Last year, when Grae Buck arrived for practice at the Bassmaster Open at Lake Oneida in Syracuse, NY, the goal was to be fishing the Bassmaster Classic in 2020. The plan was to utilize a pattern he found years ago and continue an impressive run of tournament success that includes finishing in the top 12 five times since 2016. His confidence in Oneida Lake stems from a pair of BFL wins in 2017 and 2019, runner up in 2016, and third in 2018.
Buck also fished a Bassmaster Open in 2013 as a co-angler and cashed a check in 16th place.
“Yeah, I’m pretty good there,” Buck said laughing, “I got into a little deal and have lots of places on that lake I can go and run the pattern. The entire reason that I fished the Eastern Opens last year was to win Oneida, fish the classic, and of course try to qualify for the Elites.”
Although he doesn’t fun fish there anymore, whenever there is a tournament on the schedule for Oneida, he does his best to get there between fishing on the FLW Pro Circuit, FLW Toyota Series, Bass Opens, and all the travel and fishing trips with his wife, Jessica.
Speaking of his wife, Grae met his then-girlfriend Jessica in high school, where they eventually went to Penn State together and got right into the Bass Fishing Club.
“We fished together in college and that was awesome. We finished second on Champlain, lost by 3 ounces but it qualified us for the Regional championship,” he explained. “Jess is awesome, she even fished a few BFL’s as a co-angler, and is very supportive of my career.”
In the offseason, they love to travel. Every year they focus on exploring many of the National Parks and spend several days hiking and learning about those parts of the country. During the season, Jessica will fly to meet Grae, usually between Tour events, to fish and explore. The 1000 Island area is their favorite place to fish. (While I was writing this story, Grae and Jess were exploring Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve in Fort Myers, Florida.)
“Last year we went to Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Death Valley on our big trip. This year we plan to hit the Arches, Bryce, Zion and Canyonlands National Parks.”
The drive to fish and become a pro transpired at an early age, but it was not realized until later that the dream could become a reality. Grae and his grandfather would catch whatever would bite, trout, catfish, panfish, and of course, bass. The Spark was lit and Grae would collect and read Bassmaster Magazine. It was when his family purchased some land that happened to have a half-acre “bass pond” that the shift from all fish to bass, came about.
“That pond was loaded. I tried to catch as many as I could on every lure I had.”
When he was in 8th grade, a trip to the Chesapeake Bay with a hockey buddies dad’s bass boat stirred the fire even more. The whole tournament scene became clearer and Buck joined his local bass club, the Peace Valley Bass Anglers. After a couple years of learning from anyone that would take him, he transitioned to college. It was when Buck started competing in college that his childhood dream was then realized. He knew at that time; it was something obtainable. He can remember sitting in his college dorm room watching Brandon Palaniuk fishing the Classic at the Louisiana Delta and thinking that he wasn’t much older, and that maybe it was really a possibility.
“It was my Sophomore year at Penn State. I had saved every cent I earned working in landscaping since high school and came up with about $10,000. I used that money and took out a small loan to buy my first bass boat, an 18-foot Skeeter with a 150.”
Grae used that boat all through college and for a short time after. He entered the BFL’s in 2014 to try his hand on new lakes and tougher competition. It didn’t take long for that purchase to pay off. In 2014, he fished the two-day Super Tournament on the 1000 Islands and pushed the 18-foot Skeeter to the limits.
“I was taking that little boat out on Ontario,” he said. “It was nuts.
After cashing two checks out of four events, his first win soon followed. It came at the right time as he was able to pocket several thousand in cash and upgrade the boat. He traded the Skeeter and the cash and the result was a bigger boat, a 20-foot Skeeter. The following year he fished the BFL’s again and once again had success.
