One of the biggest mistakes we make as anglers is chalking up our success to being a good angler while blaming our lack of success on slow fishing. While the fishing is actually slow sometimes, more often than not our lack of success stems from our action rather than the fishes. As a tournament angler, I’ve frequently had this point driven home when, after struggling to catch fish all day, I’ve pulled up to the scales to find that other teams had absolutely looped the big ones that day. The problem is that until you pull up to the scales there’s no way to tell if the fish weren’t biting or if you just sucked that day.
For those of you who’ve never fished a tournament, I can assure you that its not a great feeling to pull up to the scales with what you think is a good bag for the conditions you experienced only to find out that your fish are half the size of those in the winning bag.
The feeling is somewhat like what you experience when you fish tuna all day and never get a bite but run into guys that killed them when you get back to the launch ramp. In both cases the guys that got it done when you were unable to weren’t necessarily better fishermen, they just figured out something that you didn’t that day.
Looking back over the year, which was my eighth season fishing saltwater bass tournaments, I was lucky enough to spend most of my time among the ranks of those who did figure something out on tournament day but learned the biggest lessons on the days I did not. While my experiences are specific to inshore tournament angling, I can apply the underlying lessons to any type of fishing.
My first tournament this year was an SWBA spotted bay bass event in San Diego Bay. I’d heard that the bite had been off by some friends who’d fished down there before the tournament but dismissed it because I’d heard the same chatter the year before and still managed a 5th place finish. Instead of heading down to practice, Matt Kotch and I agreed to go in blind and just rerun our successful program from the previous year.
That over confidence really came back to bite us in the ass because our plan from the previous year didn’t work and while we caught lots of fish, none of them were legal. Rather than make a large adjustment we put our heads down and continued catching short after short while hoping for a bigger bite. That bigger bite never came and as the clock ran out we tucked our tails and headed for the ramp without a single fish in our live well.
Looking back, it was stubbornness that lead to our downfall in that tournament. I knew within the first hour that the bite wasn’t going to be the same as it had been the previous year but instead of adjusting I convinced myself that my superior angling ability would allow me to get the bites I needed anyway.
Our empty live well at the end of the day proved just how “superior” my angling abilities actually were.
Next up was another lousy finish in our second event of the season. This embarrassing finish served up on our home waters in Long Beach. While having home field advantage might be good in some cases, over familiarity with a venue can be a hindrance as well and our 23rd place finish in this event was completely due to my making incorrect assumptions about how and where the fish were or weren’t going to be biting based solely on my previous experience. Out of all of the tournament day lessons I learned this year, this was the biggest. Don’t assume that fish aren’t going to be biting on any given day just because they’d not been on days that felt similar in the past.
As anglers, its too easy to become biased as to how your day is going to go based on what you’re seeing and feeling on the water. Some days just feel fishy while others don’t. The lesson I learned that day is that just because a day doesn’t feel fishy doesn’t mean the fish aren’t going to bite. It only means that for some reason you’re relating that day’s conditions to something negative you’d experienced in the past. You need to learn to put that negative feeling aside or it’s going to bias your entire day. In the case of that tournament, we settled for mediocre fishing for small fish while other teams found good fishing on big ones.
If you go into your day expecting the fishing to suck, you’re probably going to fish in a manner that will fulfill that prophecy.
On other days, like the morning of our third tournament of the year, you can expect the fishing to be great but have something go wrong. In our case, we’d been on an excellent crank bait bite on the Newport Pipe earlier that week but the red crabs had moved in the morning of the tournament and changed things up. While the fish were still biting the crankbait for another team fishing nearby, we didn’t have anything in red which was the only color they’d bite. After spending several hours catching nothing while watching the other boat load up, we left in disgust.
We tried a few other spots for nothing. With only a couple hours left to fish and a couple of bad tournaments to further destroy our confidence we were pretty close to throwing in the towel and calling it another failure of a day. Not wanting to go in early we decided to make a long run up to Palos Verdes because if nothing else it would burn some time that we wouldn’t have to spend not catching anything. To our surprise conditions looked perfect when we arrived and with thirty minutes of fishing time left, we began casting and for the first time in three tournaments actually felt like we knew what we were doing.
I’m not sure if that confidence projected down our lines, but we suddenly started catching fish and in a few minutes our bag had grown from 9 pounds to over 21. The bag wasn’t enough to win the tournament, it got us 5th place, but it was a win for us as it taught us that no matter how tough the fishing is on any given day, all it takes is a few minutes to change it into one of the best days of the year. Sure it would be great if those minutes came at the beginning of each trip, but sometimes they won’t come until 9 1/2 hours into a 10 hour tournament and if you give up 9 hours into it you’ll never know what might have been.
As it turned out, acknowledging the mistakes we’d made in the first two tournaments and realizing that a few lucky minutes can occur even on the toughest days completely changed our fishing strategy for the rest of the season. Those few fish at the end of a tough day also gave us the confidence that we could fish our way out of any hole we found ourselves in if we’d stop being stubborn and be willing to try something different when what we’d been doing wasn’t working.
Things felt different on the boat after that third event and we rode that high to two wins, another fifth and a second place finish in the rest of this year’s events. Like I said, while the details are specific to tournament fishing, the underlying lessons can be applied to however and wherever you fish, so I invite you to take a look at your last tough day of fishing and ask yourself if it was you or the fish who were at fault.