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|Lucas gains big lead as Bertrand stumbles.|
He hasn’t been sleeping well. He’s been waking up in the middle of the night with his mind racing about this week’s Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship.
But after Thursday, he should rest a little better — and with two more days just like it, he’ll probably get some of the best sleep of his life.
Lucas, who finished the regular season as the leader in the AOY standings, caught five bass that weighed 13 pounds, 6 ounces during Thursday’s opening round of the AOY Championship on Lake Chatuge. That stretched his lead in the standings from nine points to a whopping 53 over second-place angler Josh Bertrand — and put him in prime position for a major career boost and the $100,000 bonus that goes with it.
“I just want that AOY trophy,” Lucas said emphatically. “You know I want to win this tournament this week. But I’d be 100 percent satisfied with a Top 8 finish. I’d be 100 percent satisfied if I finish eight points ahead of Josh.
“That AOY trophy is all I care about.”
As with past years, the AOY Championship is basically two events in one. First and foremost, it’s designed to bring closure to a nine-event Bassmaster Elite Series schedule that began in February on Alabama’s Lake Martin. It pays $1 million to the 50 AOY qualifiers based on their points totals at the end of the event, except for $25,000 going to the winner of the tournament.
Lucas, who grew up in California and now lives in Alabama, built his regular-season lead with five Top 12 finishes, including four in a row to end the season. He rode that momentum into Thursday’s first round and managed a double-digit weight despite tough fishing conditions on Chatuge.
The fishery, which is known for its giant populations of spotted bass and blueback herring, has proved difficult for the anglers since the official practice period began Monday. It was particularly tough Thursday for Bertrand — an Arizona native and a longtime friend of Lucas.
Bertrand, whose wife Chantel is back home in Arizona more than eight months pregnant, brought only two keepers to the scales that weighed 2 pounds, 13 ounces. That weight ranked last out of 50 competitors.
“That was a big stumble on his part, and he knows that,” Lucas said. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t stumble tomorrow. With the way things are going, every day here is a completely new day.”
Bertrand said he had a “brutal day,” missing fish after fish.
“I had probably 20 bites,” said the winner of the final regular-season Elite Series event on the St. Lawrence River. “Most of them I didn’t even hook. I had maybe two or three fish more on — and I actually had one more keeper in the boat that I threw back.
“I thought I would catch plenty of keepers, but it didn’t work that way.”
Running concurrent with this week’s AOY storyline is the outcome of the tournament itself. The angler who catches the heaviest three-day weight this week will earn $25,000 and one of the coveted blue trophies that punctuates every Elite Series event.
Oklahoma pro James Elam took the lead in that pursuit Thursday with an impressive limit of spotted bass that weighed 16-10. But like the rest of the field, he lamented the tough fishing on Chatuge.
“It’s so frustrating because they’re so picky and it’s so hard to catch them,” Elam said. “You lose so many. But I was lucky to get five of the right ones in the boat.”
Elam said he actually figured the fish out a little as the day went on.
“I caught them early enough that I was able to do some different things later in the day,” he said. “That let me cull a couple of times, and it helped me learn some things that might help me tomorrow.”
The tournament will resume Friday, with takeoff at 7:10 a.m. ET from Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds and weigh-in back at the Fairgrounds at 3:30 p.m. The anglers will take Saturday away from the lake for the Elite Expo, which will include boat demo rides, the latest vehicles from Toyota, the Berkley Experience trailer with its live aquarium and more.
All 50 of the Bassmaster Elite Series AOY contenders will attend the Expo at Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds before competing Sunday to decide the AOY season championship and the tournament winner.