By Todd Ceisner
A while back, Justin Lucas received a piece of advice from a fellow angler that struck a chord with him.
"Mark Rose told me a year or two ago that the only way to break out of a slump was to keep fishing tournaments," Lucas said.
Entering last season, Lucas didn't necessarily feel like he was in a slump overall, but there were regions of the country (northern lakes) and certain styles of fishing (rivers with muddy water) that he felt he needed more exposure to. In the minds of some fishermen, inexperience can equate to a slump.
Fishing a bulked up schedule, including a few northern stops and a couple muddy rivers, Lucas found success at nearly every turn. He finished among the Top 36 in five of six FLW Tour events and was a career-best 6th in the Angler of the Year standings. His biggest accomplishment, however, was a 4th-place finish in the Bassmaster Northern Open points, a result that clinched him a spot in the 2014 Elite Series field.
"Once I started doing well, it was like, 'If I qualify for the Elites, I'd definitely give it some thought,'" he said. "It wasn't the original plan."
After many weeks of wrestling with what do with his future – continue to fish the FLW Tour, where he'd spent the first six years of his career and climbed the ranks from co-angler before moving to the front of the boat, or make the move to the Elite Series – the 27-year-old opted to choose the latter. With a new sponsorship deal with Pure Fishing in hand, he's anxious to start the next phase of his career.
More the Merrier
As the 2013 season dawned, Lucas saw an opportunity to greatly expand his tournament acumen beyond the FLW Tour and break out of his so-called slump. He signed up for the Bassmaster Central and Northern Opens, a couple Southeast EverStarts (as they were called) and PAA derbies.
"Originally, there were two reasons for me fishing the Opens (last) year," he said. "One was to try to make the Classic at Guntersville. Two was to train myself a little better at short practices and get better at figuring out lakes and rivers that I'm not good at in 2 or 3 days. A lot of the times in the Northern and Central Opens, I only had 2 days of practice."
Lucas wound up fishing 18 tournaments last year and easily had his finest year as a pro. He had a 3rd-place finish at the Lake Eufaula FLW Tour, a 3rd at the Lake Guntersville Southeast EverStart, in addition to three Top-10s in B.A.S.S. Opens and an 11th at the Douglas Lake PAA. He took home checks from 14 of the 18 events he competed in.
"I think a lot of (my success) had to do with fishing so many tournaments," he said. "During the first few years I was out here, I'd fish 10 tournaments at the most. Last year in almost doubling that, I really learned a lot. I've always preached that the only way to get better in this sport is to get experience. The whole year was a challenge to myself to get out there and fish as many tournaments as I could."
He met every challenge head on, especially the Northern Open lineup. He'd never been comfortable at the James River, but cranked out a 9th-place finish there. At Oneida Lake, a largemouth-smallmouth combo lake he'd never fished, he managed to finish 23rd. That sent him into the final Open at Lake Erie in 5th in points and with plenty on his mind.
"I thought it was kind of cool, but when Erie started getting closer, I got all worried about it like I was trying to make the Cup or something," he said. "I had a lot of pressure on me at Erie, especially because of all the variables that go on there and having never been there before. There were a lot of things going through my mind."
He did his best to read the wind and stayed in areas he felt would be protected in order to log a 30th-place finish.
"I was never around fish to have a shot to do real well, but I was around a ton of fish to get the job done," he added. "It was a big relief."
He won't be scaling back any time soon as he still believes he has a lot of learn.
"I'll fish Opens and probably some PAAs and (Rayovacs) to stay busy because I really feel like that helped me last year," he added. "I haven't been doing it long enough to just show up for the eight Elite Series tournaments and expect to do well. I've got to continue to be on the water and keep learning.
"The key to the next year is going to be being on the water a lot and also keeping a fresh mind on the water. That was one thing that was huge last year – not being afraid to fish stuff in the tournament that I didn't fish in practice."
Turning the Page
Qualifying for the Elite Series put Lucas is a tough spot. Financially, he wasn't in a position to compete on both tours this year so he tried to forecast which direction would benefit him the most in the future.
After weighing all the variables and options, he eventually chose the Elite Series, where he'll be among a strong class of newcomers.
"I don't feel like I'm a rookie or whatever they're going to call me," he said. "I feel like I've got enough experience under my belt that making the transition … it's definitely going to be different.
"The way I've explained it to people is it's kind of like changing jobs. Over at FLW, I had some job security. You don't always know that you're going to cash checks, but I felt comfortable over there. The question I asked myself was, 'What decision is going to be best 15 years from now?' For me, at this time I thought it was the best decision to switch to B.A.S.S. and really try to make a long career out of it."
If nothing else, it'll be a bittersweet transition for Lucas, who came up through the FLW ranks as a co-angler through the now Rayovac Series and was a member of the National Guard FLW team from 2007-2012. He was also heavily involved with FLW's college fishing program as an emcee and analyst.
"There's no way I'd be where I'm at without FLW and I appreciate everything they've ever done," he said, "but I can't have emotional feelings when making these kinds of life decisions. I have no hard feelings toward FLW. I'm still going to fish some of their (Rayovac) events."
Lucas has been with Pure Fishing in some capacity every year since 2007, but the relationship will expand considerably.
"It's an opportunity I couldn't pass up," he said. "It's the biggest fishing company in the world. I have a lot of confidence in their products because I've been using them for so long.
"Both Berkley and Abu Garcia are so respected in the industry, I just felt like at this point for me, to take that next step in my career and hopefully build a career that will last a long time it was definitely the right move to make."
> Lucas' Ranger will feature a Berkley/Abu Garcia wrap along with A.R.E., which makes truck caps and accessories.