Knoxville is a very special place

After an inconsistent start to the season, I have a burning desire inside of me to make something big happen at the upcoming Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota. Part of that is because it’s our sport’s biggest single event, and part of it is the area – I love Knoxville and East Tennessee. It has a special place in my heart for a variety of reasons, dating way back before the 2019 Classic.

A lot of fishing fans don’t know this, but back in 2010 a buddy and I made the long trek across the country to fish a TBF National Championship on Watts Barr. We saved up some money and decided to really make the trip count, so we were able to fish as co-anglers in a number of events while we were there. Remember, this was before I had even qualified for the Elite Series, and I was still scraping by. I won a co-angler title at Lake Norman and with it came a $20,000 prize.

That seed money enabled us to branch out even more. One day we were in a local tackle shop and we heard about a charity team tournament taking place on Loudoun/Tellico. All of the big names were going to be there, guys like Ott DeFoe and Wesley Strader. We entered and won another $10,000 by the miniscule margin of 1/100 of an ounce.

That money helped me to buy my first Tundra and kicked off one of the best tournament seasons of my life to date. I ended up winning the B.A.S.S. Nation National Championship which qualified me for the Elite Series and for my first Classic. It seems like a long time ago, but at the same time the memories are very vivid.

Besides that history of success, I like the area because it’s far enough north that they experience all four seasons. Even though they don’t have a lot of snow, they still more or less enjoy a true winter. That positions the fish in predictable ways throughout the seasons. It doesn’t hurt that they have an incredible fan base too.

I don’t expect that 2010 pattern to play out again in this year’s Classic. We’re fishing a little bit earlier, and I expect things to change every day. Actually, that’s another thing I like about fishing there – it’s a volatile fishery, and even if you go the same time of year under similar conditions it won’t always fish the same way. That makes it a true test of the best.

When we fished the Classic in Knoxville in 2019 I was on the right size fish. I just wasn’t getting enough bites to win. I can’t give too much away in this column because I expect my pattern could be in play, but the bottom line is that I needed a secondary pattern to supplement my primary deal.

On Day 3 I felt like I was far enough behind that I needed a crazy day to have a shot, so I spent the first several hours chucking a big swimbait. Halfway through the day I still had empty livewells. Needing to make something happen, I went back to what I’d been doing and caught two fish in the 5 1/2- to 6-pound range, plus a 4-pounder. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened had I started off doing that. It opened my mind to the potential that bite had.

Obviously a Classic win, no matter where it occurs, is a career-changing moment. I’ve been fortunate to have a great deal of success already, but that’s one trophy I don’t own, and I want it badly.

Ever since I first qualified in 2011, I’ve stayed around every year in the stands to watch the winner claim the title. I’m not going to lie – I get emotional every time. So if and when I’m the last man standing and the confetti is falling on me and my family, I cannot begin to imagine how I’ll react.

I’d certainly like to live that dream, and Knoxville would be a great and fitting place to do it.