The Bassmaster Classic is the Super Bowl of bass fishing, and like the Super Bowl it's sometimes a nail biter and sometimes a blowout. In 1997, Dion Hibdon eked out a win with a last second safety. In 1984, Rick Clunn won by five touchdowns. Of course, it's usually something in between.
The average margin of victory in the championship is 4 pounds, 9 ounces — about the weight of a very good fish on most Classic waters. Seven Classics have been won by 8 pounds or more; 12 have been decided by a pound or less. The most recent cliffhanger came in 2007 when Boyd Duckett edged out Skeet Reese on Lay Lake in 2007.
Four Classics were decided by 4 ounces or less. They're the closest in history.
The 1994 Bassmaster Classic (back then it was called the BASS Masters Classic) was held on High Rock Lake out of Greensboro, N.C., and it will forever be known as the Classic that Bryan Kerchal won. Kerchal was a 23-year-old short-order cook from Newtown, Conn. (yes, that Newtown!), who had made a name for himself in the fishing world by qualifying for the Classic twice in a row through the B.A.S.S. Nation (then the B.A.S.S. Federation).
In 1993, though, he hadn't fared so well, finishing last on Lake Logan Martin in Alabama. He had his sights set much higher this time around, and he didn't disappoint.
Kerchal was in fourth place after the first day, 3 1/2 pounds back of Fish Fishburne. The talented amateur was pitching plastic worms to boat docks and putting solid limits in the boat. He took the lead by 1-4 on Day 2 and held off a charging Tommy Biffle in the finals by just 4 ounces.
Of course, the real story was not how close it was, but that an amateur had finally won. Tragically, Kerchal was killed in a commuter plane crash just five months later.
Ken Cook was a powerhouse on the Bassmaster Tournament Trail in the 1980s, but he never quite closed the deal on a big one — a Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title or Classic championship. He had come close (third in the 1988 Classic and four Top 5 finishes in AOY), but the dynamic duo titles had eluded him ... until 1991.
That year the Classic was on Chesapeake Bay, and it didn't look like Cook was going to get it done there, either. Zell Rowland jumped out to a small lead on the first day and was barely hanging on after the second when things got tough and he fell to fourth.
Cook, on the other hand, looked solid but unspectacular. He was ninth after the first day, 5-4 off the pace. On Day 2 he moved up to fifth, just 1-6 behind Rowland, but you can count the number of anglers who were that far back going into the finals and won on a single hand — and you won't need all of your fingers, either.
Well, count Cook among that group. Not only did his spinnerbait bring in enough bass to chase down Rowland, but it enabled him to leapfrog the other anglers who stood between him and the lead. He finished just a quarter-pound ahead of Randall Romig.
If you look at the list of Classic winners, you'll see that Hank Parker won the 1989 contest, but if you check a little more closely you'll find it's the championship Jim Bitter lost. In the annals of bass fishing, no other angler and fish exemplify "the agony of defeat" quite like Bitter and a small keeper bass from the final round.
Things started well for Bitter, but ended unbelievably badly. He had the heaviest catch on both of the first two days of the Classic, taking a solid 3-14 lead into the finals. With the fishing being pretty tough on the James River, he'd be able to sew up the win with a limit.
And he had one fairly quickly. Swinging his fifth keeper into the boat, Bitter confidently walked toward the livewell, feeling good about his chances.
Then Tim Tucker, the late senior writer for Bassmaster Magazine and Bitter's press observer for the day, asked if he was sure the fish was 12 inches long.
Well, Bitter was pretty sure, but not certain, so he stepped back toward the bow of the boat, measured the fish — it was comfortably over 12 inches — and turned to take it to the livewell.
Just at that moment, the fish twisted slightly in his hand, and Bitter dropped it. It hit the gunnel of the boat and bounced back into the river.
Despite having several hours of fishing left in the round, it was the last bass Bitter caught all day.
Meanwhile, Parker was having the best round anyone would enjoy for the entire Classic. After being eighth at the end of Day 1 and Day 2, he boated a 14-8 limit in an effort to make up a deficit of nearly 8 pounds.
At the weigh-in, Bitter watched in horror as his catch fell 2 ounces short of Hank Parker's three-day total. Bitter had the win in hand — quite literally — but it slipped away. Almost 25 years later it is still the biggest blunder in tournament fishing history, and it was the second closest Classic of all time.
The 1997 Bassmaster Classic on Alabama's Lake Logan Martin was the closest in history, but how it came to be that way is the most interesting part of the story.
It happened in Alabama on Lake Logan Martin. Gerry Jooste from the B.A.S.S. Nation took the lead on the first day. Ron Shuffield took it away from him on Day 2. The tournament was unusually tight. Shuffield's lead was just 2 ounces, and a bunch of great anglers were within striking distance, including Dion Hibdon, son of 1988 Classic champ Guido Hibdon, and another B.A.S.S. Nation qualifier, Dalton Bobo.
Bobo was from Northport, Ala., not quite on the shores of Logan Martin, but certainly close enough for him to know the tournament waters. He was a popular favorite going into the event, and he was proving his supporters right.
On the second day of that Classic, Bobo brought a limit of five bass to the scales that weighed 9-15 — a very respectable catch for that event and one that kept him in contention. Unfortunately, one of his fish had been deeply hooked on a Texas rigged worm and died.
That year there was a 4-ounce penalty for a dead fish, knocking Bobo's Day 2 weight down to 9-11.
Hibdon was skipping soft plastics deep under boat docks and catching quality spotted bass. He had been sixth after the first day and fourth after the second. He made up the gap on Day 3, posting another solid limit. Only Bobo would have a chance to catch him.
But the amateur fell short — a single ounce short — and it was all because of the 4-ounce dead fish penalty.
The same penalty a year earlier was 2 ounces. If the 1997 Classic had been held under those rules, Bobo would have won the Classic by an ounce instead of losing by the same margin.
It was a dramatic way to end the most dramatic Classic.