Of the two dozen Bassmaster Classics that he has fished and lost — a streak that stretches back to his first in 1979 — Gary Klein figures that he should have won perhaps three.One: On the Ohio River in 1987, Klein's first-day catch of "9 or 10 pounds" was disqualified because Klein was late to the weigh-in — because he got stuck in a lock. George Cochran won with a three-day total of just 15 pounds, 5 ounces.Two: The previous year, in Chickamauga, Tenn., trailing the leader by just over a pound, Klein made a long run on the final day to a stretch that he told his press observer would win him the Classic. He landed a three-plus pounder, a five-plus pounder — then got a bite on what he says was nearly a four-pounder. He went to set the hook, and his reel's flipstick plum stuck. He couldn't boat the bass. The fish escaped. Charlie Reed won with 23 pounds, 9 ounces. Klein finished fourth, less than two pounds back.
All the guys have those stories," Klein says.Three: In New Orleans, 2003, Klein finishes second behind an upstart Mike Iaconelli. But that one, he knows, was never to be, even though two more pounds would have won the Classic."I maximized," he says. "Iaconelli just beat me, fair and square."But because it was a close finish, and they didn't know until the final moments who would win, for the first time, Klein says, he allowed the barest bit of that winning sensation to creep into him.
"For that one moment, for a minute, or 45 seconds, I had that feeling," he recalls. "And it was pretty awesome."That right there gave me a reality check how much I wanted to win."'It does haunt an angler' Klein, of course, isn't the only angler to come up dry at the big event. Not having a Classic title has been a big ol' monkey on the backs of plenty of anglers. One more reason to keep bananas out of the boat.The 36 past Classics have produced only 29 different winners — which makes for plenty of runners-up, honorable mentions, almost theres, darn nears, couldas, wouldas and, naturally, shouldas.The company is some consolation, at least. So is the rest of what makes an angler's career.In Klein's case, that includes two Angler of the Year Awards and more than $1 million in cash won at BASS tournaments. And it's not as though he's unaccustomed to winning: At 21-years-old, he won just the second tournament he ever entered.Even qualifying for 25 Classics in four different decades is an amazing feat "Don't get me wrong," says Klein, who hails from Weatherford, Texas, and who will turn 50 this year. "I'm satisfied with my career as it is. I've been living the dream since I got out of high school."But if somebody asks me, will I win the Classic? I'd say, yeah. Eventually I'll get one."And it's entirely possible he could. Denny Brauer had finishes of fifth, fourth, third and second in the 16 Classics he fished before he finally won, in 1998 — and that tournament he won by a 10-pound margin."I think that [not winning] does haunt an angler," Brauer says. "I know it really weighed on me, because it was the one thing I had not done. You wonder, when are things going to go right?"The Classic had become, for him, a mixed outing. It was a chance to compete, and compete against friends. But the only fish that remained in his memory were the ones that got away. He can still see in his mind a bass swimming around the back of a bush that would have won him the 1994 Classic at High Rock Lake, where he finished third just 2 pounds, 6 ounces out of the lead.You're probably not all that much fun to be around for a few months after losing a tournament like that," he says.As an angler ages, the Classic experience changes. At first, says Tommy Biffle, who's still looking for his first win in his 15th Classic, a young angler may just look for a good showing, to please his sponsors and prove that he belongs. But after a few years, it's no longer for show.
"You're fishing for first," says Biffle, a Classic runner-up in 1994 and 1990. "There's no second, third, fourth, whatever. Now it's win. You swing for the fence and try to make the right decisions."To win a Classic after so many attempts, he says, "would kinda be like payback."Then again, that satisfaction may never arrive.Angling legend Roland Martin, who finished first or second in 39 tournaments in his career, qualified for 25 Classics — but finished only as high as second, in the 1980 tournament. (At the first Classic in 1971, he placed fourth.) He did, however, win Angler of the Year an incredible nine times, and has sparred with four-time Classic winner Rick Clunn about the relative merits of the two awards.Both are really outstanding achievements," says Martin, now 66. "I was always promoting the importance of the Angler of the Year. I'm not sure who won that debate. I'm not sure I ever did.It was always a bone of contention that maybe I should win the Classic, and I would be complete if I did. But I felt like by not winning the Classic, I had a perfectly wonderful career. I don't look at it any other way. To me, I did better than I expected."But of course Martin has not ruled out the possibility that someday he will fish another Classic.'It would be an honor' Klein realizes that this is the year he would tie Martin with 25 Classics fished and no Classics won. His friends and family will tell him, "This is your year." But, he says, even they get tired of saying it after so long.
He has missed a few Classics during his run, but only one that he wanted to attend. That was the 2001 tournament in New Orleans — an area Klein loves to fish — where Kevin VanDam won his first Classic. All Klein could think was, "Here he is winning a tournament and I can't make him beat me, because I'm on the sidelines."
No longer was it a given that he would make the tournament. Missing a year of competition, he found, was a greater disappointment than not winning.To me, winning the Classic would not define my career," Klein says. "I don't have to win the Classic to survive doing what I'm doing. Yes, it would be an honor to carry that Classic crown for a year. But if I don't win it, or if I never win it in my career, I'm not going to look back."I enjoy fishing, I enjoy what I accomplish. And if I don't win it this year, I'll win it next year."