Louisiana has for years been sorely under-represented at the Bassmasters Classic, but that all changed this season. Four Louisiana anglers have made it to the big show.
Louisiana bass anglers haven’t had a native son to cheer for during the Bassmasters Classic since 1999, when Baton Rouge’s Rodney Wagley earned a berth in the first New Orleans Classic.
The enthusiasm surrounding Wagley’s appearance at the event soon turned to providing moral support for a man who suffered misfortune the first day followed by tough fishing; he finished 38th.
Before that, it had been years since a Louisiana angler made the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society championship.
This year, the Classic is back in New Orleans for the third time, and there are four reasons for Louisiana anglers to cheer.
One comes in the form of an old hand who made it to the Classic in the 1980s, has made several runs at additional Classic appearances and has been a regular fixture in the pro circuit.
The other three are names and faces that probably would result in puzzled looks on many fans’ faces.
The longtime Louisiana pro is Homer Humphreys Jr., and the less-well-known anglers are Roger Boler, Greg Hackney and Cole Garrett.
Humphreys, Hackney and Garrett hail from North Louisiana. Boler lives in Slidell.
Humphreys and Hackney made this year’s Classic through the Bassmaster Central Open Division. Boler made it through the professional Bassmaster Tour, while Garrett won the central division of the B.A.S.S. National Federation Championship.
But they all have different stories about what brought them to this point in their fishing careers.
Here are the details.
If you had asked any bass-fishing fan outside of the eastern-most Florida Parishes about Roger Boler only six months ago, the odds are a blank stare would have been the response.
The 43-year-old Slidell angler has only been fishing competitively for six or seven years, with most of that time being spent in local events.
He qualified quietly for the Bassmaster Tour during the 2001 season, and had a pretty tough rookie year in 2002 as a professional angler.
He finished 101st.
When the 2003 season began, it appeared that he was in for more struggling.
Boler failed to boat a single weigh-fish during the inaugural event on Florida’s Harris Chain Lakes in January, putting him tied for 165th place with 17 other anglers.
But he quickly shrugged off that defeat, announcing to the world that he wasn’t to be ignored.
Boler placed second during the Tour stop at Lake Okeechobee. The $40,000 in prizes lit a fire under the second-year pro.
Over the course of the next several months, Boler proved himself as one of the most consistent anglers in the nation.
After a 149th-place finish on Toledo Bend, the angler placed 21st at Lake Eufaula and 15th at Santee Cooper to put himself in the top 50 anglers in the circuit.
He hit the water during two California tournaments like a man possessed, placing third on the San Joaquin Delta followed a week later by a 12th-place finish on Clear Lake.
He left the tournament one point behind then-Angler-of-the-Year leader Alton Jones. Boler also was leading the Horizon Award, which recognizes the most-improved angler.
A 33rd-place finish at Lake Hamilton saw Boler fall one place in the Angler of the Year race, but he had clinched a Classic berth.
He wrapped up the regular season with a disappointing 39th-place finish on the Alabama River, but he ended the year in fourth place in the Angler of the Year race.
That’s not too bad.
“I wish I had finished a little stronger in the last two events, but I’m not complaining,” Boler said as he prepared for his first Classic appearance. “The main goal was to qualify for the Classic, and I’ve done that.”
He said the journey began after a couple of buddies he worked with at CLECO urged him to join their bass club several years ago.
“Once I got into the club tournaments, I just got hooked,” Boler said.
That led to competition in local circuits, and then the Bassmaster Open made a stop on the Red River in 1999.
He and a Bogalusa friend put their names on the waiting list, and he was called to fill a spot just before the event began.
Boler finished 27th.
“That kind of lit the fuse big time because I realized I could compete,” he said.
He did two things that led directly to his current status on the world bass-fishing stage: He signed up for the Bassmaster Opens (known as the Invitational circuit at that time) in 2000, and he sat down with his wife to discuss his ambitions.
A 19th overall finish in the 2000 Open circuit qualified him to fish the pro Tour. He told his wife he wanted to quit his 19-year job at CLECO to discover if he could make a living fishing.
“I sat down with my wife to put together sort of a three-year plan,” Boler said.
Strangely enough, his wife Michelle didn’t laugh in his face or kick him out of the house.
“I think she kind of knew deep down where I was headed with this thing,” Boler said. “She’s been so supportive.”
That first season was tough, with money flying out his checkbook as he struggled to transition to the world of professional bass fishing.
“The biggest thing is being away from home with the new Tour setup,” he said. “When they put events back to back, you’re gone a lot.”
He also had to become more consistent and versatile to compete.
“There’s just no let-up in these guys,” Boler said of the top anglers.
