Whatley zooms from 95th to second

Brad Whatley

PALATKA, Fla. — Brad Whatley ended Day 1 at the St. Johns River with only two bass totaling 8 pounds, 9 ounces, which left him in 95th place. In one more example of Whatley’s never-give-up competitive nature, he ended Day 3 with a 31-pound, 4-ounce limit, which vaulted him into second place going into Sunday’s championship Top 10 round of the MAXAM Tire Bassmaster Elite at the St. Johns River. It was essentially a zero-to-hero performance.

Saturday was a glowing example of his competitive nature. A 20-pound Day 2 moved him up to 36th place, but he had only one small bass at 11 o’clock.

“I went to my main area and I wasn’t getting bit,” said Whatley. He was just about to make a significant move to another area, when a prayer was answered. “It wasn’t 30 seconds later when I caught a 6-pounder, and three casts later I caught that (8-7, the big bass of the tournament so far).”

Whatley, 43, from Bivins, Texas, added another 7-pound, 7-ounce largemouth in posting the biggest bag of the tournament.

“I’m seeing a lot of big fish,” he said. “I’m definitely around some big fish. If they’re biting, we’re liable to boat another 30 pounds (Sunday).”

He will need that and maybe more if he’s going to catch Cory Johnston, who has weighed 20-plus pounds all three days and goes into Sunday with a 14-pound, 1-ounce lead.

One thing you can count on is Whatley will go down swinging. He has faced as much or more adversity in his previous five years on the Elite Series as any angler on the tour. The married father of three has thought about changing careers more than once during that time.

“Oh, yeah, it’s no secret,” Whatley said. “I’ve had a rough go. I’ve only made two (Bassmaster) Classics and this is my sixth year. I’ve thought about it. Everybody knows we’re all competitors. If we sit down to play dominos, every one of these guys will try to beat the brakes off of you. I’m the same way.

“You’re born with that drive to compete. I’ll either catch ‘em or I won’t, but that’s not going to change, that drive to compete.”

That helps explain the move from 95th on Day 1 to second on Day 3. But it goes back further than that. In 2020, Whatley was just minutes from his hotel in Detroit on the night before practice began at an Elite Series tournament at Lake St. Clair. That’s when another driver side-swiped his truck and boat trailer, sending him crashing down the interstate.

“The truck flipped a couple and landed upside down in the interstate,” he said. “I’ll never forget that. I did not have a mark on me. If not for a side airbag, at least my arm would have been handing out the window, if not me.”

Thanks to the folks at Phoenix Boats, Whatley had a new trailer for his damaged boat that was still functional and another truck to pull it with. His truck was totaled. He didn’t do well in that tournament, finishing 60th, but he competed after the wreck and a frantic few days of getting a boat on the water.

That wasn’t his big test. It came in the form of Crohn’s disease, which was debilitating enough to knock him out of competition for a while.

“I got pretty sick a couple of years ago,” Whatley said. “I had to have a procedure and switched medications. There’s no cure for it. I still have problems, but I haven’t had any major problems. That’s a blessing.”

One place Whatley seemingly has no problems is in the state of Florida. He just came off 84th-place and 89th-place finishes at Lake Fork and Toledo Bend in his home state of Texas. Then he comes to Florida and places 10th at the Harris Chain and makes another Top 10 here.

“I don’t know what it is about Florida, but I catch ‘em here,” he said. That’s proven by the fact that in eight Elite Series events since his rookie year in 2019, Whatley has failed to make the Top 50 only once in Florida.

“It really suits me,” he said. “I like to fish shallow, and I like to power fish. And we’re later in the year, so there are no cold fronts affecting these fish. That means a lot. What I’m catching are postspawn. They’re not fry-guarders. They’re eating.”