The 53-man field was asked for their first remembrance of a Bassmaster Classic. Hoping to uncover their spark or some other significant occurrence, the anglers were allowed to report when they first learned of it, when they first attended and even when they first competed in a Classic.
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Keith Combs, 44, was 8 when he saw the Classic that put the fire in him. He’ll be fishing in his eighth championship this week in the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk, tying him for third most in the field.
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“My first remembrance of the Classic was Clunn winning on the Arkansas River in 1984, again cranking off shore,” he said.
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In his first Classic, Canada’s Cory Johnston said he was exposed to the fishing world by his father, Lynn, who was a tournament angler. “When my dad was heavy into tournament fishing and I was still too young, I would get up in the morning and watch fishing shows,” he said.
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“One morning the Bassmaster Classic came on. I can’t tell you exactly what one it was, but I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life after watching that Classic.” (We borrowed this photo from another Canadian angler Jason Barnucz of his kids watching Bassmaster LIVE on the big screen.)
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Stetson Blaylock, who won his first Elite event last season after about a decade of successes on the FLW Tour, saved himself. “I have never attended a Classic weigh-in as I wanted my first experience to be when I was standing on that stage!” Blaylock said. “I watched old Classic videos from the time I was 10 or 12 with dreams of one day fishing in it and finally here I am!”
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Matt Herren, the oldest in the 53-man field at 57, is tied with Combs with eight Classic appearances, but he’s been around the block as evidenced by the autographs on this hat. His first Classic memory also predates everyone in the field.
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“My earliest memories of the Classic was in 1981 when a 21-year-old kid named Stanley Mitchell won,” Herren said. “I graduated high school in ’81, and it was the first time I realized the dream of fishing.”
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Taylor Smith, 34, of Spokane Valley, Wash., said the 2010 Classic had a huge impact on his fishing.
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“Kevin VanDam turning left and idling into Beeswax Creek and throwing a trap in the middle of the creek in offshore grass and stumps was groundbreaking for me,” he said. “I wasn’t a kid at the time but his perspective in that Classic shaped my approach to tournament fishing a lot.”
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Clent Davis, 34, has been around the fishing world for some time, and the pro from Montevallo, Ala., is making his first Classic appearance after a 25th-place finish in the Angler of the Year standings. He points to 2002 as his thunderbolt moment.
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“As far as my first memories of the Classic, it would be watching Jay Yelas win it on my home lake of Lay Lake,” he said.
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Bob Downey is one of two anglers from Wisconsin fishing this Classic, doubling the state’s all-time entries. Downey won the Basspro.com Central Open on Grand Lake, and the 32-year-old points to KVD’s 2001 win on the Louisiana Delta. “Soon after, I started tournament fishing in Junior Bass Nation (Federation at the time) tournaments,” he said. “The picture attached is my first tournament that my Dad drove me to in Bemidji, Minn.”
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Chad Pipkens, 36, of Lansing, Mich., will be fishing his third Classic, and although he’s watched a bunch he didn’t travel to one until the 2013 event on Grand Lake. “I never attended a Classic until my first year fishing the Elite season,” he said. “I can remember taping on VHS the 10 years prior, but it was the first when I got to see in person. Just unreal in the stadium!”
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Brandon Card, 33 of Knoxville, Tenn., will also be fishing his third Classic. He said his best memory was the 2004 championship that ended in Takahiro Omori’s dramatic win. “The first Classic that I attended was the 2004 Classic that Takahiro won,” Card said. “My brother, friends, and I watched Aaron Martens fish the bridge that he finished second on. Also, in the Classic video when Tak hoists the trophy, it pans out to the crowd and I’m in the shot clapping.”
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Reigning Angler of the Year Scott Canterbury of Odenville, Ala., was a young lad when he learned of the Classic. “My first memories of the Classic was Robert Hamilton winning on Logan Martin Lake in 1992 and then David Fritts winning there in ’93,” he said. “Logan Martin is my home lake and I’ll never forget the Fritts Blitz back then. I drove the anglers for B.A.S.S. in 1996 when George Cochran won on Lay Lake.”
