Sooch’s 70 snapshots of Grand Lake Classic

Mike 'Sooch' Suchan from Bassmaster LIVE shares an insider's look at the 2024 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Classic presented by Jockey Outdoors.

The bass fishing world was living on Tulsa time for the 2024 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Classic presented by Jockey Outdoors. The 54th world championship was my 18th to cover, and following are my favorite images. For competitors and attendees, the event is highly anticipated. It’s the closest Classic to home base in Little Rock, so travel was a relative breeze, less than a four-hour drive to the greatest celebration in the sport.
First stop was the Hyatt Regency downtown, where anglers were assembling. Just like last time in Tulsa, local favorite Jason Christie was the first angler encountered, although in 2016 he was checking in with eventual champ Edwin Evers. They finished 1-2, but not in the order Christie desired. Perhaps it would be good luck this time for Christie, who won the 2022 Classic. No. Sorry, JC.
Ben Milliken, the YouTube sensation tied for the Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year lead after two events, was in the JM Associates’ interview room. Among those expected to do well on Grand Lake, Milliken told his back story that was seen on TV broadcasts. The Elite rookie wished he had a different story to tell about the fishing. He missed the bite, finishing 50th. 
In the Classic gifting suite, Elite rookie Tim Dube of New Hampshire shows some of the swag anglers receive. Dube, who qualified through the B.A.S.S. Nation, was asked his thoughts on Bryan Kerchal, who 30 years earlier became the only Nation angler to win a Classic. Dube said it would be an honor to follow in his footsteps.
The 56 competitors and B.A.S.S. officials crammed into this room for the anglers meeting, what I’ve always considered the official start of Classic Week. The Ray Scott trophy was front and center, but it was look and no touch.
A row of anglers, including College Bracket champion Easton Fothergill (wearing purple)l, listen to B.A.S.S. CEO Chase Anderson before Vice President of Tournaments Chris Bowes provided his rundown. Fothergill had a nightmarish story getting to this Classic. The 21-year-old required emergency brain surgery but recovered just in time to fish for his berth.
Outside in the hotel lobby, the publishing team is already at work, busy building and posting videos, stories and photo galleries. They stayed busy all week. In all, there were more than 200 pieces of content produced.
While the anglers were out for their final day of practice on Wednesday, the Daily Limit finished this story on the 30th anniversary of Bryan Kerchal’s Classic win, then had a couple hours to see some sights in Tulsa. The Bob Dylan Center in the Tulsa Arts District was a decent walk, but fellow writer Steve Wright was itching to go.
Opening in 2022, the museum showcases the career of the famed singer-songwriter, who recently began creating metal works of art. “How does it feeeel?” Rather immersive, actually.
Then it was off to the Night of Champions, where all the B.A.S.S. winners from the year are honored. The Bassmaster TV crew interviews Kyle Welcher, the 2023 Bassmaster Angler of the Year, who later delivered a succinct speech.
The anglers and their companions dress to the nines for the big banquet. It’s a great time visiting with anglers like Hunter Shyrock, with his wife, Felicia, and plenty of photos are taken. The red carpet shots of the couples ended up being the most-viewed photo gallery of the week.
Luke Palmer and cameraman Aaron Skrzypczak (Scrip-check) threw out the vibe from “Dumb and Dumber.” Of course, the phrase, “So you’re saying there’s a chance,” was uttered again and again. Skrzypczak also appreciated being told he needs to buy a vowel.
Patrick Walters was among the four anglers awarded Bassmaster Century belts after each totaled more than 100 pounds at last year’s St. Lawrence River Elite. Walters tied Steve Kennedy and Mike Iaconelli among active Elites with his third belt, and he was the first to do it with largemouth and smallmouth. Kyoya Fujita duplicated that feat at Toledo Bend this year. B.A.S.S. will be buying belts in bulk for next Night of Champions as all 10 finalists earned one at Lake Fork, for a total of 11 this year so far.
Thursday was Media Day. Anglers line their boats at the Bass Pro Shop in Broken Arrow. As reigning AOY, Welcher had the honor of leading the boats out on Day 1 of competition. Before the Media Day proceedings, Welcher was found in his boat working on tackle.
The media and anglers enjoyed a barbecue lunch inside Bass Pro Shops where Tracker Boats are usually on display. There were more than 350 requests for media credentials this year.
