Hurricane Michael was a natural disaster of the first order when it laid waste to Panama City, Fla., and surrounding communities last October.
The Category 4 storm was one of the most intense to ever strike the U.S. mainland, packing sustained winds of 155 mph that spawned even more devastating tornadoes. Homes and businesses were flattened, and forested areas became open fields hidden by a blanket of giant shattered matchsticks. An estimated 20 years’ worth of trash and debris has been collected, and there’s plenty more to haul away.
Bassmaster Elite Series pro Drew Benton was one of the “lucky” Panama City residents. His home “only” had part of its roof come undone and his fishing garage flooded with water.
Many people in the community didn’t escape the worst of Michael’s wrath, however, and the community struggles five months later with what surely will be a very lengthy recovery.
“This storm brought us to our knees,” Benton said.
Now, Benton would like nothing more than to give people on the Florida Panhandle something to think about besides portable homes, drywall and insurance adjusters.
What better way for a professional bass angler to do that than win the 2019 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods?
The 49th annual “Super Bowl of Bass Fishing” will be held March 15-17 on the Tennessee River in Knoxville. It’s not an area Benton has fished frequently, but he has given plenty thought to what a victory there would mean to him and his hometown.
“I know people who lost everything,” the 30-year-old Elite Series pro said. “My mom and dad’s house is stripped to the studs right now. I didn’t lose everything, and I don’t want to paint that picture … but it would be big for me to win this Classic. It would be big for my hometown, my family. That’s part of why I want this so much right now. It’s something I want for all the B.A.S.S. fans (back home.)”
Unlike some of his fellow Panama City residents, Benton has had the chance to travel outside of the devastation since Michael wrecked his hometown. He was thankful for that opportunity because it provided some normalcy when he needed it most.
“It was so nice being able to go to the first two events on the Elite Series this year,” Benton said of his early-February trips to the St. John’s River farther east in the Sunshine State, and then to Lake Lanier in Georgia.
“I actually forgot about everything going on a home for a few days … It’s a good way to look at it. This Classic, if I can win it, would really help get me past all that’s been going on (with hurricane recovery.)”
Benton, of course, didn’t need a natural disaster to help him realize the magnitude of the Bassmaster Classic.
He competed in the 2017 Classic on Lake Conroe in Texas and finished 18th of 52 anglers in the field. Making the field was the realization of a dream that began nearly a decade ago, when he decided to stop playing college baseball and focus instead on becoming a B.A.S.S. pro.
“The Classic is the biggest event any of us have every known in professional fishing,” Benton said. “It’s the highest point you can get to in our sport. And the Classic has never been about the men fishing it, or where the location is or what time of year it’s held. It’s always been the Classic. It’s a tradition that means everything in our sport.”
And now, Benton said there’s even “more of a spotlight” on the Classic as a crop of former Elite Series pros will compete in a B.A.S.S. event for the first time since forming their own competitive circuit last year.
Benton said he’s not concerned with who’s in the field, knowing that he’ll only be happy if he beats everyone else in it. And he’s done that before, in an Elite event, at least, having won the Bassmaster Texas Fest in 2018.
“I hate to pick on Kevin (VanDam) because he’s probably the greatest fisherman of all time,” Benton said. “But there was a Bassmaster Classic before him and there will be a Bassmaster Classic after him. That’s why this is so important and dear to me. It’s that constant that remains. Men come and men go, but this remains the pinnacle of our sport, no matter what.”
Benton said winning the Classic, now that he’s in the field of 52 again after missing out in 2018, is a “realistic goal.”
“One in 52 are pretty good odds,” he said. “The Tennessee River has had some crazy weather recently. There’s more water moving through that thing than ever and it’s still moving through there. That record rainfall, I think it takes away the local advantage some guys might otherwise have. Guys from that area usually do really well everywhere, and especially on that river.
“But it’s like they say with the NFL — anyone can win on any given Sunday. I think the Classic goes down that way this year.”
If he’s right, Benton said there’s no reason he won’t hoist the Bassmaster Classic trophy above his head on March 17. He’ll appreciate the applause, of course, from everyone attending the Classic weigh-in at Thompson-Boling Arena on the University of Tennessee campus, to those across the world watching on ESPN and on Bassmaster.com.
But what he’ll appreciate most is giving B.A.S.S. fans on the Florida Panhandle a little extra something to cheer about.
It would be the first time in a while, and they’re due, he said.
“From the first time I saw the Classic on television and how everything unfolded, I knew this is what I wanted to do,” Benton said. “Now I’m here and it’s important for me to make the most of my opportunities. A win would be incredible for me and for my career, but it’s about more than me right now. I want to win for everyone at home too. They need this.”