The recent Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota in Knoxville was my 12th time in the world championship. While my finish wasn’t exactly what I would have wanted, now that I’ve had some time to process the entire experience I can put the performance part aside and realize how much the sport and the event have grown.
Knoxville really rolled out the red carpet for us, and taken as a whole it was obvious that the sport is on the rise. They were a great host with incredible facilities, and B.A.S.S. was also up to the task. I got to see it from multiple perspectives.
On the first two days I saw it from the water. The number of people at takeoff every day was beyond incredible. The downtown venue, with the steps and various layers, was unique. There were people stuffed into every nook and cranny – on the shoreline rocks, crammed into all of the little balconies. I’m not sure of their exact number, but it had to set some kind of record. Their enthusiasm and numbers made it stand out, especially because it wasn’t just locals. There were fans from all over the world, including notable contingencies from Canada, Australia and Japan.
On Day 3, I got to see their passion from the Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo floor. Was I thrilled that I wasn’t fishing? Obviously not. To be honest, I wasn’t a happy camper for the first few hours after weigh-in. You can’t just walk off stage and flip a switch. It took me a good night’s sleep to process everything. Walking into the Convention Center allowed me to gain some perspective.
It had to be one of the most insane versions of an already-crazy convention that I’ve ever experienced. I got there at 10 a.m. to be on Bassmaster LIVE Mix with Gerald Swindle, and from then until the Expo closed I signed one autograph after another after another. It didn’t matter which sponsor booth I was in. I tried to visit each sponsor for 30 minutes, and when it was time to shift there would still be a lengthy assemblage. They’d just follow me to the next one and calmly get in line again. I kept assuming that at some point it would slow down or dissipate, but it never did. That’s remarkably humbling.
Again, no angler wants to be working the Expo. We’re there to fish, but when it doesn’t work out the definition of professionalism is to be able to pull the positives out of the remainder of the week.
The people who were there came long distances to see and possibly meet us. They took vacation time and spent their hard-earned money, so it’s our duty to give them the best possible experience. Every time I allowed myself to drift into disappointment over the fishing side of things, I’d remember that and it would put a smile on my face.
It wasn’t that long ago that I was in those fans’ shoes. I recall my first Classic, looking around the boatyard and at blastoff and seeing my heroes — anglers I’d looked up to my entire life.\
I’m still a fan of the sport and try to take in history as it happens. I never expected people to want my autograph. It still catches me off guard. Nevertheless, the state of our sport is strong, and I’m proud to have a role in it.