I was very fortunate to qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series as quickly as I did, winning the second Bassmaster Southern Open I fished and getting to the big leagues in my first full year of trying in the Bassmaster Northern Opens division. I didn’t really appreciate how hard that was to accomplish until a few years later, when I recognized how difficult it really can be. There are only so many opportunities in each division and a lot of things have to go right in order to qualify.
That’s why I’m so happy and proud that my brother Hunter will be joining me on the Elite Series next season after finishing fourth in the Southern Open points race this year. He’s been trying to make to the Elites for a few years now and has come close a couple of times, but he never got over the mountain. He was in the lead after two of the three 2017 events in the Southern Opens, with dual third-place finishes, but I knew that a single bad day or mistake could ruin his dream and chances for another year.
Going into the final event on Smith Lake, I might’ve been more nervous than he was. In my opinion, Smith Lake in Alabama can be a tough fishery. Fortunately, he put in his time, basically living there for several weeks before the tournament, practicing several hours a day, instead of trying to cram all of that effort into four daylight-to-dark days before the tournament. That’s within the Open rules, and it made sense to hedge his bets that way.
For years I’ve been out on the water competing, and I’ve taken for granted how hard it must be on the wives and girlfriends and family members of the tournament competitors when we’re out of view. They have no control over things, and I know a lot of them watch the Bassmaster blog, BASSTrakk and the social media feeds to try to get any clue at all as to how we’re doing. Because I wanted Hunter to make it so much, now I know just how gut-wrenching it can be to watch from the sidelines. That’s why I was incredibly relieved when he shot out of the gate like a cannon on Day 1, catching 11 pounds and landing in 10th place. I’d been crunching numbers for days, and I figured that it would take roughly a top 70 finish for him to make the Elites.
Based on past numbers, I was pretty sure that a single fish on Day 2 would get him into the Elites. I told him that, but aIso suggested that he catch at least one or two just to make sure. He’d caught a dozen keepers on Day 1, so I thought it was pretty much a sure thing that he’d catch a few on Friday, and to be honest I was already thinking past that point. Nevertheless, I still read the blog on Bassmaster.com multiple times per hour even when it clearly had nothing to do with him.
Knowing his check-in was 3:30, I knew he had planned to be at check around 20 minutes early. Then, Hunter’s girlfriend called me at 3:29 and said that he had just checked in. That wasn’t part of the plan. I realized then that he was in trouble. It turned out that he had zeroed and did not have a single keeper bass in his livewell. If my early numbers were accurate, it was going to be close. Again, here I sit on the sidelines, worrying over something that I couldn’t control. It’s so hard to make the Elites through the Opens – as evidenced by the fact that it took world-beaters like Jacob Wheeler, Brent Ehrler and Shin Fukae multiple tries – I was distraught at the possibility of him sacrificing such a prime opportunity.
In the end, it all worked out. Hunter finished 58th and could’ve been as low as 93rd and still made the Elites.
Obviously, as hard as it is to qualify, you have to be glad whenever you accomplish it, but the timing could not have been better for Hunter. This year he started a video series called “27” documenting the 27 days that could potentially comprise his nine Open events. At times it has been exhilarating and at times it has been heartbreaking to watch the ups and downs. Fortunately there have been more good days than bad ones, including not only his Southern Open campaign but also a second-place finish in the Northern Open at Douglas. It’s a great way for him to show just how hard he worked as well as everything that he can offer the sport and his sponsors.
As for me, I’m thrilled that he’ll be out there on tour with me next year. I’ll still be rooting for him even though he’ll be competing against me, but I won’t be obsessing over his results in the same way I did in 2017. The sweating part is over. I’ve seen him achieve the first step of his next dream, and now we can live it together.
In upcoming blogs I’ll try to give you some insight into how we plan to work together under the existing B.A.S.S. rules as well as some expectations about what life on the road will be like together.