Confessions of a saltwater angler at the Classic

By Charlie Levine

I guess I’ve been living under a dock. I’ve worked as a writer/photographer in the recreational fishing world since the year 2000, but I’ve never gone to the big dance, the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods. I’ve heard all the stories about the size of the Bassmaster Classic Expo, the crowds at the weigh-ins and the media blitz that surrounds the event, but I’ve never had the chance to go until this year, the 49th annual event. And I wish I had made the change sooner.

The first big event of my week in Knoxville was Media Day. We made the 15-minute ride out to Chilhowee Park and lined up in the parking lot were all of the competitors’ boats and towing vehicles. It’s an impressive sight to behold. Whether you’re a Ranger Skeeter guy, a Nitro guy, a Triton guy or BassCat guy, you can’t help but admire each and every boat. Not just for the sparkly finishes, but the small things that these manufacturers take the time to do to give their anglers every possible advantage to catch more fish.

As a saltwater guy, I was blown away by the tackle management and rod lockers on these 20- or 21-foot boats. And the casting decks on the bow of a tournament-rigged bass boat is just insane. Most of boats had not one, but two large screens next to the motor pedal, with the power to scan forward, behind, below, to the side. If a bass was anywhere in the vicinity, these pros would find it like a highly trained sniper. And with today’s electronics, especially the graphs, that’s what these guys are. It’s a game of reading the natural shoreline and watching the intel appearing on their machines to deliver the exact right bait at the most opportune time, with a flawless presentation.

I had requested some interview time with 10 different pros, but not being familiar with this world, I only really knew the big names. I figured those would be the toughest guys to get time with, but I was wrong. Each pro was incredibly polite and personable. I expected to jockey with some big egos, but it wasn’t like that. I asked Ott DeFoe what baits he was planning to throw, and he told me crankbaits and spinnerbaits. The conversations flowed pretty easily. I guess it’s true, fishermen are just fishermen. Put two guys in a boat, and they’ll have plenty to talk about, no matter where they’re from or their background.

I had brought some copies of a fishing book I just published, called Sucked Dry: The Struggle is Reel, about a young angler who fishes around the world and encounters some very interesting situations. My hope was I could get the pros to sign it. I nervously approached Jordan Lee with the book and he was super nice. “Man, you wrote this?” he said. “I don’t do a ton of reading, but I’d love a copy.” You got it.

Each pro had a Sharpie ready to sign, well, except Mike Iaconelli. “You put bananas on the cover of your book?!” he said, laughing. I guess bass guys also buy into the notion that bananas are bad luck on the boat.

“I’ll sign it,” Ike said, “but I’m not touching it!”

On the opening day of competition, my alarm went off at 6 a.m. I wanted to see the takeoff and get some pictures. On the schedule, it said the pros took off at 7:40 a.m. so I figured I would arrive around 6:45 and have plenty of time. As I got closer to Volunteer Landing, the size of the crowd looked like a growing hornet’s nest of activity. I blew it. I couldn’t get anywhere near the water to snap a photo. Best I could do was gain elevation and stand on a table top.

It’s hard to get people out of bed on a chilly morning, in the dark. But I think these folks would’ve showed up even if it was 3 a.m. The sponsors were there. The announcers were interviewing pros. People were standing on the bridges over the Tennessee River. It was a total spectacle. I spoke to a woman named Adelaide Hall, a woman in her early 70s who had driven to Tennessee from her home in Dallas with her boyfriend to see the event. It was her fifth Bassmaster tournament. She was as excited as a little kid invited to a big birthday party.

“I’m rooting for Brandon Palaniuk,” she said. “He’s young and energetic and fun to watch. He just seems like someone I could hang out with.”

The next day, even more people showed up to the takeoff; I heard it was like 6,500 people. And the temperature had dropped into the 30s. That’s dedication.