Things looked bleak for Derek Hudnall after a tournament disqualification, but the Louisiana angler has battled back into position for a potential fairy tale finish.
“It was very grim,” Hudnall said of his situation after self-reporting a practice violation and taking a zero for the Lake Hartwell event. “I honestly thought when that happened, ‘I’m not going to make the 50th anniversary Classic.’”
Hudnall now has a chance as he sits on the bubble heading into the Cherokee Casino Bassmaster Elite at Tenkiller Lake, Sept. 19-22. He’s 46th in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings with 461 points. A good finish will qualify him among the 50 who advance to the AOY Championship on Lake St. Clair, Sept. 29-Oct. 1, where the AOY title will be decided as well as berths to the 50th Bassmaster Classic on Lake Guntersville.
“I know I’m right there,” he said. “I’m only 14 points out of the Classic cut and six points from dropping out of the top 50. There’s like 10 or 12 of us who are right in there together, and this tournament could really make or break getting to St. Clair, or the Classic.”
If not for having the wrong date of the off limits to practice on Lake Hartwell, Hudnall would more than likely be well within both cuts. Weather had him stay to pre-practice Hartwell instead of moving on to research Winyah Bay. He realized his mistake one day too late, reported his violation and took the punishment of a disqualification.
Scoring no points in the event dropped him from 43rd in the AOY standings to 70th and gave him little hope of his dream of qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic. He couldn’t make up any ground at the next event on Winyah Bay, but he didn’t give up altogether and worked to salvage the season.
“I was telling myself, ‘I’m done,’ then I had a 14th at Lake Fork, and I starting having some good finishes,” he said. “After that first one in New York, I said, ‘Hold on. I can do this.’ I had another decent one at Cayuga, and I said, ‘OK, I’m’ right there.’”
A 25th at the St. Lawrence River jumped him up to 54th, then his 29th at Cayuga Lake landed him in 46th. The projected Classic cut, currently 42nd place, is held by Clark Wendlandt with 475 points. Making up ground in two events is not out of the question.
“In my mind, it’s just one at a time,” he said. “If I can just stay in the top 50 and give myself a chance at St. Clair — I’m not a specialist at smallmouth but have fun catching them.”
Missing an event and qualifying for the Classic has been done before. Kevin Short accomplished the feat in 2014 after leaving a tournament when his home was damaged by a tornado. If he makes the Classic, Hudnall said it would be a great comeback tale.
“I get that all the time now, the voices, ‘How good of a story is that going to be?’” he said. “But it’s just one at a time.”
Hudnall can lament not filling out his limit on Day 1 at Cayuga, but he’d also have to count his blessings that one of his three fish in a 15-pound, 14-ounce bag was an 8-1 lunker. It not only earned him Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the tournament, but without it he would have lost 20 points or more.
“That 8-pounder saved my rear,” Hudnall said. “Little things like that throughout the season have kind of kept me back in there. I could have weighed in 24 pounds on that first day.”
Studying up on Cayuga, Hudnall discovered that most of the anglers would concentrate on the north end of the lake where the larger population of bass lived in shallower flats.
“I’m not a crowd guy, so I spend zero time on the north end,” he said. “I stayed south all three days. I just wasn’t getting manu bites, but when I got one, it was a biggin’. There was no consistency on the largemouth, but I had those smallmouth pegged.”