Tournament anglers, at any level of competition, mature over time. Travel experience, combined with hours spent practicing and playing the game, naturally increase fish-catching ability. Often, it’s easy to sit back and wonder “what if” when considering the past.
So it’s quite uncommon that we see an angler come onto the tournament scene and take the world by storm, then back it up over a long career. Kevin VanDam comes to mind as the ultimate exception; today more fans are realizing that Bryan Thrift’s name can be placed in the same category.
Barring any catastrophic injury or Tiger Woods-like debacle, Thrift is on course to break every FLW record in existence. He’s already won more national events than anyone, yet he’s competed for half as long as the circuit’s biggest names. In fact, Thrift has essentially won as much money, and more events, than Andy Morgan – publicly regarded as the Greatest of All Time – in 100 fewer outings.
As we all know, Thrift again won FLW’s Angler of the Year title this season, marking the second time he’s achieved the honor in his 11-year career. Numerous other times, he knocked on the title’s door.
So was Bryan Thrift just born good? Or has his tournament skill developed, as we mentioned earlier, but in some super-human fashion?
How would Thrift rank his performance today when compared to the days of his first AOY a decade ago? I needed to find out – for all our sake – so I interviewed him following his crowning achievement.
Reflecting on my notes, I can categorize Thrift’s direction into distinct categories that might offer us insight into his strong performance.
First, it’s immediately evident that Thrift credits his fishing work ethic as an important factor. “I think it’s more evolution of baits and techniques,” he said when describing his own evolution as an angler. “You have to keep up with trends to stay one step ahead of the competition." Thrift further credits his year-round dedication to the sport as an important factor: “I immerse myself in it 12 months a year. It’s scary to think how good Andy Morgan (a passionate hunter during the fall and winter months) would be if he fished all year,” Thrift joked.
In addition to staying up with the latest trends, Thrift acknowledges a bit of momentum for his success. “Every year, it seems I find a different confidence bait. There’s nothing you can do to plan it; it just falls into place.” Thrift confirmed that, for the 2017 season, that lure was a soft Damiki stickbait called a Stinger. In year’s past, it was the Damiki Shad, or Keitech Swimbait. In each case, one single lure seemed to be integral to catching incredibly important fish numerous times throughout the season.
Thrift’s approach to practice and tournaments is likely his most publicized trait; he’s known to burn through massive amounts of water in the course of the day, rarely slowing down to milk an area. However, Thrift feels this, too, has now evolved. He claims he occasionally slows down to purposely hammer fish other anglers might move in on. This, he determines “by feel and figuring out what I’m trying to accomplish” more times throughout a day.
Practice, as a whole, is often frustrating, Thrift admits. “I don’t have a lot of great practices. I’m not happy unless I find the fish to win. But I don’t really worry about it if I have a bad practice.” Thrift’s frequent dissatisfaction with his practices has often earned him a title of "sandbagger" among his cohorts. But for him, it’s genuine.
Regardless of his angling speed and practice results, a very definitive theme presents itself when speaking with Thrift: His belief that anything’s possible.
“I think my mind-frame is different because I factor in the lucky bite.” When he spoke of such magic, Thrift was convincingly serious. “You can’t deny that. Just random fish that are catchable. I fish for those random fish on occasion.”
Thrift takes it further, confirming his entire outlook may be different from nearly every competitor in the field. In fact, he's almost always going against the grain in his approach: “Usually the group of fish that wins is doing something they shouldn’t be.”
Ask yourself this: When was the last time you went looking for fish that weren’t where they should be, or targeted “lucky fish” in a tournament with a $5,000 entry fee?
In any case, it’s apparent that a cornerstone to Thrift’s tournament approach is remaining open to anything, and expecting the unexpected. “I start every tournament with 14 rods on the deck – not in the rodbox where you have to dig them out,” he confirmed. “Even if I’m catching the fish on just one bait.”
Day in and day out, Thrift finds an opportunity to make a few casts with an unexpected lure, or exploit an unknown school of bass, or catch one more weird bass. And, in the end, those all add up to piles of money and all-important AOY points.
Thrift’s plan is to continue to evolve his fishing faster than his competition, all the while remaining open to the possibilities. He’ll never come off as a know-it-all, instead remaining a hungry student of the game.
“That’s what makes it so interesting” Thrift said of bass fishing. “You can’t figure it out.”
Maybe the key is to stop trying.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)