Age is no restriction at the Classic

Mark Menendez doesn’t think “journeyman” is a dirty word. In fact, he’s quite proud of the term, really.

By definition, “journeyman” means someone who is reliable, though not outstanding. But to Menendez, it’s a word that also signifies consistency, longevity and experience.

So, call the 55-year-old Paducah, Ky., resident what you will, but don’t call him over the hill, even though he will be the second-oldest angler competing on Alabama’s Lake Guntersville later this week in the 2020 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk, March 6-8.

The Classic Expo and weigh-ins will take place at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex in downtown Birmingham.

This year’s tournament will mark the 50th anniversary of the most-celebrated fishing tournament in the world, and it’s the sixth time Menendez will compete. If he’s victorious on Big G, he would be the oldest Classic champion in history, and the same goes for Alabama pro and longtime Bassmaster angler Matt Herren, who turned 57 in January. Woo Daves currently holds that distinction for winning the 1990 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Michigan at age 54.

No matter which of the 53 men competing in this year’s Classic wins, he will be a first-time champion in the event. This marks the first time since Bobby Murray won the inaugural Classic on Nevada’s Lake Mead in 1971 that a former winner is not entered.

That’s a fact not lost on Menendez, who thought he weighed his last bass as a pro angler at the end of the 2018 Bassmaster Elite Series regular season on the St. Lawrence River.

“I had thought about fishing every day of my life, and I had every close call you could have,” Menendez said. “I know it’s not going to last forever, and at that point, I was just physically and mentally burned out.”

A reconfiguration of the Elite Series later that year, however, brought new energy to the veteran, who now is in his 30th season fishing Bassmaster events. He finished 23rd in last year’s Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings to qualify for the Classic, his first berth in the tournament since 2010 on Alabama’s Lay Lake.

The chance to work with the Yamaha Rightwaters conservancy movement also invigorated Menendez, who has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fisheries Biology from Murray State University, which less than hour from Paducah.

“I came back in 2019 with a fire under me,” Menendez said. “It’s been all gasoline and firecrackers since then. And I fished really hard to get into the Classic. I’m going to have to fight the emotions when they pull me in for weigh-in. You always have to fight the lump in the throat with all those people cheering for you.”

Menendez has provided a few memorable moments in a half century of Bassmaster Classics, too. He finished 12th in 1997 on Alabama’s Logan Martin Lake, and he was the Day 1 leader in the 2003 Classic on the Louisiana Delta in New Orleans. In 2006, he returned from a bout with meningitis to qualify for the Classic on Florida’s Lake Tohopekiliga and wound up catching one of the largest bass in a tournament filled with record setters.

Menendez said he’s dreamed of winning a Classic since he was a boy, and he’s proud of the fact his appearance in the 2020 tournament will give him berths in four different decades. Still, he realizes he’s on the back end of his pro-fishing career and that chances likes the one this week on Guntersville are numbered.

“Winning a Classic wouldn’t validate my career, but it certainly would accentuate it,” he said. “I’m moving into a new phase of fighting for anglers and anglers’ rights with Yamaha and the Rightwaters Conservancy. I’m very excited about this and very passionate about it ... If I can make 2 ounces of good with my experience and credibility as a professional angler, and with my biology background, I feel compelled to do that.

“But as a young person, what I aspired to do was be a pro angler and to fish the Bassmaster Classic … I have seen anglers with far more talent than me, so why am I still here? I ask myself that question all the time. My friends say it’s desire, and I do have an unwavering desire to be a part of this organization and this profession. And the highest level of that is being in the Bassmaster Classic … You’ve got to be able to compartmentalize that emotion and adrenaline, but if you don’t get excited when they call your number and you’re free to go on Day 1, then you’re brain-dead.”

For every Mark Menendez who has spent a career in pro fishing, there is a Luke Palmer who is just beginning the journey. The 29-year-old Oklahoma pro will compete in his first Classic later this week, but all the same excitement has pulsed through him for months.