Dale Hightower dreamed his whole life of competing in the Bassmaster Classic, and he finally got his chance in 2011 when he was one of 50 anglers that battled on the Louisiana Delta on the sport’s biggest stage.
Hightower qualified for the Classic through the B.A.S.S. Federation and he more than held his own, finishing 15th against a field filled with seasoned veterans. The Mannford, Okla. resident was in sixth place after Day 1 of that tournament, but severe fog hurt his chances, along with the rest of the anglers making the long run from New Orleans’ West Bank all the way to Venice at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Despite that, the 44-year-old Hightower has almost nothing but positive memories from his one and only Classic appearance. The only thing that would compare, he said, would be to fish in the 2020 Classic – something he can do if he performs well on the 2019 Bassmaster Elite Series. Awaiting that, here are Hightower’s 5 favorite memories from the 2011 Bassmaster Classic.
1 / 6
Escaping Oklahoma, arriving in Louisiana
A snowstorm was about to blow into Oklahoma, and (fellow Oklahoman) Tommy Biffle and I decided to leave a day earlier than planned… We got out just ahead of it and headed for the Venice Inn down there.
We got there a little early and after unloading my stuff, I was out in the parking lot sitting in my boat and Skeet Reese pulled in with his big fancy rig. He pulled in there, whipped around, threw down his cones in front and back of his truck and then he started walking straight toward my boat across the parking lot… We talked for a good solid hour.
It was just one of those things I never forgot. It made me feel at home. All the guys that were in the Classic, really, were so nice. I was a Federation guy, and I had never been around guys who had done this for a living.
It was my first time being on the big stage, and they really made me feel like I belonged there. It gave me confidence, and that’s half the battle in these things. And those guys who had been there so many times, they were just as excited as I was to be there. That right there told me exactly how big the Bassmaster Classic really is.
2 / 6
The first launch was a scary proposition
Of course when you’re about to take off that first morning, your adrenaline is running. I was making that 120-mile run (round trip from the launch) to Venice across the Gulf of Mexico, and there was nothing but fog. I mean, we were just socked in. It scared me. I was nervous. I’m thinking to myself "Do I make that run?" or "Do I scrap my plan and do something else?" I had so much other stuff running through my head…
I had such a good practice in Venice, I decided to go for it. But we had the fog delay of two hours, all the anticipation… When the fog lifted at Bayou Segnette (State Park), we took off, but out there in the gulf, that fog had not lifted. That 30- or 40-mile run from there down the Intracoastal (Canal) getting to the Gulf and that open water, it was bad. And then even when we got to Venice, you couldn’t see 50 feet in front of the boat…
Now that I’m safe and don’t have adrenaline flowing through me like I did that day, I’ll say this – if it wasn’t the Bassmaster Classic, I don’t make that choice. It was sheer stupid.
3 / 6
Venice shows its strength
The fog still had us socked in, but I picked up a Chatterbait and caught five bass on my first five casts… I had maybe 10 to 11 pounds, but every cast I was catching fish that were all the same size. I knew I had to get out of there, so I made a small run, to a pond I fished in practice.
(During pre-fishing,) I flipped four times into a mat of hyacinths and caught four bites that all were 4-pounders that I brought to the surface to see. So I was really jacked up about that spot. When I pulled in on Day 1, Mike McClelland was in there. I thought, "Oh, no!" But he was on the other side of the pond. So I got my boat positioned just right, put my poles down and turned to my Marshal and said, "I’m fixing to cull five of my fish right here."
On my first pitch, I caught a 4-pounder. Within 30 minutes, I pulled every one of my fish out of that spot. I caught so many fish so fast, I remembered exactly why I was in Venice. Those fish bit like it was Thanksgiving. I had almost 16 pounds, and I was in sixth place in the Bassmaster Classic. My phone blew up that night. Mark Zona called me… It was so incredible. I knew right then I’d do whatever it took to get back to the Bassmaster Classic.
4 / 6
Showing off the big bass
You can’t imagine that feeling. They pull you through the fog inside the arena in New Orleans. It’s dark. They’re playing your music. The lights come on and there are just thousands of people just screaming and hollering…And knowing I had two really nice fish in my livewell, that was a good feeling too.
And another thing that was special about that day was that it was Dave Mercer’s first time up on the Bassmaster Classic stage too. Sharing that with him was pretty neat because he really had the crowd fired up… But even before that, while I was in my boat outside, they kept holding me up and letting other guys go in front of me. I had no idea what was going on inside, but I found out soon that I had one of the big bags. Skeet Reese came over to me and asked how I did, and I actually was ashamed because my goal was to get 18 to 20 (pounds). His eyes got big, and he said "Wow! You did really well. No one caught them today." That’s when (the butterflies) in my stomach started.
5 / 6
Day 3 was OK, but Day 2 was tough. We had a three-hour fog delay. If I didn’t leave the launch by 9:15 a.m., I couldn’t make that run to Venice. Trip (Weldon) turned us loose at 9 o’clock. I only had 55 minutes to fish that day, with a cameraman in my boat.
On my very last flip that day, I lost a fish that was about 4 1/2 pounds. It was the only fish I lost that week. I had her right at the boat, but she jumped up and she spit the hook. My cameraman said, "Oh my God! Do you want to see that again?" and I said "I’m going to be seeing that the rest of my life."
And I do still see it. After the tournament, I figured it up and if I catch that fish, it would put me back at about 15 pounds for the day. That would have moved me up seven places. There was no way us guys down in Venice were going to win that tournament the way the weather warmed up. But prior to that, you couldn’t have told me I couldn’t win that tournament. The fish I found were that good… I finished 15th and people said, "Man, that’s pretty darn good for the Classic."
But you go there to win. No one wants second place. But one thing I learned in that Classic that has helped me have confidence for the past eight years is that I can fish with anyone. I belong here. I showed to myself and the world that I do have the skills to do what I’m doing. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.