I grew up in the era where men had specific roles in life. Those lines have been blurred so much over time they are not nearly as succinct as they were in my heyday.
I was taught, among many other things, men opened doors for women, they walked little old ladies across the street, lifted the lid when they headed to the bathroom (then put it back down) and, above all else, they never, ever cried.
It’s funny though that when I look back on attending almost three decades of Bassmaster Classics, the images that are most burned into my psyche as defining moments of a great event all seem to have tears involved.
I was in my 20s for the 1989 Bassmaster Classic on the James River. While I was on the forefront of witnessing one of the all-time great Classic battles, the final day will live in my and many fans’ memories forever.
I doubt I even have to tell you the story of Jim Bitter. His name is synonymous with that Classic. Even though Hank Parker squeaked out his second Classic championship by a mere 2 ounces, you can’t hardly talk about it without mentioning Bitter. See the 1989 Classic footage.
It was Bitter who was at the forefront of every headline revolving around that Classic. He led the event for two days on the muddy, tough (by today’s standards) water of the James River. During those two days, he was the stoic angler at the end of each day quietly and without fanfare answering questions from those of us in the press corps.
He was an imposing man. He stood somewhere in the 6-foot-6 range, possibly taller. His grizzled face looked a lot like actor Bruce Dern (you youngsters Google John Wayne’s classic movie The Cowboys to understand). Comparing him to Dern in that movie is an unfair characterization. We’re not doing that. He just looked like him, and that was not lost on some of us younger hands who had grown up with that movie.
Bitter was tough, just like Dern. He didn’t take any B.S. from anyone. Those things added to his imposing nature. Add a salt-and-pepper beard and a grizzled face and you get the vision of an All-American man. I loved Jim Bitter and what he stood for.
Then came the final day of the Classic and the slippery hands that unfortunately came to define Bitter’s career. He had his limit fish, actually the winning 12-inch fish in the boat. But, after a moment of pausing to take a photo, the fish squirmed and squirted back into the river.
Meanwhile, Parker was making the gamble of his life, producing one of the largest sacks on one of the longest runs of that event, to jump from out of contention to win.
That final-day press conference was like nothing I’d ever seen. A bubbly, almost kidlike Parker was sitting at the front table. Bitter was to his right. While Parker enthusiastically answered questions, Bitter set slumped over and tears rolled down his face.
The thought that ran through my head at the moment was similar to Tom Hanks’ famous line in A League of Their Own – “There’s no crying in baseball.”
Up to that point, I thought there was no crying in bass fishing. But I watched as this mountain of a man choked back tears. The whole scene is still burned into my brain, because at that moment I realized what winning the Classic really means.
It means there are pent-up tears, frustrations, excitement; every emotion in the book that goes with winning or losing the title of Classic champion. To get there, to survive and either win it or let it slip through your fingers at the last moment requires an emotional vault many of us never come close to cracking.
That was 25 years ago and there have been a lot of tears shed since then, in both joy and frustration. Every year when I get ready for the Classic and work to make certain my coverage is as good as it can be, I think about that moment: That Bitter sweet moment.
It was then I realized that the Bassmaster Classic, while important to the fans, is like nothing else for the anglers, regardless if they win or lose.
It won’t be any different on Grand Lake.