By Todd Ceisner
Josh Bertrand can't remember feeling any lower than he did after the Alabama River Elite Series this year. He'd just come off a 90th-place finish at West Point Lake the week before and a 98th-place result at Montgomery didn't help matters.
Five events into his rookie season, the 24-year-old from Arizona had plunged to 76th in the Toyota Tundra B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year (AOY) standings. The high of finishing 4th at Falcon Lake in the season's second event had worn off completely. The grind of being a pro angler was about to begin.
A month-long break in the middle of the Elite Series schedule allowed him to go home and reset his bearings for the northern swing to close the season.
"I came home and fished a bunch," he said. "I just got back to the grind and refocused."
It certainly did him some good because Bertrand booked Top-30 finishes in each of the final three events, including an 8th at the St. Lawrence River, to rise to 37th in the final AOY standings and pull down his first Bassmaster Classic berth in the process. It was a stunning turnaround for Bertrand, who narrowly missed earning a Classic spot last year after losing a fish-off to Brent Chapman at the Lewisville Lake Central Open.
"It's a mix of relief and jubilation," Bertrand said earlier this week after making the 30-hour drive back to the desert from Detroit, site of the Lake St. Clair season finale. "I didn't go into the season expecting to qualify for the Classic. It was, obviously, a hope of mine, but I didn't know what to expect from the season at all. It was hard to make realistic goals because I didn't know what to expect at all. I just tried to do the best I could and cash as many checks as I could and end up wherever I ended up.
"These guys are so good and I'm super-happy to be able to sneak in there. It's a pretty humbling deal. I feel like I've been given a gift just to be able to go fish the Classic."
While his results speak for themselves, he said a brief turn of events during the hiatus at home may have turned the tide in his favor.
"It's amazing how one day of fishing or one fish can change things," he said. "It's like in baseball when a guy's struggling. One blooper hit can turn it around. I fished a local tournament here in June with a buddy. I was having a tough day and caught a 7-pounder at the end of the day and came back and ended up doing well in the tournament. Maybe that was the momentum-starter."
Stoked At St. Lawrence
Bertrand's recovery started with an 18th-place finish at the Mississippi River, but his focus at that point wasn't on the Classic. He was trying to scratch his way back into the Top 50 in points and draw a year-end bonus check for that. Next up was the St. Lawrence River in northern New York, a venue few, Bertrand included, had fished before. He made a trip there in June prior to it going off limits and looked at his electronics virtually the entire time.
"It was great going into it being a Western guy knowing the dropshot was probably going to win," he said. "Being able to rig up three dropshot rods and be in my comfort zone was cool. Through practice and the whole tournament, I felt pretty good out there.
"Going into it, I did a ton of map study," he added. "I'm still learning how to fish rivers. We have some rivers here in the Southwest, but not like certain parts of the country. That's the part of my game I'm working on a lot. The cool thing about a river is when you look at a map and you see the way the current should hit stuff and if you see a spot that should be good, it's pretty much going to be good, especially on a place like that. If you see a spot that looks right, then it's going to be right. I did a little more of that than I normally would."
Bertrand posted a 26th-place finish at Lake St. Clair last week to secure a Classic berth.
He came into the tournament willing to fish the lake if the need arose, but his research told him he could hold his own with river-caught smallies. He was right. He was 19th after day 2 and caught 20-06 on day 3 to break into the Top 10, joining fellow Arizonans Cliff Pirch and John Murray in the final cut. He caught 19 on the final day to finish 8th. If not for a 2-pound penalty on day 2 for making a cast with six fish in his livewell, he would've been 3rd.
With one event left, he was 46th in points, still a longshot for the Classic, but he'd wiggled his way back into the Top 50.
Like a lot of his competitors, Bertrand arrived on the shores of Lake St. Clair with a pretty firm idea of what he needed to do in order to secure a Classic berth or a Top-50 finish in points. He knew another Top-25 finish was likely the requirement to sniff a Classic berth.
He soon discovered the fish in St. Clair weren't near the quality of what swam in Erie, so he opted to fish the big waters.
"St. Clair is pretty featureless and without a good starting point, I felt like I was spinning my wheels out there," he said. "At Erie, I was at least able to get on my electronics and find specific rock piles or dropoffs and feel like I was fishing something precise."
He caught a decent stringer on day 1, but a BFL event on day 2 put a lot more boats on the prime areas. He lost a 4 1/2-pounder near the end of the day, which had him thinking his shot at the Classic was blown.
"I figured I ruined my chances by losing that fish," he said. "It would've been a 3-pound cull. It was a big deal. I didn't drop too far and figured if I could catch 18 on day 3, I'd have a chance."
He managed 16-03 on Saturday and despite incurring dead-fish penalties on days 2 and 3 that cost him a total of 8 ounces, he finished the year with a 26th-place showing, good enough to close his rookie campaign in 37th in points. As it presently stands, he made the Classic by 9 points.
"It's amazing how close it got to be at the end," he said. "It was down to a point for a lot of guys and I was one of them, but I made a couple dumb errors in the last two tournaments. One of them was my fault – the culling penalty (at the St. Lawrence). It cost me 5 points because I would've been 3rd (without the 2-pound penalty).
"At St. Clair, I felt like I executed okay, but I had two dead fish. Just stupid stuff like that. I was really worried those would come back to bite me. In two tournaments like that where they're that close and everyone catches 'em and five or six spots are separated by 4 or 5 ounces, a 2-pound penalty and two 4-ounce penalties probably cost me 12 or 13 points, so I just feel super-lucky to breathe a sigh of relief that it didn't cost me. It would've been a hard one to handle if it did."
> Bertrand has never fished Lake Guntersville, site of next year's Classic, but he'll be putting in some time there after the final Central Open, which is slated for mid-October at Ross Barnett Reservoir in Mississippi.
"I know it's one of the best lakes in the country and it'll be a good time to be fishing it," he said. "It'll be an interesting one because I know a lot of the guys fishing it have a lot of experience there. It's no different than normal. That's part of being a young guy. I'm going to have go put the work in. One thing I am excited about is I love to deep-crank, especially on structure. I'm not so much a square-bill guy on the bank, but when it comes to cranking deep structure, I love to do it. If I get the chance to do something like that, that'll be great and it's something I'll be looking for. I know it's a good way to catch them that time of year."