Mike Jones - KEEPING UP

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Friday, July 13, 2018
Born to Fish
Thursday, August 16, 2018
Duck destiny

Somebody, somewhere
There is nothing wrong with a little competition. In fact, most fishermen could benefit from a tournament now and then. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not insisting on a steady diet of crossed swords, if for no other reason than I wouldn’t want any of you to emulate those weekend bi­cyclists who ride two abreast in the bike lanes and wear full pro racing jerseys to convince us they’re tuning up for the Tour de France. No, I’m talking about the occasional test of your fishing acumen.

Fresh or salt, tournaments deliver the one thing missing in the average angler’s daily repertoire: A complete lack of excuses. It doesn’t matter how diabolically the weather gods conspired against you or whatever else went wrong, at the end of the day, a tournament provides indisputable proof that somebody out there was catching them. Same conditions, same circumstances, same time constraints. Somebody figured it out.

You may think you fish hard — and maybe you do — but there is nothing quite like the crucible of competition to prove it. Whether you fare well or poorly, the experience will place your skills under a unique microscope where the pressure of performing in the moment and the inexorable tick of the clock are inescapable. If you’ve got an ounce of angling ego, even if you only do it once, it will make a difference in your fishing for years to come.

For me, the total immersion of mind and body during tournament competition somehow became hardwired forever after. If my thoughts or spirits were lagging on a day when little was at stake, the lessons learned from tournaments came flooding back. I may not have been giving up, but I was certainly giving in. And, how stupid is that? In any lifetime, we only get so many hours on the water and to willingly sacrifice those moments seems almost criminal. So, the mantra in my dojo has always been, “Somebody’s catching ’em.”

In terms of truthfulness, it proved far more consistent than merely a handy catch phrase. Over the years, I can categorically avow that the win/loss record of my personal chant is untarnished. Even when I wasn’t fishing, but merely sharing the boat as a press observer, there was never any doubt that someone, somewhere was catching them.

The strange aspect of being a press observer is sometimes knowing exactly what is going on. You may have already been out with someone who was on fish or got the word up from another writer. Either way, it’s like having a crystal ball at your disposal. It can be magical or meltdown-worthy or a little of both. Ideally, you would prefer magic since witnessing the alternative is not especially satisfying, particularly when you’re drifting through a New Orleans bayou in July, the humidity is only a small percentile away from being rain and dangling body parts in turbid, gator-friendly water is not an option.

If you’re paying attention, you can pretty much nail it down to the second when your pro partner either takes a turn towards oblivion or makes a masterful move closer to a championship. Whatever the case, it is absolutely the best way to mentally toughen up your own angling cojones. Of course, you can’t offer any advice. You know it, they know it and, as the saying goes, the silence can be deafening. All you can do is watch someone try to connect the dots.

However, there was one moment at the 1988 James River BassMaster Classic when the pro/press relationship took an odd and unexpected turn. Doug Youngblood, a Georgia angler, first-time Classic competitor and my partner on the second day, just happened to be working a section directly across the river from where I had been the day before. It was late August and the tidal waters of the James were proving especially stingy.

Expecting far more from his chosen area, Youngblood had become frustrated. He turned to me and said, “Well, I’m certainly not doing anything here, you might as well grab a rod and entertain yourself.” While it may be hard to imagine now, back then, press observers were not only allowed to fish, they were encouraged to do so. Any of the press who had ever fished a tournament thought it odd, but those were the rules.

I laughed and shook my head no.

“I’m serious,” he continued, “It wouldn’t bother me.”

Here was the dilemma: A day earlier, I saw the makings of a pattern develop in that every fish was taken off the third or fourth dock piling from shore. Youngblood was fishing no farther out than the second piling. I wondered just how precisely the bass were setting up. And, my casting thumb was itching.

“Jig rod, okay?” I asked. He nodded.

I waited for the stern to pivot out and made one cast. It happened to be exactly the right one. The jig struck the fourth piling, fell straight down and never hit bottom.

“Doug,” I said, trying to be emotionless. “Doug,” I repeated with more emphasis.

Glancing over his shoulder, his eyes followed the line down to the surface as it slowly moved off to deeper water. I shook off the fish and laid down the jig rod, content in the knowledge that, technically, if anyone was responsible for sharing information, it was the bass, not me.

There was no need for words, Youngblood knew what had happened. On that tournament day, we both learned something.

* * *

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