Brandon Lester of Fayetteville, Tenn., is itching to fish his fourth Bassmaster Classic, especially since it’s in his home state, but he sure doesn’t want to take the hard route.
Lester is among the 28 competitors in this week’s Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens Championship on Table Rock Lake, where the Elite Series pro could secure a berth to fish the 2019 Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods. If he doesn’t, he’d have a quick turnaround to drive 10 hours for the Mossy Oak Bassmaster Classic Bracket in Georgia, his last shot at qualifying to fish the Tennessee River Classic out of Knoxville.
“I do not want to have to do that,” he said of the bracket event on Carter’s Lake in Ellijay, Ga., where three Classic berths will be awarded. “I think it’s an awesome deal, but I do not want to be a part of that. As a matter of fact, I have a family vacation planned that week in Gatlinburg in east Tennessee. I’m planning on not being at that bracket.”
Lester said he was glad he kept on the road to fish the Eastern Opens this year, because some poor lane changes on the Elites left him 51st and first man out of the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship on Lake Chatuge.
“It was really up and down year for me. It was the highest of highs, the lowest of lows,” said Lester, who made cuts in his first two events including a sixth on Grand Lake. “I had three stinkers in there, 80th place or worse. Three of the worst finishes I’ve ever had. I had back-to-back 90s at Oahe and La Crosse, and I love La Crosse. I was looking forward to that one, but it was just one of those deals that never panned out.”
After his 95th-place finish at La Crosse, Lester also ran into a ditch at Oahe when he practiced shallow but changing winds muddied shorelines and blew out that pattern.
“Everybody who did good fished out deep, out on points and rock piles,” he said. “If I would have picked up on that sooner and known that was the deal, I probably could have done it. I put all my eggs in the shallow and it just didn’t work.”
His 90th there dropped Lester to 66th in points, but he came back strong at the St. Lawrence, vying for the title before finishing third, 14 ounces behind Josh Bertrand for his best Elite finish. He’s enjoyed that type of success in the Eastern Opens all year, starting with his best ever B.A.S.S. finish as runner-up to Bobby Lane on Kissimmee Lake. He was 20th on Lake Norman then fourth on Lake Champlain and third at Douglas.
“The Opens have been going great all year,” he said. “All those have been solid. All in all, it’s just been an awesome season. I’ve just had some stinkers thrown in there.”
It would take a real stinker for him to miss the Classic. The winner at Table Rock claims a berth along with the top three point finishers in both the Eastern and Central divisions. Of the anglers who fished all four Opens in each division, the event winners along with the top 10 in points were invited to Table Rock. The overall winner and the top three in each division exit the Opens Championship road to the Classic super highway.
Lester, second to Lane by one point, holds a 28-point lead over the fourth-place angler in the Eastern standings, so theoretically, he only needs to weigh one fish to earn a point and secure a Classic spot. He’s certainly not fishing for one bass, however.
“You don’t go into a tournament thinking that,” he said. “I want to win. I’m not going in with the mentality that I’m just going to catch one fish and slide into the Classic.
“There’s still some money on the line. First place still wins a boat, a trophy. It’s not very often we get a 1-in-28 shot at winning a new boat. If I’m going to show up to a tournament, I want to win.”
Exacting some revenge on Lane, as well as topping him for the Eastern Opens AOY and its trophy, is also on Lester’s mind. At Kissimmee, Lane blew away the field with 60 pounds. Lester was closest but 12-5 back.
“We’re all competitors,” Lester said. “I like Bobby. He’s a great guy. I got nothing against him, but I want to beat him. I’m one point behind him in AOY points. I was second to him on his home lake. I want to get him back by winning the AOY.”
The last time both fished Table Rock was in an Elite in the spring of 2014, Lester’s first year on tour. Lane took 21st, and Lester finished 89th.
“I’ve learned a lot since then, and it’s a different time of year,” Lester said. “I think it sets up pretty good for me. It’ll fish like Smith Lake, and I’ve done pretty well there. We’re going to catch them. I’m not worried about that.”
And that would alleviate any worry of having the weekend to drive 10 hours to Georgia to fish the bracket.
“If I had to, I would do it. I just hope I don’t have to,” Lester said. “I’m just absolutely glad I fished the Opens now.”