Last week I talked about the upcoming walleye tournament in Spring Valley at the end of the month. As I was writing about that, it got me to reminiscing about the first tournament that I ever fished. Lots of memories and emotions came bounding back to me just like it happened yesterday.
My partner and I had been filming and airing our fishing and hunting television show for a few years at this point. The show aired on The Outdoor Channel. One day while I was sitting in our studio working on an episode the phone rang.
I answered it and to my surprise it was the program director from The Outdoor Channel. My pulse immediately quickened. What did he want? Was he unhappy with the show? Was there a problem? The possibilities were endless.
The voice on the other end asked, “How would you like to fish a tournament for us"?
I am not very often speechless, but this time I was. My silence allowed him to continue with the details. As it turns out, one of the other shows on the network was about a regional bass fishing circuit called Central ProAm Association. He explained to me how part of the contract agreement between the network and this show was that they were to have a slot open in every tournament for one of their television personalities to participate in.
He asked me if I would fish the entire circuit. Immediately I checked my calendar to see if I could come up with any excuses. Don’t get me wrong, I had thought about fishing some events at some point in time, but I was quite familiar with the Central ProAm events and knew of the guys that fished them. Many of the top anglers on the Bassmaster and FLW circuits had “cut their teeth” there and many still fished it regularly. I really wasn’t in the mindset to travel to a new lake and get whipped.
I ended up agreeing to fish the last event of the season. It would be held on Grand Lake of the Cherokees in Oklahoma. Perfect. Now what have I gotten myself into?
The normal Central ProAm season at that point was six qualifying events and then an end-of-season championship. The season started in March and would finish up in August with the event I was entered in. Throughout the spring and summer I kept a close eye on the results. So far, not a single Outdoor Channel host had weighed in a single fish! All of them had completely blanked. My anxiety was starting to hit a new level.
I did my homework on the lake. I researched on the Internet, dug up old magazine articles, and asked every fisherman I ever met if they had fished the lake and what they thought about it. It wasn’t long before I had decided that Grand Lake of the Cherokees was a top-notch hot weather fishery. That was good information considering that I had also discovered that temperatures would often hover above 100 degrees that time of year. My research also yielded information about seasonal patterns on the lake, consistent color choices and what seemed to be local hot spots.
It was at this point about four weeks before the tournament that I would use most of this information to figure out where I was not going to fish. This event was going to be teeming with veterans that knew the lake well. If I was going to stand a chance I had to find a place where I could work at my own pace without the massive pressure these other anglers would place on the fish and myself.
A couple days before the practice period started, my brother drove home to ride down with me and practice by my side. The entire ride to Oklahoma I felt sick. It was like a never-ending trip to the dentist’s office. When we first pulled up to the boat ramp for practice our launch was delayed by frequent trips to the lone outhouse in the parking lot.
After the practice days I felt fairly confident I was on good fish and had a solid pattern if the weather didn’t change. I was even able to stomach a little dinner that night. Then I went to the mandatory tournament meeting the evening before the event began.
I walked into the room knowing no one. Hundreds of pros and amateurs stood about talking. The level of testosterone flowing through that room could have made Cinderella grow a beard. I nestled into the back row and tried not to vomit.
Before long I heard several, “Hey isn’t that. . .” or, “Doesn’t that guy have a t.v. show?”
Perfect. Now they knew whom their next victim was.
My brother took some pictures of me in the hotel room in the early hours before launch on the first day of competition. I can honestly say if you would have dressed me in a suit and tucked me into a coffin I would have looked right at home. I was pale.
I’ll skip through the details of what happened over the next two days. That is material enough for several more columns. I will tell you though how the event ended up.
After the dust had settled and all the fish weighed in, I finished in 38th place out of nearly 150 anglers. I didn’t do well enough to bring home a check, but I did gain a lot of confidence in my abilities and actually was able to enjoy the ride home.
My point is, those anglers in Spring Valley in a couple of weeks will be going through many of the same emotions I experienced all those years ago. Even the walleye veterans will feel a little pang of anxiety as they put their wits and skills against some of the best around.