Loughran has time on his side

Ed Loughran is understandably proud of his sixth-place finish at the Bassmaster Elite at Lake Champlain, the best of his young Elite Series career, but he’s more anxious to talk about how quickly he subdued his smallmouth all week.

“My fights might last 30 seconds, even with a 4-pounder,” he said. “These guys running around the boat, taking three minutes to land a fish, I’m not playing that anymore.” 

If the angler nicknamed “The Barrister” appears to be a man in a hurry, it’s because he’s waited so long for this moment to come. He fished his first Bassmaster Invitational in 1993, and he almost qualified for the forerunner of the Elite Series the next season, before taking a 16-year hiatus from top-level competition when life got in the way. Now, just a couple of weeks before his 50th birthday, he’s finally making the push that he expected to occur back in 1995, when Forrest Gump earned the Best Picture Oscar. 

Save the “fine wine” jokes. Forget about “old dogs” and their “new tricks.” Despite the fact that Loughran made his first B.A.S.S. cast before at least six current Elites were born, he insists he’s just a more competent version of his earlier self. He’s still fishing against David Fritts, who won that 1993 tournament on Buggs Island, and he still loves northern smallmouth.

“I haven’t changed much,” he said. “I’ve been told that I haven’t changed since I was 10. Those skills don’t go away. You don’t forget that muscle memory. I can still skip a jig under a dock. I can still drive in excessively rough water.”

What has changed over the course of the last year is that he’s started wearing his skin more comfortably. He knew that he belonged from the start and wasn’t particularly concerned with what his peers thought of him, but this is a sport where you are what your record says you are. Through the midpoint last year, he wasn’t quite cannon fodder, but he wasn’t setting the world on fire either.

Then Loughran set a personal-best Elite finish of 28th at Cayuga and beat it by finishing 12th at Tenkiller. Those six days pulled him up out of near mathematical impossibility and into the Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship on Lake St. Clair, which not entirely coincidentally is the site of the next event on this year’s Bassmaster Classic quest. That’s good news for Loughran, who said that one of his strengths is building upon experience.

“It used to take me two or three times to get up to speed on a lake,” he said. “But that’s getting accelerated. I can feel it.”

Another strength, one more typically the realm of younger competitors, is his willingness to embrace modern electronics. In the 1990s he was a shallow-water maelstrom, flipping up everything in his path. In New York, Loughran’s Humminbird Mega 360 played a key role in his ability to target particular cover and structure. His resulting ability to visualize the underwater environment turned the endeavor into a video game — although for his generation that might be more Space Invaders than Call of Duty. 

“I kind of get smallmouth, and I’m good at targeting little things,” he explained. “I’m also really good at estimating stuff. I was the kid at the library who, when they’d have like 8 million gumballs in a giant jar, I could calculate and tell you how many were in there. Now I can look at my 360, take a 3/8-ounce sinker, estimate the current and — without looking up — I can cast it far enough so it bounces off a boulder and lands right in an eddy.”

All of that calculating — and 20-plus years to marinate on it — has put Loughran in a position where he has many more good days than bad ones. Starting with Cayuga last year, he can only really think of two days where he’s substantially underperformed: one at the St. Johns this year, and one at Eufaula this year.

Cayuga – three good days.

Tenkiller – three good days.

St. Clair – three good days.

St. Lawrence – three good days. 

And then came the outlier, Champlain, where he upped the ante to four good days. 

That’s left him in 34th place in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, inside the cut to make his first Classic, with five Elite tournaments left to go. Had he not had the two miscues in the first two events, he could be in the top 10 or 15, but he’s happy to be where he is.

“I know that I’m fishing well enough to make the Classic,” he said. “And I know that it’s better to be inside of the Classic cut than not, period, end of story.” He also knows that things are going his way. On Day 1 at Champlain, right out of the gate, he had “just finished catching seven big pike” so when he got his eighth bite he boat flipped the fish. It turned out to be a 5 1/2-pound largemouth. “My ChatterBait fell right out,” he recalled. Had he played it more, he might have lost the fish, and weighed in 2 fewer pounds.

Overall, of the 200 or so smallmouth he hooked during the week, he “lost maybe three.” Those are the types of performances he’ll need to improve his place in the standings as the year comes to a conclusion. “I’m fishing as well as I can, and some of these guys are still beating me. I’m in a knife fight, and I need a gun. It’s an arms race.”

Before he returns to competition at St. Clair, where he’ll celebrate his 50th birthday with a long day of practice, Loughran has a full load of legal work to get done. He’ll make stops at courthouses all over Virginia, but only after getting everything in order.

He will, to paraphrase the words of Hall of Fame Basketball coach John Wooden, “be quick but (won’t) hurry.” The clock is ticking for The Barrister, as it has since 1993, and he’s on firm ground to punch his ticket.