Back in 1995, Craig Johnson told his father of his goal to become a professional bass fisherman.
"He had a big smile on his face and said that if that's what I wanted to do to go ahead and do it," Johnson said during an interview. Seven months later, his father, Jim (Mike) Johnson, died.
Today, Johnson is in the middle of a quantum leap toward realizing his goal. He won the recent Bass Fishing League Regional on West Point Lake on the Georgia-Alabama border and qualified to fish in the BFL's All-American Championship on the Mobile (Ala.) Delta next May.
The winner will earn $100,000.
"Winning it would mean a big change in my lifestyle," said the 30-year-old Martinez angler, who feels his chances are just as good as the others in the field.
He is the first Augusta area angler to gain the prestigious event since Thurston Hall of Martinez twice qualified for the All-American several years ago.
Things have been going slowly but surely since the Hot Springs, Ark., native embarked on the road to the pros. A sympathetic boss and co-workers at Alpha Sports Warehouse where he is supervisor and support from his wife, Crystal, have allowed Johnson the time and the means to compete on the BFL Tournament Trail.
"My wife doesn't like to fish, but she understands why I have to do what I'm doing, which keeps me away from home a lot. She's the best wife in the world."
Johnson believes he was born to go fishing.
"When I was a month old, Dad took me and two other siblings out in the boat. The lapping of waves against the boat hull lulled me to sleep. I caught my first bass by myself when I was 2 1/2 years old on a white grub in Lake Ouachita. You couldn't keep me off the water after that."
His father tried his hand at professional bass fishing during the early 1970s, "but there wasn't much money in tournaments back then, even if you won."
But the elder Johnson had another claim to fame. He designed the first "Big O" crankbaits, hand-carving the highly popular lures from balsa wood. He later sold the design to Tennessee lure maker Cotton Cordell.
The younger Johnson came to Augusta nine years ago from Wilmington, N.C., to take a job. He bought his first bass boat - a 14-foot Aquatron with a 40-h.p. Nissan outboard motor, a far cry from his 21-foot-long Triton and 225-h.p. Johnson outboard today.
"Thanks to my shift work, I was able to fish Clarks Hill (Thurmond) Lake every day. I just couldn't get enough of it. That first boat wasn't very fast and I couldn't cover areas of the lake I do today, but it made me a better fisherman. It made me fish areas more thoroughly than normal.
"I had no patience at first, but I soon learned that's what it takes to become a professional bass fisherman."
Before he took the job at Alpha Sports, he told his employers that he had to go fishing four or five weeks a year.
"The company allows me to do that, but if it wasn't for the persistence of my co-workers, I wouldn't have fished the regional at West Point because we were so busy. My people said to go and owner Mike Tomberlin gave his OK."
When he arrived at the lake near LaGrange, Ga., Johnson wondered if he hadn't made a mistake because things started to go wrong.
"The hotel was overcrowded, but my wife found another. I take my own pillows on trips because the ones you find where you stay are usually flat. When I changed hotels, I left my pillows there and no one could find them. The day on the lake before the tournament, I caught only one keeper. A seal blew on my boat trailer and its brakes failed. My first-day partner ran my truck into another boat trailer as he was pulling up the ramp after launching. The harbor where we launched was fogged in, but unbeknown to many of us, the lake was clear and we were late starting. My amateur partner had outfished me 4-1 by mid-morning."
Things started to get better when "I caught a 5-pound, 15-ounce bass, but I lost a 6-pounder when it got tangled in some brush."
Johnson felt the tournament would be won in the Chattahoochee River section of the lake. It had been raining, the lake had come up seven feet and the surface temperature dropped into the 50s.
"The river was red-clay-colored and rolling with logs, sticks and all kinds of balls - basketballs, footballs, volleyballs, soccer balls, any kind of ball you'd ever want, apparently washed away from recreation areas upstream."
Johnson's strategy was simple. Before leaving for the tournament, he had Martinez-based Buckeye Lures make up five spinnerbaits with over-sized gold blades and chartreuse-and-white skirts.
"I slow-rolled the spinnerbaits on the main river points, making them bump against submerged tree limbs, and when I did that, I'd get a strike. The thing was to retrieve the lure slowly. I caught 5-pound, 15-ounce and 4-pound, 5-ounce bass on a point where five basketballs had lodged."
On the final day, Johnson arrived at his productive quarter-mile-long area only to discover 25 boats on the scene. "Some were competitors, others were local, so I just sat and waited with no fish in my boat.
"A local guy finally backed off and I made a cast and caught a spotted bass of about 2 pounds. He had fished it for 30 minutes, but hadn't had a strike. I caught a 4-pound, 5-ounce fish and then lost two others. I left and went to another area, having to jump my boat over logs to get there."
He took in just two bass weighing 6 pounds, 15 ounces and wound up the two-day event with five bass weighing 16 pounds, 4 ounces. Those two fish on the final day gave him the title over the runner-up, who had 14 pounds, 10 ounces.
He called his wife. 'How'd it go?' she asked. "I just caught two fish today," adding, 'they were good enough to win! She went bananas and I held the receiver away from my ear so everyone in the room could hear her screams."
She will accompany her husband on the all-expense-paid trip to Alabama next May.
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