The best and arguably the most challenging thing about this sport is how diverse the playing fields are. In a tournament season, we visit fisheries from Florida to the Canadian border that feature a multitude of different environments and variables affecting our strategies.
It never ceases to amaze me how you can feel right at home at one fishery, making seemingly flawless decisions, and then leave the very next venue feeling like you were on another planet.
This pretty much sums up the first two stops of the MLF Pro Circuit events on Lake Okeechobee and Smith Lake.
Of all the venues on the 2021 schedule, Okeechobee was the one that jumped out at me as the one I was most excited about. Although I hadnít fished there for over five years, the "Big OĒ has always been a lake I felt a special connection to. Iím not going to say that I always do well on this legendary 730-square-mile bowl of magnificent grass fishing, but I sure do love it and feel that I understand it.
Though the landscape of the lake had changed dramatically from years of hurricanes, I was able to eliminate a lot of unproductive water and found an area on the West Wall that I had a feeling held the key to a solid finish.
I ended up being right! The first day I was able to put together a massive 26-pound bag by flipping the new Z-Man GOAT that exceeded even my expectations. The biggest challenge was not adjusting with the fish, but battling a tremendous amount of fishing pressure. I personally have never fished around as many anglers as I did in that event.
I knew after the second day of the event, when I took the lead after dropping 16 1/2 pounds, that holding on for the win would be unlikely from only that one area.
Unfortunately, I was not able to expand within the general area and find any places that hadnít gotten hammered by the rest of the field, and though I hovered around 1st and 2nd place for the first three days, the final day I slipped down to capture 6th place.
As disappointed as I was to miss another opportunity at a ďW,Ē I felt that I made great decisions all week. Also, who wouldnít be satisfied with a Top 10 to start a year off?
I take pride in the fact that I've been able to find success at a variety of lakes around the country. Years of fishing different regions of the U.S., and getting my butt handed to me by locals, has really paid off for me on the Pro Circuit. However, the lakes I really tend to struggle on are deep, clear, lakes where largemouth arenít the predominant species Ė where smallmouth and/or spotted bass play a big factor.
I honestly think I discount my ability to catch spots and smallmouth a bit, but I certainly have much less experience with those two species, which makes me feel a little inadequate in terms of knowing I can compete by targeting them.
When I saw Smith on the schedule, I singled that event out as the venue I would likely have to overcome the most challenges. Unfortunately, my trepidation about Smith turned out to be spot-on.
With only two days of practice, it was difficult to narrow down my approach, my instincts were definitely not firing on all cylinders. The only way to explain it was that it was like Smith and I were not speaking the same language. Neither the spotted bass nor the largemouth were giving me the feedback I needed to make adjustments Ė or maybe I lacked the experience on this type of fishery to pick up on those cues.
In any case, I ended up having a decent day 1 with an 11-04 bag, which was a result of pure work ethic and efficiency, but I was able to only back it up with two small keepers the next day after failing to adjust with the ever-changing conditions.
Iím not sure if it was the region of the lake I was fishing or an overall lack of confidence on the fishery, but whatever it was resulted in an 86th-place finish.
Iím always a big believer that the worst finishes are the ones that you learn the most on, and I firmly believe thatís the case with Smith. It forced me to remember that I really struggle on these multi-species venues and that I need to do a little bit of training on them to break the chain of subpar finishes.
So, after a Top-10 placement and an 86th, I've landed in 25th place in the points after the two events.
Obviously I would like to be higher in the standings, but I honestly feel grateful that I faced what I would consider my most challenging event of the year and come out of it without a triple-digit finish. I wasn't stoked about leaving Smith without a check, but Iím happy that I was able to learn from the experience there and I know it will help keep me motivated to stay more consistent through the rest of the year.
After a month and a half on the road, I'm excited to have some time at home with Katie and happy to have an opportunity to prepare myself for the challenges of the next string of events.
(Miles "Sonar" Burghoff is an MLF Pro Circuit 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).