The Classic rookie class

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Four anglers are set to fish their first Bassmaster Classic this June in Fort Worth, Texas.

You’ve finally made it to the big show. It's the Super Bowl of sport fishing — the 2021 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk. It’s a lifetime dream for most who’ve ever lined a reel, and while each qualifier’s path was different, the common themes of pride and appreciation sew familiar threads.

Everyone processes life’s big moments in their own way and particular facets shine brighter for each individual. In talking with four of the 2021 Classic rookies, we found interesting nuggets reflecting their personalities and perspectives.

Ed Loughran III

Qualified: 32nd in Bassmaster Elite Series AOY standings

The calm, measured demeanor with which the civil litigation attorney from Richmond, Va., carries himself belies the tortuously motivational memories of watching lost fish swim away with his Elite qualification dreams. That was several years ago, but just last fall, Ed Loughran faced another potential dream crusher — this time, with a triumphant outcome.

Entering the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest on Lake Fork, Loughran knew he needed 37 to 38 pounds for the top-30 finish that would earn a Classic berth. Catching 21 pounds, 13 ounces on Day 1, Loughran found himself nearing the second day’s conclusion with about 15 pounds.

Pulling up to a dock, Loughran skipped a ChatterBait under the walkway and out the other side. As he retrieved the bait, he noticed the tip of a PVC fish attractor, which he would quickly find was attached to a natural brush pile.

“I’m thinking that’s a spot where a fish should be,” Loughran recalled. “Right before my bait gets to (the PVC), I watch a 5-pounder come up and eat it. He immediately goes through the PVC, into the brush and then around a big 6x6 square piling.”

The ensuing gymnastics saw Loughran patiently manipulate his trolling motor for optimal positioning, pass his rod around the piling and deftly untangle the line — all while a career milestone fish was boiling just out of reach.

“I’m just thinking, ‘Trust the line, trust the hook, you’re good,’” Loughran said. “I just worked through the problem, finally got the fish out of there, he comes up next to the boat and I grab him.

“When I had that fish in my hand, I knew at that point, I had made the Classic. I knew in my head the number I needed to make a top 30. I knew when I watched that fish roll up on my bait, that was the fish I’ve been waiting 38 years for.”

Mr. Consistency: Recalling a case of food poisoning that nearly derailed a successful tournament performance earlier in his career, Loughran said he’ll rely on his dietary discipline to help ensure uninterrupted Classic focus.

“I try to eat the same thing all the time; the last thing you need is to (risk illness),” he said. “I try to remove as many variables as possible. I usually get a couple of rotisserie chickens and instant rice, and I eat that every day.”

Austin Felix

Qualified: Seventh in Bassmaster Elite Series AOY standings; Bassmaster Elite Rookie of the Year

About midway through the 2020 season, Bassmaster Elite Series emcee Dave Mercer dubbed Austin Felix “The Sleepy Assassin” for his nonchalant stage presence and overall chill demeanor. Catchy gimmick? Nope, necessity.

Noting that he used to be a more animated person, Felix related a life-changing event that required a personality makeover.

“In 2007, I got bit by a tick while turkey hunting in Minnesota and caught Lyme disease,” Felix explained. “I got treated, but it came back really bad in 2013, and now, it’s a chronic condition. 

“If I got my heart rate up or I got really excited, I ended up getting dizzy and feeling like I was going to pass out. Because of that, I trained my body to not get too excited and feel like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. I just take a deep breath and keep everything as even-keel as possible.”

Fashion or function?: Helping maintain his calm disposition, while clearly contributing to the “sleepy” theme, Felix quickly became known for wearing argyle pajama bottoms during practice days. To the untrained eye, it may have appeared that he wore his comfy sleepwear on tournament days, but Felix revealed his secret.

“The Elite Series doesn’t let you were blue jeans, so I assumed they weren’t going to let me wear pajamas,” he said. “So, those blue pants you see me wear on tournament days are actually golf pants. They’re nice pants; they just look like pajama pants.

