I attended my first Bassmaster Classic on a lark. I was 20 years old, home from college on a summer break and read in the newspaper (remember those?) that the 1990 Bassmaster Classic was taking place just 90 miles down the road in Richmond.
At that point I’d subscribed to Bassmaster for a few years and I was a fan of the sport, but I wasn’t really an experienced fisherman. Even though I was passionate about fishing I’d been in a bass boat a grand total of one time, and had never fished a tournament. In fact, as a general matter I fished only occasionally. No one in my family fished for bass, nor did any of my close friends.
While we had a few small tackle shops and sporting goods stores near home, I remember walking through the Expo and being amazed by the wealth of products for sale. More importantly, while I’d met a few avid anglers over the years, I’d never seen so many of them all in one place. It was like I’d found my comfort zone. I was among folks who shared my interests and my passions.
By the time I got to the weigh-in, there wasn’t a seat to be had. I ended up in the standing room section, cheering for names I’d only read about, like Woo Daves, with his “Woo Fans,” and eventual winner Rick Clunn, who came back from a heavy deficit to claim his fourth Classic trophy. Even though it was my interest too, I couldn’t believe that there were thousands of people who cared about this enough to scream their lungs out for their favorite angler or a big catch. Wasn’t this stuff reserved for heavyweight fights and game seven of the World Series?
As the anglers weighed in, I eyed two girls standing a few feet away, one of whom looked to be about my age. She was attractive and I tend to notice those things. Also, she was wearing a distinctive skirt. As the weigh-in progressed and I got caught up in the action, I lost sight of her, only to see her reappear in a Ranger Boat circling the arena. I’d been standing next to Rick Clunn’s daughter. That, to me, summed up the whole experience. Not only was I amongst my long lost tribe, but I was within arm’s reach of the winners. You may never get courtside seats to see LeBron or get to stand on the sidelines at the Super Bowl, but you can get really close at the Bassmaster Classic.
I didn’t attend another Classic until 2004, when I went as a new member of the media. It was every bit as electrifying as the 1990 edition, because not only was I confronted with a bigger and better Expo, and a bigger and better weigh-in, but I got to spend time in the boat with two of the competitors, including eventual runner-up Aaron Martens. At that point, I’d fished a lot more, belonged to a B.A.S.S. club and had owned a couple of boats, but there were still large segments of my life (specifically, my family and my workplace) where tournament fishing was seen as something of an oddity.
That summer week in Charlotte I was back among my people. With the exception of 2007 (sorry, Boyd) I’ve been to every Classic since then, and each year about January I start counting down the days. Except for those days when I’m out on the water fishing myself, the tournament week is a highlight of my year. I look for excuses to get there as early as possible to begin to soak it in.
If you’re a bass fishing fan anywhere within reach of Greenville, or the site of some future Classic, I urge you to make it a highlight of your year, too.
There are few guarantees in fishing, especially in tournament bass fishing. As Clunn proved in 1990, catching 18-07 on the final day to come back from 10th place, few leads are insurmountable. And as Bryan Kerchal demonstrated four years later, you can’t count out the B.A.S.S. Nation anglers. Furthermore, as both Randy Howell and Paul Mueller showed last year at Guntersville, it’s not necessarily the angler who starts well, but the ones who adjust. With that said, I’m not going to make any predictions about who will win this Hartwell Classic. The only guarantees I’ll offer you are the following four:
- Kanye West will not interrupt the presentation of the winner’s trophy;
- There will be no competitors named Gronk or Jameis;
- Aaron Martens will always be an Enigma, regardless of what rods he uses; and
- If you are a complete basshead like me, and you attend the Classic, you will be around your type of people.
By “your type of people,” I don’t mean any particular demographic group. The male Bubbas will likely outnumber them all, but there will be women there who are much more fanatical fans, as well as members of every ethnic group under the sun. If you ever wanted a clear sign that fishing has no boundaries, you can’t get one clearer than that.
Whether you live in Guntersville, Ala., where it may seem like every neighbor has a bass boat, or Guangzhou, China, where none of them do, you will be around people who talk the same language. Over breakfast, you might happen onto a spirited conversation among total strangers about whether Alabama Rigs should be tournament legal, which then segues into a discussion of which Alabama Rig are best. For once, you won’t have to explain what the darn thing is; you’ll be able to get right to the heart of the matter – because fishing will be the lingua franca of everyone within 50 miles of Hartwell. They’ll all be your kind of people. My kind of people, too.