As professional anglers, we measure our performance according to certain milestones – Classic berths, how many times we’re in the money, how many times we win, and how many times we make the top twelve cut.
I’m particularly aware of that last one right now since I finished 14th at the St. Johns River, just 12 ounces out of 12th place. It might not sound like a very big deal, since it’s “only” a difference of a couple of points, but believe me, I want to fish on Sunday every time out. First of all, I’m a competitor and it pains me when others are competing and I’m not. Second, Sunday is when the TV cameras are rolling and I owe it to my sponsors to get them as much exposure as possible. Third, those two points may come back to haunt me at the end of the year if I miss out on some postseason awards by that margin. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you can’t win unless you’re fishing on Sunday, and I go to every tournament aiming to win.
I’ve had a number of finishes just outside the 12 cut in Elite Series competition, and while they all sting, this one was a little bit different than most. It’s the first time I’ve come close to making it when I wasn’t on a very good bite. I only had one good day of practice, and after two days of competition I barely squeaked into Saturday’s Top 51 cut in 46th place. That had me 12 ounces above the 52nd place angler and a little less than 7 pounds out of the top 12.
I went out the third day hoping just to gain as many points as I could, not really thinking about making it to Sunday, but I had a 17 pound limit in the boat in the first hour. At that point I started crunching numbers in my head to see if I could make a serious move. Once I realized that the top 12 might be within reach my goals for the day changed completely.
I ended up with 19-14, and at the time that I weighed in that had me in 10th place. I knew that Brent Chapman was weighing in behind me and had a good bag, and I heard the rumors about Rick Clunn’s monster day, but I held out hope that I could squeak into the final spot in the top 12. I sat there watching the scoreboard for what seemed like an eternity. We all do it. Anyone who tells you that they don’t is probably lying.
Eventually two more anglers jumped me and I was left to go home with a decent start to the year, but no Sunday appearance. After being in 46th place the previous day, I was thankful for the opportunity to make the big jump. On the other hand, I only missed it by 12 ounces and that really hurt. I’d found a 3 pounder on a bed on the second day and in two separate visits I managed to hook her each time and then lost her. I ran out of time before she’d give me a third chance. It’s a long drive from Palatka back to Texas and I replayed that fish over and over and over again.
In 2015 I started the season with a 49th place finish at the Sabine, so this is an improvement upon that. Every year I go into the season hoping to be in position to challenge for the Angler of the Year award. There’s a lot of fishing left to go before that becomes an issue, but after missing some good chances at making a run for it in 2013 and 2014, I know that I can’t stumble at any point if I want to achieve that goal. I had a good Classic and a good tournament to start the regular season, so if I can just survive Winyah Bay it’s all familiar territory after that. I hope you see me on the water on at least a few Sundays.
I had the opportunity to ride with Keith Combs on Day One of the 2016 Bassmaster Classic on Grand Lake in Oklahoma. We know it takes hard work, determination and focus to get there, but seeing how it’s fleshed out in person is different than just acknowledging the work it takes. Here are some observations I made while riding with Combs.Fish where you have confidenceI can’t tell you how many times Combs would make 15 casts and then sprint back to the wheel only to idle 50 yards to a different spot. What I gleaned from the observation was he didn’t have confidence in that stretch of water to produce a fish, so he skipped it.The stretches he idled past very well could’ve been holding a fish, but Combs wasn’t about to waste his time with a “maybe.” When big money is on the line, every cast counts and time is your enemy. Don’t waste your time and your casts on water that’s not a sure thing. Focus your energy on water you have confidence in to produce the fish you need.Know where your next cast will be before you make itThe efficiency at which Combs covered water was mind boggling. The Classic was not an hours game, or even a minutes game for him; it was a game of seconds. I’d like to imagine Combs had his next five casts figured out before he even made them. In fact, it was only milliseconds after his crankbait left the water before it was on its way to the next target.
The lesson here is this: The more casts you make means more opportunities for strikes. Seconds wasted add up to minutes, and those minutes wasted can be the difference between winning and losing.
You can’t catch a fish with your bait out of the water.
Never give up on a cast
Getting your lure hung up happens. Combs was snagged in some rock again for the umpteenth time. It could’ve been a temptation for him to lose focus as he snapped his line to free the crankbait. However, it was a good thing he didn’t give up on the cast; as soon as the crankbait was freed, he hooked up with the second biggest fish of the day. Had he not been prepared, it would’ve been the difference between a limit and only four fish weighed.
Combs finished ninth in the Classic, and had only 4 ounces more than Greg Hackney, who finished 10th. Those few seconds of focus was the difference between placing one spot higher.
Long before the launch of Day One, Keith Combs was focused on finalizing tackle prep and making the best of his day. (Blake Russell photo)
Think positive and be persistent
This is much easier said than done. Combs landed a 4-pounder in the first 30 minutes of fishing. After that, he went without another bite until the middle of the afternoon. It was brutal for me just watching, I can only imagine how brutal it must have been for Combs.
But, he didn’t let it affect his fishing. He knew he was going to get bit, and he was ready for when it happened. If I were in his shoes, I probably would’ve been writing the day off.
