This week's BASSfest event on Lake Chickamauga (June 11-15) is not your typical Bassmaster Elite Series tournament. The competition will include not only 107 Elite pros, but also 33 of the best anglers from the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens presented by Allstate. It's an unusual event in that the Elites will not be fishing for points, but it's hardly unprecedented. Almost since the beginning, B.A.S.S. has worked to shake things up with different tournament formats.
One of the earliest was the Eufaula (Alabama) Team event in 1969 won by Bill Dance, Bobby Murray, Bob Ponds (Pete's father) and Forrest Wood. That format would not be repeated until 1987 on the St. Lawrence River out of New York.
In 1977, B.A.S.S. tried a format called "B.A.S.S. Champs" that resembled BASSfest in some particulars. In the 1977 edition (the basic format lasted just six years), the Top 10 anglers from the 1976 Bassmaster Classic were pitted against the Top 10 anglers from the 1976 B.A.S.S. Chapter (now Nation) Championship to fish for $30,000 in cash and prizes — $6,000 to the winner! — on a "mystery lake." They weren't told of their destination until a week before competition began. The site was Tennessee’s Percy Priest Reservoir, home of the '72 Classic.
For the three-day event, each angler was assigned an identical boat — a 16-foot aluminum DuraCraft with a 35-hp Johnson outboard, Humminbird Super Sixty sonar unit and a 12-volt MotorGuide trolling motor. The smaller, lighter rigs were designed to show B.A.S.S. members they could get "a quality bassin' rig at a sensible price." The completely outfitted boat and trailer retailed for $3,700.
The 1976 Classic was the last of the mystery lake championships and the first of four Classic championships for Rick Clunn. The Classic win on Lake Guntersville gave him the first berth in the B.A.S.S. Champs event. The other Classic anglers competing were Bo Dowden (2nd in the Classic), Ricky Green (3rd), Billy Phillips (4th), Tommy Martin (5th), Paul Chamblee (6th), Bill Dance (7th), Jimmy Houston (8th), Billy Westmorland (9th) and Gary Wade (10th).
Ironically, Phillips earned his spot in the Classic through the B.A.S.S. Chapter Championship by being the top angler on the winning team — Tennessee — so he was essentially an "amateur" classified as a "pro." From 1973 through 1980, only one amateur qualified to fish the Classic, and Phillips earned that honor twice (1976 and 1980). He was a shallow water specialist who used only spincasting gear.
Qualifying anglers from the B.A.S.S. Chapter Championship were Don Buffalow, Charlie Campbell, Rick Garlough, Chic Aydelette, Junie Copley, Tom Anderton, Bobby Evans, David Roy, Joe McCormick and Jim Jeffries. At the time, Campbell was competing in professional events as well as B.A.S.S. Federation tournaments. He actually qualified for the 1976 Classic as a pro (finishing 12th), but earned his way to B.A.S.S. Champs as one of the top amateurs in the Chapter Championship. He was a clear counterpart to Phillips — a "pro" fishing as an "amateur" rather than the other way around.
Naturally, the Classic qualifiers were expected to have the edge at B.A.S.S. Champs. They had the experience and familiarity with the mystery lake format. No one expected the amateurs — except perhaps Campbell — to succeed in this format.
After the first day of competition, it was obvious the smart money had it right. Classic champion Rick Clunn opened with a 10-bass limit weighing 19-13 that included the biggest bass of the day (4-13). He took a commanding lead over Phillips, in second place with 13-14.
Clunn discovered in practice that targeting shallow stick-ups was the key. But, in typical Clunn fashion, he figured out something that none of the others did: The fish had been pounded with spinnerbaits and weren’t very receptive to those tacklebox staples.
Instead, he went with a bait that was little-known at the time, but which he used to finish a close second at the 1976 Tennessee Invitational on Cordell Hull Reservoir — a Harkin's Lunker Lure buzzbait. Bass that ignored spinnerbaits came unglued when his chartreuse Lunker Lure passed overhead. And if a fish missed the buzzbait, he’d follow up with a 5-inch brown Mister Twister plastic worm.
Clunn's success with the Lunker Lure and coverage of the tournament in the July/August 1977 issue of Bassmaster Magazine, started a buzzbait craze in the bass fishing world. Soon everyone had to have one — or a dozen — of the baits.
In the end, the B.A.S.S. Champs leaderboard looked an awful lot like the '76 Classic. Clunn won, posting three consecutive limits totaling 47-2. Dowden finished second (just as he had at the Classic) with 40-14. And Ricky Green, the most heralded big bass angler of his era, caught the tournament lunker (5-1) on Day 2 — again, just as he had at the Classic.
B.A.S.S. Champs was back with the same basic format in 1978 and lasted in some form through 1982. It was replaced by Super B.A.S.S. (1983-85) and Megabucks (1986-2001) in B.A.S.S.' effort to bring new competition formats to the audience and to challenge the very best bass anglers in the world.