By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
On the second day of fall, Justin Lucas realized the full rewards for his red-hot summer.
Lucas wrapped up a phenomenal second half of the 2018 season on Sunday by claiming the B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year title. He came into the AOY Championship event at Georgia's Lake Chatuge with a 9-point lead in the standings and logged his fifth straight top-12 placement, finishing 7th for a 51-point margin of victory over good buddy and former road roommate Josh Bertrand.
"It's just a relief more than anything," said the 32-year-old Lucas, who was joined on stage for the trophy presentation by many family members and friends. "It's something you start thinking you have a chance at winning at a certain point in the year – that if you don't mess up and get on a streak, this could be the year.
"I was watching all the guys weighing in before me, a lot of amazing fishermen, and I was saying to myself, 'this guy hasn't won it, that guy hasn't won it.' That tells you how truly elite it is. Finding out that I'm only the 23rd guy to ever win it is an insane number that's really hard to believe."
Bertrand, who struggled badly over the first 2 days at Chatuge, didn't compete on day 3, choosing to return to Arizona to be with wife Chantel, who's set to deliver their second child anytime now. His absence made no difference in the final standings, as he could not have surpassed Lucas by nine places on the final points list and could not have been passed by anyone beneath him.
"It was important for me to go out there and catch them really good today (he boxed 11-14 for a 39-00 total) so that Josh wouldn't have any doubts," Lucas said. "He's a great friend and I wanted him to know that he wasn't going to catch me. I didn't want to make him feel bad by catching one fish or something like that."
Bertrand said he was "super-happy" for his pal.
James Elam was a wire-to-wire winner at the AOY Championship.
"He 100-percent deserved it," Bertrand said. "He's probably the most disciplined and hardest-working guy I know, not just in fishing, but in anything. His finish (in the tournament) is something I literally expected before the tournament even started – he's just been fishing so well."
James Elam closed out a wire-to-wire victory in the tournament with a 15-00 stringer that gave him a 48-08 total. Chris Lane, who narrowly missed climbing inside the Classic cutoff after starting the derby in 45th place, finished 2nd with 44-11.
Jacob Wheeler (44-06) ended up 3rd, with Brent Ehrler (42-01) 4th and Jason Christie (39-01) 5th. The remainder of the top 10 consisted of Micah Frazier (39-01), Lucas (39-00), Edwin Evers (37-08), 2017 AOY Brandon Palaniuk (35-13) and Bradley Roy (35-09).
The top 35 on the final points list are locks for next year's Classic on the Tennessee River out of Knoxville, Tenn. The cutoff will assuredly go down at least one more rung, as Bobby Lane is set to become a double-qualifier via the Bassmaster Opens. Wesley Strader, who ended up at No. 35 in the points, could join him in that capacity with a strong showing at next month's Opens Championship at Table Rock Lake.
Once that scenario has been determined, the next 16 anglers on the Elite points list without a Classic bid in hand will compete in the Classic Bracket event at Georgia's Carters Lake. Three berths will be earned there.
Christie, who's finished among the top 3 in two of the past three Classics, and Frazier were the two anglers who fished their way inside the top 35 at Chatuge. They supplanted Scott Rook and Jared Lintner among that group.
"It's good when you go in feeling like your back's against a corner and you need to pull a rabbit out of the hat and things work out in the right way," said Christie, who qualified for his seventh straight Classic. "I wouldn't want them to have a Classic in the spring and me not be there. Plus, it gives me an extra week of deer hunting, not having to go to the Bracket event. That was a big part of my motivation right there."
The Chatuge performance wrapped up a run of brilliance by Lucas that started with a 10th at the Sabine River, an 11th at the Mississippi River, a 9th at Lake Oahe and a 2nd (to Bertrand) at the St. Lawrence River. He opened the season with a 6th at Lake Martin and just missed a seventh top 12 when he was 13th at Grand Lake in the next outing.
Jake Whitaker edged out Roy Hawk for the Rookie of the Year title.
"I was 2nd in the points after the first two tournaments and then I had two where I didn't do real well (a 73rd at Kentucky Lake and a 48th at Lake Travis)," he said. "Then I had the three top-12s in a row in June and I just tried to keep it rolling.
"Sure enough, I ended up with five top-12s in a row. No matter who you are, if you make five top-12s in a season, you're most likely going to win AOY."
His 11-14 final-day bag was his smallest of the event. He could've zeroed and still won the AOY, but his goal for the tournament was a top-9 that would've frozen out Bertrand no matter what the latter caught over the entire course of the derby.
"It didn't really sink in until (two-time AOY) Gerald Swindle hopped in my boat before I weighed in and told me to look around and soak everything in and enjoy the moment because it's something you've always worked for," said Lucas, who threw the brand-new Berkley Cane Walker topwater plug all 3 days and earned $100,000 for the points championship. "Kevin VanDam (a seven-time AOY) said pretty much the same thing. It was cool to hear that from two guys who I've looked up to for so long."
Jake Whitaker wrapped up the Rookie of the Year title with a 15th-place finish in the tournament. That was eight places higher than Roy Hawk, whom he trailed by 4 points entering the event. Both will advance to the Classic – Whitaker landed at 27th in the final points and Hawk was 29th.
Elam was thrilled to leave Georgia with his first blue trophy after averaging slightly more than 16 pounds per day on a small fishery that received intense pressure over the past week. His arsenal consisted of several baits – a jerkbait, a fluke and a wakebait in the mornings and a spoon and a Pencil Popper-type topwater the rest of the day.
"Man, I can't tell you how good this feels," he said. "I've been trying to win one for 6 years and at times it's seemed unobtainable. I've been close before and I've been on the right deals before, but it hadn't worked out. This time it did – it was my week and I took advantage of it."
He had about 10 pounds in his livewell at 1 o'clock and was certain that wouldn't be enough to win. He then caught a trio of 3-pound spotted bass from one location and added another at his next stop.
"I finally landed on a place that had some active fish. After that, I was pretty dang sure (that he'd clinched the win) – you get these gut feelings and you just know. The fishing was tougher for me today and I knew it had probably gotten tougher for everybody else, too.
"I did what I had to do – I caught 15 pounds."