By Todd Ceisner
Bernie Schultz didn’t get to see Grand Lake before it went off limits on Jan 1. He had plans to make the trip to Oklahoma to scout the venue for this year’s Bassmaster Classic, but a hectic offseason schedule coupled with the flooded conditions at Grand in December and some back-ordered boat equipment kept him at home in Florida.
“When I was finally able to go, it was so horrendous, it didn’t make any sense,” he said.
He doesn’t feel like he missed out on anything in particular by not getting to scout the lake. He’s fished two Elite Series events there in the past and has a good understanding of late winter/pre-spawn patterns. Schultz and the rest of the field will get 4 days on the water in the week leading up to the tournament in early March.
“I don’t feel like I’m behind on anything,” he said. “The only guys I might feel a disadvantage to are the guys who fished the Classic there last time. They’ll be programmed on what worked and where, but that could work against them, too, especially if they’re all looking at the same water.”
This will be Schultz’s ninth career Classic and first since 2009, when he finished 42nd at the Red River. Now that he’s back in the sport’s headline event, he hopes to seize on the opportunity.
“Of course, I’m happy to be in the Classic, but there’s a sense of urgency for me here,” he said. “I’m not going to say there’s not because I don’t know how many opportunities I’ll get after this one.”
At 61, he’ll be the oldest competitor in this year’s 54-man field, a stat that holds little to no significance for him.
“That doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “I feel like I’m in my 30s so it doesn’t matter. I go all day and I go long days and I stand up all day. Physically, mentally, spiritually, I don’t feel like I’m at a disadvantage.”
All About Redemption
The 2014 Elite Series was a decent one for Schultz, but it ended with bitter disappointment at the Angler of the Year Championship at Bay de Noc (Lake Michigan). He was in 36th place in points entering the AOY event, which featured the Top 50 on the list. He felt pretty good about his chances of securing a Classic berth on the smallmouth fishery.
A 34th-place finish, however, pushed him back to 43rd in points and he missed the Classic by 8 points.
“In my mind, I’d already qualified, but because of that new format I got bumped,” he said. “I still have a bitter taste about it. I’d feel the same way if I’d won the AOY championship event this year.”
He kicked off 2015 with four straight finishes in the top half of the field to lay the foundation for another run at the Classic. After a hiccup (98th) at BASSFest at Kentucky Lake, he closed the season with a 15th at the St. Lawrence River, a season-best 6th at Chesapeake Bay and a 27th at Lake St. Clair. When it was time for the Sturgeon Bay AOY Championship, Schultz was already locked into the Classic sitting 8th in points.
“It’s kind of like redemption after (2014),” he said. “I was in the whole season going into Bay de Noc and got bumped out. I’ve had a couple of good years now, but that was particularly painful. Being able to get through that and get back to the big show is important and I’m happy about it.”
A key to his consistency last season was producing two money finishes during the West Coast swing to the Sacramento River (17th) and Lake Havasu (46th).
“I felt good about it, but I felt like I left a lot on the table. At the Delta, I had the fish to do great. I weighed a 10-pounder on day 1, but lost bigger ones the next 2 days. Those would’ve jumped me way up the standings. Overall, it was a good run out West, but I felt like I missed a great opportunity at the Delta.”
Likes His Chances
Schultz has had some close calls at the Classic before, experiences he hopes help guide him to success this year.
At the ’09 Classic, Schultz remembers being in a good area that year – he fished within a couple casts of winner Skeet Reese – but never was able to dial in the sweet spot like Reese.
“He was on a saddle that separated two ponds and I was basically fishing leftovers,” Schultz said.
One Classic that still stings is the ‘91 version at the Chesapeake Bay, won by Ken Cook. While he finished 11th, he still believes he was around the fish to win the event.
“I still think about how Chesapeake slipped through my fingers,” he said. “I had the winning fish and didn’t realize it until it was too late. I’d rationed my fish until the last day and then I couldn’t catch a fraction of what was there. That’s stuck in my craw all these years. I had that opportunity and blew it and I know if I had another opportunity like it, I’d approach it differently.”
He’ll get that chance at Grand, where some may see a Florida angler as having little going for him.
“I like my chances because I think the patterns that will work are agreeable to me,” he said. “I’ve fished plenty of reservoirs that time of year, especially during pre-spawn. The late winter is the only question mark because it’ll be about what phase they will be in. If we get a warming trend, they could charge the bank. If winter prevails, it could be full blown winter pattern.
“The lake fishes generally shallow, but I think there will be plenty of fish trying to go shallow, in that less than 10 feet range, and that’s my area.”