The Bassmaster Classic has been dubbed “Fishing’s Greatest Show on Earth.”
And in my opinion, it lives up to its billing.
It’s more than just a championship tournament. It’s a week-long celebration of America’s fish – the largemouth bass.
Years ago, I never pictured fishing as a spectator sport. But the Bassmaster Classic has proven me wrong.
I have covered 10 Classics over the years, and I never cease to be amazed at the drawing power of this event.
It’s like a national holiday for the country’s bass fishermen. The average Joes who compete in local bass tournaments and dream of one day competing in the Classic flock to the event by the thousands.
They flood major cities such as Oklahoma City, Birmingham, Ala., or Charlotte, N.C., and they make their presence known.
They rub elbows with some of their heroes, they attend a huge sports show featuring the latest lures and tricks to catch bass, and they launch their boats and follow the pros from spot to spot, hoping to get a glimpse of some championship form.
Yeah, this is more than just another bass tournament. It’s an event.
I was fortunate enough to be there when Missouri dominated the Classic – when Lake of the Ozarks fishermen topped the nation’s best.
I was there when Guido Hibdon won the championship in 1988 on the James River near Richmond, Va. I was also lucky enough to be part of the media when Guido’s son, Dion, won the title in 1997 at Lake Logan Martin in Alabama. And I covered the Classic the following year, when Denny Brauer earned bass fishing’s biggest crown at High Rock Lake in North Carolina.
But my biggest thrill came in 2000 when the Classic came to Chicago, near where I grew up. It was surreal to see bass boats dwarfed by the skyscrapers of the Windy City. And to see the fishermen weigh in their catch at Soldier Field, where I had watched the Bears for years, was something I’ll never forget.
I’ll also never forget the pros dodging huge freighters as they raced up the Chicago River. One media member returned from a day on the water as an observer and told me of a white-knuckle experience.
“We were going up the river and there were two big barges up ahead, with just barely enough room for a bass boat to fit through,” he told me. “I thought, ‘Surely, he’s going to slow down and idle through.’
“But he didn’t. We hit the side of one of the barges, but luckily everything was OK.”
That tournament was definitely a clash of cultures. Kids threw everything from CDs to batteries at the Classic fishermen as they passed under bridges. And let’s just say the fishermen found some “interesting” refuse in the water.
Woo Daves won that Classic and he caught many of his fish on massive Lake Michigan, a body of water than can swallow up a normal bass boat.
The 2005 Classic in Pittsburgh also stands out, mainly because of its poor fishing. The fishermen competed on the Ohio, Allegheny and the Monongohela rivers and they struggled to catch bass. I remember how impressed I was that Kevin VanDam came up with an innovative strategy to finally pull out the win. He went to a vintage Rogue jerkbait and ended up catching the winning fish.
His three-day total of 11 bass weighing 12 pounds, 15 ounces was paltry in comparison to other Classic performances, but it looked huge that year.
So that sets the stage for this year’s Classic, which will run Friday through Sunday at Lake Conroe near Houston, Texas. Who will be the hero this year? What type of bait will he make famous? Will any of Conroe’s lunkers be brought in to the weigh-ins?
I won’t be able to attend this year, but I’ll certainly watching. After all, I wouldn’t want to miss “Fishing’s Greatest Show on Earth.”