BUFFALO, N.Y. — Half an hour before the remaining 12 Bassmaster Elite Series pro anglers began their final day shootout at the Empire Chase presented by Mahindra Tractors, Elton Luce Jr. lay prone across the front of his boat, one leg dangling off the side.
He was searching his boat's forward compartments. Once he found what he needed, he shot to his feet and continued rigging one of several fishing poles cradled in his arms. Luce repeated the process through each set-up.
If there's one thing this Brookeland, Tx., native knows how to do, it's dust himself off and get back on his feet. Last in the Angler of the Year standings before this event, Luce admitted that this year "has been pretty tough for me."
But this tournament was different. Luce battled his way through the rough waters of Lake Erie and the remainder of the Elite pro field for 38 pounds, and 14 ounces over two days. Luce now finds himself in his first top 12 of the year, having squeaked into 11th place going into Sunday's final day of competition.
Luce bagged a 20-10 stringer on Day One that included the tournament's biggest bass so far, a 6-4 pound smallmouth. He also nabbed a 5-6 fish on Day Two.
"The second I hooked into him, I knew I had something huge," Luce said, in reference to Day One's $1,000 fish.
Despite the first day's heavy surf and water in his fuel line forcing him to run only 10 mph, he limped five miles back to the marina in an hour's time, in time for the weigh-in.
With a Day Two cancellation and a well-earned day off the water, Luce was able to fix the engine, and he still knew where the big smallmouth were lurking. He returned to the same holes on Saturday.
"My co-angler had 18-2 and I had a great bag, minus the penalty for two dead fish," Luce said. With the penalties, Luce's 18-4 was good enough to allow him to fish on the final day.
That Luce finds himself last in the overall standings doesn't seem to bother the former vice president of an engineering company that built oil refineries and petrochemical plants in his home state of Texas.
One big reason for his lack of points was missing two tournaments because of family emergencies.
Before the event at Clark's Hill, Luce's young nephew took his own life. The impact on the close-knit family was tremendous.
"It was hard on all of us," Luce said, tying on a hook for one of his many dropshot rigs. "Just really hard."
In addition to dealing with such a loss, Luce's wife Kathy was also experiencing failing health. After resection surgery due to colon cancer 26 years previously, Mrs. Luce's colon had eventually become infected, slowly poisoning her body.
By the time Smith Mountain Lake's Blue Ridge Brawl came around, the infection had reached her bloodstream. Luce's son and namesake, Elton Luce III, or "Trey" as his father calls him, recalls the difficult experience.
"For about four days, we just didn't know which way she would go because of that infection," Trey said on the dock Sunday morning after seeing off his father.
Bedside with his wife in intensive care, Luce was forced to miss his second tournament of the year. Six weeks later, Kathy is recovering slowly but surely.
"For Dad, it's been rough," Trey said. "But he makes it work." Trey, a game warden in Michigan, fished the co-angler side of the tournament last week at Lake Champlain. The son returned to western New York to see his father fish among the Top 12.
Luce II is humble and thankful that he is able to be here at the Empire Chase, let alone to be fishing on the Sunday.
"Look, anytime the Good Lord lets you go fishing, you go fishing," Luce said. Then, he stopped everything. "But this one is special. This one is for my wife."
Luce loves his God, his family and his country. In fact, for every pound of bass he catches he gives one dollar to various Armed Forces charities. A tribute to the men and women of the U.S. military and to his son who served in the U.S. Navy as a Seabee earlier in the current Iraq War, "it's the best I can do to help and support them," Luce said. His sponsors BassCat and Mizmo match every dollar he donates.
As for the tournament, Luce figures he needs a good 23 pounds of fish to take the title. "But 27 or 28 pounds is not out of line," he said. He plans to make three or four runs to the same spots where he caught monster smallmouths earlier in the tournament. And with just 3-9 separating 12th place from the leader, Luce is hoping to boat another big fish and seize the win.
"I think it's the closest it's been all year," Luce said. "So it's still anyone's tournament."
But this season's underdog will simply enjoy the experience and not pay attention to his current position in the standings.
"When you're so many behind in the points, your goose is pretty much cooked," Luce said. "You just go out there every day you can and hope for the best."
With his son and small grandson, affectionately known as Toad, cheering him on as he left the dock, Luce smiled and waved.
He firmly believes that his favorite, the dropshotted tube, can give him his first tournament win.
"That?" he said. "That would be great."