Wesley Strader has gathered a wealth of experience since he began competing in bass fishing tournaments as a teenager 30 years ago.
Given that longevity in the sport, he said he rarely gets nervous when readying for an upcoming event.
But Strader said he definitely is experiencing “butterflies” as the 2019 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods looms largely on the horizon.
The Classic is, of course, the most-prestigious fishing tournament in the world, and 52 of the sport’s finest bass anglers will provide top-notch competition. The angler who outperforms the field will enjoy not only a career-defining moment, but there’s also a $300,000 check awaiting the champ, as well as a host of marketing and sponsorship opportunities worth as least as much.
That’s enough to cause anxiety, but Strader said he’s more nervous than usual because this Classic is a “home event.”
The 2019 Classic will be held March 15-17 on the Tennessee River in Knoxville, only a one-hour drive from Strader’s home in Spring City, Tenn.
Strader grew up fishing on the upper Tennessee River system. Plus, he’s expecting so many family members and friends to attend the 49th annual Bassmaster Classic that he’s lost count of the total.
“There aren’t too many times in your life you can get pulled through the arena at a Classic weigh-in knowing that’s your crew out there in the crowd,” Strader said. “That’s your folks. It’s people who’ve known you your whole life.”
Daily weigh-ins will take place at Thompson-Boling Arena on the University of Tennessee campus, which is hallowed ground for any lifelong Volunteers fan.
Count Strader in that number.
“I wanted to have ‘Rocky Top’ for my song, but Brandon Lester already picked it,” Strader said, chuckling. “All of that campus is super special to me. I can remember going to football games as a kid, walking over the bridge going to (Neyland) Stadium; my dad and brother and me. I was just a kid, but I’d look down 70 or 80 feet at the Tennessee River and be amazed.
“Those are incredible memories for me. If I was to win the Classic there – I just can’t put that into words.”
Strader, 47, began watching The Bassmasters on cable television as a teenager, which he said galvanized his resolve to one day be a professional angler. He fished BFL and FLW events after high school, and he entered his first B.A.S.S. tournament in 1996, the Georgia Eastern Invitational on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina.
He finished second in the Bassmaster Southern Open points standings in 2002 and qualified for his first Classic on the Louisiana Delta a year later, where he finished 40th of 61 participating anglers.
“The memory I have most of that Classic is not knowing how to get down to Venice from New Orleans,” Strader said “I had never made the run before so on our practice day, and I asked Greg Hackney (also in his first Classic that year) about it.
“He gave me his chip to download into my (Lowrance,) and as soon as it downloaded, he put the chip back in his unit. Then the entire thing fried. There was a power surge or something, and he lost his map. Had we not downloaded it into mine, he’s in my shoes without the route to Venice either.
“So I’m following him down there, and about two miles in, his throttle cable broke,” Strader said. “I ran the rest of the way alone. You talk about crazy. I’m running across some wide-open flat, and I came out in the Wagon Wheel. I will never forget having the most nervous feeling. There are no marks down there. You’re by yourself, in the middle of nowhere. No cellphones. Just nothing. It was wild.”
Strader said that run to the mouth of the Mississippi River in 2003 was, however, about as nervous as he got during his first Classic.
“I really wasn’t catching anything, so I had no pressure on me. I had no expectations.”
Strader fished FLW events for a dozen years until deciding to start entering Bassmaster Open events again in 2015.
“I wanted to fish as many tournaments as I could,” he said. “I was bored when I wasn’t fishing. But more than anything, I really wanted another shot at the Classic.”
He got it with a win in the 2016 Bass Pro Shops Southern Open on Florida’s Kissimmee Chain of Lakes in 2016. Strader finished 28th in the Classic on Lake Conroe in Texas the following year, and he fished his one and only season on the Elite Series in 2018.
He finished in 35th place in the season-long 2018 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race to earn a spot in the 2019 Classic.
This will mark his third Classic overall, and it’s on home water, to boot. Strader said his biggest challenge will be not letting his knowledge of the upper Tennessee River cloud his decision-making.
“My worst fear is I know so many places to fish, I don’t want to run around like a chicken with my head cut off if things don’t work out for me right away,” he said. “I know how this place works, so I’ve just got to stick to the game plan.
“Still, just because you live here doesn’t mean you’re going to catch fish all the time.”
No matter the weights he brings to scales at Thompson-Boling Arena, Strader will have his cheering section at the Classic. His wife Stephanie will be there, as will their daughter and grandchild. Strader’s parents, Bud and Sandy, will be there too; returning to the campus that holds so many special memories for the family.
“Having them all there really will mean more than anything,” Strader said. “My mom hasn’t been to a Forrest Wood Cup or a Bassmaster Classic since my first one way back in 2003 on the Louisiana Delta.
“Any time you can share those memories with your family, you just can’t put a price tag on that.”