Most Bassmaster Elite Series rookies are fishing to reach their first Bassmaster Classic.
Dale Hightower, however, already has taken part in the world’s most prestigious bass tournament, and it happened eight years before he’ll make his first cast as an Elite Series angler in 2019.
Hightower, a 44-year-old pro from Manford, Okla., competed in the 2011 Classic on the Louisiana Delta after qualifying through what then was called the B.A.S.S. Federation Nation. He was one of a whopping 15 Classic rookies that year, but Hightower performed much more like a seasoned veteran that week.
Hightower was one of a few bold enough to run 120 miles from the launch at Bayou Segnette State Park near New Orleans all the way to the fishing mecca of Venice near the mouth of the Mississippi River. And despite a 90-minute fog delay on Day 1, Hightower caught a 15-pound, 9-ounce limit and found himself in sixth place.
The fog forced a three-hour delay on Day 2, though, and Hightower had less than an hour to fish after making the long run through the Gulf of Mexico to Venice (he caught an 11-5 limit and slipped to 13th place). He rebounded on Day 3 with a 15-pound limit and his three-day total of 41-14 helped him finish 15th of 50 anglers competing in the 2011 Classic.
That finish put him one spot in the Classic standings behind Skeet Reese, who had won the Classic two years earlier. Hightower said Reese approached him at Venice Marina before starting practice one day, and the exchange that followed is one he still remembers vividly.
“It was completely nerve-racking when I was getting ready for the Classic,” Hightower said. “I was basically a weekend warrior, and then I was going to be fishing the biggest bass tournament in the world.
“I was sitting in my boat getting some tackle out and Skeet parked his truck, walked straight over to my boat, introduced himself and he asked me if I was nervous. I said ‘You have no idea.’ But he told me he got nervous the morning of every tournament too. He said, ‘Go do your thing. You’re deserve to be here.’
“And then he said ‘Fish against the fish, not against anyone else,’” Hightower recalled. “That’s advice I still follow today.”
Hightower has fished the Bassmaster Central Opens every year since, hoping to work himself into a position to reach the Classic again. He came close to qualifying for the Elite Series several times during that stretch, but it was a successful run through the Centrals in 2018 that finally earned him a coveted berth among the Bassmaster Elites.
After placing 70th at Mississippi’s Ross Barnett Reservoir in the first Central Open of 2018, he finished 13th on the Arkansas River in his home state of Oklahoma, 26th on the Red River in north Louisiana and 37th on Alabama’s Logan Martin Lake.
Hightower said a wealth of experience in Bassmaster Opens has prepared him for what could be a wide-open Elite Series in 2019. With many new faces looking to stake a claim to greatness, he thinks he can mix it up with the best on the tour.
“I think 21st is the worst I’ve ever finished in the overall (Central Open) standings,” Hightower said. “You’re fishing against some really good fishermen in the Opens who could be doing this every day for a living, but they have other things in their lives that keep them from fishing (the Elites). So the competition is extremely high.
“Plus, there’s a lot of pressure on the places we fish in the Opens. The way I look at it is there’s less weight (caught in the Opens) because of that pressure. The fish just shut down, and it gets really tough. So the cream rises to the top. The better fishermen will prevail when tournaments are tough like that.”
Hightower caught “the bug” fishing as a youngster with his dad in east Oklahoma. When Dale was 5 or 6, he and his dad would pond fish for crappie and catfish. They started fishing for bass when he was 13 or 14.
“We’d get up on a Saturday morning and just go,” Hightower said. “We’d drive all over looking for a spot that looked right. At that time, anybody with a pond would let you fish. We’d spend all day going from place to place.”
Later in high school, the father of his girlfriend (now wife) Alicia had a bass boat, and they began entering a Monday Night Jackpot tournament near Manford.
“That’s where competitive fishing began for me, with my father-in-law Monty Troxell,” Hightower said.
Hightower said it’s invaluable that his wife understands the demands of professional bass fishing.
“She’ll be at every one of the tournaments,” he said. “We own a (heating, cooling and refrigeration) business, and she has to be there, but she’s going to be at every tournament at least for a day. She’s my biggest supporter. She gets it.”
Hightower enters the Elite Series at 44, which is older than most who have qualified for the tour since it began in 2006. Hightower said his age is likely to his advantage in this situation, however.
“The hardest thing is the unknown because that puts pressure on anyone,” he said. “But being older, I’ve experienced a lot of things other people haven’t. I’ve been to the Classic. I’ve been on the biggest stage. I kind of know what to expect. I feel like it takes a lot of the pressure off me.”
Hightower always can harken back to the 2011 Classic as a reminder that he’s fared extremely well when he’s been in the brightest of spotlights. Thinking about that Classic reminds him, too, of the wise words Reese shared with him in the Venice Marina parking lot.
“At the end of the day, I’m going out there and fishing against the fish. I know what I need to do.”