All the hype and hoopla of the Bassmasters Classic has rattled the psyche of the best professional anglers throughout the history of this world championship.
After competing in a decade or two of Classics, battle-hardened veterans of "The Show" have become immune to the distractions of the event's carnival atmosphere. However, when they fished their first Classic, these same savvy professionals often suffered anxiety and self-doubt or were awestruck by the magnitude of the event.
The perennial qualifiers in the 30 years of the BASS Masters Classics have plenty of memorable moments of past victories and high finishes. While many of them struggled in their first event, they vividly recall the emotions and lessons they learned while competing for the first time in the world championship of bass fishing.
These are first time Classic recollections from the pros who continually make "The Show."
Help for friends
The first of Roland Martin's 22 Classic appearances also was the inaugural championship event at Lake Mead in 1971. The Florida pro remembers that the Ranger Boats plant burned down that year, so contestants were furnished with Rebel inboard/outboard boats that only had about a 12-gallon fuel capacity.
"It was a neat tournament," Martin recalls. "I was right on the edge of winning it - if only I had decided to go to the right area. But we didn't have enough gas, so once we got where we wanted to go, we couldn't make many adjustments."
During practice, Martin found numerous 3- and 4-pound bass in a spot he revealed to fellow competitor Bobby Murray. "I told Bobby he wouldn't believe the bass in these flooded willow trees - they were all over the place," says Martin.
The two competitors decided to try areas next to each other, with Martin selecting his flooded willow spot and Murray picking an adjacent area. "He went in there and won the tournament, but I had the big bass of the tournament (6 pounds, 9 ounces)," says Martin, who finished fourth.
His first Classic taught Martin the value of sharing information with buddies. "I really think in those early tournaments there was more working together than there is now. Sometimes it helped me out, and sometimes it helped a friend," says Martin. "In this case, it helped Bobby more than it helped me. But in other tournaments, Bobby helped me."
Although he would later win four championship titles, Rick Clunn got off to an inauspicious start in his first Classic, the 1974 championship at Alabama's Wheeler Lake. "To have made the Classic in my first year (on the BASSMASTER Trail) was a huge boost in confidence, even though I got annihilated at that event," says Clunn, who placed 16th out of 29 anglers.
"Making the first Classic is about the same as when you watch a team that goes to the Super Bowl for the first time. You're so excited that you made the Classic. All of it is new to you, and you literally forget to fish the Classic. I felt like I had gotten slaughtered."
The sites of the early Classics were kept secret until the competitors were airborne on a "mystery flight," Clunn recalls. "That fascinated me about the Classic then, and I'm still very nostalgic for it. I felt like I was on equal footing with everybody. It was the most equal Classic they could have had because nobody knew where we were going, and nobody could possibly get any type of help."
Although Clunn believed he performed poorly in his first championship test, it still served as an educational tool. "I learned that I had to utilize my practice better than I did. I also couldn't allow myself to get intimidated, no matter what type of lake we fished," says Clunn, who returned home from Wheeler and studied the seasonal patterns that would eventually help him win more Classic titles than anyone.
If it weren't for bad luck, 2000 BASS Masters Classic champ Woo Daves would have had no luck at all in his first Classic appearance at Currituck Sound in 1975.
The second morning of competition, Daves got lost while looking for the mouth of a river and had to get directions from a crab fisherman. Then a fuse blew in his outboard. "I got on the trolling motor and started heading to the bank when I heard this noise like a loud whistle," recalls Daves. "I looked up and there were about 7-foot waves coming down the river, but we were in perfectly calm water. The wind must have gone from 0 to 75 mph in two seconds. When the waves hit us, we were about 20 yards from the bank."
Daves tried to reach a boat dock under the power of his trolling motor and a push pole, but a wave slammed into the pole and broke it. When he reached shore, the waves kept slamming his boat into the dock, so Daves jumped into the water and tied it to a pole.
Despite this hair-raising experience, Daves got another boat and fished the rest of the day. After an uneventful final round, Daves finished in - you guessed it - 13th place.
