It's time to talk about it. By "it" I mean the incident that occurred the last time we fished a Bassmaster Classic on the Louisiana Delta. If you've been following the sport for a few years, you may remember it. If not, let me set the stage for you. It was the final day of the 2003 Classic, and I was in the hunt. Mike Iaconelli had a slim lead, but I was right behind him.
I was fishing down in the Venice area, where I had fished the first two days, and I had Wes, an ESPN cameraman, in my boat. I was working the tide and hitting key spots that were getting current. I picked up a small limit that morning, and Wes and I were about half a mile back in a canal — running at about 50mph — when I saw a man on a small pier that came out from a little shack on the shore.
Wes was looking down and adjusting something on his camera, but I noticed that the guy on the pier had a gun — either a rifle or a shotgun — and he was pointing it right at me. It's hard to say why, and I understand that it may also be hard to believe, but I wasn't afraid. I was in full-blown Classic mode with a chance to win the tournament of my life.
I needed to get to my fish, and I wasn't about to let some guy with a gun stop me. I'm not sure why he was pointing the gun at me, but I can tell you that mine wasn't the first boat in the canal that day ... or even that hour. Someone had gone through right before me. And I can tell you that my boat wasn't making a big disturbance. We were going fast, but creating very little wake.
All I know is that he must've been having a bad day and was looking for someone to take it out on. As Wes and I passed his pier, he took the sights off me, raised the barrel of the gun so that it was pointing just over my head and fired. I kept right on going, wondering, "What got into him?" Like I said, it may be hard to believe, but that incident didn't affect me at all. I wasn't rattled in the least. It certainly bothered Wes, though.
When he heard the shot, he looked up from his camera and started asking me what happened. I told him, and he was really bothered by it. He started calling his crew and the Coast Guard and anyone else who would listen and help him get out of the situation. I think he was replaying the movie Deliverance in his head. We stopped about a quarter mile from the shooter's pier — out of his sight — and I caught my biggest bass of the entire day.
Like I said, I was in Classic mode and wasn't about to let something like that bother me. Wes was still making calls and trying to figure out how the Navy or Marines were going to get back there to "save" us. That's when I told him that I had some good news ... and I had some bad news. The good news was that the guy had missed us when he shot. The bad news was that we were going back by him again in just a few minutes. It was the only way out of there, and I had more fishing to do.
On the way out, Wes used his camera to get a good picture of the guy that we showed to the authorities later. Never — not even once — was I in fear for my life or Wes' life, but I was definitely irritated at what the shooter had done and felt that he deserved to be prosecuted for it. By the time we got back to the weigh-in, the story was everywhere. Since that time, I think it's gotten even bigger. It's become one of those legendary Classic stories that people talk about or ask me about from time to time. My concerns — then and today — were a couple of things I didn't want to happen because of the incident.
First, I didn't want people to overreact and treat it like it was some sort of "gun crime." It wasn't. It was simply a guy with really poor judgment going crazy and taking things too far. I'm proud to be a hunter and gun owner, and I spend almost as much time with a gun in my hands as a rod and reel. I'm very sensitive to gun issues and would hate to be the catalyst for anti-gun protesters.
The second thing I wanted to avoid was anyone believing that one maniac was representative of the people in South Louisiana. Some of my best friends are from and live in that area. I love those people and that part of the world. I travel there every chance I get, and I'm looking forward to being there next month. It's a special place with special people. A few weeks after the incident, the sheriff made an arrest, but the prosecutor dropped the charges. I'm not sure why. I was ready to testify and would have gladly traveled to see it through.
Threatening Wes and me like that deserved a stiff penalty. I was very disappointed the authorities didn't see it that way. But the story doesn't end badly ... at least not for me. The shooter may have gotten away with threatening us, but I'm happy to report that his shack is gone. Katrina, Rita, or some other hurricane took care of that!
No matter where I go, I get a lot of the same kinds of comments from bass anglers. There are always lots of questions about techniques and how to catch fish, but there are also lots of questions and comments about the Bassmaster Classic — especially at this time of the year. My fans have always been very kind.
