Talkin’ ‘bout practice
When you're a tournament angler, few things are as important as good preparation, and that includes practice. A good practice doesn't always lead to a good tournament (and a bad tournament doesn't always lead to failure), but getting out on the water before the event can be critical to figuring out what's going on, what might work, what won't work and a lot of other things.
For me, practice begins at home with a serious look at the prevailing weather patterns. I check out the long-range forecast and try to get an idea of what the weather will be like when competition starts. These forecasts aren't always accurate, of course, but they provide a general idea of what's happening. As you get closer to the tournament, they get more and more precise.
I want the big picture because it can help me make some generalized and educated guesses about where I should (or, just as importantly, shouldn't) be fishing. If a big front is coming, I might stay away from the back ends of shallow creeks. If it's going to be really windy, I'll want to stay away from main-lake humps where it could be nearly impossible to fish. Weather study helps me plan for each day.
With an idea about the weather I'll be facing, I can make some decisions about the baits I'll need to use under those conditions. Lures are tools, and I want the best tools for the job. They need to efficiently cover the depth and cover I'll be fishing, and they need to be appropriate to the mood of the fish. If the fish are aggressive, I can use horizontal lures like the Strike King Burner Spinnerbait or Red Eye Shad. If the bass are lethargic, I might need to slow down and go more vertical.
When I'm on the water in practice, I don't want to catch a lot of fish, but I do need to get an idea of how big the bass are that I've located. In a tournament like the one we're fishing now on the St. Johns River, you can see a lot of fish on beds, so you know immediately how big they are. If it's not a sight fishing event, you might need to catch a couple. I never catch more than two from any one area in practice, and sometimes I'll bend my hooks down to get some bites without actually catching the fish.
You can get an idea of what a “good” day is by doing some research on tournaments at that time of year on that specific body of water. This is important. If you know what it's likely to take to be competitive, you can manage your fish better. If 15 pounds is a good day and you have that, it may be time to change gears and go looking for a kicker or two rather than stay in one place and cull for an ounce here or there. After all, you don't want to burn up your fish and have nothing to go back to the next day.
When you're studying local tournament results, the numbers you see from one-day events are generally not representative of what it will take to win a four-day tournament like we have in the Elite Series. One-day events are barn burners — you go out and catch everything you can. Success in multi-day events requires good fish management.
That said, if you anticipate that conditions are going to change and your bite may disappear, you want to catch everything you can while you can. A hot shallow water bite before a front could disappear tomorrow. Capitalize on what you have while conditions are favorable and know what's coming so you can best manage your fish.
And never forget that it's all about the attitude.