DEL RIO, Texas — At the 2008 Southern Open on the St. Johns River in Florida, 21-year-old Luke Gritter set a goal for himself to qualify for the Elite Series in five years. One year later, Gritter found himself standing on stage, weighing in at the Elite Series opener on Lake Amistad.
"Being with all these guys was a little intimidating at first, but competing on the Elite Series is an awesome experience," Gritter said. "On Day One, I walked through the weigh-in line with Skeet Reese and KVD in front of me and Ike behind me."
After that fine welcoming to the Elite Series, Gritter was understandably nervous crossing the stage, but says those nerves disappear when he gets on the water.
"I'm not intimidated out on the water," Gritter said. "It's just me versus the fish. Thinking about the other anglers you are fishing against will only get in your head and make it an even tougher event."
Gritter brought in a limit each day of his first event as a rookie on tour, but couldn't find a bigger bite and finished in 79th place, 4 pounds and change out of the top-50 cut.
With the warming water temperatures in practice, Gritter had high hopes that he could find big fish coming up shallow and getting ready to spawn.
Even after the cold front came through and moved the fish deeper, he was able to adjust and catch little fish, but his lack of experience on Amistad meant that he didn't have any deeper places to go to catch a quality fish that could have propelled him into the cut.
"The biggest thing I learned this week is to fish your strength, but also, fish deeper water," Gritter said. "I am a shallow water angler, and I spent the majority of my practice covering the shallow water looking for bigger fish. I have to be able to adapt and know where and when I need to go deep."
Gritter hails from Kalamazoo, Mich., the hometown of another well known Elite Series angler, Kevin VanDam, who likes what he sees from the young pro.
"I don't know him really well, but he is one of those good Northern anglers," VanDam said. "The thing about our area is that you really learn to be a versatile angler with all the different types of water nearby."
Even more importantly than hometown, according to VanDam, is that Gritter has the strong support of his family on tour with him.
"I had a lot of family support when I was starting out and you see that with Luke," VanDam said. "There are a lot of kids out there that would love to do this for a living. To see Luke get that chance is great."
Growing up, Gritter mostly taught himself how to fish for bass, but he was encouraged by his father Marvin, who served as his very first bass caddy.
"I was really just a bluegill fisherman back then," said his father. "We had a ski boat that I would drive around and Luke would stand up on the front, since we didn't have a trolling motor, and throw worms and plastics around. In fact, the first tournament he fished, we had a big cooler for a livewell. I guess he has come a long way."
From that inauspicious start from the bow of a ski boat, Gritter quickly graduated to local tournaments and then some higher level tournaments as a non-boater. In 2007, he finished fourth from the back of the boat in a Southern Open event on the Kissimmee Chain.
The next year he made the leap to go pro, fishing the Southern Opens in an attempt to qualify for the Elites. At the aforementioned tournament on the St. Johns river where he set his goat to qualify in five years, he also pulled off a top-10 finish, a tie with Bobby Lane for ninth place.
Two more solid finishes landed Gritter an invitation to fish on the 2009 Elite Series. Thanks to the support of his family and local businesses near Kalamazoo, Gritter was able to put together the finances to fish as a full-time pro. Triton Boats, Garneau Baits, Mulder Waterproofing and Sealants, VanDam and Kruisinga and his father's company, Gritter Builders all contributed to getting him on the road and ready to fish this season.
With all the time Gritter will be putting in on the road, it will be a good thing he has family support along the way.
"Family plays a huge part for me, being 21 years old," Gritter said. "They have supported me the whole time that I've been trying. They may not be able to make it to all of the events, but having them here at my first has been great."
Being a rookie on tour, especially one as young as Gritter, isn't easy, but he says that the other Elite pros have been very accepting.
"They all have their own groups, so being the youngest can make it rather intimidating to go and talk with them," Gritter said. "Hopefully the Kalamazoo Krew will be growing here at the Elite level so we can start our own little group."
The Kalamazoo Krew refers to a group of young, talented friends from Kalamazoo, including Kevin VanDam's nephew Jonathon, that have fished locally and travel on the Opens together. According to Gritter, there is a good chance to see one or more of them joining him on tour in the upcoming years.
For now, the youth of the Elite Series belongs to Gritter, and he has set a few goals for his rookie year that are both reasonable and
"My biggest goal is to qualify for the Classic this year," Gritter said. "I hope to be competitive in the Rookie of the Year race and be in the top 50 in at least half the events."
After a tough start to the year at Amistad, Gritter will have to step it up at the Diamond Drive March 26-29 on Lake Dardanelle in Arkansas.
"Amistad has been a great learning experience for me," Gritter said. "I'm looking forward to getting to Dardanelle and what should be a good shallow water bite that will play right into my hands."