Brad Whatley of Bivins, Texas, finished third at the first Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open of 2018 on Mississippi’s Ross Barnett Reservoir. He never looked back.
After last year's Bassmaster Opens Championship at Table Rock, Whatley found himself in second place in the Central Opens AOY standings. That momentous accomplishment earned him berths to the 2019 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK'S Sporting Goods and the 2019 Bassmaster Elite Series.
“It is definitely a dream of mine to make it to the big time,” Whatley said, referring to the Elite Series.
The decision to become a rookie on the 2019 Elite Series was a tough one for Whatley. To do so he had to quit a good job as a supervisor at the Cooper Tire & Rubber manufacturing plant in Texarkana, Ark.
“I have a career and a family,” Whatley said. “It’s one of the biggest decisions I’ve had to make in my life. I put it in God’s hands.”
What clinched Whatley’s decision to fish the Elite Series was the full backing of his wife, Jennifer.
Although Whatley has the support of several sponsors, most of the cost of his Elite venture will “come out of my pocket.”
Whatley believes that potential sponsors in the fishing industry are waiting to see who rises to the top during the 2019 Elite Series before making commitments. No matter how well the new Elite series anglers have done on a local level, they have to start over and prove themselves at a national level.
“I’ve only been to a couple of the bodies of water the Elites are going to,” Whatley said. “I’ve done well at Fort Gibson. Lake Fork isn’t far from my house, but I’ve not fished it much. A lake that I’ve not been to that fishes my style is Cayuga. It has grass.”
Whatley’s main goal for his rookie season is to qualify for the 2020 Bassmaster Classic. Winning one of the qualifying tournaments would be a huge plus, but he would consider his season a success if he comes out on top financially.
Although Whatley’s father, Keith, was not a bass angler, he got Whatley into fishing early in life. They had a cabin on Caddo Lake on the Texas/Louisiana border, and they fished the lake often for crappie and catfish.
The bass that changed Whatley’s life weighed 4 1/2 pounds. He caught it at age four on a Beetle Spin while fishing a kid’s tournament on a 20-acre pond. Whatley won the event and received $50 in one dollar bills.
“I thought I was a millionaire,” Whatley said.
A few years later Whatley and his younger brother, Blake, began fishing ponds near home from the bank, something they did well into their teens. Whatley was more fanatical about bass fishing than his brother.
“I was an oddball kid,” Whatley said. “I never wanted toys like other kids. All I wanted was fishing poles and baits. I spent every waking minute on the water that I could.”
Mepps spinners, Rooster Tail spinners, soft plastic lizards, Tiny Torpedoes and Smithwick Rogues were Whatley’s go-to pond lures. He shaved the bills of his Rogues so they would wake the surface when he reeled them in.
“After the bass spawned, I remember how they would hang around when the bream spawned,” Whatley said. “I could reel that Rogue over the top of those bream beds and kill the bass.”
Something Whatley learned from his pond ventures that he still stresses today is the importance of being stealthy when fishing shallow. And, because Whatley’s lure arsenal was limited while growing up, he learned how to adapt.
“There are so many lure choices today I think we get caught up in trying to do too much,” Whatley said. “When I’m struggling to find them, I always try to tell myself to keep it simple.”
At 19 Whatley got off the bank when he bought a 17-foot Astro bass boat powered by a 115 horsepower Mariner. He launched the boat at Caddo Lake at every opportunity.
Although Whatley also played baseball and football growing up, he knew he didn’t have the athletic ability to pursue those sports beyond high school.
“But the good Lord did bless me with a big heart,” Whatley said. “Bass tournaments fulfill my burning desire to compete and win.”
After graduating from Texas State Technical College where he learned to be a diesel mechanic, Whatley moved to Bivins, Texas. His first job was working on Tiger Cat logging equipment for Hillister Tractor. A regular paycheck allowed Whatley to purchase a new Ranger Boat.
He began competing in local tournaments on Caddo, Wright Patman and Lake O’ The Pines. Whatley soon decided to concentrate on Lake O’ The Pines. His 20-pound limits were laughed at when he began fishing tournaments there.
“It generally takes around 30 pounds to win at Lake O’ The Pines,” Whatley said. “That lit a fire under me to learn to fish for seven or eight big bites a day instead of 20 or 30. I’ve since won over $200,000 on that lake.”
A Gerald Swindle Video inspired Whatley to step up and compete in the Bassmaster Opens. In the video, Swindle is asked, “When is a person ready to take that next step?” Swindle’s reply is that you are ready when you can consistently win local tournaments.
Whatley is especially thankful for the support he gets from his wife. When Whatley is away fishing a Bassmaster tournament, Jennifer maintains a stable home for their three daughters, Haley, 13; Tristyn, 7; and Lexi, 4.
“I really can’t describe to you how blessed I am,” Whatley said. “Jennifer is always 100 percent behind me.”
Whatley recently started a business to help with his Bassmaster entry fees. He teaches high school and college kids how to practice on a lake for a tournament. That includes everything from map study to seasonal patterns.
“I go to whatever lake they want and treat the day just like I’m practicing for a tournament,” Whatley said. “I verbalize everything I’m thinking to the kids. I believe this teaches them how to work to find the fish.”
Whatley’s sponsors are Quality Building, Plenum Medical, Phoenix Boats, Mercury Marine, 6th Sense Fishing, Texas Truck Outfitters, Wellborn’s Diesel, Shipps Marine, Lowrance Electronics, Silvertooth Dentistry, ATC Truck Covers and Cooper Tire.