What a Difference a Year Makes

Bucks Falcon Mercury

by Zak Elrite

Lake Mead During the 2014 US Open- photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Lake Mead During the 2014 US Open- photo by Dan O’Sullivan

Very often we can look back at a past tournament or event and see how that experience had shaped our recent outcomes. Whether it be a certain technique we mastered or a type of structure we learned to key in on or even boat handling skills that we improved upon. In my case, all three of these things were relevant in my recent finish at the 2014 US Open. I went from one year and a 100-something place finish to a 37th place with great potential of staying in the top ten.

The WON Bass U.S. Open is held on Lake Mead, just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. This event has long been known as the true test of an angler’s skill and stamina. The U.S. Open was held for many, many years in July, until a few years ago, when it was moved to the beginning of September.

The 115-plus degree heat of July proved to be downright dangerous to many anglers throughout the years and though it was moved to early September, we still see temperatures upwards of 110 degrees. However, September is also known for volatile weather, often bringing thunderstorms and high winds. 2014 was no different. But what I learned in 2013, the year prior, was worth its weight in gold.

When I set out on my inaugural pro entry in the 2013 WON Bass US Open, I had the highest of hopes to be the next champion. Little did I know that I had a price to pay before I could come close to claiming that victory. I still do.

The weather on Lake Mead in 2013 was not extreme by most standards, but up until then it was the most volatile weather I’d fished in. The high winds, the rain and four to five foot sharp, cross-blown waves taught me about the importance of boat handling, preparedness and the awareness of my surroundings.

A Competitor Fishes on Lake Mead During the 2014 US Open- photo by Dan O'Sullivan

A Competitor Fishes on Lake Mead During the 2014 US Open- photo by Dan O’Sullivan

In boat handling, I learned the importance of knowing when to ride the troughs and when to crest the waves, at least in four-footers anyway. I saw the raw, unforgiving side of Mother Nature and learned from it. In preparedness, I learned the importance of having at least one spare bilge pump motor that I could swap out in my Ranger Z20 at a moment’s notice.
From others’ experiences I also learned that you should always have tow-rope and flares on board at all times(many of these things are required by the USCG and you should look up the list for your own safety). Finally, in awareness I learned that on a lake like Mead, you have to always be mindful of the winds and building weather patterns. Not only for the way it relates to the fish and their positioning but also for your safety.

Weather can turn nasty in a heartbeat and it’s even worse if you’re not ready for it. Day one of the 2014 U.S. Open brought with it six to seven foot waves and monsoon-like conditions. With both bilge pumps running, a broken passenger console and trolling motor, I made my way down lake at the end of the day and safely weighed in my catch. I felt more confident in these conditions because of what I had learned the year before.

When I look back at my poor finish in 2013, I call on my instinct versus letting dock talk get into my brain and make decisions for me. Research and preparing is very important but don’t let your research override the conditions at hand. I let too much research and “what if’s” dictate my choices. Instead I should’ve used the conditions at hand to locate the areas where I could find active fish.

The biggest take-away I can give is always fish the conditions. I did that in 2014. With only two and half days to pre-fish, I set out with my team partner Andrew Shadegg and we made a plan to pick two areas of the lake to dissect and breakdown. Together we knew the general seasonal pattern and applied that to main lake areas and secondary point areas. This proved successful when I was in fourth place after day one and had great positioning for the next day.

The Author Zak Elrite with Two Fish that put him in fourth pace on day one of the 2014 US Open - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

The Author Zak Elrite with Two Fish that put him in fourth pace on day one of the 2014 US Open – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

Subsequently, I still let some doubt sink in and by the end of the second day I had fallen to 31st place and did not weigh in a full limit. That spot was still not terrible and very recoverable on a lake like Mead. Again, by this time last year I was already spiraling out of control and had no plan. This year I knew that having a plan was my number one requirement so I stuck with it and managed to keep catching fish.

Having learned the importance of staying on active fish in 2013, something I didn’t do at that point, I knew that if I wasn’t getting bites after a certain amount of time then it was time to move. Again, having a plan is the biggest part of staying competitive in this sport.

I finished the event in 37th place and while I felt disheartened that once again I was out of check range, I look at how applying what I had learned from the year before really improved my results.

Again I will look to next year, applying what the two previous years had taught me and I will move forward with the victory in sight. Another huge take-away I can leave you with is to constantly evaluate yourself. Do not compare yourself to any other angler, but rather to yourself and your past performances.

As I said, you have to be ever-adapting in this sport if you’re going to be competitive. Comparing yourself to anyone else only does your confidence a disservice. Find ways to accurately evaluate yourself whether you’re a weekend angler or an aspiring tournament angler.

You can take notes, look at past results, review photo or video work and discuss what you learn with a mentor or friend. I promise that once you really start to learn from the information you’ve collected, your results on the water will increase.

It helped me improve dramatically at the U.S. Open a couple of weeks ago, and it will help you improve at whatever level you are at.