They know — maybe from reading my Classic Diary — that I've fished a lot of Classics. In fact, the 2011 championship will be my 29th. They also know that I've never won yet, though I've come pretty close a couple of times. I've finished in the Top 5 six different times, including a second-place finish in 2003 on the Louisiana Delta. That 2003 Classic was a very interesting one for me.
Not only did someone shoot at me while I was on the water (more on this in a later installment), but I went to the final weigh-in thinking I had a great chance to win the tournament. As you recall, Mike Iaconelli won that Classic. Before Ike weighed in, I took the lead and was feeling really good about my chances. In fact, I thought I had won the tournament. When Mike's fish hit the scales and he was announced as the winner, it took a few moments for it to sink in with me that I wasn't the champion. For a very brief moment in time, I think I experienced what the Classic champion feels — just not for as long as the Classic champ gets to feel it. It was exhilarating and unlike anything I've ever felt in my professional fishing career.
I've been fortunate enough to win a couple of Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles (1989 and 1993), but nothing has come close to the fleeting feeling I had that day on the stage in New Orleans. That little taste of what it feels like to be a Classic champion has been good for me. It wasn't just an interesting life experience; it's also been a driving force for me. It's a part of my Classic preparation, and it makes me want to win the Classic even more.
Although the money is great, I'm not fishing for that $500,000 check at the Classic. I'm not even fishing for the trophy, though I want that, too. I want to get that feeling back, and I want it to be mine forever — not just a few seconds. Only one angler gets to earn and keep that feeling at the Bassmaster Classic, and I want to be that angler. I plan to be that angler.
I've had some good news this week. My new Triton will be ready two weeks ahead of schedule, and I should be able to pick it up next week. That's a big deal in my world, especially leading into the Bassmaster Classic. My boat is one of several important comfort zones that need to be established before the biggest tournament of the year.
Getting it earlier than expected gives me extra time to put some hours on the engine and get everything set up just the way I want it. That way I can focus on my fishing rather than my equipment. I know I've said it before, but it's worth repeating. Equipment will be critical at this Bassmaster Classic. The Louisiana Delta is so massive and so potentially treacherous that equipment failure is very likely to play a big role in the outcome.
Obviously, I've been thinking a lot about the Classic — this Classic — and how it's likely to play out. Having fished 28 of them already, I can tell you that this one is unique. The fishery, time of year, industry conditions and more make it very different from any previous championship. Another thing that makes this Classic so unusual is going to be the importance of the decisions made on the water — and also those made well before we get on the water.
"Decisions" probably isn't even the right word. It should be something stronger — like "commitments." That's what they are, really. When a competitor decides to go north or south, he's making a commitment, not just a decision. And commitments like that will determine our fates. There will be absolutely no way to recover from a bad commitment on the Delta.
That kind of intensity fascinates and intrigues me. Because of the critical nature of the commitments we're forced to make on this fishery, well over half the Classic field will have lost the tournament on Day 1! I know that's a pretty bold statement, but I stand by it. My goal for the tournament is to be in contention to win going into the final day. I've been getting questions about what I think it will take to win the 2011 Classic, and I've been thinking about that a lot.
February is the time of year when the Delta produces its biggest bags. I think it will take 17 to 19 pounds per day to win. That's 51 to 57 pounds, maybe even a little more. Although the biggest bass from the other three Delta Classics weighed just 6-2, I think we'll see some much bigger fish this year. In fact, I'll be surprised if the big fish of the tournament is less than 8 or 10 pounds.
I wouldn't be shocked if someone caught an 11. Naturally, it would be great to win any Bassmaster Classic, but I think this one will be special. Whoever wins will absolutely deserve it. He will not only have found the winning fish, but also executed the perfect game plan.
I am addicted to bass fishing. Before you chuckle at that statement, I want you to know that I mean it. I am addicted to our sport just as someone else might be addicted to alcohol, drugs or anything else under the sun. But while these other addictions can hurt or kill you, my addiction to bass fishing has saved me ... several times. One way fishing saved me is in providing me with a career and livelihood for me and my family. It's the only life I've ever known.
