Arizona pro Josh Bertrand is staring two life-altering events in the face, and not blinking for either of them.
Fresh off his first career B.A.S.S. win on New York’s St. Lawrence River, he enters the season-ending Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship on Lake Chatuge in Georgia just nine points behind close friend Justin Lucas, another young pro also seeking his first AOY title. The Championship is scheduled for Sept. 20-23, but Bertrand’s wife Chantel is due to give birth to their second child on Sept. 28. If she goes into labor during the event he plans to leave to be there at the birth, but certainly the whole family hopes that the baby will hold off until he has time to add another trophy to his collection.
“Fishing is important to me because it’s the way that I provide income for my family,” he said. “But I’m not going to miss the birth. There is more to life than fishing. Angler of the Year is a huge thing – it has life-changing potential – so I’m going to do the best planning that I can.”
Through the end of the Elite Series regular season, he is batting one-thousand, with eight checks in eight events. That includes three Sunday cuts – a sixth place finish at Kentucky Lake, eighth place at Oahe and then the win at the St. Lawrence in his 70th B.A.S.S. tournament and fifth Elite Series season. He’d nearly won the fourth Central Open he entered before falling to Brent Chapman in a fish-off at Lake Lewisville in 2012. While he would’ve liked the rewards that came with a win at that time, he said that he “wouldn’t have known what it meant” and that the memory “doesn’t irk me.” Six years later, though, winning became a greater focus.
“When I first got in the Elites, I wanted longevity,” he said. “That was the most important thing I hoped for. But after a couple of years the pressure adds up to finally start winning. Holding the trophy was unbelievable. It felt even better than I’d expected, and I imagine that winning the AOY or the Classic is even better.”
Bertrand will not turn 30 until November, making him slightly less than two years younger than Lucas, but both of them represent the core group of young guns who’ve pushed the sport forward with relentless competitiveness and a keen understanding of modern technology. Both are also from the West, although Lucas now calls Alabama home.
If Lucas holds onto his lead to claim the title, he won’t be the first California native to earn AOY, having been preceded by Gary Klein, Aaron Martens and Skeet Reese, but Bertrand would be the first Arizonan to accomplish that feat.
He’s proud of his Arizona upbringing and thrilled to lump himself into the ultra-accomplished cadre of anglers from that state including Brett Hite, Clifford Pirch, and the Godfather, John Murray. He said that while they don’t have tides or lakes with hydrilla, the waters in the southwestern desert are more varied than many people give them credit for.
“We definitely fish a lot of pressured waters,” he said. “But Okeechobee and Guntersville get even more pressure at certain times. We have a diverse core of five or six lakes and that helped me a bunch.” He said that when he first headed east he thought he knew more than he actually did, but despite being a better angler now, he also realizes that he has “a ton more to learn.”
There have been few stumbles in his 2018 season, but even with a win in New York he couldn’t make up much ground on Lucas, who finished second.
“He hasn’t let off the gas at all,” Bertrand said. “Over the last four tournaments he’s been in the Top 12 every time. During Bertrand’s worst three finishes of the year – at Grand Lake (46th), the Sabine River (44th) and the Mississippi River (30th), each time he’s believed that at some point over the course of three days of fishing he’s been around the fish to make the Top 12, but for some reason hasn’t been able to capitalize.
Those missed points may end up being the difference between claiming the title and watching his friend walk away with the trophy, but on balance he’s thankful that he’s “had a lot of good breaks and not a lot of bad ones. I don’t feel like I’ve been doing anything differently. I’ve been able to come back from a few bad starts, and I’ve caught more key fish super-late in the day than ever before.”
Despite the fact that they will be duking it out for bass fishing’s most venerated tile, Bertrand and Lucas continue to talk nearly every day during the break between events.
“I’ll be really happy for him if he wins,” Bertrand said. “We both want to win it, but if we can’t, having the other guy win it beats the alternative.”
Oddly enough, he believes that the stress of waiting for his second-born child to arrive while trying to coordinate a cross country trip home to be there on time will keep him calm at Chatuge. He compared it to Roy McAvoy, Kevin Costner’s character in the movie Tin Cup.
“I keep joking about it with my buddies,” he said. “When he’s got the shanks, his caddy takes him to the driving range and makes him look ridiculous. Then he starts hitting it perfectly because his mind is in a completely different place. With the baby coming, it keeps the tournament stress off of me.”
Nevertheless, the veteran of three Bassmaster Classics, on the way to his fourth in March, knows that he may be within a week of a career-defining achievement. He’s pretty sure that there’s currently no gray in his signature red beard, or under his hat, but by the time everything shakes out that might no longer be the case.
“If it’s not there now, there will be some soon,” he joked.