“That was my way of trying to figure out a loophole so I could still wear the argyle without (former Tournament Director Trip Weldon) yelling at me. At this point, I don’t know if I’m grandfathered in. I haven’t tried just wearing regular PJs on stage yet." 

Kyle Welcher

Qualified: 10th in Bassmaster Elite Series AOY standings

You’d think a rookie Elite season that yielded three Top 10s — including an eighth on the St. Johns River where he won Big Bass honors with his 10-1 — would be a real shot in the arm. However, Welcher’s work ethic left little time for reflection until the season’s conclusion brought the realization of a goal achieved.

“The thing about this sport is whenever you have a good result, there’s almost never actual joy, because you’re supposed to do these types of things,” he said. “So when you do, it’s just a relief. The stress is off of you, because making the Classic is the No. 1 goal every year.”

Processing his achievement, Welcher said it’s difficult to frame something he’s never before experienced. However, he’s confident his first Classic will be the ultimate knife sharpener.

“It’s something so different from anything I’ve done before, fishing is going to be kinda on the back burner at the Classic because there’s so much other stuff going on,” Welcher said. “It’s probably going be one of the biggest weeks of my life, as far as improving as an angler because there are so many things you have to think about. 

“Being stretched in that many ways, you’re going to experience a ton of growth as far as being a more efficient, time-managing angler. This is so far out of my comfort zone; it’s going to be a huge opportunity to improve myself.”

Keeping it real: Like Loughran, Welcher’s careful with his diet. No fried foods, no bread, no carbs that don’t have a lot of fiber, no sodas, or anything that would slow him down. Rather, Welcher’s Classic week will include lots of salads and grilled chicken breasts.

Controlling the controllables, he said, removes the need for good luck charms. “I’m not a luck guy. I think if you keep making good decisions, good things will happen.”

Trevor McKinney

Qualified: Carhartt College Classic Bracket presented by Bass Pro Shops

The 2016 High School All-American has already experienced much success in his young career, but qualifying for the Classic has been, not only a dream come true, it’s also reaffirmed his strong spiritual foundation.

“It probably took about a week to realize just how special this is, but I’m a Christian and I believe God has a reason for everything,” McKinney said. “I felt like 100%, it was God’s plan for me to make the Bassmaster Classic this year. There was too much that happened perfectly for it to not be God’s plan.”

For starters, after driving 16 hours from Illinois to the Carhartt Bassmaster College National Championship presented by Bass Pro Shops on Florida’s Harris Chain of Lakes, McKinney’s college partner, Blake Jackson, experienced a serious accident close to their destination. With their tournament boat totaled, the anglers had to wait for a friend to deliver a replacement from Illinois.

After getting just four hours of practice time, making that top-four cut to qualify for the College Bracket must have seemed like a daunting task, but McKinney said their fourth-place finish exemplified divine intervention.

“If we had had three days of practice, we probably wouldn’t have fished where we fished in the tournament,” he said. “We might not have even qualified for the Bracket.”

In that final event, McKinney’s winning spot was a place he hadn’t fished all week. For whatever reason, he pulled up and caught 40 fish in short order.

“It was just all meant to be,” McKinney said. “There’s just no doubt in my mind that it was God’s plan. I’ve praying every day that God gives me the wisdom and shows me the way in the Classic.

“I’m just going to enjoy the moment. I’m very appreciative of the opportunity to fish the Bassmaster Classic. It’s been my dream ever since I was a kid. Whether I catch them or not, it’s going to be an awesome experience, and I thank God for that experience every day."

What he needs: McKinney’s less picky about his diet, “I’m 22 years old, and I eat whatever’s put in front of me. I’m not superstitious about things like bananas on boats. On the last day of the Classic College Bracket, I ate a banana right in front of everyone at the dock.”

Besides his tackle and a full gas tank, McKinney said he needs only his faith.

“I know God’s going to be with me through the whole experience,” he said. “I can always feel God’s presence with me, so that’s what I’ll be taking with me to the Classic.”