Slim Margins of Defeat

When I was younger, my life revolved around the pool. I was a competitive swimmer. I swam youth league in the summer, YMCA in the winter, I moved up to swim varsity in just 8th grade, I did USA Swimming, and competed NCAA Division I at the University at Buffalo my freshman year. Swimming, and for that matter all racing sports, are fascinating because the tiniest margin can mean the difference between winning and losing. In swimming, the starting horn automatically triggers the clock to start, and pads in the water stop the clock when the swimmer reaches the wall and hits the pad. The time is measured to the 1/100 of a second. In the 11 years I competed, I both won and lost many races by just fractions of a second, some of them by just 0.01 seconds. Its hard to fathom just how little time that is. When you blink your eyes, you lose your vision for 0.1-0.4 seconds. So if you blink at the finish, you’ll completely miss who won and in a really close race there may be 4-5 people all within that 0.1 seconds.

Why am I talking about swimming here in a fishing blog? No, it’s not because someone recently fell in the water and had to swim away from an alligator (which even Michael Phelps would lose that race). I’ve been thinking lately about how I measure success in my tournaments. Winning is obviously a measure of success. Catching a limit some days is a success, and on those extreme days just making it back to the boat ramp can be considered a success. The most obvious way, and the way that everyone talks about is the scoreboard.

Fishing tournaments are measured in either inches or pounds and ounces. For most people looking at the scoreboard is the same as looking at swimming race results. Losing by 0.01 seconds is like being 1-oz or 0.25” short, it’s the smallest of margins. The swimmer could have gotten off the blocks just a hair faster or pushed off the wall on a turn with just a little more force and maybe would have won. For the angler, if that fish had just eaten one more shad before being caught it would be an ounce bigger, or if it’s tail wasn’t mangled maybe it would have reached that next 0.25 inch mark. It’s easy to see how a small thing could change the entire outcome.

But when you start going down the scoreboard, things become a little more hazy. Take the swimmer who finishes in 8th place and was 4 seconds behind the winner. In a race that is less than 2 minutes long, 4 seconds is a long way back and can’t easily be made up with small things. It’s quite clear just how far off the lead the 8th place person is, fishing however is much more nuanced.

To dive into that lets start with an obvious event, 2005 Bassmasters Classic. This was by far one of the most challenging classics ever. KVD won the three day event with only 12lb-15oz, and took home the $200K prize. Not a single angler weighed in a full 15 fish limit. In fact, there were only eight 5-fish limits caught by the 47 angler field across 3 days. Obviously the anglers in 2nd through 5th were simply one more fish away from a big payday. But if you keep going down the field, just a single 1-lb fish each day would have been enough to move Skeet Reese from 8th and $15,000 all the way to first and $200,000! Just 1 fish a day. And there’s no telling how close he was in the event to catching those fish. Casting just a few feet to one side or the other of where he did may have changed the entire outcome.

In kayaking events things can be even more subtle. Take a look at the KBF event that just happened on Lake Murray. Mike Morcone finished in 27th place out of 178 anglers with 81.25-inches. That is a reasonable finish, right about the top 15% but still a little outside of the money. While he was 19.25-inches from the win which is a ways back, lets take a look at what would have happened if he had caught just one more 18-inch bass. Now an 18-incher is not a small fish, but it also isn’t giant by any means; just a quality tournament fish. Mike’s smallest bass measured 12.25-inches, barely a scorable fish. Catching an 18-inch fish would have been a 5.75-inch cull, giving him 87-inches on the tournament. That single fish would have moved him from 27th all the way up to 6th and a good payday to boot!

Fishing tournaments are unique beasts and unlike other sports, the margin of defeat isn’t always as clear as it seems. For my own benefit, I decided to go back down through some of my past tournament finishes. I looked at national level events that I finished outside of a paycheck (which is pretty much all of them) and what I found was shocking. Over the last 3 years I found NINE events where just a single 18-inch fish would have moved me from a decent day well into the money. I would have moved an average of 10 places (two were 15 places) in those nine events; and in two of those events, I would have gone from “also ran” to winning.

Why is this important? These are all “What if?”s. You can’t go back and change it. The events are over and I didn’t catch those fish. The scoreboard has me back in the standings, middling somewhere in irrelevance, the trophy shelf is empty, and the checkbook a little thinner. But as I said in the beginning; when you start to thing about how you measure success, this IS important.

Tournament fishing is a brutal sport on the psyche and moral. In the brief four years I’ve competed, I’ve seen many good anglers come and after some hard losses they’re gone. They couldn’t handle the constant loosing. Even the greatest ever like Clunn, Martin, or KVD didn’t win them all. They didn’t even win most. Losing is part of the sport and you have to learn to brush it off and prepare for the next one.

When I have a really bad event, it’s easy to move on. We all have bad days and it’s no big deal. But when I have a string of events that I finish in the 15-20th percentiles, that’s a little tougher to take. Consistently mediocre is a phrase that I utter often when describing my tournament finishes. Looking back at many of those events now, I realize just how slim the margin was from being mediocre to being great. I just needed that one extra bite, and I was likely pretty close to getting it.

This knowledge is valuable as I mentally prepare for the new season. Competitive sports require you to compare yourself to others. If you start to think you’re way behind even after all your hard work, it can be demoralizing and can end a promising career way too soon. I’ve fallen victim to the mental traps that have certainly hurt my fishing at times. There were days where I’ve wondered if I even should be out there. Luckily my competitive nature and passion for the sport have prevailed, and I kept at it. Now I have more mental tools to keep myself going when the day is tough.

I’ve written this article in the hopes that it finds its way to the hands of newer anglers, anglers who may have fished their first few tournaments and they haven’t gone quite as they expected. Confidence is important in all sports, and it’s easily eroded when the results don’t show what you want them to. Tournament leaderboards don’t tell the entire story, and it’s easy to get distracted by missing a cut, missing a check, or just having to scroll way down to find your name. You should know that you may be way closer to the top than you realize. So keep grinding and keep fishing because just one cull can change everything.

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