By: Pete Robbins
Normally Jason Christie’s offseason would focus on deer hunting and family, and when he’s locked in on a particular deer it becomes an all-encompassing pursuit. This year, however, was quite different.
“I’ve been hunting a deer, one where we know each other by name, and I found myself in the stand looking at Google Earth images of the Sabine River,” said the 2020 Bassmaster Central Opens points champion. “I never do that.”
Indeed, while measures related to COVID-19 have not substantially altered the veteran Park Hill, Okla., pro’s life – “When I’m home, I have quarantined for 47 years,” he said – two years away from Bassmaster Elite Series competition has made him yearn to correct missed opportunities. During three past Elite trips to the Sabine he never finished better than 69th. For an angler who has been in the money three-quarters of the time elsewhere, that’s an aberration that needs to be corrected when he returns as a second-time first-year Elite in 2021.
Indeed, there hasn’t been much failure in Christie’s career. The ultra-competitive former college basketball player has done almost everything that he set out to do, becoming one of the handful of anglers to win over $1 million at both FLW and B.A.S.S. During the earlier part of his career at FLW he won three tour-level events in a three year stretch and qualified for six consecutive Forrest Wood Cups. Upon moving to the Elite Series, he won three more top-level events, to add to two Open victories, and made seven straight Bassmaster Classics. Indeed, he fished a championship every year from 2011 through 2019, and in 2013 and 2014 he fished two of them.
Despite that enviable consistency and success, and despite the expectations of his fans, he’s yet to take home one of the sport’s major titles. In 2017, he finished second in the Elite Series Angler of the Year race to Brandon Palaniuk, who likewise returned to the Elites last year after a brief absence. “I saw him catch a 6-pounder in front of takeoff,” Christie recalled. “Without that fish, it would have been close.”
“Close” has been his trademark in Classic competition, where three times he’s either led or been exceptionally close to the leader heading into the final day of competition. On his home waters of Grand Lake he ended up seventh in 2013 and second in 2016. At Hartwell in 2018, he was third when the scales closed. After temporarily departing B.A.S.S. on the sour note of a 40th-place finish at the Tennessee River in the 2019 Classic, he did not give himself a chance to qualify for the tournament’s 2020 iteration. He failed to win an Open that would’ve put him into the 2021 version on Ray Roberts.
“That’s my one goal this year, to make it back to the Classic,” he said. “You can’t win it unless you’re in it. I have similar emotions to the ones I felt during my first year on the Elite Series. I’m going to experience some butterflies until I get back in my groove.”
For much of 2020, Christie led the overall Opens points standings, and those looking at his comparatively dreadful finishes in the final two Eastern Opens – 123rd at Cherokee and 136th at Lay Lake – may wonder whether those represent an inability to close out the deal or just some sort of late-season fatigue. The reality, however, reflects his will to win better than a finish 80 or 90 positions higher would have done.
“Cherokee and Lay are just vintage me,” he recalled. “I’m going to have one or two bad ones a year. Going into Lay I had a 20- or 30-point lead. I knew that I was locked in (to the 2021 Elite Series) through Central Opens. But I’m a greedy person. Heading into the second day I had an idea that gave me a 15 to 20% chance of catching a ginormous bag. I took that gamble. It was all about getting into the Classic.”
Missing the Classic these past two years, along with failing to make it to Day 3 in 2017 and 2019, have also led him to work the Expo for his sponsors. While he relishes the opportunity to interact with his fans and to support long-term partners like Garmin and newer ones like Xpress boats, three days on the convention center floor tends to be a mental killer.
“Have you ever seen the movie with the little puppet cushions with all of the pins in it?” he asked. “That’s how I feel every time someone asks me, ‘How come you aren’t fishing this one?’”
The best way to remedy that situation is by avoiding it altogether, and that means getting back to the big dance as soon as possible. Of course, the near-misses have taken a psychological toll on him as well. While he could walk away from the game tomorrow secure in the notion that he’d had an exemplary career, the competitive athlete inside of him wants more.
“There are not many people who can go through what I’ve been through,” he said, referring to the Classic disappointments. “Lots of them would’ve not made another cast, quit, opened a pizza restaurant. I want another chance at it. When I do win, it’s going to be crazy. I’ll probably make a lap around every row of the coliseum, high fiving everyone there. Who am I kidding? I’ll probably just lay on the stage on the fetal position and cry for a week.”
Once the trophy is in your grasp, you can react any way you want to it, in public or in private, but you have to win it first – and to win it you can’t be on the Expo floor. That’s what Jason Christie learned in two years away from Elite competition, and this most-decidedly non-rookie-rookie is back with his sights set on places like the Sabine, and then on the Classic beyond it.