By adjusting priorities and landing key big bites, John Garrett finds himself four tournaments away from achieving his goal of qualifying for the Bassmaster Elite Series.
With two fourth-place finishes to start the 2023 St. Croix Rods Bassmaster Opens season at Lake Eufaula, Ala., and Toledo Bend; an 18th at Buggs Island; 23rd at Wheeler Lake; and a top 30 finish at the last event at Lake Eufaula, Okla., the Union City, Tenn., pro leads the Bassmaster Opens Elite Qualifier standings with 926 points after five events.
The 2016 College Classic Bracket champion is followed by Trey McKinney in second with 921 points, Elite Series pro Kenta Kimura in third with 910 points, 2023 Bassmaster Classic qualifier JT Thompkins in fourth with 893 points and 2022 Classic qualifier Keith Tuma in fifth with 878 points.
The top nine anglers in the Opens EQ points at the conclusion of the season, given they aren’t already Elite Series anglers like Kimura, will receive invites to the 2024 Elite Series roster.
Garrett has been close before. He missed an invite by one point in the Central Opens standings in 2021. Then in 2022, he finished 11th in the overall standings and seventh in the Northern Opens race.
During those seasons, Garrett entered each tournament looking solely for the quality of bass to win. The results varied, either resulting in a top 20 finish or a finish that was subpar. Often, particularly in 2022, Garrett salvaged his tournaments with a great Day 2 bag after finding himself middle of the pack or lower after the first competition day.
With the exception of the recent Oklahoma event, Garrett has put together solid back-to-back days at each Open this year.
“In the past, I went out looking for how to win a tournament,” Garrett said. “That showed in my results. I’d Top 10, then finish 150th. This year, I have put something ahead of that: How can I survive?
“The first thing is just figuring out how to get bites, then I try to find winning fish. That is what I’m doing. I want to figure out how to get a few fish in the boat and limits and then expand to find size throughout practice.”
Part of that adjustment is putting a greater focus on the Day 1 weather, and then practicing around those conditions so he can maximize his second day adjustments.
“I have been really trying to lean heavy on Day 1 and then do the same adjustments I did last year on Day 2. It has worked out,” Garrett added.
Even at Buggs Island and at Oklahoma’s Lake Eufaula, fisheries more known for shallow-water tactics, Garrett fished to offshore strengths at every venue, even if it is just one spot like he had in Oklahoma.
In the middle of running his pattern for the week, Garrett has been lucky enough to find a big bass, oftentimes off the beaten path and doing something unrelated to how he caught the rest of his bag.
“I’ve been super fortunate each tournament with one big bite. Every tournament this year I have gotten one,” Garrett said. “This year I will run my pattern, and then I’ll try something new and catch a big one.”
“I haven’t had that in my career to this point. I’m not saying I’m doing something right, maybe the Lord is looking down on me, I don’t know.”
His one really bad day so far this season happened to come at the most recent event in Oklahoma. Following an 18-5 Day 1 performance that had him tied for second, Garrett only caught two bass on Day 2 when a downpour caused all of his bass to vacate his best and only deep spot.
Garrett said he literally watched the bass rise off the bottom on his forward-facing sonar and swim off. Fortunately for him, many other anglers struggled on Day 2 and Garrett finished in 30th place.
“I was afraid this day was coming,” Garrett said after he weighed his fish on Day 2. “This was like 12 good tournaments in a row I’ve had, and I kept telling my wife that this day was going to come. Unfortunately, it was today.”
Even with the disappointing finish in Oklahoma, Garrett knows every finish above 50th gets him one step closer to his goal of qualifying for the Elite Series.
“Day 1 was everything. To get that weight and scrounge up something today, in the broad scheme of things a top 50 is gold. Especially if this is my worst tournament of the year. It is a little more room to play with come Watts Bar or the Ozarks.
“Racking up points, that is what it is about the next four tournaments.”
McKinney turning heads at 18
When pondering his future last fall, a then 17-year-old Trey McKinney wasn’t sure he was ready to jump into the Opens EQ race. Facing seasoned anglers from across the country can be a daunting task, but the youngster from Illinois is impressive through his five events of pro level competition.
“You look at the roster, it was a little scary for me,” McKinney said. “Everyone told me that when you are scared, that is the time to jump sometimes. That’s what I did. We prayed about it forever. It was a lot of money for me at the time. It has been a good choice.”
Turning 18 years old the week before the first event at Lake Eufaula, Ala., McKinney has notched three Top 10 finishes, including two runner-up finishes, and his worst performance of the season was a 54th at Buggs Island. Now in second-place, McKinney is in position to become the second-youngest angler ever to qualify for the Elite Series.
“Our goal is to make the Elites, and the Classic would be a bonus,” McKinney said. “I’m blessed just to be where I’m at. I didn’t even think I was going to fish the Opens.”
“I thought if I could get close to a check for a good finish and stay in that range, I thought I maybe could get to the Elites. This year has been unreal. I don’t believe it.”
While it’s happening very quickly, McKinney’s success isn’t all that surprising when considering his accomplishments at the youth level. He and partner Carter Wijangco won the 2018 Junior Bassmaster National Championship, as well as the 2018 TBF FLW Junior World Championship and the USA Bassin Next Generation Classic.
From there, McKinney added several BFL victories to his resume as well as competitive finishes in his home state of Illinois and beyond.
Four tournaments now stand between McKinney and an Elite Series berth. He’s trying not to think about that aspect of it. He’s just trying to make the most of every tournament from this point forward.
“Hopefully we can go on up to the Northern Swing and continue the journey,” McKinney said. “It is going to be interesting. Hopefully the Lord has a good path, and if we are ready to get to the Elites, I’m going to make it. If not, it’s alright.”
In the hunt
Matt Henry, Robert Gee, Ben Milliken, Joey Nania and Kyle Patrick round out the Top 10 in points. All continued impressive seasons at Lake Eufaula in June. If the season ended today, Patrick would be the final angler to make the Elite Series in 10th place.
With four events to go, however, there are plenty of anglers who could make big jumps up the standings. Brett Cannon and Logan Parks are just a couple of points behind Patrick. Northern pros Jamie Bruce and Tyler Williams could make up lots of ground at the next event on the St. Lawrence River.
Kyle Austin and Sam George, both of whom have just missed Elite berths in the past, are knocking on the door as well and have faced the difficult finish to an Opens season before. Seasoned pros like Casey Scanlon, Dale Hightower, Andrew Upshaw and Bobby Lane are all in the top 25 too and have years of grinder tournaments under their belts.