36 world championships and these events stand out above the rest

Ray Scott and Bobby Murray
Ray Scott and Bobby Murray

The greatest sports moments all have one thing in common: They occur on the biggest stages. Big drama can sprout almost anytime or anywhere, but to rise to the level of greatness the event itself must be as big as the moment.

In baseball, that means the World Series; in football, it's the Super Bowl; and in fishing, it's the CITGO Bassmaster Classic. No other professional angling event — in freshwater or saltwater — can match it for excitement. Careers are made and lost at the Classic; dreams are fulfilled or dashed.

Here, in David Letterman countdown fashion, are the 10 greatest Classics ever staged:

10. Classic I

October 20-22, 1971

Lake Mead, Nev.

This is the event that started it all. Three years after creating the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, Ray Scott decided that the fledgling sport needed a championship. What better way to determine the best of the best than to load the top 24 anglers on a plane bound for unknown waters, and let them battle it out in a place where none of them had ever cast for bass before? Scott limited the qualifiers to just four rods and reels and 10 pounds of lures.

When the plane landed in Las Vegas, most of the field was surprised to learn that there were bass in Lake Mead. The deep, clear waters looked a lot different from those back in the Deep South where most of the anglers did their bassing.

Rebel Fastback bass boats powered by 90-hp MerCruiser inboard-outboards carried the anglers across Mead at speeds up to 37 mph. When it was all over, Arkansas' Bobby Murray claimed the winner-take-all purse of $10,000.

Though he would win the Classic again in 1978, Murray still cherishes that first Classic championship.

"People always remember the first one," he says. "I'm proud to have won it. It paved the way for my career in the outdoors industry."

9. Classic VII

October 26-28, 1977

Lake Tohopekaliga, Fla.

After seven years of "mystery lakes" and anglers boarding planes for who-knows-where, Scott's championship tournament was getting too big to keep its location a secret any longer. The 1977 Classic was the first to announce the location in advance of the event so that fans could make plans to attend.

The 1977 Classic was special in other ways, too. It gave the sport its first — and thus far, only — back-to-back champion in Rick Clunn, who also became the first two-time winner. It was the first Classic for bass fishing legend Larry Nixon, who finished second in his debut.

It was also the first Classic in which luck played an admitted role in the outcome.

In the opening round, Clunn got lost in a fog bank and missed his intended destination. He ended up stopping far short of his spot and caught the biggest bass of the tournament (7-7) on his second cast. That fish anchored a 19-10 catch that put him in first place to stay.

For Nixon, tragedy struck on the final day when he lost a fish that would have been good enough to win the Classic.

"On my fifth cast I hooked a bass, and he weighed over 2 pounds. And the line, for some reason I can't explain — it was new line — broke at the rod tip. I guess it just wasn't meant for me to catch that fish."

Clunn's 27-7 held the record for lowest winning weight in a Classic until Nixon captured the championship in 1987 with 18-1.

8. Classic XXV

August 3-5, 1995

High Rock Lake, N.C.

Bass fishing fans said it for decades: The ultimate accomplishment of a professional angler would be to win the Bassmaster Angler of the Year and Bassmaster Classic in the same season.

Several superstar anglers had done both, but no one in 24 years had done them in the same season — until Mark Davis.

The Mount Ida, Ark., pro had missed the 1994 Classic on the same waters, but came back with a vengeance, claiming the AOY crown and the first berth in the championship. Davis used a deep diving crankbait to pull suspended bass from the tops of tall brushpiles to edge out Georgia's Mark Hardin and claim a piece of fishing history.

7. Classic XXXIV

July 30-August 1, 2004

Lake Wylie, N.C.

It was bound to happen, and in 2004, it finally did.

When Ray Scott founded BASS in 1968 he didn't just jump start an American phenomenon, he influenced sport fishermen all over the world. Eventually, a foreign-born angler would claim fishing's top prize.

The stage was set in the early 1990s when a young Takahiro Omori left Japan for America and a career in the sport he loved. He knew little English and had few acquaintances in the States, but he knew what he wanted and where to find it.

After spending several years working odd jobs and sleeping in his vehicle, Omori found stability in Texas, fishing the Bassmaster Tournament Trail and guiding on Lake Fork. By 2004, he had been to the Classic twice, finishing poorly in 2001 and 2003.

In the final 27 minutes of the 2004 Classic, Omori experienced some of the fastest and most exciting fishing in the tournament's history, catching three bass that weighed about 10 pounds and moving him ahead of his competition for good.

When the scales told the tale, Omori dropped to his knees in tears. It was a dream come true for a man who had come halfway around the world to fulfill it.

