Remember the name Mike Huff

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Steve Bowman

Bassmaster Elite Series pro Mike Huff won’t turn 30 years old until a month after this year’s Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk, but he’s already a little tired of being a 30-something.

You see, in his rookie season on tour, he notched an unlikely record that included four 32nd-place finishes along with a pair of 38th-place finishes, all of them just a few spots to one side or the other of the field’s midway mark. He was consistently one more or one less good fish from an income swing of thousands of dollars.

That’s the bad news, sort of.

The good news is that based on those finishes — plus a late-season charge that included a 14th place finish at Cayuga and a seventh in the AOY Championship on St. Clair — he’s Classic bound. 

Despite finishing 29th in the AOY race, he might just be the least-known among the Elite Classic contenders. His family and the folks in his hometown know him, but even all but the most obsessed fishing fans might be unsure, so if you haven’t already heard his name, don’t blame yourself. He’s a quiet, humble kid, still feeling his way out on the sport’s biggest stage.

I’m embarrassed to say this but a year ago at this time I didn’t know who he was, either, and it’s my job to know these things. I got to know him on the first day of 2019 Classic practice on the Tennessee River, when gravel-voiced Steve Bowman called me up to tell me that I’d be riding with the rookie that day. “Get to know him,” Bowman commanded. 

We had a fine time on the water, but after that day Huff more of less fell off my radar. Part of that was his fault. “I’m kind of slacking in the social media department,” he said. “I need to do a better job, but it feels almost like bragging.”

The other part of the equation is that in a season where there were so many big, dramatic stories, it was tough to keep them all in order. There was such a surplus of “rookie sensations,” that it was a full-time job to keep them all straight, and just making the Classic wasn’t going to set them apart in anyone’s mind, including my own.

“I’ve worked as hard as anybody else,” he said. “But there’s just so much young energy out there. Everybody’s just really hungry.” 

I’d occasionally note Huff’s finishes — not too good, not too bad, just enough to keep him around the Classic cut line. That’s what really mattered to him, making the Classic.

“I think about it every single day,” he said. “When I’m brushing my teeth, I look in the mirror and imagine myself holding the Classic trophy. To be honest, I have my whole life.

Now he’s there, and they all start at zero on Day 1.

For a millennial who a year ago might’ve passed for a high school senior but for the wisp of facial hair, Huff’s in an enviable position. He’s potentially 15 fish away from bass fishing immortality, should he find himself in position to win the Classic. 

It won’t be easy, and he’s both energized and daunted by the fact that Guntersville produced what was by far the worst finish of his rookie campaign.

“It’s a huge motivation,” he said of the 70th-place result. “It was a nightmare of a week. I tried to go offshore like everyone else was doing, but I’m a shallow fisherman. March will be different, and I’m fully committed to fishing shallow.”

Last year B.A.S.S. debuted the "Big Bass. Big Stage. Big Dreams." theme, but 2019 hardly marked a standalone end to that concept. Quite to the contrary, I expect that history will show that magical season to have been merely prologue to bigger things down the road.

Mike Huff, along with at least 20 guys you’d still be hard-pressed to pick out of a lineup, are done with the first portion of the dreaming part. They’ve caught the big bass. In two months, the sport’s biggest stage will welcome them. They’ve probably thought about it at least part of every day since they qualified, but it will finally become real at the BJCC in Birmingham when Dave Mercer welcomes them and a dripping bag of fish up in front of everybody. That’s when they’ll shed any last vestiges of anonymity.

It’s a story we’ve heard before: Ott DeFoe, who won last year in Tennessee, attended a Birmingham Classic as a fan in 1996, when he was 10 years old. Less than a generation later, he was a world champion. Now the timelines are more compressed. Between YouTube, Bassmaster LIVE, modern electronics and all sorts of other learning tools, a kid from northern Idaho or California or Corbin, Ky., or fresh off the Auburn University fishing team can reasonably hope for a legit shot to win AOY or a Classic before they’re 30.

It’s not that they’re unwilling to pay their dues — no one wins one of these titles through the sheer force of luck — but rather that you don’t have to duke it out in the coast-to-coast trenches for decades anymore to have the tools to compete. We don’t have to know your name for 20 years before you can expect to take home the trophy, but rest assured that once you have it in your grasp you will never be forgotten. 

“I’m looking forward to the season,” Huff concluded. “I’ve settled in, and I’m hoping to take the next step.”

Remember the name.