People tell me that I am the first career bass pro — the first angler who never did anything else, guiding or tackle manufacturing or anything like that. I'm proud of that and proud of the young anglers who have followed in my footsteps.
Another way fishing has saved me is in avoiding burnout. You might think fishing is all fun and games, but as soon as you involve money, it gets very serious very quickly. Plenty of pros burn out and have to find another way to make a living because they learn to hate the sport. I've been at it for more than 30 years now and have more enthusiasm for what I do than ever before. I can tell you without any doubt that I'll never be burnt out on bass fishing. My bassaholism guarantees it.
My addiction to bass fishing means that I truly love to fish. I am a dedicated angler, and I'd be fishing even if it weren't for B.A.S.S., even if there weren't any tournaments and even if I had to do it all by myself on a farm pond in the middle of nowhere. Bass fishing isn't a choice that I make; it's a way of life. I'm fortunate to make my living as a bass angler and as a fishing industry professional. It's the only life I've ever known and the only life I want for myself and my family.
Yes, there are sacrifices, frustrations and valleys to go along with the joys, triumphs and peaks, but the bad things only make me work harder for the good. I absolutely appreciate the fans out there that root for me and support our sport. They give me tremendous encouragement and support, and they drive me to succeed. Some of my fans have been surprised at the success I've had in recent years.
They point out that I'm over 50, and that's a time when most anglers start to slow down. I think I should be at my strongest right now. I'm in good shape, take care of myself and have a wealth of experience to draw upon. I'm still young enough to have enthusiasm but old enough to have wisdom.
It's a good time for me. I love to fish, love to compete and want to be mentioned whenever people are talking about the best in the sport. Going into my 29th Bassmaster Classic, I am committed to bass fishing, committed to being the best I can be. Failure is not an option. It never has been.
The 2011 Bassmaster Classic on the Louisiana Delta will be my 29th and my third on that amazing waterway. I fished there in 1999 and 2003 and finished fourth and second, respectively. So, if you think I'm excited about this one, you're right! I honestly think this Classic is going to be extraordinary, and not just because I feel I have a chance to win, but also because it's a unique fishery, New Orleans is a Classic American city and also because we've never fished there in February.
Louisiana is full of great people, great food and great fishing. Our launch area at Bayou Segnette State Park is very close to New Orleans and really bisects the best available waters for the tournament. All 50 Classic competitors will have to make a critical decision at launch each morning. Will they turn right (north) or left (south)? Whatever the decision, it's a serious commitment, and there's no room for a Plan B. If you go upriver, you're stuck with that decision for the day.
The same is true if you go downriver. We're all going to have to do our homework before making that decision, and the three practice days the week before the Classic (Feb. 11-13) will be critical. As for the practice period that ended last week, it was more about relearning my way around the Delta than about catching fish. It was definitely time well spent. The biggest thing I can tell you about the "new" Delta is that it's changed a lot since 2003. Some of the places I caught bass that year to finish second are now dirt — not shallow, but actual dirt! You can walk around on them!
Hurricane Katrina dramatically changed the Delta landscape, but I assure you that the bass fishing there is alive and strong. I think the Delta will show very well at the 2011 Classic. February is the very best time of year for big bags of fish there, and — weather permitting — I think it'll take between 17 and 19 pounds a day to be in the hunt for the championship.
Another interesting thing about the Delta is the possibility that an angler could be on the winning fish in practice but not be able to take advantage of what he's found during the tournament. The weather, mechanical issues and local fishing pressure could ruin the best of plans. Experience — both on the Delta and on fishing's biggest stage — will be a serious advantage. Check back frequently. I'll keep you posted on what I'm doing and thinking as we approach my 29th Classic. I still have a few dreams and goals to accomplish in my career.
A win at the Classic would let me check off a big item on my "bucket list." I hope you'll join me here for the ride.