Cooper Gallant poses after winning the 2022 St. Croix Bassmaster Southern Open at Cherokee Lake in Jefferson County, Tenn., in this April 2, 2022 handout photo. Gallant has achieved his long-standing goal of qualifying to compete on the Elite Series, pro bass fishing's top circuit. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Bassmaster, Andy Crawford

Canadian angler Cooper Gallant qualifies to compete on Elite Series in 2023

For the first time this year, Cooper Gallant will fish totally for fun.

There’ll be no pressure on the 24-year-old Bowmanville, Ont., native at the season-ending Bassmaster Central Open event that begins Thursday on Sam Rayburn Reservoir in Jasper, Tex. That’s because Gallant has already achieved his long-standing goal of qualifying for the Elite Series, pro bass fishing’s top circuit.

Gallant earned a ‘23 berth after last weekend’s 14th-place finish in the last Southern Open tournament at South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell. He stood tied for 39th after the first day of competition.

Gallant qualified for the Elite Series by finishing third in the Southern standings. The top three finishers earned spots.

“The pressure is definitely off a lot more now but I still want to go there and work just as hard as I would had I not qualified,” Gallant said in a telephone interview. “My goal going in is still to win.

“To be honest, I’m still on Cloud Nine and expect I will be for quite some time. It took a couple of days but once I started getting calls from family and friends and people reached out on social media, it started to hit me. The Elites is all I’ve ever dreamt of.”

The ‘22 Bassmaster Open schedule consisted of nine U.S.-based tournaments (three each in Northern, Southern and Central regions). The top-three division finishers, along with the first three anglers in the overall standings, all secure ‘23 Elite Series berths.

Gallant decided to fish all nine events to maximize his chances of qualifying for the Elite Series. It was a huge commitment given the schedule ran from February until October, meaning plenty of driving and covering expenses in American currency.

But even after punching his Series ticket, Gallant never considered skipping the Texas competition.

“First of all, I love fishing tournaments,” he said. “I’ve never fished (Sam Rayburn) and I like fishing new bodies of water … there’s also giants there, 10- and 11-pound fish.

“It’s a derby I’ve been really looking forward to all year.”

Had Gallant not secured a top-three Southern regional finish, he still would’ve headed to Texas with a shot at making the Elite Series. He’s currently third in the overall standings with 1,262 points behind Americans Keith Poche (1,321) and David Gaston (1,282).

“It would be super cool to double qualify,” Gallant said. “I know it doesn’t really matter … but it’s the last one of the year and I’d like to finish the season strong.”

Next year, Gallant will become the fourth Canadian on the Elites Series, joining Jeff Gustafson of Kenora, Ont., Cory Johnston of Cavan, Ont., and his younger brother, Chris, of Peterborough, Ont. Dave Mercer, the entertaining host of Dave Mercer’s Facts of Fishing TV show from Port Perry, Ont., is also its master of ceremonies.

Gallant said all four were among the many well-wishers to offer their congratulations last weekend.

The ‘22 season has certainly been a demanding one. Not only has Gallant logged countless hours behind the wheel, there’s also been the constant challenge of being on new water and continually adjusting to changing conditions.

There’ve been great results — winning the Southern Open tournament on Tennessee’s Cherokee Lake in April and finishing third in a Northern event in July on New York’s Oneida Lake. But there have also been struggles like finishing No. 123 on Virginia’s James River in April (after Cherokee Lake victory) and 109th last month on Louisiana’s Red River.

“It’s a major grind with plenty of ups and downs,” Gallant said. “Those ups definitely help keep you going through the season but you can’t let the downs keep you down.

“As weird as it sounds, many times if I have a bad tournament it makes me work harder to fix mistakes and do better at the next one or next several. And if it doesn’t work out at the next one, just keep rolling with the mindset of moving forward and putting the bad ones behind you.”

Following the Rayburn event, Gallant will begin the trek home, with stops at Cherokee Lake and the Tennessee River. The former will be another visit to where he won his Open event, which qualified Gallant for the US$1-million Classic — the Elite Series richest and biggest event — which goes March 24-26 on the Tennessee River.

“Cherokee Lake is kind of on my way back and I want to go there one last time and have some fun,” Gallant said. “With the Classic being on the Tennessee River, I’d like to go there to pre-practice and hang out for a few days.”

Gallant won’t have much time to relish his ‘22 accomplishments. The ‘23 Elite Series campaign opens Feb.16-19 on Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, the first of nine scheduled events.

There will be no shortage of work to do — be it actual event preparation, finding new sponsors or meeting obligations with current ones — once Gallant returns.

“The hard work is really going to start when I get home,” he said. “There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that takes up a lot of time and many people don’t see.

“But I’m looking forward to having a few months to get organized and ready for next season.”