John Hunter’s career as an angler on the Elite Series came gradually — and then suddenly.
“I remember being a little kid and setting my alarm so I could wake up and watch The Bassmasters on ESPN2, said the 24-year-old pro. “Now I get to compete against them.”
His professional career with B.A.S.S. has been short, consisting of only three 2015 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open events, but money finishes in each of them propelled him to fifth place in the year-end standings, the last spot to be guaranteed a slot in the 2016 Elites.
“I had originally wanted to fish all three Open series,” he said. “But when I didn’t get in, it was a blessing in disguise.”
Instead, he fished the Northerns, the Southern Rayovacs and the FLW Tour as a co-angler. In the latter category he won the tour’s Angler of the Year award.
That ambitious tournament schedule built on a solid base of knowledge that he constructed by competing in the collegiate ranks for Georgetown College (Kentucky). While he’d fished a few smaller tournaments prior to matriculating, it was at school, competing in low-cost, high-reward events, that he sharpened his angling chops.
“In my first few college tournaments I did terribly,” he recalled. “But I caught on really quick. The competition is really good, and with the internet and all of the public knowledge, it’s easy to improve. I got a chance to learn just by hanging around different people from different states.
“You get to travel to so many different places,” he continued. “That way you get more diverse experience than if you jumped into fishing at a regional level at that same age. If you did that, you’d probably be fishing more in your comfort zone. It forced me to attack waters quicker and learn to break them down quicker.”
Despite competing against a slate consisting of many more experienced pros and reaching his goal of making the Elite Series, Hunter felt that his finishes in the Northern Opens — 35th at the James River, 28th at Oneida, and 22nd at Erie — had the potential to be much stronger.
“In two of the three, I no doubt had the bites to make the Top 12, but I just didn’t execute,” he said. “I fished 12 high-level tournaments last year, and I executed in those three the worst.”
He’ll travel on tour with fellow rookie Brett Preuett, likewise a graduate of the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series. The two roomed together last year on the Northern Opens, and both did quite well. Preuett finished 12th in the final standings, but he made it into the Elites through a better campaign on the Southern Opens. The two young pros became friendly as a result of competing in multiple college national championships against each other, and they share an attention to detail they believe benefits each of them.
“You almost have to be a little bit obsessive to be really good in this sport,” Hunter said. “You have to be thinking about it when you go to bed and still thinking about it when you wake up. It’s all we talk about.”
He characterized himself as a “sponge of information” and indicated that Preuett is equally hungry to improve.
Hunter’s preferred fishing style is to stay deep, and he’ll pursue that even when others are fishing shallow. For example, he finished fifth in a Lake Seminole Rayovac last year throwing a Strike King 10XD crankbait in 20 feet of water while most other competitors were fishing grass. For that reason, he’s very much looking forward to the Elite event on Toledo Bend. Despite the fact that he has “zero experience there,” he said he believes it’s one of the few stops on the schedule that could be won with a true postspawn pattern.
Hunter is also particularly excited about visiting Bull Shoals, which he believes will closely resemble waters close to his home like Lake Cumberland, Green River Lake and Rough River Lake.
“I’m looking forward to Wheeler, too,” he said. “I love the Tennessee River. But Bull Shoals will probably set up a little more like what I’m used to.”
He has already aligned himself with substantial financial support. The Texas Roadhouse chain of restaurants will continue to be his title sponsor, and he’s partnered with a number of both endemic and non-endemic companies to make the hefty traveling expenses a bit lighter. With that hurdle out of the way, it will enable him to focus on the fishing side of the equation, trying not just to beat his fellow freshmen for the Rookie of the Year award, but also to unseat a group of veterans many years his senior who take no prisoners on the water.
“I’m obviously a little nervous about it,” he said. “And as it gets a little closer, I’m sure that the nerves will be a little bit stronger.”
He said the slight case of jitters will fuel him to “put in my time,” preparing and practicing daylight to dark to make up any lost ground.
“It happened quicker than I ever thought it would,” he concluded.
Now the start of the next step is rapidly approaching, and it’s time for the quick learner to take another leap.