Confidence and momentum are everything in this sport. Everyone is looking for that little boost that propels them toward achieving their goals.
In fishing, momentum and confidence are often one and the same, and to be completely honest, I haven’t been active enough in higher-level tournament fishing to maintain either at the capacity I’d like.
However, following my recent experiences at the first Bassmaster Central Open on the Arkansas River, I believe I’ve found both from a seemingly unspectacular finish that may have stoked the competitive fire in me to achieve my goal of qualifying for the 2017 Elite Series.
To say I’ve been impatient in my wait for the delayed Central Open division to begin would be a tremendous understatement. When the Atchafalaya Basin event – originally slated to be the first Central – was moved to be the final event of the season in late October, I was disappointed, but I also understood the safety concerns for that particular event.
With the rescheduling becoming a reality, the first event of the year became this month's derby on the Arkansas River.
I’m not big on arriving at an event with too many preconceived notions, so I tried not to dwell on any specific information. But I must admit that the anticipation and the amount of time I had to prepare had me coming up with a strict game plan that ended up holding me hostage in the end.
The pre-conceived notion that I usually try to avoid was that I wanted to completely focus on the Verdigris River (or “the Verd” as I called it,) which according to my Navionics and satellite mapping research seemed to fit my style of fishing the best. And with the extreme river conditions bringing impossibly muddy water, the long, protected backwaters seemed to hold more stable water quality.
If I hadn’t sold myself already on the idea of staying on the Verd, the first hour of the first day of practice sealed the deal. I immediately caught over 16 pounds junk-fishing in a slough above the second lock. The area was beautiful and offered tons of cover, but the problem was it was a 30-mile run, through two high-risk locks, and the river was changing daily. There was no telling how the bite would be in a week.
With my mind already set on fishing the Verd and having a crazy-good morning in the upper pool, the mortar of narrow-mindedness began to quickly set. I dedicated four more days to the upper and lower pool of the Verd, trying desperately to find a backup to what I considered my best area in the upper pool. I never found a backup area and I knew the river conditions in the upper pool were starting to change for the worse.
The author's day-2 bag moved him up more than 120 places in the standings.
With two more days of practice left, and getting frustrated with the Verd, I decided to go “waste” some gas on the main pool by the launch, as well as lock down to Kerr and see what was down there. I had already written these parts of the river off before I launched because I thought the muddy water would have too much effect on the fish in those areas. Boy, was I wrong!
On my way to the ramp, I passed over a creek that immediately started to tear down the mental wall I had built in the Verd, and it became my first stop. It was a major creek in the main pool that was loaded with shoreline grass and decent water clarity, and it was topped off with a strong gut feeling that I hadn’t felt all week.
I immediately broke out the flipping stick and within a few pitches into some tasty looking grass, I set the hook on a fish bordering 3 pounds. I knew I had something.
I finished my time off in the area by isolating a specific pattern and marking all the areas within the creek that fit it.
I was at home. The only problem was the looming threat of boat pressure.
After the tournament meeting, I was left heavily conflicted. Though I try not to allow boat draws to affect me much, with all the talk about the main pool (where my best creek resided) being “blown out” due to extreme angling pressure, receiving a boat 190 out of 195 draw had me dusting off the idea of locking up the Verd – twice – to the area I had found that first day of practice.
There was potential for a mega-bag up the Verd, but I had a feeling the fishing in that area was going downhill fast. For hours I toiled over the two options.
With an extr- long day of fishing, I decided on the “no guts, no glory” approach and rolled the dice up the Verd.
The risky trip up the river, through the two locks, went eerily well. We passed three barges, but none posed any issues to getting through either lock. Before I knew it, I was passing through the massive gates of the second lock and hammering the throttle for the land of opportunity.
To make a long story short, and to refrain from reminiscing about a day I would rather forget, the “promised land” had gone through a drastic change and the bite was dramatically different from my practice. Clear water and diminishing shad activity had taken a toll. With little time for trying to make the fish bite, I was forced to lock back down and search for greener pastures in a part of the Verd that I had little success in.
With only a few minutes of fishing time left, I finally found a group of fish that were willing to bite, if only I could get them in the boat. Rolling with the theme of unfortunate mistakes and bad luck, I only was able to slide one fish in the well out of the six or so keeper bites I connected with in that small window.
Devastated, and deeply disappointed in my decision to roll the dice, I locked back through to the main pool and brought my one fish to the scales.
I was mad – I mean, really mad – and I had a bone to pick with both the fish, as well as myself and my poor decision-making.
On the second day I knew where I wanted to go – right to the area I should have gone to in the first place – the grassy creek where I knew I belonged.
Though I admittedly felt out of contention for a check, I didn’t care. I had nothing to lose, and everything to prove to myself that I am capable of recovering from an epic fail.
I arrived in the creek, along with about eight other boats. It was okay, I knew they were coming, but I also knew I was fishing it differently than all others.
I immediately started getting bites, only focusing on the specific grass that I was fishing in practice. As soon as I would get out of the premium cover, I would get on the big engine and scoot to the next micro-stretch of juice. I was fishing like a pin-ball, bouncing around that creek.
I had one fish in the well already when at 7:30am I set the hook on a brute that would change my momentum for the better. After fumbling a couple times, I lipped a 6-pound chunk and swung him into the boat. It was on!
My new goal was to make a check. However unlikely, I was going to shoot for a tournament-best stringer and take home some cash.
From there, I filled out my limit in a brief period, and then started to cull. After a few key catches, including a fish between 3 1/2 nd 4 pounds, I knew I was within striking distance. I worked hard all day and knew with one more 4-plus-pound bite I would be right there within range of a check.
In the end the bite never came, but I was very satisfied with my performance for the day and was pleased with my focus and drive.
Thinking I had about 15 pounds, I was surprised when the scales settled at 16-15, which at that point was the biggest bag of the tournament. I also momentarily held big-bass honors, too, as my kicker weighed in at 6 pounds even.
In the end, my big bass was beaten out by 1 ounce and I ended up 51st (over a 120-place improvement from day 1), just 1 places out of the money. But I had learned a lot about who I still was as a competitor and what I was capable of.
Feeling Like Myself
When the dust settled, I was making the long journey back to California and I realized I could be making a much different trip home had I not decided to fight tooth and nail that final day. I obviously was greatly disappointed that I didn’t make any money, but surprisingly, I felt better than I have in awhile.
I had forgotten how it felt to focus on the game instead of the result, and I had forgotten how it felt to be in my element, knowing exactly what to do.
I’m not saying that I’m still not a bit rusty, but by following up one of the lowest lows of my career thus far with one of the best days of tournament competition I’ve ever had, I know I still have the drive and the determination to win.
I have a mountain to climb, and I need two Top-10 finishes at the Red River and Atchafalaya Basin to have a chance at snagging an Elite Series berth, but I’m ready for the challenge, and I hope to carry this small bit of momentum and confidence with me for a long time to come.
(Miles "Sonar" Burghoff is an aspiring tour pro and co-host of the TV series "Sweetwater." To visit his website, click here. You can also visit him on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (SonarFishing) and Instagram (@sonarfishing).