One year ago in Greensville, S.C., Alton Jones celebrated the biggest moment in his professional bass fishing career — a victory at the 2008 Bassmaster Classic at Lake Hartwell. On the eve of the 2009 Classic, BASS Times caught up with this Texas native to ask him to reflect on this past year. Did winning the world title meet his expectations? Has it altered his approach to the sport of bass fishing? And what's next for the defending Classic champion?
BASS Times: During the 2008 Classic media day, someone asked who should be favored, and you confidently stated that people should put their money on you. You're generally very reserved, so what prompted such a bold statement?
Alton Jones: I knew what kind of practice I had. I wasn't predicting I would win, but I knew I had a better-than-average shot to do well.
What made that practice so special?
My optimism was based upon how the fish were positioned in a couple of sweet spots I had found. They were schooled in the bottom of a narrow ditch and not on the lip of it, which is where you would expect to find these kind of fish. Actually, I got on the pattern accidentally. I cast a spoon to the lip, and when it slid off into the deeper section, I caught a 3-pounder. That got my attention, so I built on the pattern from there. And when I went there during the tournament, the fish were stacked.
You're best known for power fishing in shallow water. Other anglers in the Classic had better pedigrees for deep water fishing, yet you beat them. How do you explain that?
Well, the truth is I feel very comfortable with that style of fishing, but our tournament season isn't conducive to fishing slow in deep water. I've won a lot of local events fishing the same way during the winter months in Texas.
Do you think your experience in 10 previous Bassmaster Classics helped you win this one?
Not in terms of finding the pattern or the fish, but definitely in how to handle the high level of media attention, hype and distractions. Contenders may say the Classic is 'just another tournament,' but in reality, it's not.
Has winning a Classic lived up to your expectations?
It's far exceeded them. I knew it was big and important for a career. But the past year has given me a new appreciation for how big it has become.
First place was $500,000, but the Classic is said to be worth more than that in sponsor bonuses, appearances and other business ventures. Can you give us a dollar amount for what it's been worth to you?
I'm sure it's different for every person because some take advantage of it more than others. I'll say this: Did I think that a pro fisherman could deposit more than $1 million in the bank? No, but this year I did.
Were there other benefits?
Absolutely. The money is nice, but what is most rewarding, or humbling, is the opportunity it gave me to touch so many lives. I also gained influence with people that I didn't have before winning the Classic. What's kind of funny is that, now that I've won the Classic, my opinions mean more to some people, yet they are no different now than they were before I won.
How has the Classic changed since you fished the first one?
Fishing has become more mainstream since ESPN got involved and began televising the Classic. It's amazing how many times I've walked into a restaurant wearing everyday clothes and had someone recognize me. Now, it's not a Brett Favre thing, but there is recognition everywhere I go. I've had dinner in restaurants with my family, and when it came time to pay, someone who recognized me had already picked up the tab. That's happened about a dozen times.
You also got invited to the White House.
Not only that, but I got the invitation by phone from the president himself. It was a pinch-yourself moment.
You took your family, right?
My wife [Jimmye Sue], kids [Alton Jr., Kristen and Jamie] and my parents. It was important to me that my parents experience that moment of pride with us, and it was something I'll never forget. President Bush walked me around the Oval Office and discussed the paintings that he personally selected and how that artwork helped him make decisions. Afterward, they brought in the national press corps, and there were all of the big name media people I see on TV. It made me feel really important for a brief moment.
Did you get involved in any conservation issues as the result of being the reigning Classic champ?
I filmed some public service announcements for the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation, and they've been widely used on television. The CSF supports many issues that benefit anglers and hunters.
You've been a big supporter of youth activities. What was your involvement this year?
I've been a longtime supporter of Lifeline Youth and Family Services, which has helped more than 8,000 abused, abandoned and neglected kids. Lifeline was the first organization that taught me I could use my influence to touch the lives of kids. Last year, I hosted a charity event for Lifeline in Texas in which paying guests fished with celebrities for two days. We raised more than $20,000. I also participated in a similar Lifeline event on Lake Amistad with major league baseball players.
At Hartwell, you said you would use the Classic victory to promote your religious convictions. Were you able to do that?
Being able to talk about the strength I found in Christ during difficult times resonates with a lot of people. I don't pretend to be a superior fisherman; God simply gave me the ability and built this platform for a reason, and now it's up to me to use it for His purpose. Winning the Classic has given me the ears of people that I wouldn't have had before. I have spoken with youth groups and churches around the country about what God has done for my life and how I want to inspire others. I have done devotionals for high school and collegiate sports teams.
And didn't you address a large congregation at this year's Classic site?
