Sunday Outdoors photo

Louisiana is the first state to have five qualifiers for the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship. From left, they are Kevin Simon, Caleb Sumrall, defending champion Ryan Lavigne, Jamie Laiche and Neal Normand. The three-day tournament is set Thursday through Saturday on Lake Hartwell, a reservoir on the South Carolina-Georgia border west of Greenville, South Carolina. Laiche and Lavigne have advanced to the Bassmaster Classic through this event, and Laiche competed in his only Classic on Lake Hartwell.

ADVOCATE PHOTO BY JOE MACALUSO

If you ask Ryan Lavigne about his biggest bass-fishing moment, he’s torn between a couple of days on Lake Conroe.

There’s a first-things-first here, and the first came almost a year ago when he exploded to a win over a field of top-flight amateur anglers from across the country — and some nine foreign countries — in the 2016 B.A.S.S. Nation championship on the famed east Texas reservoir within a 70-minute drive from Houston.

Maybe “exploded” sells his performance short, because he was in the field as a “nonboater,” which means he went out on the first two days in somebody else’s boat, which, in turn, means he had little control over the wheres and whens those days.

He piloted a boat on the third and final day, and that’s where he put the exclamation point on his final 16-pound-plus advantage over the Nation’s final-day qualifiers and made his performance an even bigger headline in the bass-fishing world.

“It was a dream, a life-changing moment,” Lavigne said in the days after that win.

Adding to the cash and prizes — a winning total exceeding 100 grand — was something prompting Lavigne’s part about “a dream,” because, for a competitive bass angler, there’s nothing bigger than the annual Bassmaster Classic, other than qualifying for a Bassmaster Classic, and that’s what went with winning the Nation title.

Lavigne joined Louisiana’s touring pros Greg Hackney and Cliff Crochet for the Classic’s turn on Lake Conroe in March. It was the first time three south Louisiana fishermen competed in any of the previous 45-plus Classics. Lavigne and Hackney call Gonzales home and Crochet is from Pierre Part. Lavigne led these three with a 41-pound, 9-ounce Classic catch.

Lavigne and Crochet survived the cut to the top 25 after the first two Classic rounds — Hackney missed the cut by ounces — but Lavigne caught only two “keeper” bass during the final day (they totaled more than 11 pounds). Still, the competition, this dream-come-true experience, left his wanting more.

“The only thing I know is that I’ll work hard to get back,” Lavigne said after leaving the Classic weigh-in at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

That next chance

This week is that next chance for Lavigne, and four other south Louisiana anglers.

With a second year of a new format, three anglers from the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship will get a spot in the 2018 Classic.

And for the second year, the Nation and the Classic will be held on the same lake, this time Lake Hartwell, a reservoir in the western reaches of South Carolina.

This new format is the reason Louisiana stands taller than any other state in the Nation Championship field.

“Because our participation is so strong (in numbers), B.A.S.S. allows us to send four anglers,” Lavigne said.

Last year, it was two, David Cavell in the Boater Division and Lavigne in Nonboater.

Lavigne is in the field as defending champion, and will be joined by fellow Ascension Area Anglers teammates Jamie Laiche and Neal Normand. Kevin Simon and Caleb Sumrall. It’s a first-time event for Normand, Simon and Sumrall.

Laiche is more familiar with Hartwell than the others, because he earned a spot in the field the first time the Classic made a stop on Hartwell in 2008.

“I learned a lot that time, a lot about what it takes to compete,” Laiche said. “It’s such a big thrill for an amateur to get into the Classic, and I know I want to go back and I know Jamie wants to, too.”

And there’s room for both: There are spots for the top three Nation anglers after Saturday’s final weigh-in.

Launch time is 6:30 a.m. from the lake’s Green Pond Landing all three days, and weigh-in is set to begin at 2:45 p.m. from the Event Center in Anderson, South Carolina.

B.A.S.S.’ website: Bassmaster.com will have videos, photos and daily stories, and Advocate Sports will carry daily results for the five Louisiana anglers.