As I look back on this year's Bassmaster Classic, I can't help but view it with mixed emotions. When I heard my name called as the winner I was filled with grateful pride and a deep sense of accomplishment. It was truly overwhelming.
At the same time, however, I couldn't help but look at my friend, Jeff Kriet, and the other guys who had been bumped off the stool one by one and realize that my win meant their loss. Professional bass fishing is a competitive sport. There are winners and there are losers. None of us would have it any other way. Still, getting bumped hurts. I know.
Every angler out there tried his or her best. They deserve respect for their efforts and for their accomplishments — especially qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic. (If you think it's easy to qualify, ask around.) I try to remember that every time I launch my boat and do my best to conduct myself accordingly.
I am acutely aware of the role we — professional anglers — play as role models. With success comes responsibility. I think it's incumbent on us to follow all the rules and to always conduct ourselves as gentlemen and as ladies. We are the face of the sport. We lead by example. We ought not forget that.
With those thoughts in mind, let's turn our attention to the Classic itself and all the men and women who make it possible.
First, of course, are the fans. Without them, none of this would be possible. They were at all times courteous and respectful of the anglers, on and off the water.
I remember the ones watching me on the water. Every time I caught a fish they would cheer. At the same time I could hear the ones behind me cheering when one of the other guys caught a fish. It was like each of us was the hometown team. It meant a lot to all of us.
Next are the volunteers, the men and women who give up their time — sometimes their vacation time — to make this happen. Some of them handle the boats at the ramp, others work in the parking lots and still others help at the Outdoors Expo. Many of them have worked every Classic ever held in Alabama. What a great job they do!
The BASS and ESPN staffs are also to be commended. They might be getting paid, but they're putting in 100 hours or more in a week keeping things running smoothly. That's no small thing.
The management and supervisory people do one heck of a job. A Bassmaster Classic takes years of preparation if it's to be done right, and they do it right. Very shortly they'll have people in New Orleans starting to get everything lined up for next year. It's a never-ending process for them.
The stage and press production people are equally amazing. There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of wiring under the stage to make everything work the way it should. Putting that all together takes a combination of skill and hard work. When all is said and done, it's darn near perfect.
The press — in thousands of articles published in hundreds of magazines, Web sites and flyers — conveys the information you need to know about the Classic and the Expo. They do a remarkable job under sometimes difficult conditions.
In the same context, I want to mention the TV production crews and the commentators. The production crews work hard under tough conditions so that you can see what's going on. The commentators often research for days behind the scenes so they can ask just the right question or make the appropriate comment to keep the viewers informed. None of that is easy.
And, let's not forget the boat and transportation crews. It's a real joy to see them at 4 a.m. with a big smile on their face and a friendly wave as we get ready to launch and fish. They do an extraordinary job getting us on and off the water on time, as well as handling the transportation to and from the ramp.
While all this is going on, remember there's a BASS conservation crew responsible for taking care of the fish. Chris Horton, BASS conservation director, handles all that. At every stage the fish are handled with care and respect and with an eye toward preserving them as a resource. The crew takes its responsibilities seriously. They're true professionals.
The Outdoors Expo is something, too. It's become the outdoors show in our country. Many of the sponsors and manufacturers launch their new, cutting edge products during the Bassmaster Classic. They do that because they know it gets the word out to those that matter in this business — the fans.
At the same time, most of them bring some of their pro staffers along to work the show. That's a real help no matter your skill level. They'll assist you with product selection, show you how to work a bait, teach you how to tie a knot or just talk fishing for a few minutes.
Finally, I want to mention the families of everyone involved in the Classic. Each of them, in their own way, gives up something. The anglers' spouses basically go to the Classic and then turn their mate over to the event. They watch like spectators.
The volunteers', BASS staff's, ESPN staff's, press' and Expo exhibitors' and workers' families do the same thing. Some of them don't see their loved ones for more than a week. They deserve our recognition and gratitude.
The amazing thing is that all of this is done for the love of the sport. It's incredible. Tell me bass fishing isn't the real deal.