To those who paved the way

It's been more than week now, but winning the Bassmaster Classic is still just sinking in for me. Between the time Chris Lane handed me the trophy and now, I don't think my phone has stopped ringing. Maybe when things settle down a little, I'll have that moment when it all just clicks. It's OK, though. I'm already having a great time.

The question I keep getting from family, friends, sponsors and the media is "How does it feel to be the Classic champ?"

Having now answered that question dozens of times, you'd think it would get easier, but I'm not sure it has ... at least not yet. Every time I answer, I'm feeling something different — excitement, pride, sometimes even relief. (That's what happens when you only catch four keepers on the final day!)

But the one feeling that never changes, that's absolutely always there, is gratitude. I am incredibly thankful for my family, my friends, my sponsors, you fans and everyone who had a hand in making this dream come true for me.

I want to thank the people at B.A.S.S. who dedicate their time and energy to making our sport's ultimate event — the Bassmaster Classic — the Super Bowl of bass fishing. From Jerry McKinnis, Don Logan and Jim Copeland to the tournament, conservation, membership, marketing, sales, sponsorship, editorial, communications, B.A.S.S. Nation and event crews, your efforts are noticed and very much appreciated.

In my first column on, though, I want to pay a special debt of thanks to the pioneers in the sport of professional bass fishing — the people who first had my dream and who made it possible for me to live it not only last week in Oklahoma, but every day since I caught my first fish, competed in my first tournament and eventually became a professional angler.

Those people were my heroes growing up, and they're my heroes today. I'm fortunate to call some of them my closest friends.

When Ray Scott founded B.A.S.S. in 1968, it quickly became more than just a fishing organization. It has educated generations of anglers and showed them how to catch more bass while teaching them how to give back to the resource through better water quality, catch-and-release and wonderful youth programs.

As a small boy growing up in south Mississippi, I watched Bob Cobb on "The Bassmasters" for too many hours to count. Bill Dance, Roland Martin, Jimmy Houston and Hank Parker taught me skills I still use today. Rick Clunn remains a role model and a hero to me.

And in 1979 a 21-year-old from California blazed a trail when he became the first career bass fishing professional — someone who started his working life in the fishing industry and still excels there today.

I'm talking about Gary Klein. He became a touring B.A.S.S. professional the year before I was born, and he's still one of the best. I'm proud to call him a mentor and one of my best friends.

Without these pioneers — people who slept in their trucks, fished for a check so they could buy gas to get home and sacrificed to build a sport from the ground up — my dreams of fishing professionally wouldn't exist. I appreciate all they did.

Cliff's Notes:

If you saw me on the stage in Tulsa holding the Bassmaster Classic trophy, you should know I wasn't up there alone.

I was standing on the shoulders of giants.