Beating slumps, dodging ruts

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BY GEORGE KRAMER

Getting out of a slump or dodging the more temporary ruts in bass fishing actually both start from a very positive place in your angling career. Because if you weren’t already pretty decent at catching them you wouldn’t be thinking about what’s wrong with your game.

So what am I talking about? By definition, a slump is a prolonged period—maybe weeks but maybe even months—where your success is lacking. Or more accurately, it’s an extended period of time where your results don’t measure up to your expectations.

I see a rut as more temporary, where you are catching fish, but the habits associated with that success have taken over your inventiveness or imagination. The problem with falling into a rut is it’s not usually apparent to anyone around, so you don’t always recognize it and make corrections. On the other hand (especially for competitive anglers) a slump is much more obvious. One only needs to look at the standings or the points races.

BIGGER BAITS aren’t just bigger, they push more water, possibly dive much deeper, and could draw that bigger bite to change your luck.

JUMP THE SLUMP

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Since everything here is debatable, I won’t take the easy way and say a series of ruts creates a slump. Rather, I’d like to think of them differently because escaping means taking different tacks. As in other sports where slumps are often part of the conversation (say hitting in baseball or shooting a basketball), the solution is usually minute.

In either sport the margins are less than an inch in some cases, as in fouling off good pitches where you are so close to breaking through. So is a jump shot just rimming out. Followed by one off the lip, and another clanging off the heel of the rim.

So what often happens? The MLB player goes 4 for 33 (if they keep him in the lineup) then nubs one off the end of the bat and it slides through a hole in the infield. He follows that with a broken bat looper that falls in. Those two cheap hits can ignite a hot streak. The weight of failure is lessened.

In basketball, they say to let a shooter “shoot his way out of a slump.” It’s hard on fans and coaches but they let the player just keep firing it up and hopefully the practice and the muscle memory will work to start a scoring streak.

As a bass angler, you can probably toss the basketball analogy away because missing that often costs too much money–and it’s not really about how accurate your casts. On the baseball side, the slump is more comparable to fishing because there is a mental struggle attached.

CAN’T BE SATISFIED with smaller fish or you won’t do what’s needed to dodge a rut in your game.

“Hey, you swung the bat real good today,” says the coach. But all the player sees 0 for 4: liner to center, deep fly to right, hard smash to the third baseman and of course, a strikeout. It’s pretty obvious, he didn’t swing it well enough. A bad run like the above in pro sports and you could lose your job. A bad run in bass fishing and you could get your ego bruised. Fishing is mental. It is a lot of decision-making. And when you continue to do poorly, it beats you down.

But you know who rarely slumps? The new or the young guys in the game. They don’t have the same trove of ideas, techniques and burnt-in successes that lead to rigidity of thought as the veterans. The older angler doesn’t want to have to try everything again like back when he started, so he doesn’t take advantage of his edge in experience. The new guys just saw a video and they can’t wait to try something.

Nonetheless, if you’re slumping, it’s time for a change—a change so dramatic—you may have to swallow your pride and lose a little ground in order to move past it. Forget that you are the best splitshotter in three counties. If the bite is bad, you’ll get your cash. But if power fishing or 10-inch worms are the answer for a given waterway or season, you have to get with it. Every trip, and in every part of the day.

It will feel odd. Yes. And being uncomfortable, you may actually drop in the standings as you hunt for a new groove. But when you get that “big bite” or see the connection between that bigger bite and the water you are fishing, that will become your new reality…and a drive a new confidence will drive you right out of that slump.

LONG CASTS or short pitches can be the key. Matt Kramer got this fat one fishing five feet from the boat—something his brother said, “was hard to wrap my mind around.” Pre-conceived notions block our inventiveness out there.

THE CHIMICHANGA EFFECT

Sometimes you need another set of eyes to help you escape a rut. For example, a couple of weeks back (when you could still sit down in a restaurant) my wife said something like, “Your regular?” Adding, “Beef chimichanga with extra sour cream and guacamole on the side.”

Might as well have said, “Drop shot morning dawn?”

