I entered the final tournament of the Elite Series regular season in good position to make the post-season. Unfortunately, I stumbled in Muskogee, finishing 70th, and while I’m still going to the Classic I didn’t make the top twelve.

The following may sound like the biggest case of sour grapes or revisionist history you’ve ever heard, but believe me, it’s the truth – it actually turned out to be sort of a good thing that I didn’t make it, because I’ve made more tournament winning dollars in the last few weeks than I did during the entire Elite season.

There has been lots of talk about the post-season format, most of it negative, and I have to agree that the possibility exists for it to be a bad deal for a competitor. After all, unless you win, you’re not making much money from either of the two tournaments and on top of that you can actually fall in the Angler of the Year race, thereby losing money. Additionally, it was well over a hundred degrees the whole time – where would you rather be, roasting in Alabama, trying to catch a few fish, or in more comfortable temperatures at Champlain, catching 30, 50 or even a hundred largemouth and smallmouth each day? The post-season would have been a good item for my resume, but I’m not sad about how things ended up.

Before we get to my win in the Northern Open on Champlain, I need to reflect upon the two other tournaments I fished. The first one was the PAA event on Lake Cherokee in Tennessee. I strongly support what the PAA is doing and felt obligated to be there (in a good way), but more than anything, this was the first phase of getting back to my roots. When I arrived at the Bass Pro Shops in Sevierville for registration, it was like déjà vu from my rookie year. It was a lot of the same field of guys from my initial attempt at the Bassmaster Tour, when I was a rookie who didn’t know if there would even be a second year. There were FLW guys like the Hibdons, Luke Clausen and David Walker, familiar faces I don’t see that often anymore. Plus there were most of the top sticks from BASS like Shaw Grigsby, Todd Faircloth, Takahiro Omori and Mike McClelland. That made for an unbelievably deep field.

It was also exciting to go to a body of water I’d never been to before. To be perfectly honest, I was feeling a little burned out on the Elite Series schedule. We keep on going to the same places again and again and again. It’s become almost a regional tour at the same times of year and it seems like the movie Groundhog Day, like we’re fishing the same tournament over and over – every one is either won rotting on a point or cranking a sexy shad crankbait on the river channel. The way it’s set up, with the season over in June, we couldn’t even have an Elite Series event in New York or Pennsylvania if we wanted to because the bass season isn’t open yet. I was done before many of my closest friends had even fished their first BFL and I just don’t think that’s a true test of a national tournament angler.  Ultimately, I think we need to cover different regions in different seasonal conditions to get the full spectrum of true bass fishing competition.  There are also so many other baits and techniques that could be dialed into to catch bass that are never even touched upon, it probably narrows the variety in tackle sales nationwide vastly.

Anyway, even though I hadn’t fished Cherokee before, I’d worked a springtime seminar at the Bass Pro Shops there earlier this year, so the fans and even the BPS employees remembered me and went out of their way to make me (and all of the competitors) welcome. Unfortunately, the lake’s fish weren’t so welcoming. It was a tough tournament, especially considering one of the practice days was the 4th of July.  The first secluded cove I stopped in on the first day of practice (the 4th) had two 25 ft Donzis parked in the middle blasting Lady Gaga and 15 people doing cannonballs in at 8AM……I didn’t find too much that day!  I thought I’d found the winning pattern the other days, and actually I came pretty close. Unfortunately, in talking to Bobby Lane after the fact I learned that he was fishing the same pattern on most of the same spots as me….but he was a half hour ahead of me in the rotation. I’d get to a spot where I saw a four-pounder in practice and the fish would be gone because it was swimming in Bobby’s livewell. Frustrating, but I did well enough to earn a check and that was a great start to the PAA series. Also, since Bobby and I are good friends, it was comforting that at least one of my buddies capitalized on what we had found. (Bobby finished 2nd)

Straight from Tennessee I headed to Champlain for the American Fishing Series (formerly the Strens and before that the EverStarts) tournament for a short practice. I’ve done pretty well there over the years and we were there at the same time last year so I figured that the cranking pattern that had worked well would be in play again, but it wasn’t. The grass in those areas was covered with slime and I caught maybe 11-12 pounds doing that at most, which would likely put me at the very bottom of the standings. I talked to Luke Clausen, with whom I shared info last year, and told him that none of the stuff was the same and we’d have to figure something new out this time since he was coming up to fish the Open as well.

I don’t prefish with many people but at Champlain I just about always practice with my friend Bean Lefebre. He’s a character – sarcastic like me – and even though he’s about 70 years old he fishes hard and helps me out. On the last day of practice we went out fishing exclusively for largemouths and developed the pattern, and the main spot, that produced a 4th place finish.

That same grassbed also led to my win in the Open the following week. It was a place I’ve never fished before, pretty inconspicuous, and the fish just kept coming to it. That’s what I love about tournaments at Champlain. They’re so incredibly pure. For as many times as I’ve been there, on the big lake I managed to win fishing something totally new. The lake level was different than before and the grass constantly changes, so must your decisions. Not to toot my own horn too loudly, but I think that’s what makes for a great tournament and a great body of water. There are so many different decisions you have to make on Champlain – North or South? Largemouths or smallmouths? Grass or hard cover? Wind!!?? It’s constantly changing and the win was even more satisfying that the $250,000 victory at Wylie in 06. In many respects, the Open reinvigorated my excitement about fishing.

The key area I found was about the size of a football field and if you were even 50 yards off you wouldn’t even get a stinking bite, even though it looked exactly the same. I fished there for most of the two events, one of which had 140+ boats and the other had 200, and no one else fished it. They’d all run by, probably thinking I was crazy, and I was sitting on a gold mine.

Another thing that made this event so cool is that when we go to Champlain there’s a core group of us who stay at a little hotel out of the way of everything. The owner treats us like kings, we cook out there and we have it all to ourselves so we can sit out on the porch like a bunch of old men and drink a beer or two every night. This year the group included me, Jason Knapp, Derek Jones, the Lucarellis, Brian Bylotas, Chris Hall, Luke Clausen, Mike McDonald, Paul Pagnato and Pat Golden. Somebody put a bunch of banana peels in Clausen’s boat this year….I wonder who that was??  When you think about it, that’s a pretty stout bunch – Luke and Brian have done well there, I won this year, Jason won last year and both of the Lucarellis have won big events on Champlain. Even my longtime friend Chris Hall won the Open on the co-angler side last year! But when we’re there, it’s just a laid back deal, a bunch of guys on a fishing trip, telling stories – no egos.

On the final day of the Open, my family flew up for the weigh in. It was a total surprise to me and it’s a good thing I won because the plane tickets cost a lot of money to fly into the small Plattsburgh airport. Still, to see my family and my son Jake there in his Yankees t-shirt as I won was the icing on the cake, the thing that capped off a great three week run that got me back to my roots and excited about tournament fishing again.