Valdivia is Best in the West - Major League Fishing

Valdivia is Best in the West

California pro wins Western Division AOY by one point
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David Valdivia Photo by Rob Matsuura. Angler: David Valdivia.
October 2, 2019 • Curtis Niedermier • Toyota Series

Considering that David Valdivia and Lane Olson were tied for the Costa FLW Series Western Division Strike King Angler of the Year lead going into the division finale at the Cal Delta, anyone could’ve predicted a tight finish in the race. But probably no one expected the $5,000 AOY prize to be settled by just 3 ounces at a fishery where double-digit bass swim.

The tiny margin turned out to be the difference, though, as Valdivia, a 32-year-old electrician who lives in the middle of the urban sprawl of the Los Angeles area, finished 14th at the Delta, while Olson, the 19-year-old Oregon angler who surprised many with his dominant run this season, finished 15th. By placing just one spot better on the Delta, Valdivia was crowned AOY by only one point.

Judging from his performance this season, Olson will be back in the AOY hunt sometime in the future. For Valdivia, winning AOY further validates what has been an impressive run in recent years and only fuels the growing confidence of one of the West’s rising stars.


David Valdivia, Jason Budkey

Staying out west

Valdivia’s recent results suggest he has the potential to eventually fish at the Tour level. In the five seasons that he’s been able to fish the full Western Division schedule, he’s finished in the top 10 of the AOY race four times – sixth in 2009, second in 2015, fifth in 2016 and first in 2019.

But then there’s the matter of geography. Living out west and competing back east takes a level of commitment that even some of the sport’s greats haven’t been willing to make. Valdivia says he’s not ready to try it yet. 

The Norwalk, Calif., angler is just one year into a new job working for the city of Riverside. It’s a good gig that offers the sort of long-term stability he’s not sure he could give up. Plus, he’s in a committed relationship with his girlfriend of four years, Monet Banuelos. Hitting the road for weeks at a time isn’t in the cards right now.

“I have zero sponsors, so I don’t really see myself going to the Tour,” he says. “I’m basically just a working guy. That’s the reason I have missed some tournaments [he only fished three events combined in 2017 and 2018]. It’s just because of work. I’m constantly working. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to do it, but realistically it’s hard to make the trek while not really having that much support. I’m just pretty much doing whatever I can as I go.

“I just think about the future and my retirement. I think ahead. I can’t imagine trying to risk it all and losing and not having anything to fall back to.”


David Valdivia

Growing up bassin’

At 32 years old, Valdivia has a lot of time to sort out the business of bass fishing if he eventually wants to make a run at going pro. The task of overcoming challenges in fishing isn’t new to him.

He grew up in a “ghetto neighborhood” in Norwalk on the outskirts of Los Angeles in a family that didn’t fish. While there are plenty of reservoirs (Castaic, Pyramid, Diamond Valley, Piru, Perris, Silverwood) in the surrounding area where Valdivia eventually honed his skills, the closest was an hour away. It almost seems by chance that he would wind up a fanatical angler as a child. 

“The only thing I remember is growing up and really liking the old-school FLW on ESPN and Bassmaster on TV,” Valdivia says. “I remember just watching all that stuff; everything when I was growing up. I had this freaky obsession with fishing. Nobody in my family fishes; not one person in my whole family. It’s really weird. I just really got into it. I still have notebooks from when I was in kindergarten, just drawing bass in a book.”

His first taste of real fishing came at small ponds in El Dorado Park in Long Beach. His mom would drop him off in the morning and pick him up after work.

“It was a cool place because it was a secure place,” he says. “There’s not a lot of riffraff because you have to pay to get in the place. So it was really cool. That’s pretty much how I grew up.”

Valdivia’s formative years progressed quickly. He figures he was about 16 when he started fishing tournaments and 17 when he got his first boat.

“I remember getting into a club and working for the local tackle store,” he says. “My first year as a back-seater I won angler of the year for my club, and the guys that used to run the club kicked me out, saying it was because I was too young, after I’d already fished the whole season.”

It was a rough moment for a young angler, but Valdivia rebounded thanks to a couple of local mentors. Among them was Marc Higashi, whom he met at Performance Tackle in Los Alamitos. Then there was Greg Whitehall Jr., who’s been Valdivia’s tournament partner since the latter was about 18 years old. Together, they started fishing American Bass team tournaments in 2004 and have since won 29 tournaments and earned more than $107,000.