She provided those eyes I alluded to earlier. Yet my defense (and maybe yours too) “Hey, I like it and I like it that way.” And that is so how a rut looks in fishing. It’s a behavior furrow that will funnel you down the exact same path—and ironically, is even more detrimental, if you typically catch fish. All the incentives to try other things on the menu are blurred or erased because bass fishing is about catching, right? It’s not bird watching.

I’m not pointing fingers at anyone here—except me. As I’ve been more involved in team fishing, most allotted days on the water are consumed with competing or getting ready to compete. My partner and I, however, got too comfortable catching rather getting out of a rut so to improve our chances.

On our best (make that quickest) start in one event, we had our limit in the box 15 minutes after they called our number. And in a stretch of contests, we never took longer than 90 minutes to get five. Unfortunately, with that something started to shovel dirt in our rut and the fire started to subside. The keep-it-up engine sputtered because with a limit so fast, we were lulled into the security of having five to maybe seven hours to upgrade.

As our energy faded, so naturally did the intensity of the fish activity and as the day went on, the nature of the bite changed. But we had burnt out. As we continued down that narrow course, we rarely got over the top to seriously try something else.

IS THERE A PLAN in place when you head out in the morning, one that will expand your approach and not give in to the temptation to fish the same old stuff?

A PLAN COULD HELP

A thought from Bill Siemantel came into mind a couple of times—but I didn’t let go enough to get out of our narrow path. Again, we kept catching fish—which can fool you into thinking the next bite will put you over. But truth be told, as often as this (the fast limits) happened, we rarely improved our weight significantly through the day.

Yes, Bill’s ideas were more directed at big baits and really big fish, but the concept was sound. He told me, “If everybody is catching fish on spinnerbaits in the morning, that’s the time to throw big baits. The fish are showing you they are biting.” Overlaying that concept on our 15-minute limit, we should have not been so happy to catch them so fast, but rather used that activity period to target bigger fish.

Now maybe, under tournament constraints, that would mean using bigger lures, faster or slower lures or targeting deeper or shallower water, but it definitely means CHANGE SOMETHING. But it has to be real change.

There are a number of tricks you might employ. One is to make a plan or an outline that includes areas or lure types that are not your favorites. A plan like that could even include a time limit on how long to stay in an area, and directives to probe throughout the water column.

Plans, though, should only be guidelines—balanced against a need to change your accustomed ways. But I know human nature. We tell ourselves we are going to fish jigs on the points for the first hour or so. And then you break off. And then you re-tie. And then you break off again. You’ve only been at it for 11 ½ minutes yet you decide, “This isn’t working. Let’s go over to our morning bank.”

And boom. You’re back in the that rut, justifying it by the cost of two lost $4 jigs and the fact you have left yourself most of an hour to now work your “good water.”

That is the Chimichanga effect in action.

A BETTER PLAN

On the next trip, try some of these ideas. Don’t worry about the guys that might ask you, “How’d you do today?” Say you did pretty good, and when they ask you “Any size?” you can respond, “Nothing special.”

Here’s a plan:

#1 Take your number one method with your favorite bait on your favorite rod (unless it has other duty)—and put it in the rod locker with its Stik Jacket and leave it there. You already know that works, so what’s the point?

#2 Go past your “favorite starting spot” as far as you can float, but try and find something that sort of looks like your favorite. It may even be a place you sort of heard of. As long as it’s not familiar.  Since I don’t know your best spot, I can’t tell you what it looks like, but you do. Pick out a bait/method that seems suited for the terrain, bait activity or depth. Water temperature or time of year may help pick the method. But more importantly, look at this “strange water” and believe, “There is a fish here.” That bit of confident thinking will almost always be good for a bite or two. Maybe more if you stay on them.

#3 Get out of there then and go as far back in the opposite direction, meaning past your “best starting spot” using what you learned (or felt confident in using) from step #2. Give it a chance. Water temperature may be different as well as sun angle or bait presence, but the cover will likely be similar in our smaller lakes. You have all the tools. There you will get bites and likely catch some fish on something other than your favorite baits in places other than your favorite spots. And that will stick with you.

And soon get you out of that rut.

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