And all of that works on one’s mental health.
“It’s just the grind. Your adrenaline gets to flowing so much on (the last day of the event) that it feels like somebody rips the sail out from under you (when it’s over),” he said.
Fortunately, Boler is fairly laid back, and he’s worked hard to stay that way.
“I try not to let the mental side be a major problem,” he said.
He said the key is to put the past tournament’s results behind him so he can focus on what he has to do, a skill he learned playing golf.
“Some of the best rounds I’ve played I started with a double bogie,” he said. “If you don’t put the last hole behind you, you’re going to bogie every time.”
But Boler said he feels growing up in Louisiana helped him develop the versatility to compete against the world’s toughest anglers.
That allowed him to learn how to fish riverine systems, as well as perfect his skills in tidal fishing.
But he also was exposed to reservoir bass.
“When I was a teen I used to do a lot of fishing on Toledo Bend,” Boler said.
And now he’s trying to come to terms with the fact that he will, after only two years as a pro, be facing the media circus surrounding the Bassmasters Classic.
“I was real excited about it, but I’ll be honest — I don’t think it’s really sunken in yet,” he said. “I got so focused on the Angler of the Year race that I haven’t had time to get used to the fact that I’m going to be at the Classic.”
Boler said he feels he has a slight edge on the competition because most of the areas that can be fished during the Classic are his home waters.
“I’ve always said home-field advantage doesn’t mean that much, but it might mean a little more on a delta than on a reservoir,” he said.
That’s because he already knows his way around, so he doesn’t have to spend hours a day pouring over maps to learn the runs.
But he’s already feeling the pressure of being a true home-town angler. That’s focusing a lot of media attention on him.
“I’m still not real comfortable with it,” Boler said of the media. “I’m alright when I’m talking one-on-one, but when I’m in front of all those people I get nervous.
“Hopefully, the more I’m around it, the more confident I’ll get.”
For the time being, he’s focusing on spending time with his 6-year-old son William.
“I want to try to watch (the Classic) through my little boy’s eyes. He’s loving it,” Boler said. “We’ll both be rookies at the Classic.”
Greg Hackney has dreamed of being part of the Bassmasters Classic since he watched Rick Clunn win the 1984 championship in Arkansas.
“I knew right then that’s what I wanted to do,” the 29-year-old Arkansas native and Oak Ridge resident said.
That experience prompted him to jump into competitive fishing, and his father encouraged him.
Everything became focused on fishing.
Even when he graduated and began working at his father’s timber business, he fished.
When he met the woman who later would become his wife, Hackney fished during visits.
“Julie was in LSU, and I would fish the campus lakes when I would go see her,” he said.
By the end of the 1990s, he was ready to try to make a living fishing. He already had won six or seven boats, but he wanted to move to all cash prizes.
He fished the Red Man circuit, qualifying in 1999 to move to the Everstart.
In 2000, he won the eastern division points race and qualified for the FLW Tour.
That same year, Hackney won the OMC World championship on Kentucky Lake. He pocketed $100,000 in cash.
While he won enough money on the FLW Tour to keep him going, he made the decision to fish the 2002 Bassmaster Central Opens and make a bid for a Classic berth.
He did so with style.
Hackney began the three-stop circuit by placing fourth and taking home $17,500 in cash and prizes.
Arkansas’ Lake Ouachita was the site of the circuit’s next competition, and Hackney won the event for another $50,000 in cash and prizes.
He also took over the points race, which determines who from the division would move on to the Classic.
He stumbled during the final event of the season, finishing 9th during the Sam Rayburn tournament.
However, that added another $3,750 in cash to his winnings. He also had been the highest-finishing Ranger owner during the three Open events, so he earned additional bonus money.
More importantly, Hackney had clinched the points race.
His dream had come true — he would compete at the Bassmasters Classic.
Ironically, Hackney didn’t take advantage of the chance to fish the 2002 season of the Bassmaster Tour.
“I had already made the Classic, and that’s what you fish the Tour for,” he explained. “I had already made the Classic, and there’s more money in FLW, so I decided to fish FLW.”
Although Hackney didn’t fish any of the Bassmaster Tour events since he earned his Classic berth, he hasn’t been sitting around.
The young angler has fished all of the FLW Tour events and several Everstart tournaments, showing enough consistency to earn a ranking of 37th in the State Farm-BassFan.com World Rankings.
Hackney said he’s enjoying every minute of his new career, but he admitted that he doesn’t live a normal life.
“You’ve got to be able to sleep in a bed you’ve never seen before during most of the year. You’re never home,” he said. “I thought this was the norm, but it isn’t.
“You’ve got to be weird. All my wife’s family thinks I’m weird.”
