As I waited to weigh in on Championship Sunday of the 2022 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk on Lake Hartwell, I heard Stetson Blaylock and Kyle Welcher both had a big bag. I prepared myself for the fact I wasn’t going to win. When Stetson weighed in, I thought it was going to be close. But when Kyle weighed in, I thought I had a legitimate chance. I didn’t know which way it was going to go, but it was going to be close. To see those numbers flash on that screen — 17-9 — that is when it all went away.
The ride back with my cameraman Jake Latendresse in 2018 when I imploded on Lake Hartwell during the last day of the Classic, all of the interviews and talk about “should’ve picked up a spinning rod or wacky rig” — none of that matters anymore. I think the biggest thing is the weight from the past being taken away — that’s what made my win so special.
Losing two Classics the way I did was going to make a Classic win that much sweeter, and that was definitely the truth. Honestly, I don’t know if I was supposed to win those first two. I don’t know if I would have appreciated it the way I do now. Being so close several times, and then being able to pull it out in a very close fashion, makes this win so much better.
One thing I’m most proud of is coming back to Hartwell after being here so many times and putting the past away. I cleared all the waypoints on my units and started over knowing I couldn’t win doing the same thing I’ve done in the past. It’s hard when you’ve been to a place so many times to take all that history and do away with it.
There is a lot of strategy in these events, and more so the Classic than any other event, because of the importance of a win. I won an event at this lake in 2011 shallow on a spinnerbait and did well in the next event too. I also led the 2018 Classic. All of the attention around those events came from me fishing shallow with a spinnerbait or flipping in dirty water.
I just had a feeling that it had happened too many times, and there were a lot of people in this Classic who hunt that dirty water down. Coming in, I felt that it wasn’t going to go down in the dirt. Even when I would get remotely close to it in practice, I would see multiple competitors and tons of locals. The first day of practice I stayed out of it and fished clear water and water I had never seen. The second day I spent half the day doing the same thing, but I couldn’t handle it anymore. I had to check some dirty stuff to make sure it wasn’t on fire.
The first area I pulled into was an area where I caught a couple big ones in 2011. I didn’t go 50 yards before I caught a 6-pounder on a spinnerbait. In most cases you are excited and think that is what you need to see, but it was the opposite for me. I was trying to eliminate water rather than find it, and I was bummed. I was thinking, “I’ve been in here for 15 minutes, and I have to run another five miles to a place that is going to be dirty that I’m going to fish for another 15 minutes, and that’s if a boat isn’t there. This isn’t going to work.”
So I put the spinnerbait back in the rod locker and spent the rest of practice running clear water stuff. I fished a big section of the lake looking for water that had a little bit of cloudiness to it and looking at docks that looked like what I wanted.
What I thought was funny is, Jason Christie fans probably tuned in to Bassmaster LIVE Friday morning at 7:15 and said, “Alright, I’m going to watch some spinnerbait stuff.” There I was sitting in the middle of a ditch with a spinning rod fishing 35 feet deep. I needed to do something fresh, and I think I caught half my fish on a spinning rod and half on a jig.
The spinning rod played a big role in my win. To win, you have to fish within your comfort zone, and a lot of people don’t think about a spinning rod with me. But the technique I was using, which I call rabbit hunting on LiveScope, I do that a lot in the wintertime at home. Whenever I can look at the bass and try to catch them on the unit, I have a lot of confidence in that.
I didn’t think about the past Classics all week. I got off to a fast start on the first and second day, which is kind of what I have always done in other Classics. On the third day I caught a big one right off the bat. I thought, “Alright, we are going to get off to a fast start.” I literally didn’t catch another one for two or three hours.
Around 10 or 10:30, the ghosts of Classics past started coming around again. But this time was different. I thought about it for maybe 30 seconds like, “Here we go again.” After that 30 seconds I told myself, “I just need to get another bite and catch the next fish.” That next fish was the turning point. I had two of the right ones, and I just needed another bite. That was the last time I thought about the past Classics during the day. I made two crucial culls in the last 30 minutes, and without either of those, I probably don’t win.
My number one strength is throwing the spinnerbait, but my number two — and it isn’t far behind — is throwing a jig around shallow docks. I’ve won a lot of money in Oklahoma doing that, and like I said, you can’t win unless you are really confident in what you are doing. That jig is something I have a lot of confidence in. The jig was going to give me a good bag every day, and the possibility of catching 20 or 25 pounds was better on that jig than anything else.
I want to thank everyone for their support and thank B.A.S.S. for being able to do this. There were a lot of people who really wanted me to win. You could see it in their eyes when they came up and congratulated me. A lot of anglers who fished the event came up, teared up and told me, “I’m glad you did it. You deserve it.” You can see that it is very sincere, and that means a lot to me. Those people have been on the same roller coaster I have, and being able to handle adversity like I did, not that I did it perfectly, but those people respected that.
Do I think now I’m just going to sit back and relax? Absolutely not. I remember back in the days when I was fishing the BFLs; it was so hard to win one. I finally won one, and I thought, “I can do this.” I ended up winning a lot. It was the same way with dunking a basketball. I tried every day, 100 times a day, and all of a sudden I finally did it. I continued to do it after that.
When I woke up Monday morning, honestly the first thing I thought was, “I want some more of that.” It’s addictive. Now I get to fish the rest of the Bassmaster Elite Series season with the Classic qualification, and now I can really go fishing.
I have my one Classic win, I want another one.