When you think about the Bassmaster Classic, you think of Rick Clunn and Kevin VanDam, Bryan Kerchal's inspiring win, Dion Hibdon's one-ounce victory and Bobby Murray's first championship in the Nevada desert.
But what about the all-time greats of the sport who never won a Classic — the guys who accomplished almost everything there is to do in professional bass fishing, but never won "the big one"? For some of them, the fact that they never won the Super Bowl of bass fishing is a defining aspect of their career. For others, it's a missing jewel that haunts them and keeps them coming back for more.
For every Rayo Breckenridge, Jack Hains, Jack Chancellor, Charlie Reed or Robert Hamilton (who all won a Classic yet are mostly unknown to young fans of the sport), there's a Roland Martin, Bill Dance, Jimmy Houston, Gary Klein or Zell Rowland who has earned almost all the accolades but never (or at least not yet) picked up the big hardware.
For decades there was no debate about who had suffered the most from not winning a Classic. It was Roland Martin ... hands down. From the first championship, in 1971, until he stepped away from the top level of B.A.S.S. competition at the end of the 2005 season, Martin qualified for 25 Classics — third most all-time behind Rick Clunn (32) and Gary Klein (29). A Classic trophy would have looked good next to his nine Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year trophies.
Martin had some good Classics, but never really came close to winning. Even when he was second to Bo Dowden on the St. Lawrence River in 1980, he was 10 pounds back. In 2005, when he was runner-up to Rick Clunn in ESPN's Greatest Angler Debate, many pointed to his lack of a Classic championship as the reason he finished second. Nothing, however, can take him off the pedestal as one of the sport's all-time greats.
Bass fishing's first superstar was a furniture salesman from Tennessee. Bill Dance had it all. He looked like a college professor, and that helped to make the sport look respectable and serious. He was smart and thoughtful about his fishing; when he caught them, it wasn't luck. And he had (still has!) a gift for communicating his passion for the sport while also making it educational.
In the early days of B.A.S.S., Dance won everything in sight, including seven of the first 19 tournaments and three of the first eight Angler of the Year awards. The only thing he didn't win was the Bassmaster Classic.
In 8 tries (1972-79), Dance posted four top 10 finishes, including a second place in 1973 to Rayo Breckenridge on Clarks Hill Reservoir. He likely would have won a Classic eventually, but he retired from competitive fishing in 1980 at the age of 39 — about the average age of a Classic champ.
Jimmy Houston has spent so much of his career on television, kissing bass and laughing in his unique way, that many fishing fans today don't realize what a great tournament angler he was. In 1976, Houston became the first angler not named Dance or Martin to win Angler of the Year. In 1986, he won the title again. The second title was a particularly amazing feat in light of his television schedule, which prevented him from doing much (if any) practice before tournaments.
In all, Houston qualified for 15 Classics and posted five top 10 finishes. His best championship was seventh place in 1978 on Ross Barnett Reservoir. As great as he was, Houston's reputation would be even bigger had he won on the sport's brightest stage.
Gary Klein is a trailblazer. He was the first angler to set his sights on professional fishing as a career right out of high school and never take his eye off the prize. As a California teen in the 1970s, he was a protégé of Dee Thomas, the inventor of flippin', and a tournament savant.
In 1979 he hit the B.A.S.S. Tournament Trail as a 21-year-old rookie and nearly claimed Angler of the Year honors. At that year's Classic, he finished fourth, but factored in the title because he lent Hank Parker a Fenwick Flippin' Stik that Parker used to win the event. It wouldn't be the last time that a Classic-winning bass would be hooked on one of Klein's rods, but it was the last time they were put in the boat ... so far.
Perhaps more than any other angler, Klein has narrowly missed Classic victory. He's had the winning fish on a time or two, lost his catch to late penalties and took second to Mike Iaconelli in 2003 on the Louisiana Delta. Six times he's finished in the top five. With 29 Classic appearances, he ranks second only to Rick Clunn (32) and seems a cinch to pass Clunn one day, hopefully adding a win along the way.
If you're looking for the greatest topwater angler of all time, look no further than Zell Rowland; just ask Rick Clunn, Roland Martin, Bill Dance, Denny Brauer and Kevin VanDam — they all said the same thing. And while Rowland can certainly catch 'em on top, he's struggled to catch them when the chips were down at the Bassmaster Classic.
In 1991, Rowland led the first two days of the Classic on Chesapeake Bay only to see victory slip away in the final round. Ken Cook won that championship, and Rowland fell to fourth, left with thoughts of what might have been. He's had three other finishes in the top 10 in 16 trips to the Classic.
This year, there's a trio of anglers fishing the Classic who have notably come close to winning and whose résumés are perhaps most in need of the title. Tommy Biffle is fishing his 18th championship, this one near his Oklahoma home. He was second in 1990 (after leading the first two days) and in 1994. Those runner-up finishes go along with three seconds in the FLW championship to make Biffle the sport's ultimate bridesmaid.
Shaw Grigsby fishes his 15th Classic in 2013. His best finish came in 1993 when he was second to David Fritts on Lake Logan Martin in Alabama, but he was actually much closer to the trophy in 2000 when he finished third and lost to Woo Daves on Lake Michigan. He's almost certainly the greatest angler who has never taken a Classic or AOY title.
And then there's Aaron Martens, a four-time Classic runner-up who has the best career numbers of any angler in Classic history who hasn't won the thing. The Natural fishes his 14th Classic this year after second place finishes in 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2011. Some of those finishes were close, but a couple of them really weren't and can't be seen as "ones that got away." Actually, so much has been made of Martens' runner-up Classic finishes that he's probably the only angler in the field who's aura would benefit by another close call.
This year, Biffle, Grigsby and Martens will try once more to win fishing's biggest title and avoid being defined by something they didn't do.