish over the first five tournaments of 2020, but thinks the every-fish-counts element is likely best utilized in the MLF Cups, where anglers are not allowed to practice at a venue.
“I don’t know that the format is 100 percent perfect or 100 percent for me,” Tharp said. “I’ve been bass fishing a few times for fun and I don’t try to catch as many as I can. I still try to catch biggest one or the biggest few fish. I like catching big ones. My fans like that and the companies that pay me do, too. I don’t think there are any Randall Tharp fans who want to see me at Okeechobee with a spinning rod in my hand.”
Tharp qualified for two MLF Cups based on his performance during the 2019 BPT season. Those competitions were held earlier this year and will air on television starting in January. Tharp said he enjoyed the no-practice rule that’s been a staple of the Cups since their inception, but he believes there is room to make improvements to the BPT that will resonate with fans.
“You fish your strengths there and if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” he said. “I think the BPT needs to be more different from the Cups. I signed up for this deal for three years and I want it to work, but’s it’s been a tough offseason financially. The fishing industry doesn’t like what we have going on. There has to be some change.”
Winnebago Was High Point
Tharp said the move to the BPT has placed a bigger emphasis on efficiency, on and off the water. With roughly 1 3/4 days of practice for each event, competitors don’t have time to sample vast portions of the lake or river. As a result, his objective before tournaments get started has shifted.
“You started looking for different things,” he said. “Instead of a target weight or size of fish, we’re looking for numbers of bites. That was definitely an adjustment. The one less day (of practice) is not that big of deal. I’m always just trying to be better at everything. I’ve developed a system over the years that I’ve had to adjust to get bites. I’ll continue that adjustment phase, but I’m always wanting to be more efficient, especially in practice. You have to be efficient in every way with your preparation and organization and your set of tools. I don’t do everything when it comes to bass fishing, but my set of tools is pretty big so you have to pick and choose wisely.”
He made the right choices at the regular-season finale in Wisconsin as he rebounded from a 74th-place finish at Table Rock Lake with a 14th at Lake Winnebago to secure the last Redcrest berth. It was the second time that he’d followed up a finish in the 70s with a top-25 result.
“That was the one I fished the best in,” he said. “I was outside the cutline for Redcrest before that and I think 10 of us had a chance at it. I fished really clean there in some pressured water to make it. I’m more proud of that because of how intense the pressure was. I didn’t think my Redcrest chances were good because I thought I blew it at Table Rock.”