Unknown Author - When it comes to NFL quarterbacks, what separates the greats from the near-greats? Often it's what they do at the beginning and end of a game. Blow the doors off the other team during the first quarter or toss a game-winning touchdown as time expires and lots of broken plays and errant passes are forgotten.
Granted, similarities between professional football and tournament bass fishing are few. Both still boil down to competition, though, and the decision about where to make your first stop can have a major impact on how the rest of your day unfolds. If you put a quick limit in the boat or stick a donkey, things can look quite rosy. The alternative â€“ few or no bites, lost fish, or being overrun with competitors â€“ are the kinds of first-hour scenarios that can leave us tossing and turning for nights after a tournament. Should those less-than-stellar beginnings greet us, how do we respond? And, more to the point, how do we prepare ourselves when we're convinced our entire success hinges on that early bite?
The last hour, too, can be momentous. We've all heard the story of an angler dropping the winning fish in the box just as his partner is lifting the trolling motor. But how do you keep your wits about you when you're down to sixty minutes and you know a kicker will win it or a limit fish will send you to the Tournament of Champions?
Basswest USA had a chance to run this topic by two of the West's premier anglers to get their thoughts on how to make the best use of a tournament's first and last hours. Greg Gutierrez, longtime pro and BASS Elite angler until this year, when he chose to step away due to family medical issues, and Bill Siemantel, legendary trophy angler and accomplished tournament fisherman, talked with us about their approaches to these critical moments in competitive angling.
It would be reassuring to hear that a slow start isn't that big of a deal. Veteran anglers, however, have a habit of telling it like it is rather than telling us what we want to hear. "There are a lot of tourneys that are won during the first hour," says Greg Gutierrez. He notes that if the big fish are up and feeding during the low-light conditions of early morning, that could well represent the critical activity period for the day and whoever capitalizes on it most effectively, wins. "Some places are all about shade and low light," he continues, "and I've also seen the big effect current can have on lakes like Guntersville."
Bill Siemantel, too, acknowledges that, depending on the season, the early bite might well rule. "At certain times of the year â€“ fall and winter â€“ the window of opportunity is the first hour. By 9 AM, it's done."
So, if that initial choice of position and pattern is so critical, how do you make the most of it? Although Gutierrez recognizes its importance, he states, "I don't ever prefish for the first hour of a tournament." The pro from Red Bluff, California admits that if he finds a wad of fish during practice, he'll often choose that spot as his starting point. However, he notes the risks inherent in putting too much stock in a single honeyhole. "The whole magic window disappears so fastâ€¦ If you put all your fish in that basket, your entire day can run away from you."
There's another, obvious factor over which tournament anglers typically have no control but which can have enormous impact â€“ boat number. Siemantel and team partner Troy Lindner (son of TV fishing personality, Al Lindner) have won two TOC's within the last 6 months, the most recent being the Anglers' Choice February 2009 championship held at Lake Castaic. He states that on some waters, success really can boil down to luck of the draw. "On a lake like Castaic, if you're boat 20, you know most of the other guys are going to the exact same spot that you had in mind. You better have a backup plan." During the days leading up to an event, Siemantel searches for unexploited areas in case his primary targets are swarming with competing boats. "I try to find secondary spots. They may not have lots of fish, but they have the right size of fish."
How can anglers best prepare themselves to take advantage of that crucial first hour? Gutierrez remarks that his approach has changed through the years. "I used to be very scripted and would always start out with a spinnerbait." With hundreds of tournaments under his belt, his approach has evolved. "When I'm practicing, I'll narrow it down to six to eight baits the fish are eating. I now trust my instincts when they tell me to change instead of being locked-in. I try to look at what the water is doing.
"I'll go with what I feel," the Cal Fire Battalion Chief continues, "and when I'm really on my game, I don't second-guess myself. I may have a game plan, lay my rods out, and then notice the wind has changed." That doesn't mean Gutierrez won't pay a visit to what was to have been his initial spot. Rather, he may begin where his instincts lead him and swing by his pre-planned starting point later in the day.
All that being said â€“ what do you do if your top spot is a dud? "I blow it off," Gutierrez comments. He notes that, rather than sinking into discouragement, he goes on with his business while analyzing the situation. "I talk to myself a lot on the water. I'll say things like, â€˜Why did that not work?' and try to figure out why I didn't get bit." He also finds a psychological edge in this approach. "I like to fish against guys who get bummed out during the first hour. I usually take precautions for failure in a pattern. For example, if the fish aren't biting a jig, I'll plan on working a darthead. Fish change moods, and I try to back myself up."