But his wife has been very understanding.
“I think she really minds (the lifestyle), but she’s accepting,” Hackney said.
Although older, founded members of the pro fishing elite don’t worry about wining a tournament, Hackney believes it’s vitally important to his being able to make a living.
“The whole deal about getting those sponsors is you’ve got to be recognized by the public. You’ve got to be a household name,” he said.
Currently, he has just four sponsors, and most of those only provide product.
That puts more pressure on Hackney to bring home a paycheck every single tournament.
“I’m always thinking, ‘I’ve got to get a paycheck,’” he said.
That makes Hackney fish differently than more-established pros.
“Take Larry Nixon, for example,” Hackney said. “His living’s made. He’s fishing for glory.
“I like the glory, but you can’t always fish for the glory.”
And that’s how he’s approaching the Classic.
“If nothing else, I’ve got something to prove to myself — that I deserve to be there,” he explained.
The hardest part of competitive fishing at this level, Hackney said, is maintaining a positive mindset.
“You’ve got to keep your composure,” Hackney said. “If I go along a bank and get two bites and miss both, I’ve got to keep in my mind that I can catch the next bite.
“A lot of these tournaments are won in the last 15 minutes.”
Before Slidell’s Boler earned his berth in the Classic, much of the press was hailing Hackney as one of the “local favorites.”
Such press makes Hackney a bit nervous because what he really wants to do is fish.
But he recognizes the symbiotic relationship he has to have with members of the media.
“I’m getting better at (dealing with the press),” Hackney laughed.
Homer Humphreys Jr.
Homer Humphreys Jr. has taken the competitive fishing sport seriously since he made the jump from a meat market manager to a professional angler.
“I’ve missed one tournament during that period of time, and that was due to my dad dying,” the 53-year-old Humphreys said.
The decision that he would make a living fishing while he was tearing up the local circuits around North Louisiana was an easy one.
“I dominated Louisiana and Texas,” he said. “At one time, I had something like 11 or 12 boats in my yard to sell.”
But after he made the jump from local circuit stud to professional rookie, he quickly discovered that he wasn’t the top dog any longer.
“Those boys are bad. They take a number and kick your butt,” Humphreys said. “I thought, ‘I’m good.’ I went out there and got my butt kicked for three or four years.”
The transition was made even harder because he went through a testing period during which the older pros assessed his character.
“They don’t talk to you,” he said. “You’ve got to earn (their) respect.”
Gradually, the other pros began to accept him, but Humphreys recognized there was only one thing that would ensure his ability to make ends meet by catching bass.
“I said, ‘If I can make the Classic, I can make a living at this,’” he said.
And he set out to accomplish that goal, working to gain sponsors and market his name while at the same time fishing the B.A.S.S. circuit as hard as possible.
Humphreys’ hard work and hustle soon prompted B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott to tag the youthful angler with a nickname.
“Ray Scott nicknamed me Humpin’ Homer,” Humphreys said.
He started with only four sponsors, but quickly moved to 20.
“From some of those sponsors I didn’t get but $100 a month, but I had a good income (because of the number of sponsors),” he explained.
He never looked back, as he continued to build a name on and off the water.
The hard work finally paid off during the 1988-89 season, when Humphreys qualified to fish the Classic held on the James River in Virginia.
No sooner than he had qualified, however, he was faced with a very difficult decision.
It was in that year that B.A.S.S. officials announced that only the patches of official B.A.S.S. sponsors could be displayed by anglers.
The pros revolted, threatening to boycott the Classic if the rule wasn’t rescinded.
“I was just sick, but I made the decision that I wouldn’t go,” Humphreys said. “I told them that I’d love to go, but I’m not going to go if I can’t wear patches.”
Joining other anglers in such a stance helped endear him to older pros.
Fortunately, B.A.S.S. backed down, and the Classic was held as scheduled.
Humphreys didn’t win that event, placing 27th, but the experience proved to the angler that he was good enough to compete against the world’s finest anglers.
He made several runs at Classic berths during the following years, but it wasn’t until this season that everything clicked.
He learned valuable lessons along the way that he was able to turn to his advantage.
For instance, he realized that results couldn’t be dwelled upon.
“You learn real quickly what the agony of defeat is,” Humphreys said. “The high that you’re on all of a sudden crashes. It’s a mental thing.”
So he never looks back after a tournament, preferring to look toward the next event.
“You have to develop a tough skin. I’m pretty rough on myself, but you learn to control things like that,” Humphreys said.
He also knows that winning tournaments doesn’t translate into wealth — the money is in those sponsors that pay your day-to-day bills.
“Winning a tournament helps; they want you for who you are,” Humphreys said. “When it comes to sponsors, they want you to be able to talk chateau brion or T-bone steak.”
