Ever since the date of the Bassmaster Classic was changed from summer to winter in 2006, there has been lots of debate about whether February is the proper month for our sport’s biggest event. Of course, you have to take any criticism with a grain of salt, because there are certain keyboard jockeys who live to criticize anything at all, fishing bloggers who have an ax to grind against B.A.S.S., and iron clad traditionalists who think that any deviation from the format of the 1971 Classic is sacrilege.
I laugh at the criticism but I also wince in pain at it, because I’m one of the few who truly has skin in the game. I’ve blogged for B.A.S.S. at every Classic since 2010 (and rode with competitors in the 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008 events) and as a result I typically spend more time on the water than even the competitors. I have the windburn and frostbite to prove it. The anglers have to deal with it, but their frustration is likely tempered by the fact that they’re fishing for six figures. I’m putting up with the cold for a miniscule fraction of that (and no trophy).
When the weather for this year’s derby was released, I suspected it would be bad. My expectations were exceeded in that department. It was painfully cold.
But you know what? We made it through, and even though we dipped into single digits on Day 1, I was more comfortable than I was at Hartwell in 2008, when it was 37 and raining, or Tulsa in 2013, when it dipped down below 20. A big part of that is just learning how to deal with it, taking hints from the anglers about the proper gear. Each year the options get incrementally better and we learn little tips and tricks. This year I had a Stormr neoprene suit (first saw it on Greg Hackney in Tulsa), ThermaCELL heated insoles in my boots, and ThermaCare heat wraps across my back. Until I had to take my gloves off to type on my phone, I was generally pretty toasty.
The anglers are going to show up no matter what and it appears that the fans are almost as committed. And now that we’ve established that even lowly bloggers can handle the cold, is there any reason for B.A.S.S. to change the Classic date based on weather? I’d say that there is. B.A.S.S. got lucky this year in South Carolina, just as they got lucky two years ago in Tulsa. It would’ve been horrible if the roads had iced up and the anglers hadn’t been able to get to the ramp safely. It would’ve been just as disappointing for the Classic fans, many of whom wouldn’t have risked icy highways to get there. If nearby airports had closed, those who’d planned to vacation there would’ve likewise been shut out. It would’ve been even more disastrous if one of the anglers fishing alone on the practice day had fallen in. In July or October, that might be a no-harm-no-foul situation. In 44 degree water, it wouldn’t be.
Of course, weather is a variable in this sport no matter what time of year you fish. Just as a late winter tournament could be plagued by ice and cold, a mid-summer event could be hurt by heat (resulting in both dehydrated anglers and dead fish) and violent lightning. One practice day during the August 1991 Classic on the Upper Chesapeake Bay was canceled due to Hurricane Bob. What if the storm had hit full force during the event? You can’t just wait three days like they did in Escanaba. Nevertheless, I feel like February puts us in the crosshairs of Mother Nature wherever we go, even semi-sunny Florida (where it rained sideways on the last day of the 2006 Classic) and judiciously chosen venues later in the year could minimize those chances.
Of course, one reason to keep it this early is because we presume that at no other time of year are the fish likely to be so heavy, and big bags of fish put fannies in the seats. I guess I’m an outlier because I loved the Pittsburgh Classic, but 12 pounds to win apparently doesn’t excite many fishing fans. If B.A.S.S. ever timed it right and had a Rojas-at-Toho like event (January 17-20), the doors of the arena might fall down. Then again, Steve Kennedy beat Dean’s four-day weight record at Clear Lake in a tournament that spanned the end of March and beginning of April. Paul Elias beat Kennedy’s record the first week of April the following year, so apparently record-setting bags do not only occur in the first two months of the year.
I also understand that mid-February is otherwise kind of a dead time for sports. Football is over and baseball hasn’t started. Basketball and hockey are in their long slog toward the end. The argument that the Classic should occur when there are no other options, though, underestimates the sport’s appeal to its true fans. Furthermore, the argument is undermined when you schedule it for the same weekend as the Daytona 500, as occurred this year.
