KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Expect weird, wonderful and wistful.
Wonderful that come Sunday evening an angler will win the 49th GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods. His life will be altered, same as it has for the 38 others who’ve claimed bass fishing world’s championship.
It will be somewhat weird in that around two-thirds of the competitors are no longer with B.A.S.S. For their final act, all would love to win before that curtain closes, but that’s adding pressure to perform.
“There’s a group of guys here who know this is going to be their last chance to win. That turns the game different,” Gerald Swindle said. “I’ve never fished a Classic and had that concept in my head. I always thought, I get to the classic, if I don’t win, I hustle up and get back here next year. It never was live or die. This is live-or-die week.”
There were 68 Elite Series pros, including some of the biggest names in the sport, who left last year to fish another circuit. B.A.S.S. re-made itself, and the 2019 Elite Series, although shrunken to 75 anglers, got off to a rousing start.
Now B.A.S.S., the 50-year-old organization that boasts more than 500,000 members, is hosting 52 anglers who qualified for the world’s championship. It might be the most hotly contested Classic ever. There are 36 competitors who are no longer with the organization, and each would love nothing more than to take a bow and an encore trip around the arena. Win or lose, the situation will create wistful feelings.
Swindle would be ecstatic to add the Classic trophy to his hardware that includes two Toyota Angler of the Year titles. He’s come close with a fifth in 2001 and third in 2005. He agreed this will be the most emotionally charged Classic ever.
“You’re going to see more raw emotion on stage than you’ve ever seen,” Swindle said. “You’re going to see people break down on the first day they weigh in, just because the atmosphere knowing that. They’re going to walk up there with the crowd, and they look around, they’re going to get emotional.
“I know. It’s 21 years on this road with B.A.S.S., 18 Classics. I’ve been around the country with this organization. I feel like I’ve contributed. I’ve tried to be that guy, and I’ve loved the game. Hell yeah, it’s going to be tough.”
There’s been hints of what’s to come. At Night of Champions, 2018 Toyota Angler of the Year Justin Lucas got choked up numerous times during his speech, in which he thanked the organization several times. Aaron Martens, who has the record with four Classic runner-up finishes, had a wistful look at Classic Night, uttering the words that seem to be sinking in more and more for that group -- “Could be the last one ever.”
Kevin VanDam, winner of four Classics and making his 28th appearance this week, has one last shot at breaking his tie with Rick Clunn. Even though KVD stands second with seven Toyota Angler of the Year titles, he’s always said the Classic means the world to him. But fishing his last might not hit him this week.
“I don’t have any plans of fishing the Opens going forward -- I’ve been doing this professionally now for 30 years, I’ve got a lot of great memories,” KVD said. “When it will really hit me is next year at Classic time. This year, I’m here and focused on the tournament. Next year, that’s when it will probably really get to me.”
Bassmaster TV analyst Mark Zona penned a column, “Classic redemption and the sands of time.” In it he details the top story lines this Classic presents, like Jordan Lee’s attempt to become the first to three-peat, and KVD’s shot at leaving on top.
Yet Zona thinks the anglers who almost added the pinnacle event to their accolades -- Martens, Jason Christie, Brent Ehrler and Swindle -- are the ones who will be the most intriguing to watch.
“I have to believe those who have come so close will feel the most pressure of any angler in this field, or perhaps, in the history of the Bassmaster Classic,” he wrote.
Swindle is feeling it. And his emotion first showed this week as he exited Tuesday’s angler meeting with teary eyes.
“Yep. Yep. It’s different,” he said. “I know what it’s going to be like. I know what it’s meant. Just because we took a different career choice, a different organization, it don’t mean that you don’t respect and understand what you’re doing. You know what the Classic means, you know what a victory would mean.
“You know how hard you’ve worked to stay in this game at this level. You know when you walk off that stage without the trophy and they close that door, it’s going to be hard as hell to get it open again to try. Not saying that I can’t, not saying that I won’t. I’m just saying I know how hard it was to get the door open the first time, so I gotta make sure we close the door the right way.”