When you move up to a new echelon in anything, you have to believe you can beat the best, but you really don’t have any data to prove it. So there is a part of you that also just hopes you don’t fall flat on your face.
This was certainly how I felt going into my first FLW Tour event on Sam Rayburn Reservoir.
I've always felt that my fishing background sets me up well for Tour-level competition, but there’s always that voice that creeps in and says “Maybe you have no idea what you’re in for.”
Though there is still much to be seen, my first Tour outing resulted in a 12th-place finish, a solid check and some much-needed confirmation that I belong.
Sonar, Meet Sam
My process for tournament fishing has always been a “show-up-and-figure-it-out” approach and I prefer not to get bogged down with information or pre-practice excursions. I've found that I work best by just showing up and "fishing the moment."
Of course, this approach sometimes has its downsides, but overall it has worked for me. Even so, I was concerned that it may be possible I didn’t put enough effort into my first event. After all, Sam Rayburn is a fishery that I'd never been to before, so there was a chance that I wasn’t doing myself any favors by not putting more time into research and pre-practice.
The research I had done prior to the event was mostly figuring out which areas are historically productive, and also determining which would fit my style.
Keeping up with weather trends and water levels is a big part of my pre-tournament process, so arriving to Sam, I knew that the big variable was the water level. The lake was well over 8 feet higher than normal going into the first practice day.
It didn’t take long to figure out that the water level had a massive effect on the way we would all have to approach the lake, but during the first two days of practice, I also realized the fish weren't relating to the “shallow” cover that was flooded. Instead, they seemed to still be relating to the areas they were in prior to the flood.
My three practice days set a tone of uncertainty going into the event. I had caught some fish, and compared to everyone else I spoke with, my practice was relatively decent, but it was certainly not consistent. In the end, I had one day where I caught around 17 pounds, which was sandwiched between two days where I didn’t catch a limit.
Essentially, going into the day off prior to competition, I had two separate things going – I had a strong spinnerbait and jerkbait bite throwing the new Z-Man SlingBladeZ and a suspending jerkbait on the outside edge of flooded bushes, and I also had one classic pre-spawn drain where I'd caught three fish on three casts, but wasn’t sure of its potential.
I felt the reaction-bait bite was a risky venture, so I was really crossing my fingers that the drain was as good as it seemed to be.
Momma Calls it My 'Magic Drain'
Taking off from the Umphrey Pavilion launch ramp on day 1, I knew where I needed to start. I had to check that drain to see what I was dealing with, because if it did turn out to hold a group of fish, it could be my “rock” for the event.
Arriving to the drain, it didn't take long to confirm that it was indeed as good as I had hoped. Implementing a yo-yo technique with a Z-Man Jackhammer ChatterBait, I was able to get a bite almost every cast and fill my limit by 8 a.m., including some quality fish over 4 pounds. It was certainly a great start to a Tour career!
Once I reached about 18 pounds, I found that I wasn’t seeing the size I needed to make any major improvements in my limit, so I started to think about a fish-conserving strategy.
At this point there was another competitor, Billy Hines from California, who pulled into the creek a little while after I had arrived, and had been very respectful of the area I was fishing, but obviously wasn’t going anywhere. By the time I decided I needed to stop leaning on this school of fish, Billy and I had made an agreement to work together to conserve the area. I ended up leaving to search for similar drains and also checked on my reaction-bait pattern, which seemed to have completely dried up due to the cold-front conditions.
I finished the day with an 18-12 bag that put me in a good position going into the second day.
On day 2 the drain was still producing well, but the bite had slowed, so I switched to a more methodical presentation with a Texas-rigged Z-Man Mag FattyZ. With the FattyZ, I was able to catch another quick limit and also caught one 6-pounder, which gave me hope for bigger fish in the area. But over time I realized that I needed to leave and continue to conserve the fish that were left in the drain. I left with a little over 13 pounds, which I was confident would put me in the top 30.
I once again tried searching for similar groups of fish to no avail, but ended up running some areas that looked perfect for the jerkbait due to the presence of a stiff breeze that hadn’t been around on day 1.
I connected with another 6-pounder on the jerkbait on a short bank with sparse trees, which turned on the light bulb. Soon after that, I pulled a U-turn after seeing another area with similar traits and set the hook on the biggest fish of the day, a 7-pound stud that put my total on the day at 23-12.
Leaving Fish for Fish
I was sitting in 6th going into the third day, so at this point my focus was on qualifying for the final day – and nothing less.
I had figured that 15 pounds was about what I needed to shoot for to make it, and with the drain really starting to show signs of drying up, I was willing to take a gamble and leave it if I felt it was necessary.
Pulling into the drain, it was obvious to me that the water had risen close to a foot overnight, as the bushes I was relating to were almost completely submerged. This told me that conditions may have changed and the fish in the drain may have moved around a bit. This assumption seemed to be correct, as I failed to catch a keeper in an hour.
At this point, I wasn’t worried about simply getting a limit. I wanted a good limit, so I left the drain to go “head-hunting.”
After several hours of experimentation, my hopes of stumbling upon some bigger bites was showing to not only be fruitless, but I was also beginning to realize that a limit of any size would be key to keeping me in good points standing, so I ended up running back to the drain to salvage the morning. I quickly found where the fish had repositioned in the drain and soon got on a bite that had me catching them every cast on the FattyZ.
I told myself that once I caught a limit of the small keepers, I needed to then continue on my search for bigger bites because I was convinced that I still needed 15-plus pounds to fish another day. After catching my limit, I quickly picked up my MotorGuide and left my drain for good.
In the end, I was unable to find a bigger bite elsewhere and weighed in at 9 pounds for the day. I found out after the weigh-in that all I needed to do was cull up less than a pound to make the top 10. That was a feat that could have easily been done in my drain, but unfortunately I had overestimated what it would take and left the fish biting.
After the realization that I had made a major mistake leaving a school of fish while they were biting, I was certainly disappointed in my decision to gamble. However, in the end, 12th place is a good position to be in after my first event on the FLW Tour.
Good momentum can be a strong force in this game, and at a time where you can easily question whether you deserve to be at the top level with the "big dogs," a solid showing is what I needed to squash those thoughts of doubt.
All in all, I’m happy with my first event on the FLW Tour, and I left Texas with a feeling of optimism and solid confidence that I hope to continue to ride throughout my rookie season.
Let’s keep it rolling!
(Miles "Sonar" Burghoff is an FLW Tour competitor and the 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).