Moving the Classic to any month from March to October, or even early November, would exponentially increase the number of cities/waters that could host the event. Recent Classics have taken place in big cities like Orlando and New Orleans, as well as mid-sized venues like Shreveport, Tulsa and Greenville. No matter where they hold it, no matter the state of the economy, the crowds show up. I’m not privy to the accounting books at B.A.S.S, or of any potential bidding city, so I don’t know what it costs in cash and in-kind services to host a Classic, but I have to think that the Greenville masses and the Shreveport tailgaters put B.A.S.S. in the driver’s seat. Don’t you think there are cities like, for the sake of argument, Madison, Wisconsin, or Nashville, Tennessee, or Raleigh, North Carolina, which might consider bidding on a Classic if it was feasible to do so? Wouldn’t opening up the competition to a greater number of cities likely bolster the amount that B.A.S.S. was able to ask? Right now, the organization is limiting its potential number of bidders. A move of even a month would rectify that.
With respect to the fans, I’ve heard the criticism that many preferred the Classic when it was during the summer and kids were out of school and therefore able to attend. I saw plenty of kids in Greenville last week, as I did in Birmingham the year before and Tulsa the year before, so I’m not sure if that holds water. Truthfully, I have no idea if today’s overscheduled children could fit in a summer Classic trip between lacrosse camp, SAT prep and auditions for Top Chef Jr. Since my wife and I do not have children of our own (and our dog would be a terror at any Classic), I’m not sure that this one pushes the needle for me.
One way that I think a summertime Classic might be bad for the competitors is the ever-increasing number of spectator boats. In that respect, February might be good, because it keeps some of the less-obsessed ‘tators off the water. Casey Ashley never had a huge gallery last week and I’m sure that helped him. Then again, no one seemed discouraged at Grand Lake two years ago, when the mixing of Ike’s flotilla with Jason Christie’s armada threatened to reverse the direction in which the earth was spinning. In the summertime Classics of the early 90s, KVD was supposedly hurt by the size of his spectator galleries. When Denny Brauer won in ’98, he expressly made spectator management part of his game plan. I think if you were to have a summertime Classic these days on a lake like Guntersville or High Rock, the increased number of spectators, combined with pleasure boat traffic, might make for a situation every bit as unsafe as an icy February highway.
One group I’ve spoken with whose majority seems to prefer a February Classic is the sponsors and exhibitors. It provides them with an opportunity to introduce new products at the halfway mark between ICAST shows, at a time when many hunting seasons are over and anglers are looking to get ready for the upcoming season.
There are a lot of moving parts to this equation, and I recognize that you can’t satisfy everyone, but I really think that a Fall Classic is the best option. It opens up a wide variety of waters, north to south, east to west, with fewer chances of weather-based cancellations. Within those waters, there are likely to be a number of patterns that’ll work – everything from schooling fish, to bass chasing shad up in creeks, to dropshotting deep structure. For the sponsors, who seem to like the February date for commerce-based reasons, it still would allow them to introduce new products a few months removed from ICAST and right before the Christmas shopping season. I can’t imagine that fewer fans would be show up in late October than in late February, either.
Moreover, I like the idea of starting the Elite Series and Open seasons in January or February, running through early September, and then having 40-60 days off before the Classic. It might make logistics tricky for some anglers’ families but the counterpoint to that is that it otherwise levels the field – not only will it put more regions and more techniques in play, but it will prevent a local competitor from spending 20 or 30 days on the water before the cut-off. I know that some people like starting the year off with a major event, and feel that the five-month gap between the end of the Elite Series season and the Classic builds suspense, but I feel that it actually loses some oomph as the winter drags on and we forget the previous season’s heroics.
For those reasons, I’d strongly prefer a fall Classic. If that’s a non-starter and B.A.S.S. is convinced that the championship should come at the beginning of the year, my default preference would be to push it back a month or so, which would open up new venues and (depending on where the tournament occurred) lessen the likelihood of tragedy due to inclement weather. I’m going to be there either way, whether it’s in a snowmobile suit or a swimsuit, blogging away -- but all things considered I think that switching the date would improve the experience for everyone without diminishing the grandeur of the event one iota.