Everyone knows it’s not just another tournament, but this year’s Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk carries even more potential Bassmaster Elite Series impacts than most years. From clean sweeps to dramatic surges, sport fishing’s premier event never lacks for drama, but this year’s timing amplifies the “what if” factor.
Since 2016, Elites have fished one to two events prior to the Classic; from 2006 to 2015, Classics had taken place prior to a new Elite season’s commencement.
This year’s Classic at Lake Ray Roberts comes three weeks after the seventh Elite tournament. It was moved from the original late March dates due to pandemic-related capacity restrictions. That means anglers are significantly farther into this year's points race — good for some, not so good for others.
Seth Feider, the Minnesota pro who leads the Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, favors this schedule.
“A guy like me who’s not fishing in the winter, it always seems like with those first two or three tournaments, you’re getting everything worked out, knocking the rust off and just getting going,” Feider said. “At this point in the year, I think guys that are having good success are more well dialed. You’ve been fishing a while, and I think that will make the Classic a little less rusty.”
Notwithstanding the life-changing potential, the Classic will present a pleasant diversion, still super serious and deserving of full attention, but a one-off.
With complimentary accommodations and guaranteed paychecks, Elite anglers can take a break from the demanding mindset and step on the gas for a no points, go-big-or-go-home format that sees fortunes rise and fall based on gutsy decisions.
For some, this grand ball of bass fishing will offer a transitional opportunity, a chance to stoke momentum’s flame, a carpe diem moment that could salvage a season.
There are lots of stories on the front end, but we’ve curated a handful of telling perspectives that’ll help set the stage for Classic drama.
While Feider is hopeful his Elite Series momentum carries into the Classic, the marked difference between the former’s points-centric format and the latter’s big-prize mentality definitely changes the game.
“With a 10th place in a regular season event, you had a great tournament; nobody cares about a second-place finish in the Classic,” Feider said. “I’m going to stay on big fish and do something where I might only get five to six bites a day, versus a regular season event where you’d better have a limit.
“In the Classic, if there is a different pattern where you’re getting better fish and less of them, you’re more likely to run that into the ground. If you come in with three, then whatever. It is what it is. Whereas, in an Elite derby, if you come in with three, you’re in trouble."
Considering a victory’s career impact, Feider said: “A Classic is it; forever your name goes on that trophy. You could win that one and never catch another bass as long as you live and you had a good career."
In it to win it
Patrick Walters, who follows Feider in AOY points, said his position creates more urgency than comfort. In a sense, the Classic mindset will actually help frame his late-season game plan.
“The way my season its looking, I have to fish for the win; I have to have a phenomenal season to have a shot at (winning AOY),” Walters said. “In every (remaining Elite) tournament, don’t fish for second place, don’t fish for the cut. That’s kind of how the Classic is — you’re fishing for the win.”
The long shot
Jason Williamson, currently 80th in AOY points, has admittedly struggled this season, but the Classic marks a roll-up-your-sleeves moment where fans will see a man on a mission. Realizing that there’s little chance of qualifying for the 2022 Classic through Elite points, Williamson is focusing on a trident of possibilities.
“I have one Southern Open left on Lake Norman (Sept. 23-25), which I’m pretty familiar with, so winning that would give me a Classic berth,” Williamson said. “If you win the last Elite tournament (St. Lawrence River, July 15-18) or this year’s Classic, you’re in the 2022 Classic.
“There’s still a few opportunities, but obviously, it’s win-or-nothing. The rest of the season, I’m swinging. I know I have to win the last Elite; I know I have to win Norman or I have to win the Classic. So, for the rest of the season, I’m all about fishing to win.”
Regardless of the outcome, this year’s Classic will provide Williamson with a much-needed respite:
“I haven’t had a very good season, but the positive thing is the Classic is a tournament where I can just go swing for the fence and not worry about having to fish for a check or points,” Williamson said. “It’s nice to have that at any point in your season.
“There’s a lot of pressure and drama surrounding the Classic, especially as fishing begins. But when we go there, B.A.S.S. takes care of a lot of things like lodging and we don’t have to worry about getting paid, because (all competitors are guaranteed $10,000).”
Value the moment
Sitting at 70th in AOY points, Jake Whitaker’s in the same boat as Williamson. He knows that a Classic win would not only solidify his career; it would transform a tough season with another shot at glory.
“The Classic is something we all work for and something I’ll never take for granted, because it’s a task just to qualify for it,” Whitaker said. “I’ve not had the best year on the Elite Series, so to have the opportunity to fish this year’s Classic is big for me.
“I’m going to have fun and enjoy it, but I’m going into it with the attitude that I need to do my best and try to make next year’s Classic by winning this thing.”
Mississippi stick Brock Mosley is having the best season of his career with four Top 10s, including back-to-back second-place finishes at Pickwick and the Sabine River. Closing the deal on the sport’s biggest stage would be a dream come true, but Mosley’s a big-picture kind of guy.
“Right now, I’m making good decisions on the water, even if we don’t see the results as much as they could be,” Mosley said. “That’s been my biggest confidence lately in knowing I’m making the right calls when I need to make them, and having things work out.”
Applying that momentous confidence to his Classic hunger, Mosley said: “In the long run, everybody wants to win; but even though I didn’t win those (Elite) events, I’m getting better at handling the distractions of camera boats, spectators, and you get more accustomed to it and you’re able to tune it out better.
“Nothing would make me happier than winning the Classic, but I also know I’m competing against 53 guys that have earned their way to be there just like I did.”
Green light to go
Summer 2021 officially begins June 20, but this year’s Classic will find most fish in “summer” patterns. Walters points out the operational advantage.
“I like (this timing) because this boat is broken in, I know everything about it,” he said. “All your equipment is dialed in, so you go into this Classic more focused. At the beginning of the year, everybody’s in a new boat, they don’t know how their stuff works, you’ve been off (several months) and you still have those jitters.”
Going into the Classic confident with the tools should help anglers shift all focus to performance.
“You know everything is working, you’re fishing good, all your tackle is right; you don’t have any excuses,” Walters said. “You just have to go out there and do your job. The ball is teed up, you just have to hit it.”