Many times this is the difference maker of being a competitive and successful pro angler. As long as there is still time left on that clock, you have to believe in your ability to make something happen. He had less than an hour left before he boated his last keeper. His persistence and staying positive paid off.
I’m sure that although many of you have some idea of who I am, you may not know how I became a professional angler or what drives me to succeed. I’m thankful to the editors at Bassmaster.com for giving me this chance to tell you a little bit about my life story.
I’ve lived my whole life in Texas, and I started fishing with my parents when I was in diapers. They didn’t know anything about professional bass fishing, and we pretty much tried to catch whatever would bite, but from an early age this sport was my passion. I was always trying to convince them to let me fish even more, and as early as 8 or 9 years old I’d cut deals with them to take me at least once a week.
A few years later one of our neighbors had a boat that he liked to take striper fishing, and once again I became a dealmaker, doing everything I could to convince him to take me fishing. Eventually he started to take me, and we had a blast catching stripers until one day we stumbled onto the largemouth bug. We were jigging 1-ounce spoons on bluff banks, and we ended up in the midst of a big school of largemouths. They were there the next night, too, and the night after that.
With our newfound confidence, we decided to enter a little Thursday night jackpot tournament. Looking back at it now, it’s kind of funny how green we were. I mean, we knew that the bass had to be at least 14 inches to keep, but we had no idea that their mouths had to be closed when you measured them. We were fortunate that we caught enough that were well over the legal minimum, and eventually we culled up to the winning weight.
I was 13 at the time, and from that moment on, I was completely eaten up with bass fishing, although I still had no idea that you could do it for a living. My neighbor and I started a bass club, and I won the angler of the year title at 13. Then we joined a bigger bass club and with some hard work and a few breaks I won the AOY there, too. That became my strategy – to attain success at one level and then use that as a springboard to move up the ladder. Despite the trophies I’d started to accumulate, I still didn’t have much of a clue about what I was doing. I just figured that if I could continue to win AOY titles, I could keep moving up.
We started to fish Anglers Choice team tournaments, and after three or four years, we were once again the AOYs. Then I moved on to FLW’s Texas Tournament Trail (TTT) and again won the AOY. I didn’t have much of a life outside of tournament fishing and at times it wasn’t easy, but I knew what I wanted to do.
I’m probably making this progression sound much easier than it was, and I sincerely hope that I don’t come off as cocky or arrogant. I worked hard to get to that point, and while I had a full-time job at a machine shop, I was making about a third of my income from tournament fishing. I always seemed to leap to the next level before I was completely ready, but I still didn’t have the confidence or the financial backing to jump to the tour level.
Despite my concerns, I desperately wanted to see if I could compete against the best of the best, so at 31 I gave my employer my two week notice and moved to Del Rio, Texas. Lake Amistad was the hottest lake in the country at the time, and I figured it would be the perfect laboratory to get my skills and my bank account where it needed to be.
The move wasn’t without some sacrifices. I rented out my house, put my fold-out couch in the back of my truck and headed south for a pretty bare-bones lifestyle. The only person I knew in town was Tim Reneau, who was starting Power Tackle Rods at the time. He allowed me temporarily to stay in a small condo he owned, and through his contacts with the guides in the area he got me a few guide clients. I’ll never forget his generosity. Without it, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today.
Eventually I built up enough money from guiding to rent a little place of my own, the best accommodations in Del Rio that $400 a month could pay for. I had a couch but no TV, and it remained that way for four years. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford a TV – I just didn’t want to have any distractions from tournament fishing. If I wasn’t on the water, I was either working on tackle or studying for the next tournament. It was all that I wanted to do.
When I made the leap to the FLW Tour, I was fortunate to finish in the Top 10 a couple of times the first year. The next year I ended up 13th in the points race and made my first Toyota Texas Bass Classic. That was the biggest event I’d ever been to, with lots of my Bassmaster Elite Series heroes, and it lit a fire under me to qualify for the Elite Series. I signed up for the Bassmaster Opens, won the AOY title in the Centrals, and thereby qualified not only for the Elite Series but for my first Bassmaster Classic.
At that point, everything seemed to be lining up perfectly. Several of my longtime guide clients took a leap of faith and sponsored me. They weren’t in the fishing industry, didn’t have any skin in the game, but they wanted to be a part of my journey. They’re still with me to this day, and I’ll never forget their confidence in my abilities. I may be the face of the operation, but their support allows me to do my job.
When I got to the Elites, there were lots of lakes on the schedule that I didn’t know anything about. The only way that I could be competitive was to pre-fish every one of them and to spend a ton of time on the water. That’s still my rule – if it’s on the schedule, I’m going there to pre-practice. I don’t care if I have to drive to Sacramento to do it. I figured that’s what everyone would do, but it seems like only 30 to 40 percent of the field takes that same approach.
My bottom line is that I don’t want to get beaten because someone worked harder than me. While occasionally a young phenom comes along who has some immediate success without doing a lot of homework, in most cases that will eventually catch up to you. In this sport, you get out of it what you put into it.
I’ve always done it the hard way. That’s the only way I know how to do it.