For Justin Lucas, winning the 2018 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title was not part of his original plan. It was, however, a testament to the investment and encouragement of his grandfather, Jack Schmidt, whose unfailing devotion helped put Lucas on a course to great achievement.
Addressing peers, media and industry luminaries at the annual Bassmaster Classic Night of Champions dinner, the longtime Western standout, now living in Alabama, began by describing the catch that launched his angling passion.
“I used to fish in the Port of Sacramento, on the California Delta, every single day, and one day I caught a 4 1/2-pounder on a Gitzit,” Lucas said. “I was so excited, I put that fish in an old garbage can lid that was full of rain water and ran a half mile to my parent’s office to show them. That fish was the start of (my bass fishing career).”
Backtracking a bit, Lucas described an obsession with baseball and basketball that actually left no room for angling interests. When a 10-year-old friend invited him to a catfishing-themed birthday party, he initially declined, until his mother’s insistence sent him to a surprisingly enjoyable event with an educational moment.
“I always use pliers to handle catfish now, because that day my friend who had that party threw an 8-inch at me, and it hit me in the knee and stung me (with its sharp dorsal spine),” Lucas said. “So I fell in love with fishing the same day I got stung by a catfish — and I’ve hated catfish ever since.”
Planting the seeds
Smitten with the angling life, an adolescent Lucas started fishing with his grandfather — a truck driver who’d put in long weeks on the road and then devote weekends to a budding angler whose passion motivated profound generosity.
“He had an aluminum boat and when he’d come home from work, he started building a deck on that boat and installed a trolling motor that he never even touched,” Lucas said with a trembling voice. “This guy did all that just for me. Looking back, I wasn’t as appreciative as I should have been, but we had a boat and we could go fishing.”
Not long after the boat’s completion, Lucas hooked an 8-pound Delta stud that was so big that neither angler wanted to lip it. Wrapping the 12-pound fluorocarbon around his hand, Lucas swung the fish over the boat’s high gunnel — something he jokingly admitted would never work during the Bassmaster Classic.
“I took a polaroid picture and wrote all over the white borders,” he proudly recalled. “I took that picture to baseball practice and showed everyone. After that, I started telling everyone I wanted to fish for a living and at that point forward, everything I did was focused on trying to fish for a living.”
At 14, Lucas’s grandfather upgraded to a 16-foot Ranger bass boat with a 90-hp motor so they could start fishing local tournaments. Again, the investment had a selfless purpose.
“He never drove that boat, he never ran the trolling motor, he never got on the front deck — he let me do all of that,” Lucas said.
Winning an event on Lake Berryessa earned them $641 and a trophy that still sits in his grandfather’s office today.
“That’s when I really knew, without a doubt, that professional fishing was the way that I wanted to go,” Lucas said.
For the next few years, the duo found continued tournament success; the winnings of which would deliver an unexpected boost that helped fuel Lucas’ official career launch.
Here’s how it came together.
During his high school years, Lucas saved money for his first boat by working a colorful array of jobs from pumpkin patch attendant, to coffee shop server, tackle store clerk, grocery store bagger and newspaper subscription salesman. A 17-year-old Lucas finally collected the $2,500 he needed to buy a preowned boat, but doing so left him broke an unable to further his fishing dream.
Or, so he thought.
“My grandpa had saved (his winnings) from every little tournament and when I bought my first boat, he gave me a check for $2,000,” an emotional Lucas recalled.
Now funded to start fishing local events on his own, Lucas knew he needed to experience the sport’s pinnacle, so he turned down his mother’s offer of a senior year cruise to Mexico in favor of a trip to Pittsburgh — the site of the 2005 Bassmaster Classic. Watching Kevin VanDam win his second of four titles inspired Lucas to pursue a path that led him to this week’s competition.
Lucas fished his way through college as an FLW regional series co-angler. With his grandfather’s consistent encouragement, he honed his competitive skills and won his first boat a 19. Earning a National Guard sponsorship paved the path for several years of growth and improvement, but despite his Western success, the bass fishing heartland soon pulled his attention eastward.
And here’s how that original plan morphed into the course that led Lucas to the Night of Champions podium.
Realizing that expanding his career would require experience beyond his Western roots, Lucas moved to Alabama in January 2010. After a few more years of FLW competition and then a gig as the FLW College Fishing emcee, he signed up for the 2013 Bassmaster Northern and Central Opens to gain experience well beyond his comfort zone.
“I didn’t sign up for the Opens to make the Elite Series,” Lucas said. “The only reason I signed up for the 2013 Bassmaster Opens was to become a better fisherman; I knew I had a lot to learn.
“I qualified for the Elites through the Northerns and Hunter Cole gave me a call. I had been working with Berkley since 2007 and he asked ‘Do you have any interest in fishing the Elites, because we’d really love for you to run our Abu-Garcia/Berkley wrap.”
Recently married and pondering his future, Lucas said the magnitude of the opportunity was daunting, yet intriguing.
“I remember sitting under a bridge and thinking ‘It’ a big step; you gotta go fish against Kevin, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,’” he said. “I’ve always looked up to Kevin, I’ve always looked up to Mike Iaconelli, but Arron Martens, Skeet Reese, Brent Ehrler, Brett Hite — these guys from the West that made it when I was a kid, I looked at them and thought: ‘They did it; I can do it too.'”
Coming full circle
Accepting the 2013 Elite invitation, Lucas would go on to win two Elite Series events. He topped the Potomac River field in 2016, but his first Elite victory — 2015 on the California Delta — will always be his sweetest memory.
“For that tournament, I slept in the same bed at my grandma and grandpa’s house that I slept in when I was 13 and fished tournaments with my grandpa,” Lucas said. “My grandpa doesn’t fly, he doesn’t travel, but he was there for that tournament — the very first professional tournament I ever won.
“That was very special and to share it with my grandpa and to sleep in the same bed I’d slept in 15 years before was very special.”
Flash forward to his amazing 2018, Lucas said he “caught fire” and started catching fish even when he probably shouldn’t have. The ride was a great one, but the realization hadn’t taken full form until his Night of Champions speech.
“Everyone has been asking, ‘When did it set in?’” Lucas said. “I would say say, honestly, standing in front of all of you guys that I’ve looked up to for so long. This has made it set in more than anything else.”
Lucas concluded by thanking all of his competitors and expressing his ongoing appreciation to B.A.S.S. for providing the platform upon which he’s built his professional career.
“The level of appreciation will never be lost for that,” he said.
Jack Schmidt was not in attendance, but the reflection of his efforts stood proudly on the Night of Champions stage and honored his impact.