Siemantel, too, notes that a bad start can sink the day for many of his competitors. "Some guys take themselves out of the tournament within the first few casts." One thing he's learned not to do is to spend the days before a tournament visualizing a wildly successful but highly improbable beginning. "I've caught myself in the past painting a picture in my mind that's not going to happen. You start to progress in this sport when you realize you're not in control of the weather or your boat number. You begin making decisions based on conditions. You pull in information â€“ where the other boats are headed, for instance. And, you start listening to the fish and keying on the top, middle or bottom of the water column."
We all dream of being the angler who sticks the winning fish seconds before the run back to weigh-in. Unfortunately, last-second heroics are rarities for almost everyone in this sport. The bigger question is: how do you keep your cool during the last hour of a tournament when the pressure is mounting to make something happen?
"I've always been a points fisherman," confesses Greg Gutierrez. "When you're fishing to make the Classic, 60th place is way better than 80th. That championship is always there. You may not be stroking the fish but that two-pounder is everything.
"I try to stay focused," the 2-time Classic qualifier adds, "and catch myself if I start getting rushed. Every fish is money, and keeping my head in the game is important."
Siemantel uses the anxiety of his competitors to his advantage. He bides his time and waits for them to get antsy and move off prime real estate so he can move in. "The big thing is confidence. As I see the clock ticking down, I get more excited because I've pulled feathers in the past. Other guys get discouraged and give up. I know it can happen at the last moment.
"Troy and I win tournaments all during the day," the recent inductee to the Freshwater Fishing Hall-of-Fame adds, "by fishing the moment for eight hours. Our tournaments are won by grinding away." He goes on to note the toll a full day of competition takes on anglers. "Tournament fishing is a juggling act, and being mentally focused is big. A lot of guys forget to eat and drink and it catches up with them." Siemantel stays hydrated with Herbalife's Liftoff, an energy drink with no calories and plenty of vitamins.
Many anglers speed up as the clock winds down. At times, this can be a mistake. When he's searching for a kicker, though, Gutierrez not only fishes faster, but he also fishes bigger. "I'm looking for a reaction bite from fish that aren't feeding. I'll fish a jig faster, I'll fish a buzzbait faster, I'll bulge a spinnerbait. I'll not only pick up the pace, but I'll also pick up the size." The 47-year old pro adds, however, that he can change his approach depending on the situation. "I can also fish excruciatingly slowly if I have to."
Siemantel notes another factor anglers can use to stave off panic during that last hour before weigh-in â€“ "It tends to be a great feeding time. Look for main lake points with wind blowing onto them and a mudline. If you need another fish to fill your limit, run from one point to another, drag something like a dropshot Roboworm in Oxblood Light, and you'll catch a 2-lb'er. Especially in the afternoon, it only takes ten to fifteen minutes to catch a limit fish." The 20-year L.A. City firefighter goes on to mention another hidden benefit of this last-ditch approach. "The funny thing is, this is how you can find a pattern. Get on major points with wind and mudlines. It's extremely simple yet a lot of guys overlook it."
There's no doubt that pressure can have big effects on decision-making. The choice of whether to take the time to retie for a bent hook, so-so knot or to change-up lures, which an hour earlier would have been a no-brainer, suddenly becomes a stomach-churner. Gutierrez has a couple of simple tricks he uses to maximize his fishing time. "I'll throw out a dropshot with another rod while I retie a bait I want to use. That way, I have a bait in the water, and when I'm not fishing â€“ I'm fishing. I've also caught fish on darter heads, taken the fish off, thrown the darter head back out, then put the fish in the livewell."
Siemantel is emphatic when it comes to the subject of doing the little things right, even during the closing minutes. "Equipment, equipment, equipment! Besides location and boat position, it's something you can control. You're not losing time, you're saving time. You should be able to tie a knot in ten to fifteen seconds. Excuses are for guys who are not willing to win. If you lose a fish in the last five minutes because you didn't retie when you should have, you got lazy. Guys who are consistently successful have everything in order."
It takes time to learn to develop game plans, alter them when conditions call for it, and avoid making rash decisions as time runs short. As Bill Siemantel remarks, the best anglers fish the fish and don't care what anyone else is doing. He advises sticking with the fundamentals of structure, water column and bass behavior in guiding you to where and how you're fishing and, with experience, positive results will follow.
Both pros stress the importance of learning to trust your instincts and recognizing that not everything is under your control. And, as Greg Gutierrez points out, success can be the best medicine of all. "I do second-guess myself at times," he admits, "but not when I'm catching fish."