Much like 2020 was a crazy year for all of us, the 2021 Elite Series season very much fell into this category for me. After a solid rookie season to build on, my goal was to be a little more consistent. The fact of the matter, regardless of any factors on or off the water, I was not able to do that. Although it was a tough season overall, there were a lot of good things to build on. We were thrown a lot of curveballs with flooding, weather delays and cancellations. All of these things presented great opportunities to learn and grow from.
Our season started pretty slowly in Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. The St. John’s River, which is a place I’ve lived for a few winters and guided on has changed a lot and I was not able to adjust quick enough to get out of there with another good check. Knoxville (Fort Loudon/Tellico) was an interesting event as much of the field did not have a wealth of experience there. It was a cold water/prespawn type event which presented us with some tough fishing conditions. I mostly locked a small squarebill and chatterbait in my hands which provided me with a good deal of bites, however catching enough keepers was hard to come by. I got out with a small check and some added confidence in the John Crews Squarebill Rod and new ICON Series Multi-Purpose Casting Rod which is my favorite chatterbait rod. Then came one I was really excited for, Pickwick Lake in Alabama. This event was rescheduled from June to March which was a time a lot of big smallmouth seem to be brought to the scales. I ended up having a very solid practice, but had trouble getting them to bite day one after the tornado and severe flooding we received. Day two I ended up catching a solid bag of largemouth with one big spotted bass on a spinnerbait again with that ICON Series Multi-Purpose Casting Rod.
Three events down and a very different position than year one. Next up was our Texas swing before heading back to Alabama. My goal was to not miss a check the rest of the season. First up, the Sabine River got us on the right track for accomplishing that. The Sabine is a very unique tidal fishery on the Gulf Coast, but can present some very difficult fishing. With no experience there, I found one key area that produced for two days which got me to fishing the weekend. I caught most of my fish on a topwater, whether it was a frog, buzzbait or popper, but also added a couple on a spinnerbait as well. It provided some great momentum heading into Lake Fork, which is one of my favorite fisheries we go to. The sheer number of giant bass swimming in those waters is staggering and we got to literally see them as it was spawning season. Between a shad spawn and catching bedding fish, it provided some options. I ended up fishing most of the event for bedding fish, whether visual or “blind” bed fishing them. It was more of a grind than I expected, but I was able to put together a couple solid limits, just missing the weekend cut. This time, I went largely finesse and the 7’ Medium ICON Series Spinning Rod got most of the work. After being able to flip many of them on heavy gear in practice, they got a lot more finicky and this was key to turning some uninterested fish into biting fish. I didn’t get a great check, but stayed on pace with at least getting paid.
Our next Alabama swing began over at Neely Henry, a very riverine reservoir, that provided two unique type places with heavily current oriented upper end and more lake type lower section. Much like the Pickwick event, we were greeted with flooding and ever changing conditions which threw another curveball. Day one, I opted to fish the lower lake section and struggled to catch bigger fish to working my way back up. Day two I opted to stay up and got a handful of quality bites, mostly frogging and throwing a spinnerbait (surprise, surprise on the ICON Series Multi-Purpose Casting Rod). Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite enough to keep the goal alive. Next, we headed to Guntersville where we hit a lake in the midst of a transition from spawn to postspawn and summer patterns. Practice was a challenge, but I had found some offshore fish and a decent mix of shallow fish as well. I felt I could potentially do well. Day one, mixing in ledge fish and shallow bed fish and bream eaters, I was sitting mid-pack. Day two, we grinded out mostly ledge fish before heading shallow, where we were only able to add one or two fish that were weighed and scratched a small check. A drop shot, 10XD, frog and wacky worm did most of the work.
Lessons learned, experiences gained. I was looking forward to being around home some before we wrapped up our season with the northern swing after never being home more than two weeks in a month after January. It was a great way to recharge and have some fun fishing a few local tournaments. By the time Champlain rolled around, I was ready. Although it’s only a state away, it’s still about nine to ten hours from my home, so I don’t fish there often, but when I do, it’s a treat. Going in, I wasn’t too sure if the fish were going to be finicky, just coming off their spawning cycle, but it didn’t take long to see they were ready to eat! When practicing, I want the days to progressively get better and that’s exactly what happened leading into our event. I was very confident in not just spots, but multiple patterns playing for both smallmouth and largemouth. Usually when that happens, you are going to have a really good chance to win. Most every place I went in the tournament that I figured I would catch a fish, I did. Between fishing in six inches of water, all the way to thirty, everything felt right. I was very thankful to have an opportunity to win this event and came just a little bit short. However, Champlain is one of those places that regardless if you finish first or last, you are like, “wow, that was fun.” It’s such an incredible fishery. Most of the damage there was done with the ICON Spinning Rod between a wacky worm and a drop shot, both on the 7’ Medium or Medium Heavy Fast action rods . I was able to play these big largemouth and smallmouth to the boat without worrying one bit. I also did some work with the John Crews Squarebill Rod (which I fished a jerkbait on) and a Carolina rig on the Elite 7’11” heavy – fast action.
Our last event of the 2021 season brought us to another big smallmouth factory, the St. Lawrence River. After some experience there and knowing the quality of fish that live in the Lake, I opted to find something there to give myself a chance to win. Launching at Waddington, the run to the Lake ended up being anywhere from an hour and a half to two plus hours each way. I knew it was a risk, but I felt better about my chances rolling the dice there then in the river. Day one, I ran out there to an area which I ended up having totally to myself. The first fish I put in the boat was over four pounds and he had buddies. Unfortunately, most of his buddies weren’t quite as mature. Much of the large area only produced two to two and half pound fish. I pulled the plug around noon, knowing it was going to take me almost two hours to get back after filling up with gas on the way. After filling up, I made my way to an area in the river that I had as a back up because I felt the best weight you could scrape from it wasn’t nearly as good. The first drift over the best spot produced a four and a half to five pounder. I was definitely pumped as it was a really good cull and there was still enough time to cull a few more. We grinded it out there and a couple more areas around there and on the way back, but was never able to cull again. After a small penalty, we were sitting a bit lower than mid pack, but by no means out of fishing the weekend. I knew what I needed was somewhere in the eighteen to twenty pound range to get back into the fold. My confidence in the Lake waned and my key river area became very enticing. It wasn’t a two hour run, but it was still a long ways too. It did give me a lot longer to fish and I liked those odds. It started quickly there as I boated two in the four pound class off the same spot, before plucking another solid three and change nearby. However, the size went down from there. Everywhere I hit they would just were small and I made small culls the rest of the day without ever being able to connect with another St. Lawrence chunk that it’s so well known for. A drop shot and neko rig caught all the fish there and we effectively ended our season with a slightly disappointing finish, scratching a small check out.
I’ve learned that these kind of seasons although frustrating can also be so important for growth. The best season of my career followed one of the toughest. Sometimes in order to get a step higher, you need to take a step back to really see what you need to work on. Having a true offseason this year will be nice as it’s such an important time for recharging and spending time with family. Much of this fishing is a business too and being able to get work done and prep for next season is huge. I’ll also be recharging of course with plenty of fishing. Many guys are big hunter’s and I used to do a lot more, but honestly with the smallmouth fishing we have on Lake Erie in the fall, it’s extremely hard to pull me off the Pond.