From college emcee to Classic angler

In 2009, Justin Lucas was the emcee of FLW College Fishing and a co-angler on the FLW Tour. Now he is headed to the 2015 Bassmaster Classic after qualifying for the prestigious event in his rookie season on the Elite Series.

Exactly how this co-angler from California went from holding a mic on a college fishing stage to holding up bass on the sport’s greatest stage in just six years is a journey that has traveled largely under the radar until now.

On the surface, Lucas’ big smile and shiny personality could take him just about anywhere. But pearly whites and great hair are not the lures bass bite. In order to score three Top 10’s on the Elite Series as a rookie, and an 11th place finish in the Angler of the Year race, he must be doing something right both on and off the water.

See photos from Justin Lucas' Elite rookie season here.

Make no mistake about it, under the happy-go-lucky Lucas smile is a driven competitor that has forged his way in fishing with plenty of resourcefulness, adaptability and a dash of carpe diem demeanor.

Justin’s journey begins

Lucas graduated from high school in 2004. For his graduation present he wanted just one thing: to attend a Bassmaster Classic.

“I didn’t care about senior trips or cruises,” Lucas said candidly. “I wanted to go to Pittsburgh, Penn., because that’s where the Classic was the following year.”

His mom granted him his wish, paying the way for the two to fly to Pittsburgh in 2005 to see a Bassmaster Classic in person.

From that experience, Lucas found just what he was looking for.

“If you have the slightest inkling that you want to be a professional bass fisherman, watching Kevin VanDam win a Bassmaster Classic is a huge motivator,” Lucas said. “While there, I remember telling my mom I would qualify for a Bassmaster Classic one day. She said she would be there to watch when I did.”

That was 10 years ago.

Back-to-back from the back

Justin Lucas started his bass fishing career at the back, as in, at the back of the boat. As a freshman at Folsom Lake Community College he was hocking newspaper subscriptions for fishing money and entering team tournaments every chance he could.

“In 2005 a friend and I won a boat in a team tournament,” he recalled. “We sold the boat, split the money and I used that money to enter the 2006 Western EverStarts as a co-angler.”

In only his third EverStart event as a co-angler, Lucas won, taking home a fully-rigged Ranger for his prize.

“That was huge,” he said. “I wanted a boat so bad but I couldn’t afford one. Winning that boat really set me off on the right path.”

At about that same time, the National Guard was making a big push into professional tournament bass fishing. In particular, the National Guard and FLW Outdoors had teamed up to make a big impact in the west. And when they got to the Golden State, young Justin Lucas was waiting on them, ready to represent.

 “I was put on the National Guard team as a co-angler in 2007,” Lucas said. “That’s the same year they formed the Western FLW Series events.”

At that time, Lucas also formed a relationship with Abu Garcia and Berkley, a partnership that has been a boon to his young career.

“A guy named Scott Green introduced me to the regional rep for Abu Garcia at a tackle show in ‘07,” Lucas said. “That got me in on the ground floor with them, and they’ve been a big part of my career ever since.”

With his entry fees secured by the Nation Guard and armed with Abu Garcia rods and reels, Lucas was ready to roll as a co-angler; however, there was one problem: mom was not exactly on board with his plan.

“My plan was to live at home and sort of step away from school and just fish,” Lucas laughed. “And she wasn’t too happy with that.”

Lucas did not enroll in school for the fall of 2007, but the rift with his mom did not last long as Lucas promptly won back-to-back FLW Series Western events as a co-angler.

“In a span of four weeks I won $50,000,” Lucas said. “Looking back on it, it’s still crazy to me. Needless to say, mom was a bit more okay with it then.”

Amazingly, Lucas experienced déjàvu in the fall of 2008 when he won two more Western Series events from the back deck for another $50,000.

“In 12 months I won over $100,000,” Lucas said. “I was able to bank a lot of that money because I was living at home and had my entry fees covered.”

Fortuitous timing continued for Lucas in 2009 when he was offered the job as the host of the National Guard’s new College Fishing program.

In 2009, Justin Lucas was offered the opportunity to host the National Guard's new College Fishing program.

“That was a tremendous opportunity,” he explained. “It forced me to get on stage, to be in front of people and become more comfortable with public speaking. Plus, it was a paying gig, so I wasn’t going to turn it down.”

Through 2009 Lucas fished the Western FLW Series as a pro, the FLW Tour as a co-angler and hosted College Fishing.

“I fished like 15 events and worked 15 events that year,” he recalled. “I spent a lot of time in an airplane and on one of those many flights, I realized that if was going to do this for a living, I would need to relocate in the East.”

In his mind, North Alabama is where he wanted to settle. In particular, he had fallen in love with Lake Guntersville during a Tour stop there.

“Being from the west, I love swimbaits,” Lucas said. “When I first threw a Hollow Belly swimbait on Guntersville, it was unbelievable. I almost won that event as a co-angler [finished second], and I could tell those fish had never seen a swimbait before. At that point, Alabama became the promised land to me.”

Again, when opportunity arose, Lucas pounced.

