Obviously, there are lots of benefits to winning the Bassmaster Classic, but one that often goes overlooked is the fact that it qualifies you automatically to fish the following year’s Classic.
In other words, as soon as they handed me the trophy in Birmingham this past February, I joined a pretty relaxed group of people who could spend the rest of the year without having to worry about whether they’d be fishing next year’s world championship at Lake Hartwell. There was Van Soles, who’d won the first Bass Pro Shops Southern Open presented by Allstate at Toho. There was Andrew Young, who’d won the first Central Open at Amistad. Then there was me. That’s it. It wasn’t that we all didn’t have a lot of obligations during calendar year 2014, both on and off the water. It’s just that we could check one item off of our list. Everyone else had an uphill climb just to get there.
Based on my first Elite Series tournament of the year, you might have thought that the early qualification meant that I was taking this season for granted. I finished 106that Seminole, earning me a grand total of zero points. Believe me, I don’t take anything for granted. Instead, I took an uncharacteristic risk and it didn’t pay off. Since that time, I went back to fishing more my style, and it seems to have paid off – I earned checks in four straight events before missing one at Chickamauga, and now I’m in 16thin the points race. You can’t dwell on what could have been, but I have to admit on occasion I do allow myself to wonder where I’d be if I’d had even a halfway decent tournament at Seminole. I might be in the hunt for the Toyota Angler of the Year title.
I’m getting a little bit away from the point I want to make now, which is that I really want to double-qualify for the Classic by making it through the regular season Elite Series standings. Actually, to tell you the truth, I’d love to triple-qualify by winning another event, like Chris Lane did a couple of years ago.
Why is it important to me? You don’t get any extra pounds or a better boat number because you made it twice. So why am I so focused on the challenge? Well, there are a few reasons.
First, especially after a horrible event like I had at Seminole, it’s important to know that you’re fishing well. When you lose your confidence, it’s possible to get in a horrible downward spiral that you can’t escape. All of us have felt like we were there at one point or another. Believe me, it’s easier to keep on fishing well when you’re making good decisions than it is to turn things around when it feels like you can’t do anything right. Heading into the postseason and into next year’s Classic, I want to know that I’m at the top of my game, and continued good finishes are a pretty good indication of that.
Second, I’d love to help another Elite Series pro get into the field. That may sound a little bit counter-intuitive. After all, these are arguably the best fishermen in the world. Why would I want another one of them competing for the crown? The answer is pretty simple. At times it may not seem like it, but we are a band of brothers out here. I know how important it is to make the Classic when you’ve poured your heart and soul into this at-times difficult career. On a couple of occasions, I’ve been the first or second angler out of the cut and it really hurts. That’s often a difference of just one fish that derails your whole year. I was fortunate that I had great family support and fantastic sponsors who helped me pull through those tough times. The first or second guy out of the cut this year might not be so lucky. He might be the next young Randy Howell who needs a break or two to get his career off the ground, or he might be a struggling veteran who needs a Classic berth to keep going. Either way, it would feel good to know that I helped him get there rather than having him work the show in February.
Of course, if he beats me, it might not feel quite as good, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take. I wouldn’t have felt as good about my own Classic win if I hadn’t beaten such an incredibly talented field of pros, several of whom got in because others double-qualified.