6. Classic XIV

August 16-18, 1984

Arkansas River, Ark.

The 1984 Classic set the stage for one of the most famous images in BASS history — Rick Clunn and Ray Scott on the weigh-in stage flanked by future presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton.

But the photo is just a small part of the story. What made the 1984 Classic special was the complete dominance of Rick Clunn, who became the first man to win the event three times.

In a tournament where good catches were common, Clunn's catches were outrageous. He caught 75-9 over three days and beat his closest competitor by more than 25 pounds while posting the biggest catch in Classic history.

Amazingly, Clunn was able to stay focused while his father lay in a coma in a Houston hospital bed. An emotional Clunn dedicated the victory to his father, who eventually recovered from the illness.

5. Classic XX

August 23-25, 1990

James River, Va.

There are advantages to being out of the running. At the Bassmaster Classic that means there will be fewer boats following you, fewer fans seeking your autograph and fewer distractions while fishing.

So when Rick Clunn found himself in 10th place going into the final round of the 1990 Classic — nearly 10 pounds out of the lead — few gave him any chance to win. In fact, no camera boat was even following the three-time Classic champ.

They should have known better.

In the final round Clunn found a patch of cypress trees in a James River tributary and fished them with a shallow running crankbait to stage the biggest comeback in Classic history, not just winning his fourth Classic, but besting second place finisher Tom Biffle by nearly 7 pounds.

4. Classic XXXV

July 29-31, 2005

Three Rivers, Pa.

Pennsylvania and bass fishing are not often mentioned in the same sentence, and the Classic has a tough history on the Ohio River. The competition promised to be tough on Pittsburgh's Three Rivers, and it was. Very tough, but very exciting, too.

Going into the final round, no angler had more than 10 pounds of bass and more than a dozen competitors were within striking distance of the lead. It was time for the cream of the angling world to rise to the top.

Enter Kevin VanDam who was riding the wave of two consecutive Elite 50 victories. KVD used a 20-year-old Smithwick Rogue around bridge pilings to post a three-day catch of 12-15. It was enough to edge Aaron Martens by 6 ounces.

3. Classic XXVII

August 7-9, 1997

Lake Logan Martin, Ala.

One ounce! That's all that separated Missouri's Dion Hibdon from Federation qualifier Dalton Bobo after three days on Lake Logan Martin. In the closest Classic ever, Hibdon skipped a soft plastic grub under boat docks to catch 34 pounds, 13 ounces of spotted bass and make him and his father, Guido, the only father-son duo to claim Classic titles.

For Bobo, the story was particularly disheartening. Not only did he lose fishing's biggest tournament by the smallest of margins, but he did it in the toughest way imaginable — a dead fish penalty.

On the second day of competition, Bobo brought a dead bass to the scales and was penalized 4 ounces — just enough to fall behind Hibdon and lose the Classic. Ironically, just the year before, the Classic's dead fish penalty was only 2 ounces.

2. Classic XIX

August 17-19, 1989

James River, Va.

For thousands and thousands of bass fishing fans, the 1989 Classic on the James River wasn't won by Hank Parker; it was lost by Florida's Jim Bitter.

The final records will show that Parker won his second Classic by slow rolling a spinnerbait near wood cover, edging Bitter by 2 ounces. But it was really Bitter's Classic to win … or lose. In fact, he even had the winning bass in his boat!

It happened in the middle of the final day. Bitter had just landed a small bass that would have filled out his limit. After measuring the fish — it was a keeper — he turned to put it in the livewell. That's when the bass twisted free, bounced off a tacklebox and landed in the water. It was the last keeper he would catch all day.

1. Classic XXIV

July 28-30, 1994

High Rock Lake, N.C.

Few remember that Bryan Kerchal fished two Classics in his brief career. In 1993, on Lake Logan Martin in Alabama, he finished in last place and endured a withering comment from Ray Scott when he stepped up on the weigh-in stand with little to show for his efforts.

"If you don't do better than that," Scott said, "you'll have to go back to flipping burgers."

The line must have stuck with the 23-year-old angler because in 1994 at High Rock Lake, he was back.

Qualifying for a second consecutive Classic as a Federation angler, Kerchal was determined to fish his own strengths this time — not to be influenced by the other, more experienced anglers. When nothing paid off in practice, Kerchal took a cue from the lake itself.

He found a red shad Culprit plastic worm floating near his boat during practice and took the hint. He pitched and flipped the Texas rigged bait to boat docks all three days of the competition and was the only angler to bring a limit to the scales in each round.

Tragically, Kerchal was killed in a plane crash just a few months after his Classic victory. He remains the only Federation angler to claim fishing's biggest title.

 

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