When Brandon Lester arrives at the 2020 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk, the 50th occurrence of the sport’s greatest tournament, he’ll bring with him an insightful perspective born of previous experience. With four previous Classic berths — 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019 — to his credit, the Elite angler from Fayetteville, Tenn., said a successful performance starts with well-framed anticipation.
“There will be a lot of guys this year who will be fishing their first Classic, and I’ll always remember my first one,” Lester said. “Not to say that one of the guys making their first appearance couldn’t win, because definitely, they could. But there’s so much glitz and glamour going on, there’s so much media stuff that you have to do; it’s a week-long affair, both on and off the water.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the off-the-water stuff, but with this being my fifth time, I know what to expect now. I know to take it in stride, take care of what you have to take care of off the water, but take care of what you have to take care off on the water, as well.”
Perspective is key, and Lester knows the necessary balance of all things Bassmaster Classic. The week is, no doubt, grueling, but developing an appreciation for the big picture has helped him navigate the often challenging marathon.
“I don’t know how I got through it my first year; it was all just kind of a whirlwind. But after a couple of them, you learn to take it in stride,” Lester said. “On media day, you’ll have so many people coming up to your boat wanting to do so many interviews, by the end of the day, you’re in robot mode; you’re just going through the motions.
“All that is a very important part of our job, and it’s part of the reason you can even make a living fishing. It’s important to remember to do your sponsors justice and do your brand justice by taking care of all that media stuff.”
And after the cameras and microphones?
“We all just love fishing, so when I get out there and make that first cast, all that other stuff is not in my mind,” he said. “The only thing I worry about is catching a bass.”
A time to shine
Looking ahead to his participation in the 50th Classic, Lester said this milestone event will find him with a firmly established intuition.
“I don’t know that it feels any differently, but I fully understand now what winning the Bassmaster Classic means to a person’s career,” he said. “You hear guys throw around the term ‘career-making accomplishment,’ and it truly is. It’s something that can never be taken away from you.
“It’s not only something that changes a person’s career, it changes a person’s life. I mean $300,000 just like that — yeah, that’s a lot of money, but being able to carry that title of Bassmaster Classic champion throughout the rest of your tournament fishing career automatically makes you more worthy to your sponsors.”
Going into the event, Lester said the companies that sponsor him have placed no expectations or pressures on him; they’ve only expressed support and encouragement. Nevertheless, he’s still keenly aware of the opportunity to advance his marketability — even if it does come with a different kind of pressure.
“Everybody has been asking me if I’m going to be a pre-tournament favorite this time because I only live about an hour and a half from Guntersville,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll have some eyes on me, and I’m okay with that. My sponsors definitely want me to do well, and I’m definitely going to give it 110 percent. I’ll have a lot of friends and family there, and all my sponsors will be there, so I’ll be shooting for it, for sure.”
As far as fishing strategy, Lester said he fully understands the notion of fishing for the win. No points — just fish for big ‘uns and leave it all on the water. However, he notes another significant difference from a regular-season Elite event that’ll require a separate level of calculation.
“Something that is totally different about the Classic is we are practicing a week in advance,” he said. “We will practice the Friday, Saturday and Sunday before the actual event, the following Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You’ll have to keep that in mind, especially with the fact that it’s in the month of March and so much can change from day to day.
“You have the prespawn leading into the spawn, and there could even be a few fish spawning during that tournament. I’ve seen it happen on Guntersville that early before. It all depends on what kind of weather we have.”
So, how does a Classic competitor weigh the importance of practice discoveries against early spring’s volatility? He said it has everything to do with anticipation.
“Practice is definitely a huge, huge key, but you can’t get locked into what’s going on (that week); you need to be fishing places where you feel like the fish are going, instead of fishing places where they’re leaving,” he said. “You have to keep in mind that they are moving that time of year, and if they move, you need to know where they’re headed.”
A winning vision
Coming off his best Classic finish — sixth place on the Tennessee River out of Knoxville — Lester said he’s carrying an extra shot of motivation into Classic number 50. Day 3 of the 2019 event saw him make a big move from 21st after catching 18 pounds, 10 ounces on a jig. That big sack followed limits of 9-11 and 12-0 — a memory he’s pondered many times.
“I wish I could have that first day back,” Lester said. “I feel like if I would have stuck with that jig on the first day, I would have done better. I guess I knew I wasn’t going to get many bites, and I was a little bit scared that I would end up not weighing in a limit. Faced with that situation again, I’d handle it a little differently. I’m definitely looking for redemption this time.”
Expecting a pure prespawn event comprising “meat-and-potatoes” bass fishing, Lester said he’s 95% confident the Classic will be won in 8 feet or less. He believes the winning fish could be found from one end of Lake Guntersville to the other, but he’d rather forego the run-and-gun stuff in favor of committing to a particular area.
“I feel like for me to be able to win, my perfect scenario would be to find an area that I know has a lot of big ones in it and that I can keep up with them,” Lester said. “I’d know where they are at that time, and if they move, I’d know where they’re going.
“I want to be dialed in so I don’t have to worry about what’s going on all over the river. I want to find an area with enough big ones to last for three days and let the chips fall as they may. At that point, it’s up to me.”