Alton Jones Jr. has not yet made his first cast in a GEICO Bassmaster Classic, but he already knows what it’s like to take the victory lap around the coliseum in front of an adoring crowd.
Of course, the crowd wasn’t cheering for him ... at least not directly. It happened in Greenville, S.C., in February of 2008 where his father, Alton Sr., won the Classic at Hartwell to etch his name into bass angling immortality. The son, then approaching his 16th birthday, just went along for the ride with the rest of the family, but now he is piloting his own course. By virtue of his Central Open win on the Red River last year, Alton Jr. will compete in the 2017 Classic on Lake Conroe, and as a result of finishing second in the Central Opens points race he’ll also be an Elite Series rookie.
While the 2017 Classic will be Jones the senior’s 18th, and only his son’s first (as a competitor), for both of them it will be the first opportunity to compete in bass fishing’s biggest event in their home state of Texas. The last time the Classic competitors launched in Texas waters was 1979 on Lake Texoma. At that time, 16-year-old Alton Sr. was 11 years away from making his first cast in B.A.S.S. competition, and Alton Jr. was nearly 13 years away from being born. Only three current Elite Series pros – Rick Clunn, then a Texan but now residing in Missouri; Gary Klein, a Californian who’d moved to Texas to pursue his career as a bass pro; and Mississippian Paul Elias – competed in the 1979 event won by Hank Parker. None of them will be in this year’s field at Conroe.
Alton Jr. doesn’t feel that he has a particular advantage in this home state Classic because he’d never visited Conroe prior to winning at the Red River. Nevertheless he is pleased with the tournament’s location because the short drive to practice makes it easy to head over before the lake goes off limits, and also because it will provide him with a built-in support system.
“Tons of family and friends will be able to share in this experience,” he said. “I’m excited to share it with them. They’re the same people I see whether I had a good day or a bad day. They’re there to support me no matter what.” While he’d never laid eyes on Conroe until qualifying, he fully expects that it will share some crucial characteristics of the many Texas lakes that he has fished, often with great success. Two of them, Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend, will be on the regular season Elite Series schedule later this year.
Even if none of this year’s events took place in Texas, he might still have a leg up on the typical rookie. Until he was 16, the rules allowed him to prefish with his father for tour level events. The Jones children were homeschooled on the road, and young Alton Jr. would cram as much schoolwork as he could into nights and weekends so that he never missed a minute of practice.
“Until he was 16, he literally spent every day of practice in the boat with me unless he was sick,” said Alton Sr. “I was always amazed because I made him fish with no hooks. That’s not very much fun for a child. Bass aren’t necessarily always hard to catch, but they are hard to find. He was out there whether it was hot or cold or raining, and he didn’t even get to reap those rewards.”
He may not have reaped the rewards immediately, but the delayed gratification was more than worth it as Alton Jr. qualified for the Elite Series in just his second year of trying. That may have come sooner had he not elected to delay the process by attending and graduating from Baylor.
“To be honest, it was the last thing that I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to just go fish, but I couldn’t afford it, nor was I ready. My parents wouldn’t fund it, but they did let me use dad’s old boat. College was my way to fish. It was one of the best decisions of my life.” He is also well aware that his father’s guidance, and perhaps his name, has “made my path easier. I was very blessed to grow up around the sport.”
Alton Sr., for his part, thinks that “it’s kind of neat that he wants to carry my name. He’s okay with ‘Little Alton.’”
While the two Altons intend to share very general information with one another, and each believes he’ll be able to put his head down and focus on the competition once the tournament starts, both know that this Classic will not stir the usual mix of emotions inside them. For once, they’ll look at the leaderboard not only to see how the field stacks up against their own results, but also to see how one particular competitor has done.
“I remember during dad’s Classic win, butterflies are not even the word for what I felt,” said Alton Jr. “On the final day, my stomach was upside down. Back then, the Bassmaster blog wasn’t what it is today. They updated it about every hour, but I refreshed it about every 60 seconds. When he won, it was a blessing for our whole family for him to fulfill a dream of his own. I had practiced with him, so it was fun to feel like I was a part of it.”
Nearly a decade later, his father had a similar experience: “Watching him weigh in at the Open, I was much more nervous than I’d ever been when I weighed in myself.”
It will be a big year for young Alton Jones Jr. In addition to fishing his first Bassmaster Classic and his first Elite Series season, on May 5, in between Elite Series events, he will get married.
“It is a lot to do, but everything is positive,” he said. “I’m fulfilling multiple dreams all at once.”