Daily Limit: Back in Elites, Hackney, Christie feel like rookies

Greg Hackney (left) and Jason Christie are back on the Elite series after a two-year absence.

Greg Hackney and Jason Christie are Elite again, but maybe with a few new gray hairs.

With no backup plan, the pressure was on when both attempted to requalify for the Bassmaster Elite Series via the 2020 Basspro.com Open Series. The 47-year-olds born two months apart might have made it look easy by finishing first and second in the Central division point standings. Both said it was anything but.

“There was a lot of pressure. It was a very stressful fall for me,” said Hackney, of Gonzales, La.

Both competed in MLF the past two years but didn’t re-sign for 2021, creating great impetus to qualify for Bassmaster’s top circuit. Failure would have meant some egg on the face and trying the Opens again.

“Oh my gosh, I can’t imagine that,” Hackney said.

With large fields, dozens of pros fishing for the same Elite dream and many others vying to win on their home waters, the 2020 Opens were possibly the most hotly contested ever. 

“It’s wasn’t easy,” said Christie, of Park Hill, Okla. “I’ve been fortunate enough to try it twice, and I made it both times, and I hope — I love fishing the Opens — but I hope I never have to fish the Opens again to try to qualify.”

Jason Christie survives with late fish on Day 2 of the Neely Henry Open.

Christie, who also fished the four Eastern Division events to increase his odds, said B.A.S.S. did a great job with rescheduling after the coronavirus chaos, but fields nearing 200 anglers were further compressed on lakes during a difficult time of the year to fish. The possibility of a bomb increased.

“It was hard to find something by yourself,” he said. “I look back the second day of Neely Henry, it’s 1 o’clock and I got two little ole bitty fish, and I’m looking at like a 100th-place finish. In five minutes, I catch two big ones and make the top 12.

“There’s a fine line in the Opens on doing good, making the Classic, winning the points. There’s a very, very fine line there.”

Both remained among the AOY point leaders heading into the decisive events, but there was continued stress as one bad day could end their hopes. Going into the final Central Open on Lewisville Lake, Hackney was on the points bubble in fourth. He found great relief after Day 1 by standing third.

“I pretty much knew I was in after that first day of Lewisville,” he said. “You cannot believe the weight it took off of me. There was so much riding on that last event. It helps me to fish under pressure. It just helps me to be in a bind, and I was definitely in a bind.”

Christie finished first in the Central Division with 719 points, with Hackney right behind at 716. There were 12 Elite invitations extended in 2020 from the Opens, four from each division and four for combined points. The Elite field has grown to 100, and Christie and Hackney both said it feels like restarting their careers, that they’re rookies again, that there’s similar anticipation and excitement to when they first qualified.

“It’s funny coming back,” Christie said. “That first meeting when all the anglers get together, it might be a little bit awkward, but whenever the guy sitting by your side’s named Hackney, I ain’t scared.”

Christie edges out Hackney in the 2014 Elite on Lake Dardanelle.

“I feel like he’s got my back, and I’ve got his. It’s going to be fun. I know me, and every hook is going to be sharp and everything running straight. I feel sorry for that first fish that bites Hackney’s jig.”

Yeah, Godzilla ain’t got nothing on these two guys. Hackney returns ranking second on the active winner’s list with six B.A.S.S. titles, and he has more than $2.4 million in earnings in 187 events. Christie is tied for third active with five Bassmaster victories in 82 tournaments, amassing $1.1 million.

Both expressed similar factors in their desire to return to B.A.S.S., and topping the list was simply the style of fishing suits them.

“I would rather catch seven or eight big ones a day as I would 100,” Hackney said. “I know when I fun fish, if I get one every cast, I leave. That ain’t my deal.”

Christie said he grew up searching for the biggest five, and it’s served him well.

“I have won a lot of events where I caught No. 5 coming back in,” he said. “I’m not the smartest guy out there. I dig and grind. I find the biggest bass I can, and it’s just a style and it’s the mindset.

“And I think a big part of the fans who follow me do because of my style and because of my personality, and that’s the second reason. The third reason is, after sitting down and talking with my sponsors, that’s where they want me to be. It’s a no-brainer for me.”

The day before this interview, Christie announced a new partnership with Xpress Boats — “Figured if we’re going to change one thing, let’s change a bunch.”

Hackney knew he was in with a big first day at Lake Lewisville.

Hackney, the 2014 Elite Angler of the Year, said fans, fish and history were involved in his decision to make the move.

“I like to see crowds at the weigh-ins,” he said. “I like to hold up fish and I like to hear the crowd get into it, and the fish are what makes the crowd get into it. The fish are very important. That’s how we all got to where we are today.

“This is another big reason or me to come back to the Elites — history. I want to be a part of that history. I was that guy who watched Bob Cobb back in the TNN days. I would be so pumped up when they started playing that music for the Bassmaster show. It’s a sentimental deal. Bassmaster is the best platform for me, my family and my sponsors. I’m pretty pumped.”

An added bonus was the recent announcement of a four-year contract to televise Bassmaster LIVE on FOX Sports platforms. Hackney, great friends with LIVE co-host Mark Zona, said it’s a huge deal, and he was very jealous of LIVE airing many hours on ESPN2 in 2020.

“Watching Zona and Tommy (Sanders) and Davy (Hite), Ronnie (Moore) and you, it looks like a true professional sport is supposed to look,” he said.

LIVE will air on FOX Sports 1 on Saturday and Sunday from 8-11 a.m. for each Elite tournament, and Day 2 of the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk will air in that timeframe on FOX, the network that has broadcast Super Bowls and World Series. Christie said he relishes the opportunity.

“That pulls a lot of weight, gives me some bullets in my belt when I walk into sponsors,” Christie said. “That’s a big deal. I actually was in a cabin today talking to a guy about Bassmaster LIVE. Now that he can watch on TV, he said he might never get out of his recliner.”

With their fishing chops, expect both to compete for air time. Christie, who’s qualified to seven Classics and made 24 top 10s in B.A.S.S., has ambitious goals for making appearances on Bassmaster LIVE.

“I’d like to make about seven or eight of them next year,” he said. “I’ll take seven.”

First and foremost is qualifying for the Classic. Christie said it’s imperative he gets back, and while he said that’s not easy, he made it each of the seven Elite seasons he’s fished, starting with a seventh place in 2013 on Grand Lake. Christie twice led going into the final day, at Lake Hartwell in 2018 when he finished third 18 ounces from winning, and two years earlier at Grand Lake where he was runner-up.

“I’ve been close in the Classic, and I want to get back to that,” he said. “And I want to go back to having fun. I want it to be fun. To have fun, you’ve got to do good and win. I like the schedule next year, and I’m ready.”

Hackney has fished 15 Classics, including 11 consecutive starting in 2003, and his best showing was a fifth on Hartwell in 2008. He has more personal reasons to reach the championship. His youngest daughter, Sarah, 9, came across some old Classic photos of her three siblings and seemed disappointed she’d never been.

“Don’t worry, you’ll go to the Classic, and Daddy’s going to be fishing it,” Hackney told her. “That really got to me when she said that. Yeah, we’re going to fix that problem.”

It’s one down in making the Elites, and at least one more goal to go.  And Hackney and Christie hope to reach many more.