“Through college fishing I met an angler named Clent Davis who lived in Montevallo, Ala.,” Lucas said. “When I told him I wanted to move to Alabama he said I could move in with him – so I packed my stuff in California and I was gone.”

Moving across and forward

In 2010, Lucas made two big moves: first, across the country to Alabama; second, to the front of the boat in Tour events, officially closing the chapter on his co-angling career.

“That first year on Tour as a pro I was in total survival mode the whole time,” Lucas recounted. “All I cared about was getting a check.”

However, Lucas cashed only two checks as a Tour pro that season and finished 71st in the points. He still went to the Forrest Wood Cup by virtue of his Western Series qualification from 2009, but his rookie Tour experience was a stark reminder that he still had a lot to learn in the east.

His pro fishing education continued along the FLW Tour in 2011 and 2012. He qualified for the Cup both years and his highest finish was a runner-up in a Tour event on the Potomac where he missed the win by 3 ounces.

“Those are the things that are so hard to get over,” Lucas said. “Three ounces from a first Tour win; I still get fired up thinking about it.”

In the fall of 2012, Lucas was dealt a blow of bad news: the National Guard was pulling out of fishing – his title sponsor ride was over. But instead of looking behind and bemoaning the loss of what once was, he looked forward to other possibilities on the horizon.

“It was really my first big lesson in that nothing lasts forever in this sport,” Lucas said. “I was relying on one sponsor at that point, and I learned that I needed to build multiple relationships if I was going to make this my career.”

Justin finished seventh at the 2013 Bass Pro Shops Central Open #1.

At the end of 2012, Lucas went back to the drawing board to design a new plan – a plan that featured a total of 18 tournaments, including the B.A.S.S. Central and Northern Opens.

“It was like starting all over again,” he said. “All I knew is I wanted to fish as many tournaments as possible and try to make it to the Elite Series. I knew that was the best path to try and make this a real career.”

During the 2013 season, Lucas cashed 14 checks out of 18 events, qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup and the 2014 B.A.S.S. Elites Series through the Northern Opens by finishing fourth in the Open points.

With an Elite ticket in his pocket, Lucas decided to focus totally on B.A.S.S. events in 2014, giving himself plenty of time to pre-practice and prepare properly for each Elite. His highest finish for the year was seventh at the Angler of the Year Championship and his lowest was 79th at Toledo Bend. Out of nine Elite events, he cashed seven checks, finishing second in the Rookie of the Year race and 11th in the Angler of the Year race.

Lucas' poses at the Angler of the Year Championship weigh-in.

Leaps of faith

Through out his journey, Lucas says he has taken several tremendous leaps of faith. He admits that in this sport sometimes you have no idea how big the divide is until you reach the other side and look back.

“I think back about when I told my mom that I wanted to give up school, live at home and go bass fishing,” Lucas reflected. “Do you know how crazy that sounds to me now? That’s one reason I’m such a proponent of the college fishing programs. They make it possible to go to college and participate in competitive tournaments at the same time instead of having to make a choice between the two.”

Above all, Lucas says the 2013 season was by far and away the biggest risk he has made yet. To him, it was like pushing in all his chips to the middle for a final hand.

“That was really my ‘all in’ moment,” Lucas said. “I had lost my National Guard sponsorship, I had just gotten married, I was pretty much paying everything out of my own pocket and I had signed up for 18 events. If I didn’t get a check, I was toast. Everything that I worked for over the last five years would have been gone in a single season.

Surreal moments

With each giant leap of faith, Lucas can remember reaching the other side and all at once realizing what just happened.

“I can remember sitting behind the stage, calling my mom after I won that first Western Series, and telling her I had just won $25,000 bass fishing,” he said. “At the time I only had a couple hundred bucks to my name. So that was huge.”

“Another one that blows my mind was weighing in 25 pounds at my very first Elite Series on Lake Seminole,” Lucas revealed. “I’ll never forget it. I was pulling my boat out of the water and Kevin VanDam pulled up by me and said, ‘Hey dude, good job.’”

“I sat in my truck stunned for like 20 minutes thinking, did that really just happen?” he continued. “The guy I watched win the Classic 10 years ago just told me good job? I don’t even remember what I said back to him.”

Lucas also remembers an indelible email he received from Abu Garcia and Berkley just days after he qualified for the Elites.

“The email congratulated me on making the Elites and said they would like to offer me a wrap deal on my truck and boat if I was going to fish at B.A.S.S.,” Lucas said. “That blew me away. I had to sit down in the boat and reread it. Every bass I’ve caught in my fishing career has been put in the boat with Berkley Trilene and Abu Garcia gear. A sponsor offer from such iconic brands in fishing – that is huge to me.”

But Lucas’ most touching moment of the year came after the Cayuga Elite Series event.

“After that event, I knew I was mathematically locked into the Classic,” he said. “So I called my mom and before I could even get the words out of my mouth, she said, ‘Looks like I’m going to South Carolina next year!’”

“Now we’re finally going back to the Bassmaster Classic together, just like we planned 10 years ago.”