While practicing for the Red River, I spoke before 6,000 people at the First Baptist Church in Bossier City. It was an incredible experience.
You finished fifth in the 2008 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of Year race, which is quite an accomplishment considering most Classic winners are so busy with sponsors that their fishing suffers the following year. How were you able to do so well?
I wish I had an easy answer because I'd do it every year. Winning the Classic gives you confidence to play to your own strengths and not someone else's. To be honest, I was so busy between events that I looked forward to the tournaments. I could turn off my cell phone, ignore e-mails and just go fishing. As exhausted as I was, the distractions made me more passionate about the fishing.
Do you suppose winning the Classic changed your approach to fishing Elite Series events?
Maybe it did. I fished worry-free and didn't have to fret about getting points to make the Classic because I knew I had an automatic berth. I didn't fish recklessly, but I did take bigger risks and target bigger fish. I fished my strengths, and that tends to breed more confidence.
Now that you've won a Classic, is an Angler of the Year title on your to-do list?
It is very important and something I hope to achieve in my career. Winning the Classic is just one tournament, and admittedly, a very important one, financially. From a personal accomplishment, though, I'd rather win Angler of the Year.
Your family travels with you, and your three kids have been home-schooled on the road. Has that worked out well?
It's not for everyone, but it's been a great dynamic for our family. I never wanted to sacrifice my family for this career. Jimmye Sue does most of the home-schooling, and while on the road, the kids get exposed to different cultures and meet a variety of people. She also is a great partner, handling logistics, travel arrangements and a number of tasks that help make me more efficient. My career was sporadic before they started traveling with me (1998) and has gone straight up since then. It's very rewarding to come into a weigh-in and see my children accepting me with open arms, regardless of the kind of day I had.
Young Alton fished his first BASS event as a co-angler this year. How did that make you feel?
Like any father, I was proud that he wanted to follow in my footsteps. More importantly, it gave him a chance to fish with other pros and expand his knowledge base. He fished seven tournaments and won money in five.
Now that BASS has changed the co-angler format, he won't be able to do that. What do you think about the change?
I can see both sides. I'm disappointed that Little Alton won't have that opportunity, plus I've made some good friends through the co-angler process. Yet, selfishly, I would rather have an observer.
Will we see Little Alton in the Opens?
Eventually, but he's a very good student and is academically driven. He's 16 and already taking courses at the community college. He'd like to get college out of the way, and we would like him to do that, too. Above all, I want him to follow God's will for his life, whether that means fishing or college.
This year's Classic features a woman for the first time. How do you feel about that?
It's great. The Classic has always been an event where the top competitors at every level of BASS come together to fish. With the advent of the women's tour, it's only natural for them to get a spot in the event. Now, is there a chance she can win? Yes, but people with more fishing experience at that level have a much better chance. That's not a gender issue, it's an experience issue. The same can be said for the Federation qualifiers and the guys coming from the Opens.
Are you as confident going into this Classic as you were last year when you won?
It's hard to say because I haven't practiced there; I've only scouted. At this point, I'm probably more confident because the Red River sets up more to my strengths — dirty water, heavy cover — the kind of fishery I'm used to. That wasn't the case at Hartwell last year, and my confidence there didn't grow until after I had practiced.
So you scouted Red River but didn't fish?
I made a few casts for some pictures for a guy, but I spent most of my time riding, looking, graphing, trying to learn that body of water. I liked what I saw.
Now that you've won a Classic, what kind of advice would you offer the 2009 winner?
KVD, Duckett and several other former winners told me to make sure to enjoy my time as champion, and I now realize how important that advice is. As you go through the year, you have people tugging at you from so many directions it's difficult to stop and smell the roses.
How were you able to do that?
Well, it helped that I have a good agent. You need to spend your time being a good Classic champ and not negotiating business deals. An agent frees you up to do the other stuff.
What other advice would you offer?
Take the time with people who want to talk with you. Be aware of how even a small amount of time can make a difference in a person's life. That's where you get the greatest benefit — from touching a life. Those positive moments you invest in people come back to you, tenfold.
Has winning the Classic benefited your sponsors?
Oh, I think so. It gives me more credibility, and because I use and believe in their products, they benefit as well. Companies like Skeeter, Yamaha, Minn Kota, Humminbird, Costa Del Mar, Yum and Booyah have supported me financially through the years, and at times when it may not have made much sense. So, it makes me feel good to give something back. It's also been a huge boost for my smaller sponsors, like Kistler Rods, which has added more retailers, and Ardent Reels, a relatively new company breaking into a tough market. People now know about Ardent and Kistler because of my success, and that has helped their businesses.