Across a season on tour, a plethora of variables can impact whether or not an angler consistently catches fish. Time of year, weather, water clarity, forage, fishing pressure — the list goes on.
One factor that, at least on the surface, doesn’t seem like it would fit with the rest: momentum. With events typically taking place multiple weeks apart and on different fisheries — often in different regions of the country and sometimes even with different species of bass in play — it can be hard to believe there’s much crossover from one tournament to the next. Yet it’s common to hear pros talk about stretches during which they consistently find fish and make the right adjustments, or others when it feels like every move is the wrong one. The results often bear that out. Every year, there’s a few anglers who get hot for multiple events at a time and others who struggle to break out of a slump.
Mark Daniels Jr. can attest. The Mercury pro experienced both phenomena within the same season.
Daniels’ 2023 campaign got off to a brutal start. He finished 67th at Stage One on Florida’s Kissimmee Chain, then failed to make the Knockout Round during each of the next two regular-season events, as well. Add in his 30th-place finish out of 40 anglers at REDCREST and missed cuts at each of the first three Tackle Warehouse Invitationals events of the year, and Daniels felt like there was no way out of his negative spiral.
“I just couldn’t do anything right,” he said. “I was making terrible decisions. I was losing fish, breaking fish off. Just anything that could happen was happening over the course of several events, and it just kind of compounded all on top of each other.”
But Daniels showed that, as important as momentum can be, it can also change in a hurry. By the end of the season, when he reeled off consecutive Championship Round appearances in the final two events, he looked unrecognizable from the angler who finished 77th out of 80 anglers at Lake Murray and slid to 77th in the BPT Angler of the Year standings as a result.
Daniels’ remarkable rally vaulted him all the way to 39th in the points, qualifying him for REDCREST 2024. The roller coaster ride he took to get there offers a case study on the impact of momentum in professional bass fishing.
A glance at the results might not reveal it, but Daniels actually started his 2023 season fishing well. Seeking a Florida warmup prior to the first BPT tournament, he entered the Invitationals event at Lake Okeechobee in early February. Day 1 went to plan, with Daniels catching more than 20 pounds and sitting in 12th place. His second day wasn’t quite as productive, but Daniels knew he’d boated enough weight to qualify for the third day and earn a paycheck.
To his shock, when he took his Day 2 bag to the scale, it weighed just 8 pounds, 3 ounces. Turns out, Daniels had left one of his five bass in the livewell of his Ranger. He wound up missing the cut by 1-4.
Looking back, Daniels feels like that mistake precipitated the problems that dogged him for the next two months.
“I just feel like it sent me on like a weird, downhill spiral — just like some negative energy,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it, dude. And ever since that moment, it was just back to back to back to back tough events.”
Following his disappointing start to the BPT season, Daniels returned to the Invitationals trail for Stop 2 at Clarks Hill. He finished 100th out of 150 boats. Then came missed cuts at REDCREST as well as Stages Two and Three of the BPT slate.
While it wasn’t the first slump of Daniels’ career — he understands that just about anyone who has fished long enough to rise to the top of the sport is bound to hit a rough patch or two — he admitted it wore on him mentally.
“I’ve had a string of tough tournaments before,” Daniels said. “I think we all have. … But it’s been quite some time since something like that has happened. The longer you do this and you start to experience a little bit of success, you just have higher expectations of yourself. And it got to be tough, man.”
Once again, Daniels points to an Invitationals event as the moment his fortunes seemed to shift.
During the first day of Stop 3 at Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma, it looked like his woes would continue, as he caught just three bass for 6-12. But on Day 2, he abandoned his initial game plan, tried a new area and sacked up 16-10. While that wasn’t enough to get him across the cut line, seeing a decision pay off buoyed Daniels’ spirits.
“I felt like it was a momentum shift,” he said. “It was like, OK, now you’re back thinking properly, making the right adjustments on the fly and catching these fish. And that’s kind of what happened for me. I stuck with that, rolled with that, and went to Guntersville, and boom, make the cut.”
Indeed, Daniels finally tasted his first Knockout Round of the season the following month at Lake Guntersville, where he finished 32nd. He improved once more by placing 25th at Cayuga Lake a few weeks later.
Still, at that point, Daniels found himself 63rd in the AOY standings, well back of the 40th-place cutoff to qualify for REDCREST. He knew he’d likely have to finish among the Top 10 at both Lake St. Clair and Saginaw Bay to climb that high.
Daniels pulled it off. He boated enough St. Clair smallmouth to finish sixth. Then, after he couldn’t get the brown fish to cooperate during practice at Saginaw Bay, he pivoted to shallow largemouth and rode them to a seventh-place finish. Only two anglers who weighed all largemouth, Ott DeFoe and Jesse Wiggins, finished ahead of him.
The strong showing at Saginaw Bay illustrated the difference between the beginning of the season, when Daniels couldn’t seem to do anything right, and the end, when he was one of the hottest anglers on tour. Not only did committing to largemouth pay off, Daniels noted that he caught his two biggest bass of the Championship Round from an area he hadn’t fished all week. While stuck in a cycle of negative momentum, he constantly second-guessed his decisions, which often led to making the wrong ones, and thus more second-guessing. After tasting some success, he was able to make adjustments — a must in virtually all tournaments, but especially the BPT’s six-day format — with assurance that he would find a way to catch ‘em.
“It’s a confidence thing,” Daniels said. “Toward the end of the season, I wasn’t second-guessing my decisions. I was just rolling with it. And sure enough, it started coming together. It’s working now, whereas before, you make three, four, five calls, and then they end up being all the wrong calls, so to speak. It starts to weigh on you, and you start second-guessing everything.”
It wasn’t just his strong second day at Eufaula that helped restore Daniels’ confidence. He credited his relationship with his travel partners on the Bass Pro Tour — Adrian Avena, Dustin Connell and Jacob Wheeler — for both helping him get past his struggles and motivating him to match their success. While the four friends encourage one another and talk each other through any struggles that might arise, make no mistake: They’re still competitors, especially with one another.
“Just sitting there and watching these guys and just looking at all the success that they have is just a motivator all by itself, because it’s like, you don’t want to be the only one not doing well,” Daniels said. “And them boys are so good at what they do.”
Indeed, success among the roommates seemed to be contagious during the second half of the season. Across the final four events, they went a combined 15-for-16 qualifying for Knockout Rounds, with the only miss coming when Avena had to leave Saginaw Bay after the first day of qualifying to undergo an emergency appendectomy. During that span, the quartet combined for eight Championship Round appearances and two wins, one each by Wheeler and Avena.
Daniels prides himself on his track record of qualifying for championship events. He’s now done so six times across his seven seasons on the Bassmaster Elite Series and Bass Pro Tour. The fact that he was able to climb 38 spots in the standings across four events to do so, he believes, is a testament to the power of perseverance. That, more than anything else, is his advice to any anglers experiencing a slump: “Don’t give up.”
“Don’t give up on yourself, don’t give up on what you believe in,” Daniels said. “It’s going to happen. It’s just not on your time. … It was meant for me to make REDCREST. It came in a very roundabout way, but it was meant to happen, and that’s why we were able to pull it off.”