Washington, D.C., is a strange place for a Bassmaster Classic journey to start, but that’s where mine began. I was born there and grew up “inside the beltway” in Maryland.
I don’t know why or where it came from, but I loved fishing. My family knew nothing about fishing and neither did any of my friends, but as a gift in 1984 my mom bought me a membership to B.A.S.S.
This turned out to be the most consequential gift I’ve ever received.
In one of the first few issues of Bassmaster Magazine that I read, Rick Clunn crushed the field on the Arkansas River in that year’s Bassmaster Classic. I probably read that issue 50 times. The pictures of the event, the crowds and Clunn’s magical performance that remains the most dominant in Classic history ... I just found it compelling.
At that moment, I knew I wanted to be on the Classic stage, and it became the focus of my life for more than a decade.
I followed what I now know to be a well-worn path for tournament anglers. I started in little clubs as a co-angler at 14, later I got a jon boat with a transom mount trolling motor and 6 horsepower Evinrude, then a used bass boat and so on.
During that period, I was lucky enough to be mentored and taught about bass fishing by some truly exceptional fishermen. I always wondered why those guys didn’t try to make the Classic. They talked about it, some said they would make it someday, maybe they attended a couple as spectators ... but they never actually tried to qualify. I was in my teens and just didn’t get it.
By 20, I was in college, a guide on the Potomac River doing about 100 trips per year and a pretty good local/regional tournament angler. I was doing what I thought I needed to do to move towards that Classic dream.
In August of 1990 I attended my third Bassmaster Classic on the James River in my current hometown of Richmond, Va. I watched as Rick Clunn prevailed with last-day heroics bringing in a 17-pound bag, an unheard-of weight at the time.
Given the impact of Clunn’s 1984 Classic performance on my life, I was going nuts. With the crowd roaring, Ray Scott presented Clunn with the trophy, again. But this time I wasn’t just seeing pictures of the weigh-in via the pages of a magazine. I was actually there, and it threw gas on a fire that was already burning hot.
Then and there I committed to myself that I would not go to another Classic weigh-in until I was fishing in it. That was August of 1990.
Over the next couple of years I earned my captains license and spent hundreds of days on the water either guiding or fishing tournaments. I achieved every goal I set. I won local and regional tournaments, qualified for numerous Redman (BFL) Regionals, at 21 made the 1992 Redman All American placing fifth on the Arkansas River.
Although I was attending George Mason University, in 1992 I felt college was holding my fishing back, so I dropped out. I was all-in on fishing for a living.
I continued to work on the water and saved money with the singular focus of making the Classic by qualifying through the top tier Bassmaster circuit. Not unlike today, to get to the top tournaments you had to qualify through the Invitationals — the precursor to the Bassmaster Opens.
By 1994, at 23, I knew I was ready and entered the Bassmaster Invitationals. With no sponsors backing me, I pushed every chip I had into the middle of the table without a doubt that I would make it.
I came out of the gate strong with a 16th-place finish, then a 47th, but I stumbled with a dismal performance at Lake Lanier that put my qualification in question. After a 26th at the final event, I didn’t make the cut for the Bassmaster Top 100 circuit by a few spots and went bust.
It is truly a humbling sport. The guy who was full of confidence and thought he had it all figured out was sent home broke with his tail between his legs.
While trying to work through my financial and dream-crushing failure, I continued to guide to make money, but I found myself fishing fewer and fewer tournaments over the next couple of years. Looking back, I was burned out.
Then, in my mid-20s, like a lot of people, life just happened.
I watched as my dream that was once so certain, and right at my fingertips, slowly drifted out of reach.
So reality set in and my life went in a drastically different direction. I disappeared from the bass fishing world for the better part of two decades.
I finished college, got married, started a family, worked and tried to make a life that I told myself would allow me to make another run at the Classic, someday.
With 50 years under my belt, I’ve now come to understand that for most people that sentiment is the dying gasp of a dream that will never be realized, because for most folks “someday” never comes. Life just gets in the way.
Fast forward to my early 40s. I had a great life, terrific wife, wonderful kids, a house, some rental properties and a job I enjoyed. Everything was good. But that unfulfilled Classic dream started to creep back into my thoughts.
I’m sure this happens to every middle-aged person, but one unremarkable day I remember looking in the mirror — I just looked old, and it hit me pretty hard. Long gone was the young, hot-shot fisherman from the early ‘90s who was going to make it big in bass fishing.
Instead, there stood a guy who hadn’t fished a serious tournament in more than a decade, didn’t have a boat but did have an extra 20 pounds on him.
A sinking feeling washed over me as I realized that nearly 20 years had slipped by. I had been living with no real sense of time, but now, suddenly, I knew it was a lot later than it seemed.
Instead of pushing the thought from my mind, I decided to make another run at the Classic.
Without sponsors but with the full support of my wife and bosses, I proceeded to beat my head against the brick wall that is the Bassmaster Opens. (If you fish them with the intent of making the Elites, you know what I mean.) Through five or six years of the Opens I consistently cashed checks and had a couple of near misses when I finished one or two spots from qualifying for the Elites. To be honest, I didn’t know if it was ever going to happen, but finally it did and at 49 I started my rookie year on the Elites in 2019.
Although I missed making the Classic that first year by several spots, I did attend the Classic because of sponsor requirements. But per my 1990 commitment to myself, I didn’t go to the weigh-ins.
After a better sophomore season, this week in Fort Worth, Texas, I will finally be at a Bassmaster Classic weigh-in once again.
While I’ll be there to fulfill my dream that started in 1984, I will also be there for my family, sponsors and all the bass fishing fans.
But the guys I really want to represent are my friends and mentors who are not going to make it to the Classic stage. Bob, Frank, Buddy and so many others like them that I don’t know, but you probably do.
They’re the guys that just love the sport of bass fishing. Some are local sticks that are a threat to win every time they throw their money in the pot. Others don’t even fish tournaments for various reasons. They just always catch fish, and people know it.
Without a doubt there are thousands of them spread across the world. They’ve got the skills and talent to compete on the Elites and make it to the Bassmaster Classic, but life had another plan.
Whether it was work, family, money, medical conditions, etc., these guys just never got the chance.
Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t make it in my 20s. As a 50-year-old competing in my first Classic, I have a much deeper appreciation for where I am and how fortunate I am to have the chance that so many deserving guys never get.
So when my Tundra drives into that arena, the music is blasting, fans screaming and I’m sitting in my Bass Cat waving to the crowd, they will be on my mind.
The guys that had the dream, the talent and drive, but then life just happened.