By Joel Shangle
Heading into the 2016 Bassmaster Classic on Grand Lake in Oklahoma, Simms Pro James Elam was tabbed as a potential favorite. Pretty heady expectations for a young Elite Series pro fishing in his first Classic. No surprise, though, to the many northern Oklahoma anglers who Elam had regularly beaten on Grand Lake since he was a teenager.
Fast forward to the final week before the 2017 Classic on Lake Conroe in Texas, and you’ll find a slightly different James Elam. Less pressure, fewer preconceived notions about the fishery, and a more open mind about what might happen on this San Jacinto River impoundment come March 24-26. Read more:
SIMMS: Last year’s Classic on Grand Lake had to have felt a little weird to you. Awesome, but weird. How different does it feel to not be competing on your home lake this year?
Elam: I feel like I’m fishing more of a normal tournament, mostly. I can just go to a lake I’ve never fished before and fish it like I would any other day. Last year at this time, I had the opportunity to practice a whole lot, and to fish the lakes around Grand Lake so I could have a better understanding of how the fish might act. The pressure was definitely on me at that event – I was supposed to do well there because I’ve done well there in the past.
SIMMS: It sounds like you prefer being able to approach a fishery “fresh”, for lack of a better term.
Elam: I do like that. Conroe is a blank, clean-slate lake for me, and I’ve always done really well in situations like that. I can show up for the first day without any preconceived notions, and just work off of the clues I find when I’m on the water.
SIMMS: That’s a pretty accurate analysis of your whole Elite Series career, isn’t it? You’ve had a lot of those “clean-slate lakes” to decipher.
Elam: Until I qualified for the Elite Series and started fishing it in 2013, I’d really only fished in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri, and all of those lakes were non-grass lakes. I’d never fished a tidal fishery or a grass lake. I’d never fished for northern smallmouth, or for Coosa River, Alabama spotted bass. There were just a lot things I hadn’t seen yet. I realize that they’re all bass and they’re really not that different, but I still had some learning to do. A lake like Toledo Bend, for example, there are certain things you look for, and I had no idea what those things were until I’d fished there a couple of times.
SIMMS: It’s worked out pretty well for you, though. Are you aware that since the Delaware River tournament at the end of the 2014 season, your average Elite Series and Open finish is 40 to 50 places higher?
Elam: Wow, no, I wasn’t aware of that. I guess that’s just due to the learning curve of traveling around the country and fishing all of these different lakes. I think it’s less of a guessing game now; or rather, I’m making more educated guesses. I just didn’t have enough of that cross-country experience for it to click, but I do feel a lot more calm and prepared than I did when I was first starting out on the Elites. And it’s not just the fishing part of it. It’s knowing how to eat better, being in better physical shape, just getting everything set up better when I’m competing. Nothing matches tournament experience, though. That’s where the mental part of the game really develops.
SIMMS: Apply that statement to the upcoming Classic. It’s a lot busier than a regular tournament: it’s only a three-day format, and you know you’ll have major travel times between the lake and the stadium in Houston.
Elam: The non-fishing part, I’ll have to be in shape to only go with six hours of sleep a night. I’ll have to be sure I’m eating right, so I don’t get run down. But the fishing part, I’ll maybe take a few more chances, maybe risk a little bit more going for bigger bags. We’re not playing for points at the Classic. Say I go out the first day and catch 15 pounds, am sort of in the middle of the pack: I’ll fish Day 2 differently than I would a regular Elite event, where I might be okay with 15 more pounds and some good Angler of the Year points. A lake like Conroe, you know those big ones are in there, I think it might be worth it to risk a little more.
SIMMS: Talk a little more about that Conroe fishery. Most of the world knows it as the lake where Keith Combs obliterated the three-day tournament record with 110 pounds, so it’s not out of the question for somebody to make up a lot of ground with a monster bag on Day 2 or Day 3
Elam: It’s really kind of a treat when we go to a lake like this because there are so many big fish. It keeps your attention when you know you could be having a so-so day, and at 2 p.m., you get an 8- to 10-pound bite that changes the whole tournament. You never feel like you’re really out of it on a lake like that. You’re definitely not going to run around throwing 8-pound line – it’s more meat-and-potatoes baits and heavy equipment.
SIMMS: How do you expect it to fish during that three-day Classic window? Combs’ giant bags came in the summer, when fish were offshore, but it won’t fish like that in late March.
Elam: I expect to catch some fish flippin’ in shallow water with a big rod and 25-pound line. I think that’s my strongest skill set when it comes to Conroe. I think we also have a good chance of catching post-spawn fish on a Carolina-rig and a crankbait, and I feel like I do fairly well with both of those tactics. I’d expect it to be a shallow, junk-fishing deal where a lot of the fish will be in 4 to 8 feet. The bluegill will probably have a big influence, maybe there’ll be a shad spawn, and there are a lot of docks. I’m looking forward to it, I think it’s going to fish well.