The Bassmaster Classic’s wild ride

I’m not going to lie: It took me about a week to recover from the Bassmaster Classic at Grand Lake back in mid-March. Normally, I can recover from a Bassmaster Elite Series event in a day or two. But the Classic completely drains me, and I need a few extra days to recoup.

I’m more vested in a Bassmaster Classic than any other sporting venture I’ve pursued in my life. It’s the pinnacle event in tournament bass fishing, and for that reason, I begin thinking about it the moment the Classic site is announced. Back in February of 2023, when I learned the Classic was going to Grand Lake in 2024, I began thinking about how I could win it – even though I had not even qualified for it yet.

As I put down the miles fishing the Elite Series last year, my mind would wander to the Classic on Grand in March, thinking how the fish might be set up or how close to the spawn they might be.

Once I actually qualified for the Classic last August, and it became a reality that I would be fishing it, my brain kicked into overdrive thinking about it. I began ordering specific lures for the Classic back in October. In December I drove to Grand Lake to pre-practice for a week in the sleet and snow. For most of the 30-hour long round trip, I turned Grand Lake over and over in my mind, thinking of how to win it.

When March finally rolled around, we traveled to the Classic nearly two weeks ahead of time. I wanted to set up camp at the lake and get the family settled in. I also wanted to fish a couple of lakes near Grand to get a feel for local water temperatures and water levels, dial in a few things on my graphs and tweak a few lures.

Practice started on a Friday with three full days ending on Sunday. Every moment of practice was focused on finding the right fish to win the tournament.

Monday was the official angler “off day” for rigging gear and taking the boat to the service crews to get a few last-minute adjustments. My mom and sister flew in from Australia, and a lot of Kayla’s family arrived as well. We wanted to make sure they all got checked in to the official tournament hotel in Tulsa and their accommodations were all good.

On Tuesday we drove back into Tulsa for official tournament registration. Registering is like getting on the Bassmaster Classic speed rail, and there is no turning back. After registration there is an intensive rules meeting that includes game wardens and police officers who explain lake rules and how traffic will be managed coming and going from the hotel to the ramp and back. After that, the anglers are allowed to go over and see how the arena is being set up. Walking around the stage and seeing it being put together brought butterflies to my stomach; it began to dawn on me how big this whole production really is.

After that, the anglers are treated to a Bassmaster Classic gift suite, featuring loads of free products from the great companies that support our sport, including YETI, Humminbird and Yamaha. Some of the mementos are engraved with my name with the Bassmaster Classic insignia, which are really special pieces for the trophy case.

Wednesday is an official practice day, and B.A.S.S. uses it as a practice run for the launch, boat check and check-in procedures. Everyone is on hand doing their job as if it’s an official launch and boat check, right down to Dave Mercer being there calling out boat numbers. When returning in the afternoon we rehearsed the ramp exit and are briefed on the fish check and fish care procedures.

This is what makes B.A.S.S. the top tournament organization in bass fishing. They had every move planned for the most efficient procession both in and out of the ramps each day. To practice this may seem like overkill, but when the Classic actually started and there were swarms of fans and media everywhere, it went off perfectly. There was no clogging up the ramps or anglers standing around wondering what to do. Everything moved in a coordinated, businesslike fashion.

After official practice on Wednesday afternoon, we drove back to Tulsa to stay the night at the tournament hotel for Night of Champions. Night of Champions is a formal dinner for the Classic qualifiers and their wives or girlfriends. It’s a dress up event where everyone can relax and socialize for the evening. Best of all, everyone can see what all the competitors look like without hats on. Dave Mercer kept everyone entertained during dinner while Kyle Welcher gave an inspirational Angler of the Year speech. B.A.S.S. CEO Chase Anderson spoke as well, which personally means a lot to me when the CEO of the organization takes the time to be present at an event like that.

The next morning, we were up and out the door to Media Day. At this point I began thinking: “When does this tournament actually begin?” I felt like I had been in Oklahoma for a month! Media Day hours were from 8 a.m. till 3 p.m., and it was well attended by media from all over the world.

Finally, Friday was the first day of competition and the eight-hour fishing day went by far faster than the eight months I spent preparing for it. After the weigh-in, it was long trip back to the camper at Grand Lake. I finally got to eat dinner about 10 p.m. and in bed by 10:30. The next day, I did it all over again only to end up in 45th place. After all that effort, I didn’t even make the final-day cut for the Classic. Before I could process it all, Kayla and I were already mapping out which sponsor booths I would be working the next day at the Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo.

I spent the last day of the Classic working the jam-packed expo and the last evening at the Champion’s Toast congratulating Justin Hamner on his amazing win. When I was finally spit out of the other side of the 2024 Classic, I was so spent I don’t think I could have spelled my name. For the first time all week, I finally got to spend time with my family and friends who I had barely seen. The next day, we packed out and hit the road back to Tennessee.

As I drove home, I reflected on what a wild ride the whole Bassmaster Classic experience is. Imagine if you could add up all the hours that are put into the Classic by B.A.S.S., the sponsors, all the anglers and their families – all in the name of a little green fish. Just think about that for moment. But that’s what makes the Bassmaster Classic the crown jewel of this sport. It’s why it will never be duplicated or replaced. After 53 years, B.A.S.S. — and the Bassmaster Classic — stood its ground as the pinnacle of tournament bass fishing, and I look forward to taking that wild ride again.