The lights were dimmed and the curtains at the entrance to the arena were opened. Most in the audience probably expected a tow vehicle to drag in a sleek, new bass boat. It was the Bassmaster Classic, after all.
Entering instead was Ray Scott, founder of B.A.S.S. and emcee of the 1993 Classic — riding on an elephant! The crowd went wild, as it usually did when Scott entered an arena. The Ringling Brothers circus elephant was one of the reasons that Classic stands out in my memories of Classics past. David Fritts, the crankbait maestro, winning on Lake Logan Martin was another.
My first Classic was in 1978, Classic VIII in Super Bowl nomenclature, and I haven’t missed one since. All 40 have been special in one or more ways.
Some stand out as extremes, such as the coldest on record, at Greenville, S.C., in 2015, when a temperature of about 10 degrees the first morning caused boats to freeze to their trailer bunks. Or the toughest Classic ever — Pittsburgh in 2005, when Kevin VanDam won with just 12 pounds, 15 ounces. (Aaron Martens threw back a borderline keeper and failed to catch another. He lost by 6 ounces.)
The 1980 Classic at the St. Lawrence River, New York, was memorable in that it was the northernmost fishery ever, and Alexandria Bay was such a quaint little town. The pros loved it, although Guido Hibdon got a little frustrated when a 30-pound muskie grabbed his lure and headed toward Lake Ontario. Too busy to mess with a muskie, he tightened his drag and forced the fish to snap his line so he could get back to chasing largemouth.
Bo Dowden beat Roland Martin, the odds-on favorite, with 54 pounds, 10 ounces to Martin’s 44-1.
Some Classics are memorable because the winner’s faith played a part. Remember the 2014 Classic on Lake Guntersville, Ala., when Randy Howell heard a voice as he headed out the final morning? The voice told him to turn around and fish a bridge he hadn’t worked before. He obeyed, and climbed from out of contention to the greatest crown in sportfishing.
The year before, on Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees out of Tulsa, Okla., Cliff Pace was struggling on the final day with just two bass at 1:30 p.m.
Pace knelt down on the deck of his boat, and as his bait sank, he prayed, “Lord, if ever there is a time for you to let me catch a bass, I need it now.”
He caught a bass on that cast and the next, and they were just what he needed to hold off Brandon Palaniuk and win the 2013 Classic.
I’ll never forget Pine Bluff, Ark., in ’84, when Rick Clunn shared the weigh-in stage with two future presidents — then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush — and delivered his famous “There Are No Limits” speech: “We live in a country where we can go as far as we want. How far we go or excel depends on each individual. There is nowhere else in the world where I could chase little green fish across the country and make $40,000 in three days.”
The Pine Buff Classic had more than its share of drama. Clunn was leading the tournament when he was told that his father, Holmes Clunn, was hovering near death in a Houston hospital. Believing his father would want him to stay the course, Clunn finished the event, nearly lapping the field and turning in the heaviest Classic catch ever, 75-9. And his father recovered.
The GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods March 16-18 will be memorable for its own reasons. I hope you’ll attend this year. I know you’ll have a great time, and I promise you’ll return home with your own set of Classic memories.