David Valdivia

Gaining confidence

Through his teens and early 20s, Valdivia focused on building his skills. He fished ultra-finesse in local ponds and learned to wrench in calico bass from kelp forests off the coast to get a better understanding of how to tackle heavy vegetation. Yet, it was fishing with Whitehall that was the real catalyst for his eventual tournament success.

They fished the lakes around southern California every weekend en route to becoming a formidable duo. They’ve even won a boat together. 

In the early days of their relationship, Valdivia mostly fished out of the back of the boat, but over time he proved that he was good enough to be the shot caller; more than equal, and more than capable. 

The logical next step for Valdivia was to fish pro-am format events and expand his game. He says Whitehall, who owns his own electrical contracting business, doesn’t have the time to fish more tournaments, so Valdivia went at it alone. He started “dabbling” in FLW tournaments beginning with an FLW Series event at Lake Havasu in 2008. Valdivia blanked on the first day and finished 89th.

For a guy that has always wanted to win, the bomb hurt, but it also opened Valdivia’s eyes to the level of commitment needed to succeed at the FLW Series level out west.

“I wanted to see what it was like. I had no idea what the amateur side was like, or pro,” he says. “I just went in as a pro and did it, and I got my butt kicked. I wanted to do good so bad, but the guys are so good. You don’t really realize how good they are until you get into it.”

His only adjustment was to work harder on his skills and to commit to improving. The following year, sharper and better prepared, Valdivia fished the full four-tournament schedule, cut three checks and finished sixth in AOY. 

He was on his way.


David Valdivia

Winning AOY

AOY is a yearlong competition. To narrow the outcome down to what happened over just one or two days doesn’t do justice to the award.

Still, at the Cal Delta, Valdivia and Olson prepared for a final two-day showdown to determine a winner. After the first day, it looked like Olson had it sewn up. He caught 20 pounds, 1 ounce and was in sixth place. 

Valdivia, meanwhile, opened in 17th place with 16-13. It seemed a rash of lost fish was going to rob him of AOY.

But again, AOY is about overall season success, and Olson’s momentum finally slowed on day two. He weighed a limit for just 12-11. Valdivia’s goal all along has been consistency; to always be in the hunt. Which is exactly what happened at the Delta. On day two, he brought in 16-2 – not a massive limit, but enough to eek ahead by one spot in the tournament standings and, subsequently, one point in the AOY race.

“I got super lucky,” says Valdivia. “It should’ve been a slam dunk. You know how it is; you’ve got to execute, and you’ve got to land every bite you get. That’s the name of the game. 

“Honestly, I feel really happy. I feel good about it. It’s something that I’ve always been striving for,” he adds. “It’s a goal that I’ve always wanted to achieve. When I fish a full circuit, I’ve always been close. I knew I just needed to fish hard and I was going to win it one year. And it finally paid off this year. It worked out.”

Though Valdivia isn’t planning to fish the Tour anytime soon, it’s still something he’ll consider in the long term. Right now he’s focused on financial stability, and in building a life with Banuelos. His life is good right now, and there’s no need to rock the bass boat. 

Plus, Valdivia’s confidence on the water has never been higher. He’s positioned perfectly to continue his success out west.

“I think about two years ago I hit a point where, when I got on the water, it was just different. I just feel so much more comfortable with making decisions and making moves on the water and adjusting pretty much on the fly, going with whatever comes to mind. I feel like I’m just fishing more confident. I can’t even explain it.

“When I felt it start to click was when me and Greg won the American Bass team fish-off two years ago. We won a Ranger at Lake Havasu in November. I knew when I went out and practiced it just felt different. Ever since then, it’s like every team tournament we’re top three. Now, winning Angler of the Year, it’s a huge accomplishment for me. It gives me a huge boost of confidence even more.”


David Valdivia

Tournament rundown

A few lost fish on the first day of the season finale at the Cal Delta sank Valdivia’s chances at three consecutive top-10 finishes and almost derailed his AOY hopes, but his results in 2019 were still remarkable. He posted finishes of fifth, fourth and 14th, earning three checks en route to his first Western Division AOY. 

Here’s how each tournament went down.


Lake Mead, Feb. 28-March 2

Valdivia traveled to Mead with his girlfriend to squeeze in a few days of practice the week before. His No. 1 goal was to find something that would allow him to dodge the crowds in the popular Overton Arm.

