Opinions & Philosophies

My Best Advice to New Tournament Anglers

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angler holding up a largemouth bass

I used to compete in a bunch of local bass fishing tournaments; I probably didn’t impress folks very much but I did pretty well in a few of them. Now that tournament season is already ramping up again in my neck of the woods, I’ve noticed that I’m getting calls from guys looking for information or at the very least, some advice on strategy. I try to help as many folks as I can because, after all, I remember when I was new to tournament fishing.

I was scared to death at my first tournament. At blast-off and weigh-in, I felt like everyone was looking at me. I was afraid to mess up in front of anyone and as a result, I was a stressed-out mess. I think I’ve mentioned it before in a previous article but while launching my boat at my first-ever tournament, I fell off my trailer while climbing into the boat and totally embarrassed myself. It was not a small splash, it was a full submersion under-the-water kind of fall. I was nervous, I didn’t know anyone and as you might know, you tend to mess up the most when you’re trying not to mess up.

The tournament scene can be and is an intimidating thing; I’m still not that fond of it, to be honest. But if you’re looking to take your bass fishing to the next level and enter a few local tournaments this year, I wanted to put together a few tips for beginner tournament anglers. If you’re anything like me, it’s hard to ask guys this type of advice because your pride can quickly get in the way. If you’re thinking of jumping in a few derbies this year, however, take a few minutes to read through this article and it might help you calm down and enjoy the experience a bit more.

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Don’t play tickle bunny

big largemouth bass

This is something I’ve done way too much during my earlier tournaments and also something I’ve seen my co-anglers do too much. I don’t really know where I got the term “tickle bunny” but essentially, it refers to retying your lures too much. That’s what I call it when I’m trying to get too cute with my lure selection. Whether its your boater or co-angler, if they’re catching fish on some particular lure and you’re not getting many bites, it’s way too tempting to sit in the bottom of the boat and tie on 50 different lures throughout the day.

I’ve had a few co-anglers who have spent more time rigging tackle than they have fishing. In my first few years of tournaments, I felt like I was doing the same thing, too. I was recently talking to someone who was asking all kinds of questions about soft-plastic colors, shapes and totally overanalyzing what they were doing on the water.

In my personal opinion (and I could very well be wrong), it’s important to understand that you’re chasing an animal with a brain the size of your pinky fingernail. I’m not trying to diminutize the challenge of bass fishing but I think it’s imperative to bring ourselves back down to earth every now and again in an attempt to simplify our collective approach. These bass are just animals that care about spawning, eating and regulating their body temperatures. I’m certainly guilty of overcomplicating things at times but I try my very hardest to remind myself that it’s just fishing.

Obviously, it’s not that simple because if it were, we’d all be Kevin VanDam, Jordan Lee, Patrick Walters or Jacob Wheeler. But when spending time in the boat with full-time professionals of that caliber or my friends here locally who do very well in tournaments, their simple approaches have really stood out to me. It seems like they know what they’re good at; they know their strengths and weaknesses and they do everything possible to zero-in on the techniques they’re best at.

If you’re not getting a bunch of bites during a tournament, it’s tempting to blame it on your lure selection. You’re throwing watermelon red instead of green pumpkin. You’re throwing a threadfin-colored crankbait instead of a gizzard shad-colored crankbait… or something like that. But while I’ve been fishing with really good tournament anglers throughout my outdoor writing career, I’ve noticed that they don’t really buy into all of that.

They don’t play tickle bunny.

They have confidence in what they’re throwing and if they’re not getting bites, they move.

I’ve incorporated this into my own fishing throughout the years and I can personally testify that it works. There’s no such thing as a linear bait or lure progession as you’re going down the bank. It’s not a “well, let’s try option No. 1 and if that doesn’t work, I’ll go to option No. 2 and No. 3 as a backup plan.” Just try to fish the current conditions. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t fish it.

I absolutely stink at fishing a drop shot. I also stink at throwing a Neko rig. If I go down a stretch of bank with my preferred options, a jig or a shallow-diving crankbait, why would I run back through the same area with techniques in which I’m not confident? In my opinion, based on the advice of world-class anglers who are much, much better than me, that just wastes a bunch of time. Stick with your strengths, don’t get cute and try to make ‘em bite what you like to throw. Confidence seems to be the most common characteristic of outstanding tournament anglers.

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Keep that trolling motor in the water

motorguide trolling motor in water

I understand that cranking the big motor and moving areas is certainly important throughout the course of some bass fishing tournaments. But I think folks run around too much while they’re trying to find fish. Again, some of the best tournament anglers I’ve shared a boat with have taught me this lesson. They tend to settle down in an area and just fish.

I know that might sound terribly generic but as we mentioned earlier, confidence is key and I think the more you doubt your decisions, the worse you’re going to fish. If you think you’re in an area of the lake with fish and a discernible pattern, I’d encourage you to stick it out for at least an hour or two and see what you can figure out.

A buddy of mine told me one time, “Every second your trolling motor isn’t in the water is a second you’re not making a cast or catching a fish.”

It sure made a lot of sense to me. When I first started fishing tournaments, my buddies would poke at me after weigh-in and comment about how much they’d see me running around at 70 mph throughout the day. I’d pull up to a stretch of bank, fish for a few casts and immediately start to doubt myself. That led to me pulling up the trolling motor and running all over God’s creation trying to find something that felt comfortable. After a few hours of doing that throughout a tournament, it’s easy to get super spun-out and totally abandon your gameplan.

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You’re going to lose more than you win

largemouth bass with soft-plastic bait in mouth

Unless you’re an all-world angler, you’re going to lose a lot more tournaments than you’re going to win. Around my parts, you’re fishing against 200-plus boats and a lot of them are full of outstanding anglers; the numbers just simply aren’t in your favor. The idea that you’re going to beat those guys every weekend won’t do anything other than put undue pressure on yourself. Don’t get me wrong—there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the competitiveness of it but take it from someone who used to let it eat them alive… you’re going to lose and if you want to maximize your enjoyment of tournament bass fishing, it’s important to become a good loser. My momma always says (I sound like Forrest Gump) that bad losers have “sour grapes”. Be happy for the winner and go shake their hand(s). Don’t have sour grapes. Statistically speaking, we’re all going to lose more than we win in this game. That’s what can make it so dang addictive.

I think a lot of local tournament anglers tend to put this pressure on themselves far too much. It’s tempting to think that if you don’t catch them, people aren’t going to take you seriously or they might doubt your fishing ability. Speaking from plently of personal experience, having a total disaster of a tournament can jack with your ego and confidence. Maybe I’m totally wrong but man, if I fish a tournament, I only care about what weight won. It doesn’t matter to me who caught what and who had a bad day. So when you have a bad day on the water, don’t get all self conscious and think everyone noticed. I can absolutely assure you they didn’t. You either win the tournament or you learn valuable lessons. Try to keep that in mind and your confidence will skyrocket.

As tournaments ramp up in your area, I encourage you to re-read this article and take some lessons from me; I had no idea what I was doing as a teenager when I first started tournament fishing. I wish I had someone to share some sort of guidance with me. The tournament community is normally an awesome group of folks so don’t be afraid to jump in a little Saturday morning derby. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, do your thing and don’t be too hard on yourself when you don’t catch ‘em. It happens to everybody!