Losing a fish that would have won the event is Larry Nixon's most vivid memory of his first Classic. "I had on about a 3- or 4-pounder the second or third cast on the morning of the last day," recollects Nixon. "When I pulled back on it, the line broke right at the levelwind on my reel, and it ran out the guides. I can still see that line lying on the water. I frantically tried to troll over there and get it, but it just slipped right out of my fingers."
Nixon finished second in the 1977 Classic at Florida's Lake Tohopekaliga, a performance that sent his confidence level soaring. "I had a year that most beginners just dream of, and I was just infatuated with going to the Classic the first year I ever fished with B.A.S.S. Being in contention to win the Classic all the way through was an unreal experience. I never really realized I could win a big tournament like that until I got so close in that one. It gave me the confidence in myself to know that I could win any tournament."
"It was mine all the way," recalls Gary Klein of his first Classic in 1979 at Lake Texoma. "I knew in my heart that I had the victory."
The 21-year-old California angler took over the lead the first day. During his first Classic press conference that evening, Klein made the wrong impression with the media. "At that particular point I was blindsided by a question from an outdoor writer, and I answered it the way I would always answer the question," says Klein. "But it was taken wrong by the media, so early on in my career I was labeled as a very cocky angler."
Klein vividly recalls a press angler asking who he thought would win the Classic. Klein quickly answered that he would win. "That was kind of misconstrued and taken as being cocky, but it wasn't," he says. "I had a lot of confidence in what I was doing. So, I've learned how to tone down my inner feelings a little bit and make statements now that are more politically correct."
Klein finished fourth in that championship, but 19 Classic appearances and his willingness to work with the press helped him eventually get rid of the "cocky angler" label.
Ken Cook has an easy time recalling his first Classic because the 1981 event on Alabama's Lake Montgomery featured the first indoor weigh-ins. The Oklahoma pro remembers placing in the Top 10 after Day 1, but then fell out of contention the next two days and finished 12th. "It was the first year I fished enough tournaments (four) to qualify," Cook recalls. "I wasn't prepared to win. I was pretty happy to be there, but I was disappointed that I wasn't able to keep catching them like I did the first day."
A plastic worm produced Cook's fish the first day, but he had brought only 12 worms with him, and contestants aren't allowed to restock their tackleboxes during the event. "I learned that you have to take a lot of soft plastics," said Cook, who won Classic XXI 10 years later. "You don't want to run out of what you're catching them on at the Classic."
Holding his ground
A fearless competitor throughout his career, Denny Brauer was not going to be pushed around by anyone during his debut at the 1982 Classic on Lake Montgomery.
Brauer thinks he might have been a little nervous, but he knows he wasn't in awe of the event or the competitors. "I really felt I had found an area where it could be won," Brauer recollects. "One of the anglers who had been in several Classics found the same area and tried to run me out of there, but I wasn't very intimidated. I was going to try to win the tournament. The way it worked out, neither one of us did." The Classic rookie finished 25th in that event, but he eventually won the championship title in 1998.
Caught in the trap
Jay Yelas now knows what to expect after 10 Classic appearances, but the excitement and fanfare of the "Super Bowl of Bass Fishing" proved to be more than he could handle the first time.
"It was a big thrill," recalls Yelas, who placed 34th in Classic XXI on the Chesapeake Bay. "I got caught up in all the hype and hoopla of 'The Show,' and I recall thinking very little about what the fish were doing or how to catch them. I decided that the next time I made the Classic, I would think a little more about how to locate and catch bass and a little bit less about how exciting and big a thrill it was to fish in the Classic."
Classic XXI was also the coming out party for Kevin VanDam, who would go on to win B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year three times. Besides experiencing all the glamour and festivities, VanDam also got his first taste of another Classic phenomenon - spectator boats.
"At the time, I wasn't used to people following me around and fishing," recalled VanDam, who was in contention the first two days. "In that tournament I got followed a lot, and there were some guys who had been following me for a couple of days but had not been fishing."
However, on the final day VanDam arrived on his primary spot and discovered the spectators had been catching fish there for about an hour. "It just beat me emotionally the last day, and I ended up dropping down in the standings (15th place)," he laments. "I knew for sure I would be able to pull up to that spot and catch a limit. I had been the only competitor fishing it, and I thought those guys watching me surely would never dream of fishing there."