When I started fishing at the tour level, I thought I was really good at everything. I thought I could win with any, or every, technique.
I’m older and smarter now, and I understand the reality of tournament bass fishing. I know there are very few guys that are good enough to pull off a top 10 or win doing something that’s outside their wheelhouse.
For me, it’s become more and more clear every season. I’m more comfortable with some things, and I don’t throw certain others.
I’m not the only pro who thinks this way. Bryan Thrift is probably one of the best ever, but I’ve heard him say, “I hate flipping.” How could that be? He’s caught them flipping before, so that’s not the issue. Rather, Thrift has a wheelhouse in which he absolutely excels, and he knows that he performs better when he doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel and do things that aren’t in his wheelhouse – like flipping.
My wheelhouse is shallow power fishing, mainly with single hook-type baits such as spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, bladed jigs, jigs, soft plastics, and flipping and pitching baits. But I also really like topwater and shallow cranking, plus sight-fishing. That’s where I feel like I really excel.
Funny thing is, I grew up in southern California, fishing light-line finesse techniques, so I feel somewhat comfortable with that kind of stuff, but I’ve only had maybe one top 10 doing it in all my years of fishing. My record tells me the truth about what I’m good at, and light-line tactics don’t make the cut. Nor does Tennessee River ledge fishing.
I also know that, no matter how much time I’ve spent trying to get more comfortable with light-line tactics (and I’ve worked hard at it), I’ve always gravitated toward power-fishing tactics. Maybe it’s the way God wired me, but I could flip and pitch and throw topwater all day long and have a minimal amount of bites and still stay confident. I feel like I can go and make things happen. When I’m dragging around with light line, it’s like I’m waiting for something to happen.
This goes back to the mental side of fishing. If you believe what you’re doing is going to finally pay off at some point, it probably will. If you’re just hoping good things might happen, that’s not a good deal.
That’s why, when I’m preparing for a tournament, I look for opportunities to fish within my wheelhouse. At the Forrest Wood Cup on Lake Ouachita this year, I devoted most of my practice to the shallow bite. The tournament was won by Clent Davis fishing deep brush, but I don’t think I could’ve won that way. Instead, I stayed shallow, made the top 10 and put myself in position to have a chance to win. I finished second.
Even on Kentucky Lake in the heart of ledge season, I don’t dedicate the entire tournament to dragging around out deep. I’ll go hunting for a small school on a shallow bar or transition area and look for something I’m more comfortable doing. Then I might split my time 50/50 out deep. Maybe I’m not going to win, but I’m more confident I’ll make a check, and that’s important too.
About the only time I can’t fight it is when we go smallmouth fishing or visit a deep, clear lake like Smith Lake. In that case I’m going to try to find something I’m comfortable with, that’s in my wheelhouse, but I’m going to give the finesse stuff a really hard look because historically those are the types of things that catch fish.
I want to stick with what I’m good at, but not to the point that I’m so hardheaded that I don’t take the easy fish. For instance, on the Great Lakes, I know I can catch quality bass with a jerkbait, but if I don’t take advantage of opportunities with a drop-shot, I’d be asking for the beat down of all time. It’s a balancing act, really.
For my particular wheelhouse, shallow power-fishing, a lot of what determines how far I can take it is seasonality and conditions. The Tour could go to a clear-water reservoir, and if the water is high like when we were at Smith Lake last spring, I know I can catch them power fishing. But in more typical conditions, I’d probably have to bend a little more.
I’m pretty stubborn about giving up my preferred tactics, too. I mean, if my practice has been dismal – the worst ever – and I have nothing to go to, then it’s a survival tournament and I might as well do as the Romans do and start finesse fishing or ledge fishing or doing whatever it is that’s “supposed” to be working at that fishery. To me, that takes a lot of guts, because it’s usually a recipe for a beat down.
However, if I’ve had a few bites on a square-bill or throwing a buzzbait or something that’s in my wheelhouse, I genuinely feel like there’s enough there to piece together the puzzle for two days.
I think it’s fair to point out that pretty much everyone at the FLW Tour level can do it all. It’s just a question of whether they can do it well enough to win. I know my limitations. I also believe that the quicker you can recognize what’s in your wheelhouse and what’s not, the sooner you can improve your performance overall.
After all, we all want to go into every tournament thinking we’re going to win, but the reality is wins just don’t happen very frequently. Sometimes you have to salvage a tournament and get a check. Other times, by following your gut and staying true to yourself, you can uncover great opportunities to go for it. In the long run, I think that’s the best recipe for success.
Follow James Niggemeyer’s career at JamesNiggemeyer.com.