“At the same time, I simply got tired of being frustrated at not being able to catch them,” laughs Walters. “Getting outsmarted by the fish and badly beaten by my competitors is not a good way to end the season.”
The newly-learned respect, the frustration, and three years of dedicated study paid off in a big way for the South Carolina angler this past August when he won the season-ending Bassmaster® Elite Series tournament on the St. Lawrence with a record four-day total of 105 pounds.
No one had ever before won a Bassmaster tournament with a 20-fish catch of smallmouth weighing that much, and with the win Walters also became the first angler to break the hundred-pound mark with both largemouth (which he’s done twice) and smallmouth in Bassmaster competition.
The learning curve began in 2017, when Walters, then a senior in college, entered a Bassmaster Northern Open at Lake Oneida in New York. That week the smallmouth were shallow and he caught enough on a jerkbait to finish 5th. It was his first real experience with smallmouth and he thought he had them figured out.
“Wrong. I fished the Southern and Central Opens again after graduating, and qualified for the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2019, and that’s when I realized how bad a smallmouth fisherman I really was,” laughs the Yamaha Pro.
“I’d had a spectacular rookie season up to that point and was actually leading in the Angler of the Year race, but I lost it in the three northern smallmouth events B.A.S.S.® conducts each season. I finished 57th at the St. Lawrence, and I had no idea what I was doing there. To be honest, it was overwhelming. Everybody was fishing out in Lake Ontario, and that type of big, open water fishing was totally, totally different from any type of smallmouth fishing I’d ever done.”
The next season, Walters again struggled during the northern smallmouth events, and he remembers how mad he was at himself during the 14-hour drive home from the final Elite Series event. Even worse, he says, was having to think about it during the long off-season. “That’s when I really began to study the fish itself, and specifically how smallmouth lived and acted in the lakes we fished each year,” emphasizes Walters. “In truth, you really learn more from your failures, so my learning curve was pretty steep.”
The first thing Walters recognized was that smallmouth do not act at all like largemouth bass, which meant taking all his largemouth tackle out of the boat and replacing it with smaller soft plastic lures, lighter rods, and different lines. In his recent win on the St. Lawrence, he used six different drop-shot outfits.
In 2021 Walters again thought he’d figured out the brown fish, especially after a 7th place finish at Lake Champlain, but the St. Lawrence smallmouth again brought him back to reality and he finished 77th there.
“That really hurt,” smiles Walters, “so I decided to fish the Bassmaster Northern Open there, just to see what I could learn. I had 20-pound catches in practice, and this time the fish cooperated. I finished 11th in the tournament.
“After that, I realized I could catch smallmouth if I paid attention to the details and didn’t defeat myself. I have learned the type of habitat smallmouth like, and I know what forage they eat. Smallmouth have a reputation for suddenly moving to a different area for no apparent reason, but now I also know they don’t always move as far as I once thought.
“I certainly haven’t learned everything there is to know about catching smallmouth,” concludes the Yamaha Pro, “but right now this Elite Series win means more to me than any of my previous victories.”
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