Lucas aims to stave off close friend at Chatuge finale

In the days since the conclusion of the Bassmaster Elite Series event on the St. Lawrence River, Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year leader Justin Lucas hasn’t been able to focus on much other than closing out the 2018 season with his first major title. He has two Elite Series victories under his belt and has already fished three Bassmaster Classics as well as five Forrest Wood Cups, but if he holds onto his lead in the AOY race, then the 32-year-old pro will earn his first major title while joining a very exclusive club.

“I would be like the 23rd person to win one,” he said. “That’s pretty crazy. It’s a pretty elite group.”

Lake Chatuge and close friend Josh Bertrand are all that stand in the way.

That realization means that during nearly every waking moment Lucas is focused almost entirely on holding or extending his nine-point lead over Bertrand, the only other angler in position to win AOY.

“We tried to go on vacation after the Thousand Islands tournament,” Lucas said, referring to himself, his wife BreeAnna and son Cooper. “But we ended up cutting it short. I wasn’t enjoying it. I wanted to get back home and rig tackle.”

The 2018 season represents not only his first good opportunity to claim the title, but also an avenue to do it in grand fashion after an uncharacteristically tough 2017 season saw him finish in 64th place overall. That meant an end to his Classic streak at three straight. The only time he’d missed a championship before was in 2012, and that was by a much narrower margin. In 2017, first half finishes of 100th place at Cherokee, 85th at Okeechobee and 78th at Toledo Bend dug a large enough hole that even four straight checks later weren’t enough to get back inside the Classic cut.

This year he turned that around completely, earning seven checks in eight Elite events, with five Top 12s, including an ongoing streak of four straight, plus a near miss of 13th place at Grand. Although it wasn’t his best result, that Grand Lake tournament provided critical momentum in the face of possible failure. “At 12:30 I only had two little keepers,” he said. “I picked up a different bait and in the next hour and a half I had almost 18 pounds.”

The flip side of that good fortune occurred in his one bomb, at Kentucky Lake where he finished 73rd. In that event he lost four fish over 4 pounds. Collectively they would’ve boosted him well inside the money cut and – all other events remaining the same – might’ve given him an insurmountable lead heading into the AOY Championship at Chatuge.

“I still don’t know what happened there,” he said four months later. “I’m proud of the fact that throughout my career that I don’t lose a lot of fish, but four in one event, and all of them bigger than anything that I weighed in. There was no rhyme or reason.” He also lost a 5-pounder at the Sabine, which would’ve bolstered anyone’s catch there, but he still made the Top 12 cut so it didn’t hurt quite as much.

He credits his success to an improved attitude helped by family and changing rules, as well as an embrace of technology.

“In the past, when I got off the water after a tough day, I’d be upset,” he said. “But now, when you come off the stage and hold that little baby, it doesn’t even matter. I’ve never had that feeling before. It has helped me to stay patient. I’m having fun.”

The new “no info” rule has also helped him to see things in a positive light. During the practice period prior to his 10th and ninth place finishes on the Sabine and Oahe, respectively, he knew that “no one was getting the juice beforehand” and as a result he felt like everyone was working with a level playing field. “I’ve loved it from the beginning,” he explained.

Although he’d grown up in California going from flipping the Delta one week to dropshotting in 40 feet of water on Shasta the next week, he felt that after several years in Alabama his deep water skills had atrophied, while others’ had increased. Thus, he turned to another close western friend, Brandon Palaniuk, to explain how to maximize his efficiency with electronics.

“It was something I needed to switch to,” he said of Palaniuk’s Humminbird setup. “I talked to him about Lakemaster and 360 and all of the tools he was using. In three tournaments this year – the St. Lawrence, Oahe and Martin – I saw almost every fish on the graph before I caught it, and I found them with Mega Side Imaging.”

Now he’ll hope to follow BP’s lead once again to become a member of that slim group of AOY champs. If so, he – and not Bertrand – will become the second straight angler with western roots to win the title, the first time that has happened in B.A.S.S. history. Past winners Gary Klein (1989 and 1993), Jay Yelas (2003), Aaron Martens (2005, 2013 and 2015), Skeet Reese (2007) and Brandon Palaniuk (2017) all learned to fish west of the Rockies.

At the age of 23, Justin Lucas packed up his truck and headed east, hoping to make a career casting for cash. Now, less than a decade later, the wizened veteran of 32, having accomplished just that, stands on the cusp of something bigger, and he wants to take things back home again. Despite the fact that he changed his mailing address to Alabama in the interim, his heart remains on the varied waters of the Golden State. “I wouldn’t be the fisherman that I am if I didn’t grow up in California,” he said. “I want to win it for the West Coast guys.”

The putative path back to California runs through north Georgia and within sight of Arizona. Lucas has a substantial, but not insurmountable lead, and he’ll head out first on Day 1.

“I get to start where I want and it’s a small lake,” he said. “But if things don’t start off well, I’m going to continue to preach patience. I’ve been telling myself that all year. I need to be efficient, but I also need to let things happen.”