Major League Decisions: Winning
Bass Angling's Mental Game
Photo by Dan O’Sullivan
Story by Lynn Burkhead
At first glance, fishing would seem to most observers to be a purely physical endeavor.
But to those really tuned into the game of competitive bass fishing, it's far more cerebral than that.
In fact, on much of America's bass water, the mental game is what separates the men from the boys, the real deal from the pretenders, the pros from the weekend warriors, the big-league champs from the wannabes.
Want to win a Major League Fishing event? The local club championship? The Wednesday night jackpot on the home-water?
Better learn to win upstairs first.
"At this level, it's all mental," said Major League Fishing pro Jeff Kriet of Ardmore, Okla. "It's 100 percent mental."
So much so that Kriet - like a number of other bass fishing pros - goes to a sports psychologist to help him grab a good handle on the cerebral aspects of professional tournament angling.
Especially during the crunch-time heat of tournament competition.
"I (can) get pretty stressed out but I still try to think straight and make good decisions," said Kriet.
Which is what winning often comes down to - making more good decisions on the water than bad ones.
A good case in point was Kriet's on-the-water efforts during the first Sudden Death round of competition last fall at the Jack Link's Major League Fishing Challenge Cup on Lake Amistad.
As Major League Fishing fans will remember, Kevin VanDam raced out to a huge first period lead that day as he found a mother lode of Amistad bass. KVD then proceeded to quickly whack-and-stack his way into the final round as he put on a virtual clinic about how to fish a jerkbait properly during the fall.
After VanDam crossed the 40-pound finish line early in the day's second period, the remaining anglers in the day's field turned their attention to the second championship berth still at stake.
Eventual Challenge Cup champ Brent Ehrler appeared to be the man destined to grab that spot, turning a solid first period and a good second period into being only a fish or two away from advancing to the championship round.
As that day's third period began, such knowledge caused Kriet to make a key decision: It was time to gamble and swing for the big-fish fences.
Which is exactly what Kriet did in an effort to get back in the game.
"Ehrler was three-pounds away, that's all he needed," said Kriet. "So I ran around and said 'Man, I've got to go try to find a lot of big ones.'"
Problem was, Kriet couldn't get the big bites he was looking for.
"I'd fish some stuff and never had a bite and then I ran back where I had been catching them (earlier) and immediately started catching them (again)," he said.
Which turned out to be extremely important development as the day eventually played out.
"(Ehrler), he stalled out," Kriet recalled. "(That made me) kind of regret that decision (to go hunt for bigger bass). I figured that he would be done in 15 minutes."
But the eventual champ wasn't done in 15 minutes, leaving Kriet to wonder about what might have been.
"Making decisions is the whole deal," said Kriet. "We can all cast pretty good."
He points back to his decision to go big fish hunting as Ehrler closed in on the championship round berth.
"I made a bad decision," said Kriet. "I felt like I had to gamble. I felt like I had to find a school of them where I could catch eight or nine (good) fish real quick.
"Truth of it was I could have done that where I was fishing."
The key is learning to recognize that.
"It's all a puzzle, that's all it is," said Kriet. "In this format, the guy who dials it in quickest wins.
On that particular day, the guy who did that - dialed it in the quickest - was Kevin VanDam.
"He's the guy," said Kriet. "Once he's dialed in, he's going to get you, it's over. As soon as he started clipping them, I knew one spot was taken (in the championship round).
"We're all pretty quick at it but he's the quickest."
Why is that?
Because KVD usually makes good on-the-water decisions ... and quickly.
But so do the other Major League Fishing pros like Kriet and Ehrler. The ability to do so is why they are at the top of their profession.
"We all start with an idea of what should be happening - seasonal patterns, things like that," said Kriet.
"But when that doesn't work, you've got to adjust and make moves. When we do start getting bit, we're (usually) pretty quick (to figure things out and) to run a pattern."
And that can turn a forgettable day into something memorable really quick.
"In the first round (of the Challenge Cup), I wasn't catching them real good, but once I dialed in, I caught 30 pounds in 40 minutes," said Kriet.
How do you get dialed in like that?
Kriet says by learning to hear what the fish are telling you as you begin to catch them.
"In this format, when you catch one and you think it's the right fish that told you the right thing, you're going to push that until it bucks you off and then you're going to have to pick up another pattern," he said.
How does a weekend warrior apply that idea?
"Pay real close attention to where your bites come from, what were they on, and (then) you've got to run with it when it's working," said Kriet.
Which brings up the next key in dialing into what the fish are trying to tell you.
"When it dies, you've got to be real quick to adjust," said Kriet.
Once again, take Kriet's first round efforts on Amistad last year as an example.
He hit the water on the southwest Texas reservoir thinking that he would find the bass in certain areas based on typical autumn patterns and his previous experiences on the lake.
Except that given the Challenge Cup's unique format of no pre-tournament practice time, it didn't exactly work out that way as Kriet made his way around the zone that was being fished.
"The first thing I did was run to the back of the pockets and the back of the creeks because that's where they ought to (have been)," he said.
"I burned the first period (of that day) doing that. I fished the backs of the pockets and didn't get bit and then I fished the mouths (of the pockets) and didn't get bit.
"So I went main lake and as soon as I went main lake, I started getting bit. I was able to push it and that was what worked (that day)."
So much so that he was able to advance to the next round despite a less than ideal start.
Kriet has observed that one of the biggest differences between the pros and weekend warriors is what happens when things don't go as planned.
"The big difference between us and them is how long it takes a guy to spin out," Kriet said. "The seasoned pros, it takes a long time for them to spin out. They think that they're going to catch them all day.
"(But) you watch some of the weekend guys and they'll run to their first spot and if they don't catch 'em, they're spun out.
"There is always a way to catch them, no matter how tough it is. It can happen so fast and that's the thing you learn out here."