In September of 1985, I took off from Joplin, Mo., in my four-cylinder Nissan truck with my Ranger 340 attached and headed to my first B.A.S.S. event ever — the New York Invitational on the St. Lawrence River.
This was my rookie season with B.A.S.S., and back then the official season was September through May. After those six Invitationals were completed, the top 35 anglers would qualify for the Bassmaster Classic.
I remember the magic and wonder of seeing the country for the first time. As I drove my little underpowered truck about 50 mph all the way there, all I could think was my childhood dream of competing on the Bassmaster Tournament Trail was finally manifesting.
The energy of the time leading up to the first competition day was intense. Everything was new, and the St. Lawrence River was unlike anything I had fished back in Missouri.
However, during our practice period I figured out how to catch smallmouth consistently on a “new” lure at the time … the Fat Gitzit, otherwise known today as the tube.
The real story of my first B.A.S.S. tournament revolved around my first-day partner draw: none other than Hank Parker.
When I heard my name paired with Hank, I could hardly believe it.
He was at the top of his game at the time and had been one of my angling heroes ever since he won the Classic on Lake Texoma in 1979.
When I met Hank at the pre-tournament meeting, he had no idea who I was, other than some kid from Missouri. Yet his friendly demeanor and energy took away the obvious nervousness I experienced meeting someone I had only read about for years.
What happened next shocked me, and it still stays with me to this day.
Back then, the Invitationals were “draw” events, where two pros were paired with each other. It was up to the two anglers to decide how the day was going to unfold, the areas fished and who’s boat they would use.
I told Hank about my Gitzit pattern and how confident I was in it. Hank related to me that his practice was poor, and he had no problem going to my fish.
At the time, Hank had a Ranger 350, which was a 17-foot, 10-inch boat, and mine was a Ranger 340, which was only 16 feet.
Hank said, “Why don’t we take my boat since it’s bigger, and you can drive it?” I was — and still am — impressed at the fact that he offered to do this with some kid he didn’t even know.
So, the next morning I drive over to Hank’s motel to meet him. I knock on the door, he says come on in, as he's applying Polo cologne before our day on the water. Unusual, but classy, I remember thinking.
We ride to the ramp together, strategizing the day ahead, and soon after I find myself sitting in the driver’s seat of Hank Parker’s boat. With him in the passenger seat, the scent of Polo is in the air as we float among the other anglers awaiting takeoff.
Roland Martin, just off his recent Bassmaster Angler of the Year win a few month before, pulls up, and he and Hank begin talking. Rick Clunn idled by in his red Team Skeeter boat ... Jimmy Houston was laughing in the background. I was loving every moment of it because I knew I was finally where I dreamed of being since grade school. I was in my element completely.
I ran us to my first spot, and Hank and I immediately began catching them. Both of us had limits quickly, and the morning was flowing well.
After a few hours, we weren’t upgrading much on my area. I told Hank I wanted to turn it over to him and watch how he approached the rest of the day.
It was a true learning experience. Seeing Hank flip on the competitor switch and go into the fish-hunting mode still stays with me to this day.
We both made a few small upgrades and came in with decent bags.
I was able to continue on in the event and finish in 19th place, which helped me qualify for my first Bassmaster Classic later that season.
It was an event I will always remember with no letdowns. Fishing with and around my childhood heroes, I was not disappointed in any way.
It was all I had hoped it would be and more. This event fueled my motivation to do whatever it took to stay in the sport and make a career out of it.
Thanks for the experience, Hank!