“I won the BFL Regional on the Potomac in 2015. That came with $20,000 and a boat voucher. I didn’t realize I had what it took to fish at higher levels, but that win allowed me to quit my job. I was an aquatic biologist from when I graduated until about May of 2016, then quit to fish the B.A.S.S. Opens and FLW Costas; I then went back to landscaping. After qualifying for a professional tour and it led me to the FLW Tour”
Similarly, to the year before, a decent year in the first five events, the BFL Regional win was the jumpstart he needed to up the ante. All the while, Grae has saved every cent he has made from working his landscaping job and tournament winnings. Adding almost $60,000 to that account after selling the boat voucher was all he needed. In 2017, he fished the Bassmaster Opens and the Northern FLW Costa Series. Although the Bassmaster Opens were tough, the other northern events were good to Buck and he was able to qualify for the FLW Tour through the Costas.
“That first year on Tour was tough on me. I had never fished south of Virginia, and I got my butt kicked. When I qualified for the FLW Tour, I planned on fishing until all the money in that account was gone, and it kept growing.”
His first 3 years on the FLW Tour were good, not great, but the drive kept on growing and he was learning how to be a pro.
“I lost money my first year. It was a big learning curve, but I learned what I needed to do. The second year I broke even and last year I made some money.”
Not only did he make money on the FLW Tour, Costa, and BFLs, but he did so on the Bass Opens, specifically Oneida. Without having to worry about points at the end of the year, he set his sights on his favorite place to cash a check.
“I wanted to fish that Oneida Open at the end of the year. I wanted a shot to make the Elites if I did well enough and try for the classic. The first three events were very tough, and I was out of the points, so the goal was to win Oneida.”
Prior to the September season finale of the B.A.S.S Opens in New York, Buck was already busy at work. He won the Oneida BFL in August and cashed a check at Lake Champlain at the FLW Tour event. When asked if he would have approached that last Open any differently if he was in points contention, he confidently said no.
“I would have fished the same way, either way. I was looking for 10 bites a day running my specific pattern, and five of those would be good fish. I usually stick to the smallmouth game. I need to learn largemouth there because I can catch a decent bag of smallmouth fairly quick, but I can’t ever get on the green ones. I have more confidence in getting a bigger smallmouth to upgrade my bag than a largemouth."
The Bassmaster Classic, however, is not Lake Oneida. In fact, it is 15 or so hours south. The pressure is also something that you cannot prepare for and it is indescribable. Buck has read all about it and the writing is all the same. Guys who have been in multiple classics all look back and say the same things.
“They all say the pressure got to them. Not even the pressure, the moment. It’s going to be incredible; I can’t wait.”
Although he describes himself as someone who never lets the low get too low, or the highs too high, he is keeping a clear head. It is easier said than done. He knows how the week is going to set up as far as practice, media day, and all the fans being around, but thinks the “moment” won’t kick in until a little later.
“I have never been to a Classic in person. I’ve seen photos, videos and all the weigh-ins. I started watching all those things to get as familiar with it as I can. I think when it hits me will be the morning of Day 1, the take-off. I’ve fished the tour for four years, so I'm not necessarily intimidated at all. I've fished against Scott Martin, Dudley, Thrift, Bryan Schmitt and a bunch of guys who are in the Elites, FLW Series, and BPT now.
Grae is not a stranger to the playing field of Guntersville. He fished as a co-angler years back about the same time of year as the Classic is going to be held. The FLW tour made a stop there and the FLW Costa Championship. Grae is familiar with the lake and welcomes the challenge.
“I did a little pre-practice on Guntersville before the off-limits and never even made a cast. I wanted to learn where and how the grass was growing. I just graphed. It was a good time to just clear my head before the 2020 season and think a little bit about the classic. I have thought a little about the official practice and I don’t want to get too dialed in. I want to try to figure out what’s going on and keep my options open.”
Buck has every reason to be confident. Of the 53 anglers competing, 28 will be fishing their first Classic. On Guntersville, it is really anyone's game. When Bassmaster emcee Dave Mercer calls out the No. 19 spot of the first flight on March 6th, Buck’s life will forever change. Aside from the cool $10,000 paycheck at a minimum, and he will officially become a Bassmaster Classic Competitor. Drive that 21TRX Triton around Guntersville, enjoy the moment, and let that dream keep growing.
Grae’s Sponsors include Landis Block and Nyce Crete, Favorite Rods, Z-Man, Ardent, Univest Bank, and J.O.N. Construction.
Find Grae on Instagram here.