By Todd Ceisner
The question was a casual inquiry rooted in sheer curiosity more than a probing demand meant to elicit a meandering response.
“What’s the coolest thing that’s happened since you clinched the Angler of the Year title?”
The swiftness with which Justin Lucas answered indicated there was no contest in his mind. Sure, he and friends and family dined on Wagyu beef and slugged from $200 bottles of whiskey the night he sealed the Elite Series AOY crown at Lake Chatuge in mid-September, but the coolest thing he did before the celebration really got rolling was to say thanks to the man who helped foster his love of bass fishing.
“That’s easy,” Lucas said. “Calling my grandpa on the way from the weigh-in back to where we were staying.”
Jack Schmidt is 80 years old and still resides in West Sacramento, Calif. Still lives in the same house on Ironwood Way that Justin used to ride his bike to through some farm land so they could go fishing together at the California Delta and other lakes in NorCal.
“Just a regular Joe,” is how Justin describes Schmidt.
Jack had watched the weigh-in of the final day of the AOY event online so he was quick to answer when Justin called.
“It didn’t take long to get emotional,” Lucas said. “He could barely talk. I just told him more than anything and more than anyone this trophy was as much his as it was mine. We talked for maybe five minutes, but that’s all that needed to be said.”
For years, Schmidt worked as a truck driver – “worked his ass off,” Lucas said – and wasn’t all that into bass fishing, but as he discovered his grandson’s affinity for the sport, he did what he could to fuel Lucas’ passion. He had an aluminum boat that he used to target catfish, then came a 16-foot fiberglass rig paired with a 90-hp outboard.
It wasn’t long before Schmidt and Lucas began fishing bass tournaments together. Schmidt even labeled the back of the motor cowling with “Justin & Grandpa” atop a dateline of “SOUTHPORT CA”. Further down, toward the exhaust housing and likely just below the water line, was a message directed at their target species: “BIG BASS BITE ME”.
“I started out of that boat when I was 13,” Lucas recalled. “He always got me on the water. He bought what he could afford to get me out there.”
Competing in the Future Pro Tour, a circuit that’s still active in northern California, they entered the small boat category (90 to 100-hp motors) and won a few tournaments and a Team of the Year title. Eventually, Schmidt upgraded to an 18-foot boat with a 150-hp outboard.
“That was a big deal for us,” Lucas said. “It took some learning, but we won the AOY again. What was really cool is he always gave me some winnings, usually $50 or $60. The entry fees were $120, so he kept some winnings to cover expenses, but put the rest in an account.”
Schmidt empowered Lucas to be the de facto boat captain every time out, too.
“He never idled or ran the trolling motor on any of the boats he owned,” Lucas said. “It was all me from the time I was 12 to 17 when we stopped fishing together. I’d back it off the trailer and put it on the trailer.”
Schmidt was a stickler for boat maintenance, though, meaning Lucas had to wipe down the fiberglass and motor every time they loaded the boat.
“We almost missed one of the AOY trophy ceremonies because of that,” Lucas recalled.
At the same time, Lucas had his own enterprising ambitions. He hawked subscriptions to the Sacramento Bee newspaper in front of local grocery stores.
“I’d work two or three hours after school each day and I’d make $80 to $120 a week as a high school kid,” Lucas said. “That was good money.”
Nearly all of it got socked away to buy his own boat some day. That day came when Lucas was 17. He was ready to branch out on his own as an angler and he’d had his eye on a well-used 1981 Ranger. Price tag $2,500. When it came time to pull the trigger, Schmidt contributed $2,000, a portion of their tournament winnings. Lucas was blown away.
“That $2,000 check was huge for a 17-year-old,” Lucas said. “I had a boat that was paid off and some money in the bank.”
It wasn’t the fanciest or flashiest boat, but it carried Lucas into the next phase of his fishing career.
“The carpet was all torn up,” he recalled. “I had to wear goggles when I drove it because so much dust would be flying around. I fished out of that for a few years and upgraded slowly after that.”
In 2010, Lucas left the Sacramento area for good in an effort to build his career as a pro angler in the southeast. He landed in Guntersville, Ala., where he now resides with his wife and their son.
Trips back to California are few and far between now with his busy tournament schedule and sponsor obligations, but it won’t be long before he’s back on the water with grandpa Jack. Lucas’ mom and stepdad are planning to move to Alabama next year and they’re bringing Schmidt with them. To borrow from his West Coast lexicon, Lucas is beyond stoked.
“I used to see him several times a week. Now it’s a couple times a year,” Lucas said.
The next time can’t come soon enough.
“I haven’t seen my grandpa since I won (AOY) so I’ll be having another glass of whiskey with him when I do,” he joked. “We haven’t fished together since I was 22, so I hope to have a few days with him on the water soon. Some of my best memories are fishing tournaments with him.”