BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Mike McClelland says he is “flying under the radar” going into his ninth Bassmaster Classic. He could not be happier about that.
It’s not that McClelland has escaped the notice of the nerds of professional bass fishing. These pundits and prognosticators have picked him as an odds-on favorite to win the Feb. 22-24 world championship on Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees, the 2013 Bassmaster Classic presented by Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa.
Indeed, all the signs point to the possibility that this Classic appearance could result in a victory for McClelland: He won a Bassmaster Elite Series event on Grand Lake in June 2006. He was a Top 12 finisher when the Elite Series returned to Grand in June 2007. He lives about 40 minutes from the Classic fishery, and has been competing in tournaments there since the early 1990s.
And talk about a coincidence: the first time he finished “in the money” in a Bassmaster event was on Grand Lake in the 1992 Oklahoma Invitational. He tied for 24th place in a field of hundreds. At age 45, in the prime of his fishing career, this six-time Bassmaster tournament winner is “due” for his first Classic trophy.
Yet despite all those factors, McClelland isn’t getting the same intense attention as are Oklahoma qualifiers Jason Christie, Edwin Evers and Tommy Biffle. The reason is simple: McClelland is from Bella Vista, Ark., and Christie, Evers and Biffle have Oklahoma zip codes fairly close to Grand Lake and host city Tulsa. The average fishing fan hasn’t picked up on McClelland’s potential as a Classic champ — not yet, at least.
“I’m really glad I’m flying under the radar right now,” McClelland said. “I won the first time the Elite Series fished Grand Lake, and that put a lot of added attention, if not pressure, on me the second time. This time, the Oklahoma guys are getting it, not me.”
Christie described it best. Six weeks before the Classic’s start, the pro from Park Hill, Okla., said the media attention, and pressure to do well in his first Classic, began months ago. “You have no idea, you just have no idea,” he said.
If the focus on Oklahoma anglers continues into competition, McClelland said, he will benefit. He predicts that Evers, Biffle and Christie will each attract a flotilla of spectator boats.
“And (Kevin) VanDam,” McClelland added. “VanDam’s a favorite no matter where you go.”
Four-time Classic champ VanDam won the 2007 Elite event on Grand Lake. That Oklahoma connection is just one more reason why the superstar of bass fishing will collect spectators during the Classic.
McClelland knows how, and why, a lack of such distractions can help him in the Classic.
“I do have a lot of experience on Grand, but I really don’t have any experience there this time of year,” he said. “I’ve never fished Grand in December, January or February, and very little in March, so it’s going to be a new experience for me. That’s why I’m glad I’m flying under the radar. I can ride on the lake without a lot of spectators following me. I can focus better, figure out what I need to make happen.”
He got a look at Grand in wintertime when he scouted the fishery just before Dec. 10, 2012, when the waters became off-limits to all Classic competitors. A reporter-photographer caught up with McClelland, and he agreeably posed, arm extended to display an open tacklebox of lures. The photo was published on Bassmaster.com.
Giving away secrets? No way, he said.
“It’s common knowledge that those baits I showed are going to be used by literally every Classic contender there is this year,” he explained. “The time of year limits our choices of lures, of what will work. And lures aren’t the secrets they were 10 or 15 years ago, anyway.”
So he took the opportunity to put a spotlight on some of his sponsors’ products. For the record, among the lures McClelland showed were one of his signature creations, the Spro McStick, a suspending jerkbait; and a BassX jig. A flip through the February issue of B.A.S.S. Times magazine, or a visit to Bassmaster.com, indeed shows that reporters predict these two types of lures, plus a spinnerbait, swimbait and crankbait, will be in most Classic anglers’ tackleboxes.
But McClelland’s biggest Classic weapon is not a lure, it’s confidence.
“There are places where we, as anglers, develop higher levels of confidence. Grand is one of those places; I can go there feeling very, very comfortable and confident,” he said. “There’s no doubt that this Classic should be the best opportunity that I have ever had to fish a lake with the complete feeling that I can walk away, holding the trophy.”