Just a few months shy of his 33rd birthday, Justin Lucas is too young and far too clean-cut to be characterized as a grizzled veteran, but there are already a lot of miles on his odometer. This is his 10th year of fishing as a professional angler after several in the back of the boat, and it’s rare that he’s missed a season-ending championship.
“It’s gone by fast and slow at the same time,” he said of his years on the road and thousands of hours on the water, honing his skills. In a sport where conditions are constantly changing, he’s able to take a long view of his career.
It’s a journey that started in earnest at 14, when he quit playing organized basketball and baseball in order to focus on the long-term goal of becoming a professional angler, and that risk seemed to be validated when he won the 2018 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title. In fact, he won it by a healthy 51-point margin, and he did it a year after he finished 64th in the points race, the first real “down” season of his career. Despite joining the elite cast of AOY champs, Lucas is not satisfied.
“I really want to be the guy who wins AOY and a Classic within a year of each other,” he said. “I have one goal, to try to win.”
If he accomplishes that, he’ll join an even more exclusive club. Mark Davis, who he’ll compete against in Tennessee at the upcoming Classic, won both titles in 1995. Kevin VanDam will be there, too, and he likewise double dipped. Others, like Guido Hibdon, Jay Yelas and David Fritts, came close, but spread the gap a little wider. Still, whether they’re in the same 12 months or not, having both trophies in one’s possession represents the pinnacle of the sport.
The only impediment would seem to be his performance in championship events, which has not been commensurate with his overall success. In three Forrest Wood Cups as a pro, he finished 26th, 13th and 15th. In three Bassmaster Classics, he likewise hasn’t challenged for a win. He was ninth at Harwell in 2015, 48th at Grand in 2016 and 24th at Conroe in 2017.
“I’m good at finishing ninth to 20th, but I can’t break into the top five,” he said. “My approach to everything is to be consistent. I’ve always been consistent. I need to gamble a little bit more.”
Indeed, the same desire for consistency that propels would-be stars to the AOY title has the potential to hold someone back in a winner-takes-all event.
Nevertheless, Lucas expects that the Tennessee River venue will work in his favor. He’s competed there in several prior spring tournaments, so he understands how the fishery lays out, and despite his relative youth, he feels that his years of experience will allow him to adjust to a rapidly-changing playing field.
“It’s going to be a grinder tournament, and I’m OK with that,” he said. “When I won on the Potomac (in 2016) it was tough on the field, and when I won on the Delta (in 2015) it wasn’t easy to catch them. The water is going to change a lot from when we practice until the tournament a week later. It’ll be easy to get complacent. This time of year, conditions are changing anyway, and this one, with all the rain we’ve been getting, I’m not sure anyone has an idea right now of what will happen.”
He noted that if he had any doubts about his skills before, winning the AOY title “gives me the confidence that I can compete against absolutely anybody, any time, anywhere.”
To the extent that he was ever nervous before a tournament, his years of seasoning have quelled those tendencies. Now, especially with the hardware at home, he said he’s “having fun, not feeling a lot of pressure, and those are the dangerous guys. Just look at Jordan Lee.”
Whether Lucas leaves Tennessee with another major title or just an additional educational experience, he knows that there’s still a lot of road in front of him. He’s still younger than the lion’s share not only of pros, but also than many tour-level rookies, and there will likely be many more chances to hoist trophies.
“Every day, non-stop, my biggest thing, even after Angler of the Year and two wins, is the feeling that I still don’t know enough,” he said. “There’s so much to learn. I’m sure 10 years from now I’ll still feel the same way, and I’ll still be a student of the game.”