By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Jeff Lugar spent more than a quarter of a century attempting to qualify for the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship. Winning it wasn't nearly so problematic.
The 42-year-old Virginian has been competing at the Federation level since he was 16. He's made the Virginia state team four times and the Ohio squad once, but had never advanced to the national event.
"When I won the Mid-Atlantic Divisional (earlier this year), that was a big shock and it was the highlight of my career, so to speak," he said. "Going to Nationals, I didn't care if I finished 10th or 20th (overall), I just wanted to be 1st in my division."
The highest finisher at the Championship from each of the six geographic divisions gains a berth in the following year's Bassmaster Classic. As it turned out, Lugar's fellow Mid-Atlantic qualifiers struggled mightily at Arkansas' Lake Dardanelle, with none except him finishing higher than 24th in the overall standings.
He carried an 8 1/2-pound advantage within his division into the final day, and he was just a pound off the overall lead held by Arkansas' Doug Thompson. Lugar sacked 14 1/2 pounds on day 3 while Thompson managed just 12, and a furious charge by Alabama's Coby Carden (with a tournament-best 20-14 stringer that included a 7-10 bruiser) came up a little short.
When it was over, Lugar's 41-13 total left him 1-04 in front of runner-up Carden. In addition to the Classic berth, he garnered a Skeeter/Yamaha boat package and an invitation to compete on the Elite Series next year, which he hasn't yet determined whether he'll accept.
"My No. 1 goal for the Classic is to enjoy the experience and have fun with it. Secondly, I want to be a good representative for the Virginia B.A.S.S. Nation. I'll get to do what so many people would love to get a chance at.
"I want to catch a limit each day and if they're big enough, I could do well. If not, I'm not going to let it detract from the experience."
Here are some of the specifics of how he got it done at Dardanelle.
Lugar saw Dardanelle for the first time on a 2-day pre-practice trip in September.
"That helped me, but that's not when I found the fish that I caught during the tournament," he said. "I learned to navigate the water and I got a feel for the lake as far as what it had to offer for places that could hold fish – grass vs. wood vs. offshore stuff. But how I caught then in September was not how I caught them in October."
Last month, the fish were stacked up on docks and shoreline grass and were easily enticed by reaction baits. By last week, when the 56 competitors got on the water for the 2 days of official practice, many had moved out into the colonies of coontail grass, where big populations of baitfish were feeding on insects.
Not just any coontail would do, however.
"Some of it had this black slime or moss in it or on it and it had a very pungent odor. In those places, even if the bait was there, the bass were not in there.
"I was able to find some other areas that had clean coontail in the bigger bays (Dardanelle and Delaware). If they didn't have that moss or slime, and they had baitfish, the bass would be in there with them."
Moving baits were still the ticket, but they had to be fished more deliberately than before.
> Day 1: 5, 16-01
> Day 2: 4, 11-03
> Day 3: 5, 14-09
> Total = 14, 41-13
Lugar caught his biggest sack of the tournament on day 1 to put himself just a pound off the pace set by Louisiana's Ryan Levigne. He compiled it despite getting only six keeper bites on the day – all on a spinnerbait.
"I had two that were right at 4 pounds each," he said. "I didn't catch anything real big, but they were solid. I had a little flurry in the morning, and then I changed areas in the afternoon and caught one good one."
A stiff wind changed a lot of things on day 2. His starting spot produced just one fish – albeit a 4-pounder – and the locale he'd come to consider his primary area gave up a 2 1/2. Both places had been muddied up by the wind.
He added another 4 and a barely legal keeper at his third stop (like the previous two fish he'd caught that day, they bit a ChatterBait). Even with the short bag, he concluded the day right where he'd started it in the standings – in 2nd place, just 15 ounces off the lead.
Day 3 was the only day that featured significant cloud cover. He expected the action to pick up under those conditions, but he had to resort to a shaky-head to catch a single keeper from his starting spot, and his primary locale was good for only one non-keeper.
A Z-Man Original ChatterBait produced all four of Lugar's weigh-in fish on day 2.
He expanded farther out into the coontail colony and found more clean grass, and when a fish busted the surface nearby, he threw the ChatterBait to the spot, but got no response.
He tossed the spinnerbait out there and slow-rolled it, and caught a 2 1/2. After 20 minutes of plying that tactic over a 65-yard stretch, he had a limit and had begun culling. He made a couple more improvements within the hour, then went to a place that had given up a 4 on each of the 2 previous days. He picked up a 3 1/2 there that finished off his sack.
Winning Gear Notes
> Spinnerbait gear: 6'6" medium-heavy G. Loomis IMX 783 rod, Lew's Tournament Pro casting reel (6.4:1 ratio), 20-pound Berkley Trilene Big Game monofilament line, 3/8-ounce War Eagle Extreme Trokar spinnerbait (chartreuse/white with silver and gold willow-leaf blades).
> ChatterBait gear: 6'8" medium-action G. Loomis Topwater Series rod, same reel, 17-pound Berkley Trilene 100% fluorocarbon line, 1/2-ounce Z-Man Original ChatterBait (white with silver blade), Zoom Split Tail (blue glimmer) or Zoom Swimming Fluke Jr. (disco green) trailer.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – "I guess it would be figuring out what the fish were relating to and figuring out the presentations to get them to bite. Other guys were fishing the grass, but a lot of them were fishing all the grass – whether it had the slime or not. I focused only on the clean coontail and I slow-rolled the bait because the fish didn't want it fast – you almost had to tickle it through there to get bit. I didn't catch a ton of fish, but by being patient and fishing as thoroughly as I could, I was getting the right bites."
