America loves the Cinderella story. Tin Cup. The Miracle on Ice. Carl the Greenskeeper.
The underdog story permeates even pro bass fishing with regularity. Older fans will remember Dalton Bobo’s near miss at the ’97 Classic, placing 2ND to Dion Hibdon, due only to a dead-fish penalty. And who could forget Bryan Kerchal’s victory in 1994? Still the only amateur to win the sport’s biggest title, Kerchal tragically died in a plane crash shortly after his heroic win.
For some time now, I’ve pondered the chance of another grass-roots angler taking down the Classic title. Perhaps it’s out of reach in today’s techno-world of bass fishing. I hope not.
In any case, I recently interviewed a man who would know far batter than me.
Jeff Lugar knows the ups and downs of grass-roots tournament fishing because he’s lived them. A B.A.S.S. member for over 30 years, Lugar has spent all of those competing in both Federation and B.A.S.S. Nation events across three states and multiple platforms. He’s qualified for various State Teams so many times it’s hard to track, won divisional and national titles and made the big show twice, competing in the 2014 and ’15 Bassmaster Classics.
Over three decades, Lugar has witnessed lots of changes. Most notable are format modifications. First off, Classic qualification is reserved only for the top finishers at Nationals (rather than advancing anglers from each division, as in the past), bringing out “the cream of the crop,” according to Lugar. In addition, regional events are longer and spread across massive territories, making home-field advantages nearly nonexistent.
The result is far more advanced amateurs than in the days of old, according to our source.
“The competition has gotten better, for sure,” Lugar confirms, “The average club angler is a lot more educated than in the past. I know I’ve gotten better.”
In addition, Lugar pointed out that many young Nation anglers are gaining vast tournament experience early on. “A bunch of the college-age guys have already fished big tournaments (at the organized, high school and college level). That takes some of the surprise out of it.”
Lugar also noted that more young anglers are entering events as boaters rather than just jumping in a club as a non-boater, as he did initially. These same young anglers are often well studied in technology and bring with them team tournament competition experience.
With such optimism, I was surprised to learn that Lugar, like me, wonders about the chances of another B.A.S.S. Nation angler becoming a Classic champion.
“It’s possible” he confirmed, “but it would be pretty hard for (an amateur) to do it, especially on his first trip.
“Focusing on the fishing is difficult. The media interviews make it hard. The long drive to and from the lake makes it hard. You lack sleep.”
As an astute fan and competitor at all levels, Lugar recognizes the difference between successful touring anglers and those who aspire to be.
“The gap isn’t knowing the techniques or electronics or that stuff. It’s finding fish in a very short time and adjusting as the tournament goes on,” he said.
“The Elite-level anglers don’t have the luxury of taking time to make decisions like I do. You see, if I have to make 10 decisions, one might be right. But the top-level guys don’t have the option to make those other nine wrong decisions. They’ll go broke.”
Lugar admitted that one of his biggest struggles is breaking down water and adjusting quickly enough to stay in the game. The 2015 Classic immediately came to mind.
“I was on the fish to win that tournament, but then the biggest cold front in Classic history came through and screwed me up.” Lugar emphasized that his worst mistake of that fateful week was not adjusting quickly enough and trying to force previous patterns to work. The most successful pros scrapped their previous plans and just went fishing.
But there’s more to becoming a household name than throwing your cares to the wind, according to Lugar.
(Pro fishing) “is a big strain. It take a mentally strong and physically conditioned individual to do it.”
Lugar had at least one chance to do it himself. After winning the B.A.S.S. Nation National Championship in 2013, he was invited to the Elite tour. Conflicts with life, employment and family priorities kept him home. Given the chance again, Lugar aims to make a run at the big leagues. But, as he stated before, qualifying isn’t getting any easier.
If this year’s National Championship is indeed fished, Jeff Lugar will be there, attempting to qualify for his third Bassmaster Classic. But he sticks by his prophecy regarding the chance for another amateur Classic champ.
“Could it happen? Yes. But it would take someone experienced in tournaments. Someone who won’t get rattled. Someone who’s been there before.”
I chuckled, wondering if Lugar realized he’d just described himself.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)