By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Brad Whatley's tour-level career got off to a solid start in 2019 as he turned in Top-40 finishes (including three placements in the 20s) in each of the first four Bassmaster Elite Series tournaments. He never finished among the top half of the field again, however, and ended up at No. 56 on the final Angler of the Year (AOY) points list.
The 2020 campaign looked like it might be more of the same as two showings in the 30s and a 9th at the St. Lawrence River were followed by three derbies in which he failed to advance to the third day. Ah, but this time he straightened things out before it was too late.
The 40-year-old Texan concluded the year with three outings that got progressively better – 39th at the Santee Cooper Lakes, 20th at Lake Chickamauga and 5th at Lake Fork. He cut his previous year's final AOY finish in half (to 28th) and qualified for this year's Bassmaster Classic, which will be held at Lake Ray Roberts in his home state in June.
He was disappointed that some events originally scheduled for the pre-spawn had to be moved to much later in the year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but he definitely took advantage of the situation when the tour wrapped up in the southern part of the country during the fall months.
"I understand fall fishing pretty well, and what that means is understanding that there's really nothing to understand," he said. "A lot of guys spin out because they can't pull up to a place and catch them, then run to another spot and catch some more.
"You've got to be able to grind."
On the Learning Curve
One big key to Whatley's strong sophomore campaign was vastly superior finishes at venues that the Elite Series also visited the previous year. He improved by 58 places at the St. Lawrence and 51 at Fork.
"When we got done at the St. Lawrence the first time and I'd taken my butt-whoopin' (67th place), I came back on my way home and fished for a couple days and tried to learn a little more about it," he said. "I also spent a little time on Lake Ontario and this year I fished the whole event on Ontario except for the fourth day, when I couldn't get out there and had to fish the rivers.
"I came out here with no northern experience and I'm still learning as I go. I had a terrible northern swing last year and I just didn't get back on track when we came back down south. I've still got some learning to do up there."
One thing he's gleaned about fishing at higher latitudes is that if your rod isn't bending frequently, it's time to move.
"You basically need to be running around at a hundred miles an hour trying to find those giant schools of fish that are really eating. If you're grinding up north, you're in trouble. You'd better find those active, biting fish."
A New Venue
Whatley's home in Bivins, Texas is a little more than a three-hour drive from Ray Roberts. Until a few weeks ago, he'd never made that journey.
"I went for two days right before the (Jan. 1 pre-practice cut-off)," he said. "I do know some things about it and the general way it fishes. It's got some giants, but not a large population of bass. All the lakes around Dallas/Fort Worth are that way.
"I was bummed that (the Classic) got postponed from the pre-spawn (due to COVID restrictions that would've impacted the accompanying Outdoor Expo) because that would've been right in my wheelhouse. A lot of it's going to depend on the water level. If it's not where it needs to be, the lake could fish a lot smaller."
Limits won't be routine and he thinks there's a chance the winner might bring fewer than 15 fish to the scale over the event's three days.
"I'm not saying it's going to happen, but it's a possibility. You could see a 24-pound bag one day and it might only have four fish.
"My odds would've been better if it had stayed in the pre-spawn. It's disappointing even for fans of the sport because there would've been some ridiculous bags."