Strategy. I'm going to have to employ some serious fishing strategy in the next few weeks.
There's an extremely important ESPN Elite Series tournament coming up the first week of August at Oneida, a nice lake near Syracuse, New York. It's our last full-field tournament of the year.
This one is big for me, but I'm not alone. In fact, it will be pressure-packed for at least half of our 99-member field. Maybe more. Every one of us will have something important riding on the outcome.
Here's what I have to gain or lose.
I'm sitting in 32nd place in the point standings. That's ok, but it's not great. The top 37 anglers will qualify for the 2010 Bassmaster Classic, which is going to be held at Lay Lake in Alabama.
My first Classic, in 2007, was at Lay Lake, and I won. So I can't tank at Oneida. I absolutely have to have a top 50 finish, which probably secures a Classic spot - but even that that might not be good enough. I could use a top 25, just to be absolutely, no-questions-asked safe.
I want - no, make that I INTEND - to go back to Lay Lake.
After the 2007 Classic, I also qualified for the 2008 and 2009 Classics. I'll freely admit that I believe the odds could catch up with me one day, and there could be a year that I don't qualify. It seems to happen to everybody at one time or another.
But trust me when I say this: It CAN'T be this time. I've got to get back to Lay Lake.
Lots of anglers, different goals
As I said, I'm not the only one facing pressure. And the interesting thing is this: the type of pressure we face will dictate the type of tournament we fish.
Kevin VanDam, Skeet Reese and Alton Jones, for example, are in the hunt for Angler-of the-Year. The Top 12 anglers in the points will have a couple of extra tournaments at the end of the season to go after Angler-of-the-Year, so Oneida is not the end. But they need to fish well there to keep their positions.
At the other end of the spectrum, a bunch of anglers are having tough years and they're low in the point standings. The final 20 anglers in the points aren't going to qualify for next year's Elite Series. So the guys who are from about 75 or lower in the point standings will be fishing for their lives. Now that's pressure.
Then there's my group. The guys who could potentially gain or lose a Classic spot. Nobody wants to miss the Classic.
Then when the tournament starts, different races come into play. Some guys will put themselves in position to win the Oneida event, so they'll need big fish every day. Others will be fishing for a 50 cut, because the payouts stop at 50th place. They'll need consistency. The point is, you have to adjust your strategy to get where you need to be.
A NASCAR example
Let me use a NASCAR example.
In NASCAR, the drivers have a point system. So let's say that Tony Stewart is in 3rd place in a late-season race with several laps to go, but the field is bunched up. Stewart has to make a decision. Does he need to stay in third place to maintain his spot in the points race, or should he get in the left lane and try to win the race?
The problem with getting in the left lane is that, in the end, his "run to win" strategy might not work. He could wind up in 18th place, not third.
So what is the correct strategy in that scenario?
Fishing is like that. I'll say upfront that I'm awfully competitive and I want to win. If I can win a tournament, I want to do it. But I also want to be smart, and I hope that smarts will dictate the way I fish most tournaments.
And that brings me back to Oneida.
I believe I've discovered a winning pattern at Oneida. It's a scattered, big fish pattern, and I think I could win the tournament on the pattern. On the other hand, I also believe I know a way to fish conservatively and put myself in position to get back to the Classic. So my choice is whether to go for a win and possibly crash or fish conservatively and do what I need to do to get back to the Classic. In other words, do I gamble on big fish holes or high-percentage holes?
I should add that I've done pretty well at Oneida in the past. I've fished three tournaments there. The first time I finished 80th out of 200. The next time I was 30th out of 100 and last year I finished 15th. And last year I actually entered the Oneida event outside the Classic cut line. I was 42nd.
Remember, the most important goal this time is qualifying for the Classic.
So what I'll do is take a conservative approach. I'll keep tabs on the fuel in the boat and go where I can catch a limit. After I get the limit I'll try to get something a little bigger, because a few ounces here or there could make a difference.
Setting realistic goals and moving up
How does all this relate to you in your tournament angling experience?
Well, I suggest you need to set realistic goals every time you fish. You know where you would like to be, so build a plan to get there.
Sometimes you're in a position to fish a tournament, and that tournament calls for whacking them and seeing how many big fish you can put in the boat. But most of the time tournaments really don't work that way.
The idea is to set a realistic goal, something you can achieve. If you're 30th in your club standings right now, I would suggest the next goal you should set is to be in the Top 10. After that, you shoot for No. 1.
The idea is to move up, and the way to move up is to fish the smartest way you can.
Sometimes plans don't work out ...