Prior to the 1998 Bassmaster Classic, the buzz at the Greensboro Coliseum centered around one man.
Without knowing what he’d caught in practice or how sweltering the conditions might be for the three-day August event, everyone seemed to believe it was simply Denny Brauer’s time to shine.
And shine he did.
In his 16th Classic appearance, the popular pro from Camdenton, Mo., blew the field away with a three-day weight of 46 pounds, 3 ounces that was nearly 10 pounds better than that of second-place finisher George Cochran.
Brauer entered the event with 10 tournament victories and the 1987 Angler of the Year crown already on his resume. But that Classic title, which seemed to be in the stars before the tournament began, was the crowning achievement of a legendary career.
“After 16 years, you really don't know if it's ever going to happen," Brauer said after the Classic weigh-in. "But it finally happened. That's one question I won't have to answer anymore. I'm a Classic champion.”
With this year’s GEICO Bassmaster Classic on Lake Hartwell just days away, it’s fun to wonder if the stars might line up again for one of the overdue competitors in the field who is just a Classic title away from accomplishing everything an angler can on the Bassmaster circuit.
Aaron Martens, Greg Hackney and Gerald Swindle all have regular-season tournament victories and more than 10 Classic appearances to their credit. They’re all in the $2 million range for career earnings, and they’ve all captured Angler-of-the-Year glory.
Here’s a closer look at three guys who could be destiny’s darling at this year’s Classic - and the similarities their careers hold to Brauer's:
Greg Hackney, Gonzales, La.
The thing that made so many people believe Brauer was due in 1998 was that he entered the tournament red-hot. During that calendar year, he had already won tournaments on Georgia’s Russell Lake and on the Neuse and Trent Rivers in North Carolina.
Though some people believe to this day that Brauer never caught a fish with anything but a flipping stick, he was dominating on all types of water coming into the ’98 Classic and could seemingly do no wrong.
With that in mind, consider Hackney’s recent resume:
He had four Top 10s en route to the 2014 Angler of the Year title, including third-place finishes on Missouri’s Table Rock Lake and Arkansas’s Lake Dardanelle. He notched a sixth-place finish on Tennessee’s Chickamauga Lake and a victory on Cayuga Lake in New York.
The most recent Angler of the Year standings say there isn’t a hotter fisherman on the planet – and with 11 Classic appearances behind him, he’s certainly due on fishing’s biggest stage.
But is he due? He says there are just too many variables.
“With this tournament, everybody says ‘well, you only have to beat 56 guys and you only have to fish three days,’ but it only comes around once a year,” said Hackney, who has four tournament wins, 43 Top 10s and career earnings of $1,770,506.00 on the Bassmaster circuit. “It is the hardest tournament on the planet to qualify for, and if you blow it, then you’re back into that deal with trying to make it again.
“With our regular tournaments, if you blow one, that’s fine because you’ve got seven more to make up for it the rest of the year. But if you blow the Classic, you’re done until the following year.”
That being said, Hackney lists the chance to win a Classic as his biggest motivation for fishing as a pro.
“There are other tournaments with a lot riding on them, too,” Hackney said. “But it always seems like there’s a lot more riding on this tournament than any other. It is the reason why I do this.”
Hackney has only landed in the Classic Top 10 once, but that was on Hartwell in 2008.
Gerald Swindle, Warrior, Ala.
It’s hard to imagine Swindle being more popular or recognizable than he is now. But the same could be said of Brauer before he hoisted the trophy in 1998, and the moment lifted his star to new heights.
It would likely do the same for Swindle.
The “G-Man” has been around the top of the standings throughout his career with 44 Top 10 finishes – and though he’s only won one event, he has seven second-place finishes and six thirds. He bagged the 2004 Angler-of-the-Year title and has career earnings of $1,637,325.14.
He’s made the Top Five twice in 14 Classic appearances, and he finished 21st in the 2008 Classic on Hartwell. His first Classic was the one dominated by Brauer in 1998.
“The thing I want to be remembered for the most is that I was a good person who tried to do the right things on and off the water,” said Swindle, who finished 12th in that ‘98 Classic. “But does the competitor inside me want to win a Classic before I’m done? You’re darn right. I want to sit down in my office one morning, sip coffee and look at the trophy and say ‘I did that.’”
Of course, like Brauer, he would enjoy not having to answer the question anymore.
“I think Denny heard the question so much because he had so many fans that really wanted to see him win a Classic,” said Swindle, whose best Classic finish came in Pittsburgh in 2005. “I hear it some, too: ‘When are you ever gonna win the Classic?’ One day, I’d love to be able to say, ‘No, I already won that thing.’”
Aaron Martens, Leeds, Ala.
Of the three anglers on this list, no one has come closer to winning the Classic more often than Martens.
The California native has seven Top 10s in 15 previous Classic appearances, including a ninth-place finish in 2008 on Lake Hartwell. He’s taken home second-place money four times with his nearest miss coming in 2005 in Pittsburgh, Pa., when his total of 12 pounds, 9 ounces was within a whisper of champion Kevin VanDam’s 12-15.
Martens’ spot in bass-fishing history is no doubt secure with six victories, 62 career Top-10 finishes, two Angler-of-the-Year titles (2005 and 2013) and career earnings of $2,246,728.19. But he still believes he needs a Classic win to cement his legacy.
“I think, in a lot of ways, Angler of the Year is harder to win than the Classic – and I’d love to win some more of those, obviously” Martens said. “But the Classic is such a prestigious thing, and I definitely think I need that. I’d love to win one of those.”
Martens’ Classic resume bears a striking resemblance to that of Brauer, who recorded finishes of second, third, fourth and fifth in 15 tries before finally winning in 1998.