New Iberia's Caleb Sumrall has been on a fishing roll, culminating in this weekend's victory at the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship on South Carolina's Lake Hartwell — a win that earned him a berth in the 2018 Bassmaster Classic and an invitation to join the 2018 Elite Series.
"It's truly unbelievable," Sumrall told LouisianaSportsman.com about his invitation to the Classic. "It's why we do this."
Sumrall said he plans to step up to the Bassmaster Elite Series level next year, since he was laid off from his oil field service job in August and his his B.A.S.S. Nation Championship prize package includes a rigged-out ZX200 Skeeter and entry fees for three Elite Series events.
"I'm going to do it," he said about the Elite Series. "It's a dream come true. I may get my butt kicked, and turn tail and run, but at least I can say I did it trying."
Sumrall said he focused on the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship after losing his day job.
"We were all in for this event, with the goal of making the Classic," he said.
So he spent a full week on Lake Hartwell during the official pre-practice period and hung around until the amateur championship event began.
"I fished on some neighboring lakes," Sumrall said. "It helped me get a feel for what was going on over there. It helped me get a little more practice with schooling fish."
But his practice on Hartwell left a lot to be desired.
"I had a terrible practice," Sumrall said. "I knew I wanted to get a shallow bite; I ran way up the river to try to make it happen. In three days of practice, I had six keepers.
"I really wasn't confident in what I was going to do or (what I was going to) start on on tournament day."
So he chunked his river pattern and spent his first day in the main lake cranking a Strike King 5XD over a shoal in about 15 feet of water.
"I caught three fish pretty quick," Sumrall said. "They weren't any size."
So he headed to another spot where he had seen some nice bass schooling, and discovered why they were holding in the area.
"There was a big patch of hydrilla, which is pretty rare on Hartwell," Sumrall said.
Almost on cue, clouds obscured the sun. And the angler remembered something someone else told him.
"A buddy told me he caught them on a Fluke, but it had to be cloudy," Sumrall said. "I picked up a Fluke and caught my best two fish of the first day on back-to-back casts."
He worked the hydrilla patch with the Fluke whenever cloud cover allowed.
"In between, I was drop-shotting to get my limit," Sumrall said.
He ended the day with 11 pounds, 5 ounces to land in ninth place.
Sumrall started where he left off on Day 2.
"I knew I needed to get an early bite with the Fluke," he said. "I caught a 3-pound (spotted bass) quickly, and then I caught a couple of 2-pounders drop-shotting in about 35 feet of water."
Soon, however, the angler moved to an area in which he knew fish were schooling.
"You just had to be quick with the casts," Sumrall said. "If you caught them in a frenzy and got a bait out there before they ate live bait, you could get a bite."
He missed his first shots, but remained vigilant.
"I finally threw my bait in the mix and caught my best fish of the tournament — a 5-15, which was the second-biggest fish of the tournmant," Sumrall said. "I culled a 13-ounce fish."
He continued working the area, but he only hooked up when bass were actively feeding.
"If the fish were not schooling, you couldn't catch them," Sumrall explained.
He used an unconventional approach to keep the school working the rest of the morning.
"I would get my boat fired up and run circles," Sumrall said. "Almost immediately the fish would start schooling. (The bass) were not afraid of the boat, but it would scare the bait out and activate the (bass)."
He surged to a 15-10 limit, which moved him into second place — just 3 pounds out of the lead held by Arkansas' Tray Huddleson.
When he launched for the final day of the Championship, Surmall wasn't focusing on the top spot.
"I told myself I needed to go catch a limit and secure a Classic spot," he said. "I didn't want to put pressure on myself to win the event."
The top three anglers in the event earned invitations to the 2018 Bassmaster Classic.
Sumrall's day started disastrously, however.
"I lost a 3-, 3 1/2-pounder halfway to the boat," he said. "I lost another 3 1/2-pounder off the side of the boat."
And the schooling action just wasn't happening down the lake.
By 1 p.m., he had a single keeper in the boat.
"I told my marshall, 'I really need to get a limit,'" Sumrall said.
To do so, the angler made another adjustment, running 20 minutes up the lake to within minutes of the launch site to pound on a couple of points.
He finally added a 2 1/4-pound bass to the livewell, and the action picked up.
"I caught three (fish) in, like, five casts," Sumrall said.
That relieved the pressure.
"I was feeling pinched by 1 p.m. with one fish in the boat," Sumrall said.
The angler ran back down the lake to check the shoal, but only gave it 20 unsuccessful minutes before heading back to the area near the weigh-in.
"I made three culls," Sumrall said. "My last cull was at 3:23, and I was due back at 3:30."
The effort yielded a 9-13 limit, earning him the overall victory.
Sumrall joins Louisiana Elite Series pro Greg Hackney at the 2018 Bassmaster Classic, which will be held at Lake Hartwell on March 16-18.
Sumrall said he's looking forward to returning to Hartwell for the world championship event.
"The good thing is I've seen a lot of the lake," he said. "I covered every creek, corner and cover I could. I have a good mind about what will be going on.
"It will be a totally different deal, of course."
He encouraged tournament anglers to participate in B.A.S.S Nation tournaments as a means of not only reaching the Bassmaster Classic but moving up to the Elite Series.
"It's just an awesome road," Sumrall said. "The Nation really paves out a road that makes it happen. It's a gigantic step up to getting the Elite Series going.
"But if I can do it, anybody can."