By Todd Ceisner
Jason Lambert was no stranger to high-level tournament competition prior to this season. In 2011, he placed 2nd in points in the Southeast Division of the then-EverStart Series. Last year, he was 3rd in points in the Central Division.
He had a couple BFL wins and a handful of Top-10s to his credit, with the majority coming at either Kentucky Lake or Pickwick Lake. What he didn't have, though, was the experience at the sport's top level, where local aces tend to founder when the schedule takes them out of their comfort zone.
While half of the FLW Tour schedule this year was foreign to him, he only whiffed once when it came to getting paid and a pair of Top-10s, both in his Tennessee River wheelhouse, to close the season capped off a rookie campaign that saw him claim FLW Tour Rookie of the Year honors.
The Pickwick Dam, Tenn., resident wound up 21st in points and wrapped up a berth in the Forrest Wood Cup next month at Lake Murray, another foreign fishery that he plans to familiarize himself with before it goes off limits.
"I'd be lying if I told you it wasn't a big step," he said of his jump up to the Tour this year. "It was more of a calculated decision. It took me a while to get everything in order so I could do it. When the schedule came out … I'm a Tennessee River rat, it all fell into my plans. It was a gamble, but it was a calculated risk. Fishing tournaments isn't new to me at all. The tour is what was new."
Lambert's rookie year started off with two mid-pack finishes at Lake Okeechobee and Lake Hartwell before a 128th-place wake-up call at Sam Rayburn Reservoir, one of the lakes he'd never been to, left him 85th in points at the halfway point of the season.
"I felt comfortable at the last two and at Okeechobee," he said. "Those three in the middle, I'd never seen any of those lakes. That was the survival period for me."
Many first-year tour pros before him have said that one of the resounding "welcome to the big time" moments comes when you find yourself on a body of water you've never fished before and trying to figure it out in 3 days time. Lambert remembers feeling that exact thing at Rayburn.
"It was actually one of the events I thought I'd do better in, but sometimes the best lessons are the hardest learned," he said. "I didn't fish right there and I learned a pretty quick and expensive lesson to not be hard-headed."
He bounced back 2 weeks later with a solid 26th-place effort at Beaver Lake that gave him some confidence heading into the final two derbies at Pickwick and Kentucky Lake.
"I was more concerned about Beaver and Hartwell than any other because they are deep and clear lakes," he said. "I'm pretty happy with how well I did at both."
'One Shot at It'
Lambert came into the year with a goal of qualifying for the Cup. He figured if he did that, he'd have earned enough money to consider returning for a second year on Tour. He has two college degrees and a guiding business to fall back on, so tournament fishing is not his primary source of income.
When the schedule snaked back toward home, he was right in his element. In the matter of 5 weeks from late May to late June, he fished three tournaments on the Tennessee River (two on Kentucky Lake, one on Pickwick) and came away with two 2nds and an 8th. The first runner-up came in the Kentucky Lake Rayovac Series and he followed that up with an 8th at Pickwick to get back in the hunt for a Cup berth.
His second runner-up effort at Kentucky to conclude the Tour season clinched the ROY crown along with a trip to the Cup. He's one of three Tour rookies headed to Murray.
"It's one of those titles they can't take away from you," he said. "You get one shot at it and you can only have it once. It's an honor. Is it Angler of the Year? No, and it's not a win either, but it's something you only get one chance at. It's a big confidence builder to let me know I can fish with these guys."
> Lambert spent a few days last week scouting Murray and plans to go back after ICAST. "You never know what to expect on a place you've never seen before," he said. "The competitive nature in all of us says just being there isn't good enough. I want to go down and figure something out and be fishing Sunday. I just have to go fishing and see what we can do."