By Todd Ceisner
Brad Whatley knows he’s going to be considered a longshot at this year’s Bassmaster Classic. Truthfully, he likes it that way.
Honestly, though, how many people expect a guy from northeast Texas with zero experience on any stretch of the Tennessee River, let alone the 30,000 or so acres that make up the tournament waters, to show up in Knoxville in two weeks and possibly be a threat?
Well, Whatley, for one.
The newcomer to the Elite Series, fresh off two top-30 finishes to start the season, will arrive in Knoxville with a nothing-to-lose, why-not-me mindset.
“I’m pumped about it,” Whatley said. “This is my lifelong dream as I’m sure it’s been everyone else’s. Actually qualifying and being there, it’s huge, but I can’t let it stop with just qualifying and getting to the event. I know the odds aren’t in my favor, but I don’t expect them to be. That might work out better for me compared to some of the bigger names because nobody will be watching me. I won’t have spectators around me. That could help me. In fact, I know it will help me.”
Practice begins a week from Friday and Whatley is anxious to be a part of what figures to be among the biggest editions of the event and what he hopes is his first of many to come.
“It’s not a points deal, so we’re all there to win,” he said. “When you fish to win, sometimes the polar opposite happens, but if you don’t fish that way, you’re never going to win.”
Ready for Anything
Having never laid eyes on the stretch of water that will serve as the tournament waters for the Classic, Whatley spent a day in Knoxville just after Christmas, but it wasn’t all that productive. It rained non-stop and temperatures were in the 30s. He said the scouting trip wasn’t a total loss, but he did cut his trip short and will instead rely on map study and the four days of practice to better familiarize himself with Fort Loudoun and Tellico lakes.
“Nothing’s a waste, but honestly, I didn’t get what I wanted out of it,” he said. “I probably only made five casts, but I just wanted to familiarize myself with the water. We have limited practice time, so I wanted to have ideas of where I wanted to spend my time. I really think the type of fishing will be toward my strengths.”
For Whatley, that’s power-fishing. He calls Lake O’ The Pines in east Texas his home waters. It’s a big-fish lake where 2- and 3-pounders don’t help much on tournament day.
“I’m used to fishing for big fish and six or seven bites a day,” he said. “Where I live you have to do that because it takes 30 (pounds) plus a day to win, so I’m comfortable not getting many bites.”
With the entire southeast, especially the Tennessee River Valley, being on the receiving end of a pretty soggy winter so far, conditions for the Classic could play into Whatley’s hands.
“Tellico is a clear-water lake, but it wasn’t when I was there and there’s a good possibility it won’t be during this Classic,” he said. “It’ll be power-fishing to a certain extent and that’s what I love doing.”
Knowing the current conditions aren’t typical for this time of year, Whatley is trying to let the event get a little closer before he kicks his pre-tournament planning and research into high gear. He’s got plenty of loose ends to tie up before heading off to Tennessee and says he’ll probably shift his focus more toward lake research this weekend.
“I did a little studying on it before our trip to Florida,” he said. “Everybody is different, but I try not to cram three or four lakes worth of research in at the same time. I try to let the event get closer so it’s fresher on my mind. This time of year, things are constantly changing and you can spend hours researching it, but right now they’re dealing with flooding.”
Whatley started his rookie campaign on the Elite Series with two solid finishes – a 27th at the St. Johns River and a 21st at Lake Lanier. He says he’s pleased to build some early momentum going into the Classic, but he has lofty goals to attain.
“I’m happy but definitely not satisfied,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said that’s what I was looking for. I made cuts in both, but I’ve yet to make the day-4 cut. I’m learning, though. It’s hard to find fish for four days. I learned in the Opens to keep an open mind and fish what looks good and you have to be willing to throw practice away sometimes.”
He said that was a critical part of how the Lanier event unfolded for him. He started with 15-07 on day 1, caught largely off spots he’d not fished before.
“I hit my three best spots there on day 1 and after I hit spot three I had one fish,” he said. “I had to adapt and just go fishing. That’s the biggest thing I see. That’s what separates Elites from the locals. You can’t base everything on practice. Everybody catches ‘em in practice, right? You have to take the preparation seriously, but also be willing to walk away from it, too.”
The St. Johns was a new experience for him as he’d never fished in Florida before. He started fast with a 23-04 stringer and rode that to a 27th-place finish despite coming in one fish short of a limit on days 2 and 3.
“It was incredible being in that tournament,” he said. “For me personally, I got on a deal that was going away and I had to roll those dice. I found the fish people were catching in Lake George in practice, but I went to (Lake) Dexter and wound up on something that was going away. I’d spent days 1 and 2 in there and by day 3, I wasn’t going to show up in other areas because guys hadn’t seen me in there. It could’ve gone the other way for me, but I’d never been to Florida and I had a fairly successful event even though I bombed on day 3.”
All things considered, it’s been a stellar start to the year for Whatley, who hopes the Classic serves as another springboard.
“I’m not sure if I can compete with these guys because I’ve never done it,” he said. “I’ve not been on the winning deal yet, but I still survived. It’s going to line up for me at some point and when it does, hopefully I’ll be able to capitalize on it.”