Spectator boat traffic wasn’t always a given on competition days of the GEICO Bassmaster Classic.
But it had already become a factor by 1990, when B.A.S.S. held its third-in-a-row Classic on the James River out of Richmond, Va. Rick Clunn had won three world championships and a Toyota Angler of the Year title by then, and if anyone in the field could expect a spectator fleet to follow him, it was Clunn.
Inexplicably, no one was shadowing Clunn on the final day of the Richmond Classic that year. True, he was so far back in the field that he was essentially out of the running, but that usually didn’t matter.
In one of the more miraculous finishes in the history of the event, Clunn caught a massive, 18-pound, 7-ounce limit — heavier than anyone had caught in any Classic on the James — and overtook the leader, Tommy Biffle. The miracle was that no one was around to witness it or, by their mere presence, to influence the outcome.
Clunn’s media observer that day said it was like he was invisible. Boaters would drive by, slow down and then continue on their way. I’m reminded of Obi-Wan Kenobi using Jedi mind tricks to convince people: “Move along. There’s nothing to see here.”
In the years since, veteran Classic contenders have learned to deal with spectator traffic as another challenge to overcome, just as they do cold fronts, muddy water or bright sunlight. Kevin VanDam, who leads a bass boat regatta every time he moves from one hole to another, has managed to win four Classics.
Fans are part of fame, and Elite Series anglers are appreciative of those who follow them — especially from a distance.
The anglers have a different concern about spectator boats during the upcoming GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods on Lake Conroe. During a recent meeting of the Elite Angler Advisory Board, several pros brought up boater safety during the March 24-26 Classic.
Board members predicted Conroe spectator traffic will be much heavier and potentially more dangerous than in past years. First, the lake covers a little more than 20,000 acres, making it half the size of Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees, Oklahoma, and a third or less the size of lakes Hartwell and Guntersville, two other recent Classic fisheries.
In addition, southeast Texas is a hotbed for avid bass anglers, and they haven’t had many opportunities to see the world’s top pros in action so close to home.
I know exactly how they feel. One of my favorite parts of my job is attending Elite Series tournaments and going out as a contributor to the “Live Blog” with Bassmaster.com’s Steve Bowman or James Overstreet. Perched on that front-row seat, I learn from and marvel at the best in the sport. It’s the next best thing to being a marshal in that pro’s boat.
The downside occurs when the angler decides to move uplake to another spot, dragging a couple dozen spectator boats along with him like the tail behind a comet. When one posse intersects another at 60 or 70 miles per hour, things get dicey. Watching 50 or 100 boats merging and crossing at the same time on a roiled surface in a confined area will make you hold your breath or at least close your eyes.
It’s a tribute to the boat-driving skills of the pros and their fans, along with a bit of luck, that bad things haven’t happened already.
Of course, Lake Conroe is a public waterway and neither B.A.S.S. nor the Classic anglers would want to restrict access, even if that were possible. Instead, our message is, above all, be safe.
Tournament Director Trip Weldon plans to meet with the San Jacinto River Authority to discuss ways to encourage safe boating practices during the Classic.
And don’t forget: You’ll have a much better vantage point for observing all the action if you watch Classic LIVE video on Bassmaster.com, and you’ll burn a lot less gas.
If you’re determined to follow your favorite Classic qualifier on the water, however, be careful, be courteous and be back to the dock in time to make it to the Minute Maid Park for the afternoon’s weigh-in.