Lucas: Elite win was a family affair

Justin Lucas enjoyed a couple minutes all to himself backstage Sunday. As the Day 3 leader, Lucas would be the last man to weigh in. After Aaron Martens’ fish had been weighed, Martens was all but conceding the Sacramento Bassmaster Elite at Sacramento River title while talking to emcee Dave Mercer on stage. Lucas savored the moment.

“It was the coolest two minutes I’ve ever had in my life,” Lucas recalled. “I knew I was going to achieve a dream I’ve had for 16 or 17 years. It’s the most overwhelming feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”

After those magic moments, Lucas walked onstage and the dream became reality. With a 16-pound, five-bass limit, Lucas edged Martens, one of the sports’ heavyweights, by 2 pounds, 7 ounces in the four-day tournament.

“People say it’s hard to win, but I don’t think it’s emphasized enough, how hard it is to win,” said Lucas, who turned 29 years old on May 1.

Yes, he is absolutely correct about how difficult it is to win a Bassmaster Elite Series event. But he doesn’t really understand that, through no fault of his own. Lucas simply hasn’t lived long enough to truly appreciate an Elite Series victory, especially after competing in only 23 B.A.S.S. tournaments.

But there’s another aspect of Lucas’ victory Sunday that took it from “dream-fulfilled” to “you can’t make this up.” Lucas won in the presence of his family and hometown friends. As Lucas put it, “I lived within two miles of the Sacramento River pretty much my whole childhood, and I’ve lived in this general area for 23 years.”

And there was one very special 77-year-old man in attendance at the Discovery Park weigh-in Sunday — Lucas’ grandfather, Jack Schmidt.

“Without him, there’s no way this happens,” Lucas said.

Justin’s mom, Sally, confirmed that thought. She was practically pinching herself, making sure what happened Sunday wasn’t a dream.

“Going into this, all I could think of is what a tribute it would be to my dad for Justin to win this tournament,” she said, as her voice started to crack with emotion. “I wasn’t thinking about anything else. My dad spent all these years with Justin out on the river. To win in front of him meant the world to me.”

Mom did provide the spark that got this fire started. It was more like a kick in the pants, also known as good parenting.

“Justin was invited to a birthday party of a very good friend when he was 10 years old,” Sally said. “The kids were going catfishing. Justin said he wasn’t going to go to the catfishing part. I said, ‘Oh no, you’re going. The world isn’t just about basketball and baseball.’ He was the only one who caught fish that day, and he was hooked.”

Lucas confirmed the story, saying, “I didn’t want to go, but I just fell in love with it.”

Grandpa Jack took it from there. He bought Justin a small Ranger boat with a 90-horsepower engine so Justin could compete on a local bass tournament circuit.

“I put him in the front, I sat in the back and just enjoyed him,” said Schmidt, who low-keyed the fact that he was possibly the happiest man on Earth Sunday. “He wanted to fish. I said, okay. We went fishing.”

Schmidt had done some fishing previously, for catfish and stripers. Avid angler he was not. Most importantly, Schmidt had the experience of being raised by a grandfather who taught Schmidt how to hunt. That’s the crucial skill: Knowing how to help a youngster pursue his bliss. In Justin’s case, it was a bass bliss.

Schmidt also did that for Justin’s two younger brothers, Kevin and Joe. Kevin is an aspiring professional golfer, and grandpa has served as his caddie. Joe was once a mixed martial arts fighter, and grandpa was his corner man.

Justin doesn’t recall his grandfather ever sitting behind the driver’s console in either of the two boats Schmidt bought for him, and he’s certain grandpa never ran the trolling motor. Schmidt let Justin make all the decisions in the boat, an experience that can’t be overstated in the development of a tournament bass fisherman.

“That definitely helped,” Lucas said. “I was making decisions when I was 13 years old.”

Lucas’ win shouldn’t overshadow what he’s accomplished over the past year on the Elite Series. He’s no one-hit wonder. Lucas has earned a check in every Elite Series event since he turned 28 during the Toledo Bend tournament a year ago. That includes a ninth-place finish at the GEICO Bassmaster Classic in February and a 10th place finish at the Sabine River in the first Elite Series event of the 2015 season.

Lucas is “Uptown Funk” hot: Makes a dragon wanna retire, man. And he’s been that way since joining the Elite Series two years ago. He has finished in the money in 19 of 23 B.A.S.S. events, and been in the Top 10 in 10 of those. That’s a Top 10 finish percentage of 43 percent. To put that in perspective, Kevin VanDam, the reigning king of the sport, has finished in the Top 10 in 102 of 274 B.A.S.S. tournaments – 37 percent.

Granted, Lucas has a long way to go before achieving KVD status. But he does now own the precious jewel of an Elite Series trophy. Major players, ranging from Rick Clunn to Gerald Swindle, who have competed in its now 10 years of existence, don’t have an Elite Series trophy. VanDam has won a Bassmaster Classic (in 2011) since he last won an Elite Series event (in 2010).

The late Darrell Royal, the legendary Texas Longhorns football coach, once said, “If he bites you as a dog, he’ll bite you as a pup.” It was a metaphor for great college players being good the minute they step on campus, needing little skill development time. Lucas is an Elite Series pup doing some biting. As the next event begins Thursday on Arizona’s Lake Havasu, Lucas trails only Dean Rojas in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings after three of the eight tournaments this season.

Lucas’ run of success coincides with his move to Alabama and meeting his future bride there. BreeAnna and Justin Lucas will celebrate their third wedding anniversary on Oct. 27. They live in Guntersville.

“He moved there about a year before I met him,” said BreeAnna, thus answering the question of whether it was the bass or the, uh, girl that initially attracted him to Lake Guntersville. “He said he was going to move (to Alabama) for fishing. It’s perfect because I’m from there, and I didn’t want to move.”

It was pretty much love-at-first-sight for Lucas, who said, “About two weeks after I met BreeAnna, I told a buddy of mine that I’d found the girl I was going to marry.”

Momma has no problem with the arrangement.

“Justin is a great husband and that means the world to me,” Sally said. “He and BreeAnna together are a great team.”

Sally wanted to make sure it was known that her son is more than just that, although that’s a good start, saying, “Justin is a man of character. He’s a great son. He’s a great friend. On top of that, he’s a beast on the water.”

It appears Lucas is that. But with all the swingin’ sticks on the Bassmaster Elite Series now, you can be a beast on the water and still go a long time before earning one of those trophies. The fact that Lucas did it in his second season in front of his family – Grandpa Jack, in particular – and his hometown friends, well, you just can’t make it up.

It was, as Lucas said of those moments backstage Sunday, “the coolest two minutes” of his life. Just witnessing it sent chills up your spine.