Kentucky’s Matt Messer earned a berth to the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic by winning the final Bassmaster Opens Elite Qualifier event of the year at Florida’s Harris Chain.
Prior to that event, he was too far down in the EQ standings to have any chance of qualifying for the Elite Series. Even so, he decided to grind the season out to the bitter end.
There was still an opportunity to qualify for the Classic, which was his secondary goal for the season. He had made the money in three of the first eight EQs, but he badly needed more funds to give him another shot at qualifying the Elites next year. The $42,467 he snatched at the Harris Chain ensures he will again pursue the EQs.
Foul weather reduced the Harris Chain Open to a two-day event. Messer’s winning total 39 pounds, 13 ounces.
“Florida seems like a very grinding place to me,” Messer said. “My brother and I grew up fishing small, heavily-fished lakes where you have to grind out every bite. That helps us in Florida. Down there it’s about finding the right area.”
Messer and his older brother, Lafe, certainly found the right areas on the Harris Chain in 2022. That’s when they set the record for the heaviest catch in a two-day Bassmaster College tournament as members of Kentucky Christian University’s bass team. They sacked 25-6 on Day 1 and 36-7 the following day for a total of 61-13.
The Messer brothers made this historic catch by fishing two shell beds about 6 feet deep with Texas- and Carolina-rigged worms and creature baits. On the first day they decided to save the best of the shell beds for the final round. In little more than an hour they had more than 25 pounds of largemouth swimming in their livewells.
A cold front rolled through that night, which shut down Florida’s temperamental bass the following day. The Messer brothers ground it out by repeatedly making the same cast over the shell bed throughout the day.
“We only had seven bites,” Messer said. “Three were 8 pounds, one was 6 pounds and the smallest fish in the record limit weighed 5 1/2 pounds. We never caught a bass that weighed under 4 1/2 pounds on either day.”
While growing up in Warfield, Ky., population 264, Messer can’t remember when he began fishing or even his first bass. His father, Lafe, had Matt and his brother holding fishing rods as soon as they were physically capable of doing so.
Located in eastern Kentucky, Warfield overlooks the Tug River, which is the boundary between Kentucky and West Virginia. The Tug flows into the Little Sandy, which flows into the Big Sandy, which eventually finds the Ohio River.
The Tug harbors smallmouth, largemouth and spotted bass, but Messer claims, “It’s not much of a fishery, but it’s nice to have it right by the house.”
“It’s very shallow and not very wide. We fish it from a johnboat and catch a few bass on buzzbaits and other stuff.”
Messer’s father fished for everything from bass to catfish to trout, and so did his sons who eagerly joined him on these adventures. Reservoirs do exist in the scenic, wooded Appalachian hills of eastern Kentucky, but they are small, “grinding” bass fisheries.
Messer’s father never got into tournament fishing, but there were numerous competitive bass anglers in the area who took the Messer brothers under their wing.
“There were more than a dozen older fishermen that would take us tournament fishing with them,” Messer said. “Nathan Harless, Grant Marcum and Cody Cooper where especially helpful. They also served as boat captains when we started a fishing team at Martin County High School in seventh grade.”
The team was not affiliated with any national bass fishing organization, so they competed in local open high school derbies.
The Messer brothers did well enough in high school tournaments to be offered fishing scholarships at Kentucky Christian University. To get the boat they needed to compete there, they cut grass, did landscaping and any other jobs they could drum up. They eventually accumulated enough cash to buy a 2006 Ranger, an 18-footer.
College tournaments greatly expanded the Messer brothers’ fishing experiences by taking them to a wide variety of large fisheries. Among them were lakes Hartwell, Lewis Smith and Cumberland, Michigan’s Saginaw Bay and, of course, Florida’s Harris Chain.
From college, the Messer brothers jumped into the 2023 Bassmaster Opens EQs, which would be the first Opens they had ever fished. They traveled together and shared practice information with Michigan’s Bo Thomas prior to each of these tournaments. The Messers met and befriended Thomas while competing in college.
“My brother is a really good angler,” Messer said. “He has taught me more than anybody. If it wasn’t for him, there’s no way I would have qualified for the Classic.”
While Messer is thrilled to be a Classic contender, his primary goal continues to be the Elite Series. “Everybody wants to qualify for the Elites and fish against the best,” he said.
Messer’s sponsors include BuckN’ Bass, Berkley, Abu Garcia and Waterland Sunglasses.
“Every bait in my boat is from Berkley, except for a few lures they don’t make,” Messer emphasized.