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“The most memorable experience of the Classic was when Jay Yelas won on Lay Lake in 2002,” Canterbury said. “I followed him around every day, and he is now one of my best friends that I have. Spending time with Jay really inspired me and put me on the path to becoming a professional fisherman.”
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“My first memory of the Classic I would have to say would be Kevin VanDam winning the Classic in 2001,” said 35-year-old Cody Hollen, the B.A.S.S. Nation champion fishing his first Classic. “From there he was one person I looked up to and always followed.”
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Brian Snowden, fishing his seventh championship, was close to having a memory only 39 others have had. The Elite veteran from Missouri was in the hunt at the 2009 Classic. “The most memorable Classic experience was the year that I finished third on the Red River,” he said. “I just remember coming out through the smoke when they announced the Super Six, and the crowd went crazy! It was a feeling I will never forget.”
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Darold Gleason, winner of the Open on Toledo Bend where he guides, got hooked from the get-go. “My first year to bass fish was 2001, so that was my first remembrance of the Classic in New Orleans, won by KVD,” he said. “My first year to attend was 2009 when it was back in Louisiana in Shreveport. Seeing the excitement in the arena and Expo in person brought so many dreams to life within me. I haven't missed attending many since that first year, and I just cannot believe that after 10 years of attending, I'll be competing in the Classic. Surreal and a dream come true.”
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“Some of my first Classic memories were of Rick Clunn, Larry Nixon and Denny Brauer,” said Clifford Pirch, making his seventh consecutive Classic appearance, “but my biggest memory is Jay's Classic winning fish after the boat drove by and swamped his bank with waves. He said it would take a miracle to catch one, and we saw the miracle catch shortly after.”
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“When I was at Penn State,” said Grae Buck, 30, from Harleysville, Pa., “I can remember watching Brandon Palaniuk in his first Classic when he almost won and thinking to myself that he isn’t much older than me. That was the first time I really thought about fishing professionally.”
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He added, “I have never been to a Classic and said I wouldn't go unless I qualified to fish it.” And here he is, one of the 29 first-time qualifiers.
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“The first Classic I ever went too was here in Guntersville,” said Drew Benton, fishing his third championship. “I just kind of remember that I didn’t know what to expect. Seeing how big of a deal it was and the amount of people who attended, seeing it all go down firsthand, that really painted a picture of what I wanted to achieve in my career. I watched a bunch on TV, but you can’t get the whole experience until you go to one.”
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Drew Cook, the 2019 Elite Rookie of the Year making his first trip, said his first Classic created a singular focus. “As a kid on a Sunday, sitting on the living room floor, watching the TV, it was the 2000 Bassmaster Classic,” he said. “I was like, these people get paid to fish for a living? Everything else has been out the window since then.”
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Jason Williamson was vivid in his remembrance. He and three buddies piled into his 2-door SUV and drove 2 ½ hours to Lake Wylie where Omori won. “The Charlotte Expo was my first full experience. I was at the show every day walking around and seeing all the boats,” he said as his fourth Classic appearance approaches. “Going to that deal kind of told me this is as awesome as it gets. This is what I want to do, what I want to be. How do I get here? The pivot point for me was Wylie because I was able to experience it as a fan.”
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Canadian Jeff Gustafson said he recalls watching the Classic on TNN in the 1990s and catching the bass fishing bug. He said, “I used to tape every show on a VHS machine and then re-watch them many times. Memory-wise, Bryan Kerchal’s win was big, obviously … “
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“... the first connection I had to an angler was probably Dion Hibdon because he had been up to Lake of the Woods to fish our Kenora Bass International tournament with Guido (his father, the only father and son to win Classics) and they finished second. Then he won the Classic a short time later ... those guys are awesome, too! Legends.”
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“I've watched and followed every Classic since the early 90's and to get to fish the 50th one ... words can't describe the pride and excitement I have,” Gussy said. “I'm so lucky to have earned the opportunity. It’s definitely the highlight of my fishing career for sure! My entire family is coming so I'm looking forward to sharing the experience with them as well.”
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Anglers in the field relate first Classic experience, whether learning, attending or competing.