That morning, the Bassmaster Classic Progressive Celebrity Pro-Am presented by Bass Pro Shops was competed on Skiatook Lake. Chris Zaldain and internet sensation Hood_Entertainment_Fishing won the competition, and HEF said he’ll be keeping the boat he won.
In the front parking lot, and drawing plenty of attention from regular shoppers, the anglers sat in their boats for interviews. Lee Livesay takes time to autograph a bunch of HUK shirts.
First-time Classic competitor David Gaston, 27, of Sylacauga, Ala., had his daughter, Brittyn Lynn, 2 1/2, along with his sister, Allie, 10, in his boat. His wife and 1-month-old stayed at the hotel. Gaston, the last Elite angler to make the Classic and one of seven rookies, was asked what one key thing the winner will do Grand Lake. Mixing it up, doing a little bit of everything, should get the W, he said.
Hank Cherry, who had the potential winning fish on the line in the 2013 Grand Lake Classic, went on to win back-to-back Classics in 2020-21. He had hopes to exact revenge on Grand and become just the third angler with more than two titles. In his eighth Classic, Cherry went on to post his fourth Top 10.
Christie, showing off his AFTCO card available at the Expo, said his key to victory was, “No. 1, No. 1, No 1, managing spectators.” Christie said at one time in 2016 Classic, there were 121 boats following him. While recommending spectators watch Bassmaster LIVE, he did hope to be in the hunt and have 75 boats follow him on Championship Sunday. That didn’t happen with his 17th-place finish.
Powell Kemp, who celebrated his 43 birthday on March 18, qualified for his first Classic by winning the St. Croix Open on Buggs Island. The longtime pro from Scotland Neck, N.C., said adapting to daily movements of fish was key, adding, “I promise you; you can’t win it at home.” He finished 51st.
Brandon Cobb was tying up for his fifth Classic. “You can’t do the same thing the whole time,” the two-time Elite winner from Greenwood, S.C., said. He said the big club derby won’t be won with one bait and that he’d have a minimum of 12 rods on deck. Cobb finished 19th.
Brandon Palaniuk, who finished second in the 2013 Grand Lake Classic, entertained a lot of media as one of the pre-tournament favorites. The Prodigy made the cut and managed 23rd place in his 13th Classic.
Here’s the “Sooch’s view” of the Bassmaster LIVE set outside of the BOK Center. Host Tommy Sanders shares a laugh with analysts Davy Hite and Mark Zona early on Day 1. Thankfully, a storm never hit, but wind-chill temps below freezing on Saturday and strong winds on Sunday tested the crew.
Behind the stage in the Bass Pro Shops Tailgate driven by Yokohama, fans had fun writing messages to be seen on LIVE. Everyone could see who David, Christina and Allen Bowen from Chouteau, Okla., wanted to win.
Bob Henry of Jacksonville, Ill., and son Kevin Henry of Festus, Mo., offered their twist on a line from Mark Zona.
Jockey Outdoors, which teamed up with country music star Luke Bryan, was the presenting sponsor of the Classic. One of their boats sits outside the BOK Center where anglers lined up for the weigh-in.
Will Davis Jr. of Sylacauga, Ala., waits inside the BOK to weigh. Davis became the first back-to-back B.A.S.S. Nation champion, and his double qualification gave Gaston, from the same city, the final Elite berth. Davis finished 37th and Gaston 42nd.
Fishing his first Classic, California’s Bryant Smith had his name up in lights on the overhead big screen. Smith caught several big bass in the event. He said the Oklahoma weather was rather consistent, in that “it consistently changed every day.”
Back outside, Adam Rasmussen, another first-time qualifier after winning the Wheeler Lake Open, gets interviewed after his fruitful first day. Rasmussen, a multispecies guide out of Sturgeon Bay, Wis., caught 19-5 to stand third after Day 1.
Lee Livesay of Longview, Texas, shows off part of his 18-15 limit that put him fourth. Justin Hamner led with the Rapala CrushCity Monster Bag of the event, 22-6, and Cody Huff of Ava, Mo., stood second with 21-2.
