Randall Tharp left Florida saying it’s the happiest he’s felt fishing in years.
In his return to B.A.S.S., the 54-year-old took third place in the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Lake Okeechobee presented by SEVIIN, and things couldn’t have gone much better.
“Well, there’s two places I’d like to finish better, but I’m pretty tickled to finish third,” he said. “My weights improved each day, and I fished clean.”
Tharp, aka the Honey Badger, is among a group of former Elites attempting a return. There were 68 Elites who left for MLF after 2018 and, while a handful have already made it back, more are expected with that series’ announcement to decrease its field.
Tharp, of Port St. Joe, Fla., was fishing his first Bassmaster event since the 2019 Classic. He said his experience at Okeechobee reminded him why he jumped into competitive bass fishing.
“It was well-run from start to finish,” he said. “It was the same kind of tournament I fell in love with 20 years ago. My favorite thing about the whole week was being at a weigh-in, being at a launch and standing in line with a bunch of super talented kids.
“It didn’t matter if it was in the lock or whoever I Power-Poled down next to, everybody kind of welcomed me back with open arms, including the B.A.S.S. employees and staff. I kind of lost sight of how fun it was supposed to be.”
That fun included catching a 10-pound, 3-ounce largemouth, the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the event. With consistent limits topping 22 pounds each day, Tharp totaled 68-8 on a fishery where he’s had plenty of success.
“I’m pleased with that. I did not really feel that good about it after my practice,” he said. “Just one of those things that came together.”
The finish put Tharp second among the 155 anglers in the Tackle Warehouse Bassmaster Elite Qualifier point standings. After nine Opens, Tharp hopes to be among the top nine who receive spots on the 2025 Elite Series.
“It’s way better than fourth, 104th or 224th,” he said. “You talk about feeling good. I’ve qualified to fish the Elites three times. I’m attempting to do it a fourth time. The first two times I knew I wasn’t ready.”
Tharp accepted the Elite invitation after his 2013 season in which he won his third Open, and he added a fourth title at the 2016 Elite at Bull Shoals/Norfork. In 85 B.A.S.S. entries, Tharp has been in the money 58 times with 22 Top 10s, five Classics and $750,203 in earnings. A Forrest Wood Cup was among Tharp’s seven titles with MLF, helping him accrue $2.3 million in earnings.
“When I started fishing the Elites, the business side wasn’t quite like it is now for me,” he said. “It’s taken a career to get to where I am. I guess I can thank those early Elite years and success at FLW to building that foundation.
“I enjoy working for the companies I do now. I’m designing rods, reels, baits, trying to win a tournament with that stuff you had 100% input is pretty cool.”
Those sponsors were made happy last week, said Tharp, who was prominent in Bassmaster.com coverage with his big bass and being in contention. On Championship Sunday, Tharp caught the second-largest bag in front of the Bassmaster LIVE audience.
“My social media numbers are probably the best since I’ve left the Elite series,” he said. “It’s obvious a lot of people were watching, because my numbers hadn’t been like that in five years.
“It’s all about clicks with a lot of companies I work for, a certain number of posts, certain number of videos. They’re just wanting their product in front of a certain number of eyeballs.”
Usually relying on royalties to pay entry fees, Tharp is already ahead of the game as his tournament earnings, including contingency checks, will pay for his entire season. He said he now feels more comfortable, especially after learning what to expect on the circuit.
“I felt like B.A.S.S. definitely improved how smooth those tournaments run from the last Open I fished,” he said. “It was obviously a huge field, but I think they did a great job and I like Hank (Weldon) a lot as a tournament director.
“His dad (Trip Weldon) was the best tournament director I ever had, but I think he can fill those shoes. His dad, I got a lot of respect for, he handled a difficult group of anglers.”
Next up for EQ anglers is a trip to Arkansas for the second Open this week on Lake Ouachita, which B.A.S.S. has not visited since Greg Hackney’s 2002 Open win. Tharp said he’s thrilled with his start and is well aware what he needs to do to regain Elite status.
“You just can’t afford to have a bomb,” he said. “If you’re going to contend for Angler of the Year and making the EQ, you have to avoid those middle-of-the-pack finishes and back.
“I’ve been doing this a long time. Having an extended practice, I’m just going to do what I do. As long as I’m having fun and enjoying myself fishing in a way that gives me the best chance to win, I’ll be OK.”