So he has concentrated on selling himself to a stable of sponsors that, when all the money is pooled together, provide Humphreys a comfortable living.
Even when it comes to a big win, such as the 2002 Bassmaster Central Open he won last year that set the stage for his 2003 Classic appearance, Humphreys said he doesn’t think it is as important to the sponsors as his sellability.
“I needed that for Homer more than I needed it for anybody else,” he said.
But he also has learned that a fine balance between sponsor obligations and time on the water allows his fishing to improve.
“I normally try to do 20 to 30 seminars a year. I’ve cut back to about 10,” he said. “I elect to spend more time on the water.”
While he doesn’t believe sponsors sign anglers because of their fishing records, Humphreys said excelling on the pro circuit means that more people in the general public recognize his name.
And that, he said, is what sponsors look at.
But Humphreys said he’s not taking his second chance at the Classic title lightly.
“I’ve got my maps right here by my table. I may study them for hours,” he said.
That’s especially important in this Classic, since the waters open for fishing stretch across about half of Louisiana’s coast.
He’ll also spend the week of practice during June probing around and trying to narrow down the choices.
When it comes down to the competition, Humphreys said he’ll approach it like any other tournament.
“I want a top-10 finish, but I really want to win,” he said.
Winning, or at least finishing in the top 10, is vitally important even to an established pro like Humphreys.
“It’s such a big game down there,” he said. “They say no one remembers who finishes second, but you let me finish second, and I’m going to make nearly as much (on endorsements) as that fellow who wins it.”
No matter the outcome, Humphreys said when the 2003 Classic is over, he’ll move on to the next stage of his career.
“I’m going to go on making a super living whether I win it or finish dead last, but I’ve got the ability to win it,” he said.
Making the Classic is tough, no matter how you go about it.
But earning a berth through the B.A.S.S. Federation system is, without a doubt, the toughest route.
First, there are only three tournaments — two state and one regional — before the national championship.
Then there is the fact that Federation anglers control the boat in which they are fishing for only half of each day.
That means consistency, versatility and being able to catch fish you haven’t scouted out is necessary to make the final cut.
Cole Garrett of Calvin has done that on his first try, winning the Central Division championship on Alabama’s Lake Tuscaloosa.
But the Classic appearance he has earned wasn’t something he just stumbled upon.
“That’s why I got into tournament fishing. I’ve been thinking about it my entire life,” the 29-year-old equipment operator said. “I said, ‘You can fish for a living? That’s what I want to do.’”
So he began fishing tournaments around his North Louisiana home when he was about 12, and he incorporated his the sport into his job.
“We put pipelines in all over the country,” Garrett said. “The first thing I ask (when he goes on a new job) is, ‘Is there good fishing?’
“That’s all I’m worried about.”
He credits the exposure to such diverse fishing waters and conditions for the ability to win on the Federation format, but he said he first realized that he could really make the Classic during the regional tournament.
That allowed him to focus on the national championship.
“When I went to Tuscaloosa, I had only one thing on my mind — that I was going to win,” Garrett said. “I wish I could have won the overall title, but at least I won the division.”
He’s still haunted by the $45,000 check he watched slip away when he lost a 4-pound fish during the championship.
“I had a 4-pounder on that would have done it for me,” Garrett explained. “I got beat by a couple of pounds.
“It still bothers me.”
He said a factor in losing that bass could have been the media attention he received.
“I had a camera boat with me two days,” Garrett said. “I think I was doing a little bit more talking than focusing.”
That experience could benefit him during the media fest known as the Classic.
“You’ve got to be tuned when you get to the level of the Classic,” he explained. “I think I’ll be able to focus better.”
Despite being what most would consider a long shot to win the Classic, Garrett said he’s prepared to match skills against the world’s top pros.
“I believe I fish against some of the best (anglers) around here,” he said. “I think I know what it takes to win. I have plenty of confidence; I’m not intimidated by the pros.”
He was, however, having to split his preparation time between the Classic and the Federation Central Division regional tournament, which he fished in mid June.
Results were not available by press time.
But he was confident that his focus on the Classic would not be affected.
“I don’t think I’m concentrating on the regional like I should be,” he said. “I’m just going up there to have fun.”
When it comes to the Classic, however, he will be fishing to prove that he’s one of the best in the country — and to begin what he hopes will be a career.
“I hope it can be the start of a career,” Garrett said. “I have a guaranteed entry into the Central Opens, and my plans are that I’m going to do that.”
But parlaying this Classic experience into a full-time job means doing well at the event.
“I’m aware that the higher I finish, the better chance I have of picking up some sponsors.”