By Alton Jones
It’s never my first choice to have to report a low finish in an Elite Series tournament, especially when that finish hurt my standing in the points race that will determine who makes the field of the 2015 Bassmaster Classic. I’d much rather be telling you about the patterns and lures used to finish in the top 10 or even to win.

I can’t change the outcome of Cayuga, so instead I need to look back and see what lessons I can take from it to help me in the future, along with assessing where I am now and what I need to accomplish in the final event of the season. Unfortunately, the Cayuga lessons weren’t even new. They were lessons I’d already learned more than once and should have known.

Looking Back
I went up and pre-practiced both on the Delaware River and Cayuga Lake prior to the cutoff for each. Because New York, like so many places, had such a long and hard winter, the water was slow to warm this summer and the grass grew up in the lake much later than normally would have been the case. During pre-practice, the only significant grass was at the far northern end of the lake. Because where you find grass is where you normally find bass, I decided that was the area where I needed to focus my efforts and really pre-selected that part of the lake for the tournament.
The parts of the lake that ended up producing the tournament’s best bags also had grass during the tournament, but those areas had shown absolutely no sign of grass only a month earlier, and I didn’t realized how much more widespread the vegetation would be by tournament time. That led me to limit my options too much. In a normal summer, that growth would have been much more apparent during pre-practice.

Partway through the official practice period, I began to realize I needed to expand my options some, but at that point it was a little late to find what I really needed and adjust sufficiently, so I ended up mostly sticking with my original plan.

By the end of practice it also had become apparent that Cayuga was going to fish quite small and that my areas were going to be crowded. Historically, I have not done well in events where I have had to fish in crowds. That’s just not how I function best. A more successful strategy for me has been to move to less crowded areas even if those areas hold fewer fish, and that was one of those big lessons I’ve learned more than once before, and therefore should have already known.

I actually think that many areas that produced best for some of the other anglers fell into that description. Fewer fish, but also fewer fishermen.

The important takeaway for me is that when an event promises to “fish small” based on what I see in practice and my key areas look like they might be crowded, it’s essential for me to establish a strong back-up plan that allows me to move away from the most heavily fished waters.

Looking Forward
The good news is that despite having fallen in the points, a place for me in the Bassmaster Classic at Lake Hartwell remains very much within reach. I’ve gathered enough points to be in 39th place going into the Angler of the Year Championship next month at Bays De Noc in Michigan. Based on the number of anglers who have qualified in other ways, which causes B.A.S.S. to go further down the list of Elite Series anglers who make the Classic, it’s looking now like the top 37 in the points will qualify.

That means that making the Classic is very much within my reach, but I need an excellent final tournament -- a top 20 or maybe even a top 15 out of the field of 50 -- to have a good shot. I need to fish it to win.

Fortunately, the final event is a style of fishing that I really enjoy and that has produced good success for me in the past. I really like to fish for Great Lakes smallmouths (bays are off Lake Michigan). In fact, I’ve spent some time on my own doing that very sort of fishing this summer. I also feel very comfortable with the techniques that I believe will be necessary to succeed in that event and feel like my opportunity to finish well is very good.

As an Elite Series angler, I obviously don’t ever want to miss the chance to compete in the Bassmaster Classic. That’s even more true this year, though, with the Classic being at Lake Hartwell. I’ve enjoyed a little success there in the past!