On Day 2, the Bassmaster LIVE crew had legendary angler Rick Clunn on for a segment. Clunn, also of Ava., Mo., is fishing his 50th year with B.A.S.S., and his 500th event will come this month at the St. Johns River Elite.
After LIVE ended and the sun warmed things up, a trip to the huge Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo presented by GSM Outdoors afforded this encounter with Dale Smith of Wyandott, Okla. Smith, who attended the launch at Wolf Creek Park, purchased a set of ARK combo rod/reels for a steal.
Inside the Cox Business Center at the B.A.S.S. booth, Tammy Davis of Dover, Fla., was having Bob Cobb of Bassmaster media fame autograph his book. “That’s my to-do for the Classic, meet Bob and get a book,” said Davis, who mentioned she was there with her husband, Darrell. She affirmed he’s the same Darrell Davis who caught an 11-5 in the 2017 Lake Chickamauga, a fish that stands fifth heaviest in B.A.S.S. Opens.
Next was a chance encountered with James Bethurem, aka Santa Jim, who the Daily Limit wrote in 2018 has become a mainstay at Classics. That’s one of the best things about Classic Week, seeing and visiting with friends.
Former Elite pro Gary Clouse (seated top right) oversees the action at the huge Phoenix Boats booth, which had flurries of fans. For years, Phoenix Boats has awarded cash prizes for big bass in Bassmaster tournaments. It’s countless the number of times Sooch has said, “The Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the day.”
First-year Elite Robert Gee, who made a splash by finishing fourth in the season-opener on Toledo Bend, had a steady gig promoting the new Gary Yamamoto worms.
Dorothy Gates, 5, of St. Louis experienced the Yeti Hot Seat as she tried and tried to lasso the Stickhorns on this Tundra 350 cooler. With her mom’s help, she finally roped in a monster.
Looky here. It’s Trey McKinney, showing off his trophy from Lake Fork. At 19 years, seven days, McKinney became the youngest Elite winner and almost set the all-time weight record. It stands to reason, McKinney, who is tied for the Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year lead, was all smiles.
Scott Martin, who was the first man out of the 2024 Classic, works the Garmin booth at the Expo. Here, Mike Still of Judsonia, Ark., gets his photo with Martin, who set records for top daily weight, top Opens weight and best three-day weight in Bassmaster history at Lake Okeechobee early this year.
At the TNT Fireworks booth, Blake Smith and friend Cameron McKee, both 15 and from Moore, Okla., try their hand at the ring toss for prizes. McKee was gathering autographs on his hat, the biggest name of which was Roland Martin.
The Expo is the place to meet and talk with icons in the sport. Fans gather round as Rick Clunn holds court at the ginormous Bass Pro Shop display.
Mike Iaconelli was stationed at the BassCat booth, handing out Flambeau tackleboxes to the likes of Kolby Pierce, a 13-year-old from McAlester, Okla. “I have one, but I could use an extra one,” the youth said.
A lot of fans tried many of the games at the Toyota booth, with many checking out the trucks. Toyota has long been a faithful sponsor of B.A.S.S.
There were a number of food trucks just outside the Cox Business Center, helping create a carnival atmosphere. Chris and Melissa Babb of Tulsa stand in line with their children for an afternoon snack. Bratwurst, jumbo corn dog, chicken on a stick, what’s it going to be?
The family visited Classic venues all three days, with Chris loading up on rods, sunglasses and shirts for his bass excursions. Brodie, 8, and Lexie, 5, were all smiles with fried Oreos and a corn dog. “I like to fish for catfish,” said Brodie, who was asked what was his biggest. “Pretty big.”
In the Tailgate area, Charlie Evans of Paw Patrol fame entertains the families of Elite Classic competitors Chris and Cory Johnston. Cory led the Canadian brothers with a sixth-place finish after climbing the standings with Championship Sunday’s biggest bag of 19-14. Chris had a rougher go, making the cut but finishing 25th.  
Just down the way from Evans was the Super Retriever Series pool, where handlers sent their dogs running off the platform.
The high-flying hounds kept crowds enthralled as they were challenged on how far they traveled into the pool.
Let’s head back outside the BOK Center, where rookie Elite and first-time Classic qualifier Kyle Patrick gets his snack on as he waits to weigh in.