“I found a bay that was so loaded with fish and bait, and nothing else in the whole lake looked like it except for the Overton,” he says. “But I didn’t want to go in the Overton just because I knew there would be 80 people in there. I’m constantly trying to find something away from that place.”

Valdivia found a comparable pattern in the Temple Bar area and had it entirely to himself. 

“The first day of the tournament I rolled up to my first spot and instantly caught one that was about 3 pounds, and then I had a limit within maybe an hour,” he recalls. “Then I culled up.” 

He worked on ’em with a jig and a Keitech swimbait to get to 13 pounds, 12 ounces, knowing that he needed a big day because the forecast called for a stiff north wind on day two. 

“When it does that, it really messes them up,” says Valdivia, who was in fifth after day one. “[On day two] the temperature dropped, and the wind blew out of the north. The fish were just completely not eating my jig. It was really weird. They’d bite it, and I’d have the tails ripped off of it. Or I’d throw the Keitech on a ball head and they’d have the tails ripped off. And I knew they were bass. I was just catching them the day before.” 

He says he spent the next two days struggling through the conditions to grind out four bass for 6-5 on day two and a limit for 8-12 on day three. 

Though Valdivia missed a few key fish, his overall effort was strong given the stinginess of the fishery and the challenging weather. He finished in fifth.


Clear Lake, May 16-18

Valdivia posted his second consecutive top 10 (fourth place) at Clear Lake with impressive catches of 19-3, 17-2 and 20-4, but achieving success required him to make adjustments during the week.

“Clear Lake was so much fun,” he recalls. “Even in practice I was catching 30 to 50 fish a day, and they were all 3-plussers. 

“I found this little deal where I was catching them on the outside, on the ends of the docks, and I was catching them on isolated rock piles.”

Valdivia’s main bait was a Texas-rigged Strike King Rage Bug, but he also used an under-spin and Strike King 5XDand 6XD crankbaits. 

The crankbait pattern was critical for him on day two. 

“It got really cold the night after the first day, and it blew really hard that next day,” he says. “I had a really good starting spot, and when I got there I noticed all the fish were kind of suspended like 3 feet off of the bottom.”

Targeting those fish with the crankbait allowed Valdivia to stay in cut range and make it to the third day in 10th place. Ideal conditions on Saturday opened the door for him to race up the leaderboard with the third largest catch of the day.

“The third day I caught them all on the Texas rig,” he says. “It got better because the wind stopped, and it was cloudy and misty. It was just perfect light. They were going to bite. It was kind of warm. The conditions were perfect for a big bag.”


Cal Delta, Sept. 26-28

Prior to the Western Division finale, Valdivia had never fished the California Delta in September, but he had a good idea of what to expect. He knew the water would be warm, so finding an area in the current would be important.

He also knew that, depending on the grass and other factors, some areas of the Delta could have pretty poor fishing. It was all about finding a spot with the right ingredients. 

Valdivia eventually dialed in a zone with giant bass. Jason Borofka, who finished second, caught two 8-pounders from the area, and Valdivia lost three bass in the 4- to 5-pound range there on day one.

Any of those fish would’ve taken some of the AOY pressure off for day two, and might’ve gotten him in the cut, but it turned out to be a non-factor. Tossing a topwater walking bait around grass and winding a ChatterBait worked for consistent limits of 16-13 and 16-2 – just enough for him to finish out AOY.


What else was at stake

The Strike King Angler of the Year wins $5,000. In addition, the top 40 pros in each Costa FLW Series division (if they fished all three events) qualify for the 2019 Costa FLW Series Championship. The top five pros in each division’s season standings qualify for the 2020 FLW Tour. 

Here’s a look at the top 10 pros in the Western Division in 2019.

1. David Valdivia – Norwalk, Calif. – 730 points

2. Lane Olson – Tigard, Ore. – 729 

3. Wade Curtiss – Lincoln, Calif. – 711 

4. Nick Nourot – Benicia, Calif. – 703 

5. Joe Uribe Jr. – Surprise, Ariz. – 688 

6. Bryant Smith – Roseville, Calif. – 684 

7. Blake Dyer – Walnut Creek, Calif. – 682 

8. Justin Kerr – Simi Valley, Calif. – 682 

9. Rusty Salewske – Alpine, Calif. – 680 

10. Brett Leber – Dixon, Calif. – 679

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