Open: Classic bug has bitten Whatley

JASPER, Ala. — From one perspective, it makes little sense for Brad Whatley to be fishing the Bassmaster Central Open at Smith Lake this week. Not after he achieved his goal of qualifying for the Bassmaster Elite Series through the Central Opens last year. But from another viewpoint, it makes all the sense in the world, when your ultimate goal is to qualify again for the Bassmaster Classic. 

The 38-year-old Elite Series rookie has developed a deep thirst for the Classic after his initial taste in Knoxville this year. 

“I’m not worrying about points in the Opens this year,” said Whatley, who finished second in Central Opens Angler of the Year points last year. “I’m just trying to win one. It’s an added chance to get to the Classic. Anything that’s going to give me a chance to get back to that Classic is what I want to do.” 

Whatley’s odds of winning this week at Smith Lake took a hit on Thursday, when he weighed a 10-pound, 6-ounce limit that left him in 85th place. However, he’s been taking care of business on the Elite Series so far. Whatley has posted finishes of 27th at the St. Johns River, 21st at Lake Lanier, 27th at Lake Hartwell and 52nd at Winyah Bay. He’s 25th in AOY points after four of 10 tournaments. The top 39 anglers in the final AOY standings qualify for the 2020 Classic at Alabama’s Lake Guntersville.

“I stumbled a little bit at Winyah and that hurt,” Whatley said. “But if that’s the worst I do all year I’ll take that. Right now things are going good, and we’re going to get in the kind of water that I’m used to, so I’m looking forward to that.”

Whatley lives in Bivins, Texas, near the intersection of the Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas state lines. His Elite Series travel partner is another northeast Texan, rookie Lee Livesay. They became friends while competing in Central Opens over the past couple of seasons. It’s a partnership that appears to be working well. Livesay is 14th in the AOY standings. He’s third in the Rookie of the Year standings and Whatley is fifth. With the Elite Series headed next to Lake Fork, where Livesay has been a longtime guide, this pair of rookies seems poised for continued success. 

“You need that out here,” said Whatley of his travel partner. “If you can possibly travel with someone and cut down on costs, I would recommend it.” 

Taking the Elite Series plunge was a big decision for Whatley. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. He’s glad he took the chance. 

“Nobody knows what the future holds,” he said. “I didn’t really know what to expect going into it. But it’s everything I thought it was. I fished those first two Elites and did pretty well. After I fished that Classic, I pretty much said, I don’t know what it’s going to take for me to stay here, but I’m going to stay here. This is what I’m going to do. This is it.”

Whatley didn’t taste success in his first Bassmaster Classic. He finished 45th. But he savored everything else he experienced.

“I wish everybody could fish the Classic,” Whatley said. “I sucked it up at the Classic, but it was still the Classic.”

When Whatley was asked about a particular day or occurrence on the Elite Series so far that stands out in his mind, he didn’t hesitate. Whatley was in ninth place after Day 1 at Lake Hartwell. Then he dropped to 28th in the Day 2 standings. He finished 27th on Day 3, with a tip of the hat to his friend and fellow Elite Series angler Chris Groh.

“We were fishing the same stretch,” Whatley said. “He came around a corner and said, ‘I just caught a 4-pounder on a buzzbait. Put a buzzbait on.’ I hadn’t thrown one. I didn’t go but about 20 yards and, boom, a 5-pounder. That boosted me up. There’s a mile between a 3-pounder and a 5-pounder at Hartwell.” 

Many miles remain between Brad Whatley and a second Bassmaster Classic appearance, but the Elite Series rookie appears headed in the right direction.