A crew from the Mannford High fishing team, located west of Tulsa on Keystone Lake, volunteered to wipe down anglers boats so they’d shine in the arena. Greg Hackney, competing in his 18th Classic, leans in to pose with the boys.
After wiping away the day’s water spots, the youth found time to visit and take photos with anglers like Elite rookie Tyler Williams. Williams, 22 of Belgrade, Maine, was among the 2023 Elite Qualifiers and reached the Classic by winning the Watts Bar Open. He just missed the Top 25 cut in 27th.
The Mannford crew also got to rub elbows with the likes of Bill Dance, fresh off an appearance on the Classic weigh-in stage. Other luminaries out and about were Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris and two-time Classic champ Hank Parker, among others.
Canada’s Cooper Gallant, fishing his second Classic, made a big move on Day 2. The 26-year-old from Bowmanville caught 19-5 to climb 23 spots to sixth place. He finished 12th, much better than his 52nd last year at the Tennessee River, where fellow Canadian Jeff Gustafson won.
Members of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation handled fish care, placing the fish in divided tanks on a trailer. What happens to the fish is the No. 1 question asked of B.A.S.S. Conservation Director Gene Gilliland. Proud that there has been a 100% live release rate at all the Grand Lake Classics, he said the bass are returned to different locations on Grand each day.
After the third day of fishing, anglers head to the boatyard in the shadow of the BOK Center, where they get a bit of time to decompress. Hank Cherry and Kyle Patrick, again snacking, visited a bit.
With 25 anglers to weigh, the Daily Limit headed to get the overview of the proceedings. It’s been a thing to climb to the heights of the arena to get a crowd shot.
While the angler weighs in, spotlights hit their family and friends in a cordoned off area. Jason Christie had quite the entourage.
Down in the media room, Kent Brown of Ultimate Bass Radio tells angler Bryant Smith he’s always believed in him and that he did a great job. Smith, who caught 5-13 and 5-14 bass in competition, finished 13th in his first Classic.
With 19 anglers down, and Jay Przekurat taking the Yeti Hot Seat, Justin Hamner walks out to great fanfare on Championship Sunday. The Northport, Ala., pro held the two-day lead with 42-6, and it appeared on BassTrakk that he would secure the title.
Adam Rasmussen had something to say about that. He rolled into the arena with the best shot to take down Hamner, standing just 5-7 back when the day began.
Cody Huff shows off his fish after taking the lead. He was third after two days and his 14-3 bag brought out the Daily Leader signage. He wouldn’t stay there, dropping to third, but he earned his biggest Bassmaster payday to date with $40,000.
Second last to weigh, Rasmussen was the closest threat to Hamner. He caught several fish topping 4 pounds on Championship Sunday, which easily could have been underestimated. His final day 18-5 gave him the lead with 55-4, with just Hamner left to weigh.
Hamner stood side by side with Rasmussen for the reveal, and his 15-13 Day 3 bag gave him the winning total of 58-3, just 2-15 better than Rasmussen. It’s said no one remembers second place, but Rasmussen will surely relive his week numerous times. He earned $50,000, second only to his Open win, and he’s certain to draw more business as a guide and sponsorships.
Like many others with cameras, the Daily Limit rushed the stage. Hamner showed a flurry of emotion, at first jubilant for realizing the dream he’s had since he was 8.
Thinking about the feat and his rise to the top of the fishing world, there were also tears.
The 43rd man ever to hoist the Ray Scott Trophy said it was only last year that he sold his lawn business to fish full-time. He’s had quite a run, posting top 20 finishes in eight of his past nine events.
Perhaps a monster was created. How the light hit Hamner here was reminiscent of Peter Boyle in “Young Frankenstein,” when lightning brought the creature to life. The bolt of a Classic championship has Hamner in the spotlight, and how long he terrorizes the fishing world is yet to be determined.
With confetti flying, Hamner shows his appreciation to the many cheering him on. Turning 33 on March 21, a day before competition started, Hamner keeps the birthday theme going in B.A.S.S. McKinney also won seven days after he turned 19.
It was hugs and tears all around as Hamner’s parents; wife, Christina; and daughter, Scarlett, celebrated with him on stage. The 4-year-old Scarlett grabbed the spotlight throwing the red, white and blue papers in the air, then she and dad made confetti angels on the deck of his boat during the victory lap. It was a pretty special Classic.