By winning the St. Croix Rods Bassmaster Open at Buggs Island, I will get to live my dream and fish the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota in Tulsa, Okla.
I’m going to go out and enjoy every minute of the Classic no matter what happens on the fishing side. It is a once in a lifetime dream that everyone in the fishing world wants to participate in, and very few of us ever get to do it. I don’t take it for granted. It is something we all work for all of our lives.
I have fished a bunch of different tournaments, and I had several chances to make the Classic before. In 2007, I finished second to Jeff Coble at the Bassmaster Weekend Series Championship at Clarks Hill. I missed the Classic by 1-7. I have looked back and wondered, “Why did things go this way?” But I truly believe there is a reason, and you can’t see the reason until it happens. I believe God has a plan, and this was his plan.
When I was attending North Carolina State University at 19 years old, I joined a B.A.S.S. Federation club, and they fished Buggs Island a lot. As a nonboater, I learned from those guys and started to use the Carolina rig, spinnerbaits and the flipping technique. They were all good fishermen, but there were four top-notch guys in the club. One was a Bassmaster Classic qualifier back in 1992.
From there, I fished some regional events and even finished fourth as a nonboater at one of those events.
Buggs Island is a very good spinnerbait lake, probably one of the best spinnerbait lakes in the country. I don’t know why they bite it so well, but they like it. All the times I’ve ever done well on the blade, it was all about running the wind and that is something you can’t teach someone. It just comes from hundreds of days on the water. That was the advantage I had. I know the stretches to go start on in the wind. Then I just let the fish tell me where they want to be and let the day unfold from there.
The water rising and the wind direction changing the first two days gave an advantage to the locals, and when I looked at the Top 10, at least five of them had pretty good experience on Buggs Island.
My 19-7 Day 1 performance gave me a heck of a start, and it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. With other one day tournaments being won with 17 pounds, I thought 45 pounds total was going to have a shot at winning it. So when I weighed in that 19-pound bag, I was way above my goal. It gave me a huge buffer that I knew would be pretty hard to overcome on a lake where 20 pounds is hard to catch at any time of the year. So when I faltered a little on Day 3, it gave me enough cushion to maintain the lead.
The night before the final day, I felt like I could throw up at any moment. The lead was great, but it put more pressure on me because if I blew a 7 1/2-pound lead on this lake, I would have blown the best chance of my life to go to the Bassmaster Classic. That pressure and knowing how it is, I could have gone out and not caught a fish that day. I have been on the lake enough to know it can burn you.
Everything I was catching was so random. Normally on that lake, I would have had somewhere I knew I could go catch 10 to 12 pounds no problem, and I didn’t have that this time. I didn’t know where I was going any day. I was flying by the seat of my pants.
On Day 2, I came in 40 minutes early and happened to pull over on a bank right before I got to the ramp. I got three bites and culled up another half pound. So I started there on the last day and on my last cast before I was going to jerk my trolling motor up, I caught a 2 1/2 and that made me continue down the bank. I caught three more in 8 or 9 minutes. I caught my fifth one 30 minutes later, and then I culled again a little later on with a 3 1/2-pounder.
At that point, I knew it was going to be difficult for anyone to catch me.
Where we go from here, I’m not exactly sure. I am at a point in my life where my two little girls mean everything to me. I fished the FLW Tour for three years in 2015, 2016 and 2017. I put myself financially out there and dug myself a deep hole. If something happened and I got some help, I would consider fishing the Elite Qualifiers and attempting to qualify for the Elite Series.
For now, I’ll look forward to fishing the next two Opens in Division 3 at the St. Lawrence River and Watts Bar. Then I’ll go on to fish every tournament anglers’ dream and compete in the Bassmaster Classic!