> Performance edge – "It might be crazy to say this, but I think the HydroWave really helped. I ran it all 3 days in that grass and it seemed like the shad were always active around me."
> Lugar works as a production manager for M&H Plastics in Winchester, Va. He said he used up all of his allotted vacation in a quest to qualify for the Classic, so he doesn't know whether he'll get to make a pre-practice trip prior to the lake going off-limits on Jan. 1. "I'll try to do some bartering and see what I can come up with. Maybe I'll work a couple of weekends or try to borrow some time from next year."
> He hasn't ruled out fishing the Elite Series next year, but at the moment he has strong reservations about that venture. "I have a good job and I've got kids to support. It'd be a huge risk to take without having a guaranteed income."
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1. Jeff Lugar -- Mcgaheysville, VA (MidAt) -- 14, 41-13
2. Coby Carden -- Shelby, AL (South) -- 13, 40-09
3. Doug Thompson -- Mabelvale, AR (Cntrl) -- 15, 40-03
4. Brandon Pedigo -- Durant, OK (Cntrl) -- 14, 37-08
5. Mark Dove -- North Vernon, IN (North) -- 15, 37-04
6. Albert Collins -- Nacogdoches, TX (Cntrl) -- 14, 35-09
7. Ryan Lavigne -- Gonzales, LA (Cntrl) -- 12, 35-08
8. Paul Mueller -- Southbury, CT (East) -- 13, 33-15
9. Monty Fralick -- Martin, SD (North) -- 14, 33-15
10. Tim Johnston -- Kalispell , MT (West) -- 14, 33-01
11. Jeremy Percifield -- Kennewick, WA (West) -- 13, 30-12
12. Drew Sadler -- Richmond , KY (South) -- 11, 30-10
13. Nathan Gray -- Columbus, IN (North) -- 15, 30-07
14. Alan Denise -- Haverhill, MA (East) -- 13, 29-06
15. Jim Barczak -- Osceola, WI (North) -- 12, 28-01
16. Phil Curtis -- Rosseau, ON (East) -- 11, 27-06
17. Randy Ladner -- Bay St Louis, MS (Cntrl) 12, 27-03
18. Chris Adams -- Rutland, VT (East) -- 13, 27-02
19. Leo Bevelaqua -- Wyoming, RI (East) -- 13, 26-14
20. Stan Dodson -- Mineral Wells, WV (North) -- 11, 26-04
21. Mike Powell -- Heber City, UT (West) -- 13, 24-14
22. Mark Pierce -- Radcliff, KY (South) -- 11, 24-07
23. Kris Bosley -- Amarillo, TX (West) -- 8, 23-08
24. William Pioch -- Beckley, WV (MidAt) -- 12, 23-03
25. Cory Leonard -- Castalia, NC (South) -- 12, 23-03
26. Randy Phillips -- Oxford, MA (East) -- 11, 22-15
27. Laurence Hogue -- Kennebunk, ME (East) -- 10, 22-14
28. David Boyd -- Quincy, FL (South) -- 9, 21-14
29. Chris Blair -- Newnan, GA (South) -- 10, 21-09
30. Dan Parker -- Guttenburg, IA (North) -- 10, 21-04
31. Alessandro Debbi -- Casalgrande, Italy (North) -- 11, 21-02
32. Jason Vaughn -- Bridgeville, DE (MidAt) -- 7, 20-09
33. Keegan Graves -- Meridian, ID (West) -- 10, 20-05
34. Jim Groome -- Pittsgrove, NJ (MidAt) -- 8, 20-03
35. Michael Gibney -- Gresham, OR (West) -- 10, 19-01
36. Juan Ro Chagollan -- Zapopon, Mexico (Cntrl) -- 11, 18-11
37. Beau Branine -- Haysville, KS (Cntrl) -- 11, 18-09
38. Ted Prisbe -- Harsens -- Island, MI (North) -- 8, 18-02
39. Jim Severson -- Rice, MN (North) -- 8, 18-01
40. John Proctor -- Conway, SC (South) -- 11, 18-00
41. John Duarte -- Baltimore, MD (MidAt) -- 8, 17-03
42. Ed McCaw -- Ingacio, CO (West) -- 8, 17-02
43. Brian L Wilson -- Bloomfield, IA (Cntrl) -- 8, 16-08
44. Joe Cole -- Coalville, UT (West) -- 8, 16-02
45. Mike Moran -- Ruffsdale, PA (MidAt) -- 9, 15-03
46. James Maisenbacher -- Hudson, IL (North) -- 8, 15-02
47. Alastair Graham -- South Africa (MidAt) -- 6, 14-11
48. Nick Ash -- Omaha, NE (Cntrl) -- 7, 13-14
49. Dean Lewis -- Harare, Zimbabwe -- (MidAt) -- 9, 13-13
50. Ronald Welch -- Corona, CA (West) -- 7, 12-11
51. Jesse Milicevic -- Henderson, NV (West) -- 7, 12-03
52. Ronald Ryals -- Live Oak, FL (MidAt) -- 6, 11-03
53. Randy Lamanche -- Marcellus, NY (East) -- 6, 10-07
54. Brian Severson -- Queen Creek, AZ (West) -- 5, 09-06
55. Shinichiro Tsuchiya -- Hiki, Japan (West) 5 -- 07-08
56. Alberto Parets -- Del Valles, Spain -- 2, 03-09