Whether you’re a filmmaker casting a western, a poker tournament director preparing for the final table or B.A.S.S. scheduling a GEICO Bassmaster Classic, you just can’t do it without Texans. They’re simply essential to the mix and the authenticity of such events.
All captions: Ken Duke
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It’s especially hard to imagine the Classic without Texas anglers. After all, the Lone Star State has sent more qualifiers to the world championship of bass fishing than any other state — by far — and since this year’s Classic is in Houston on Lake Conroe, March 24-26, Texans figure to play a big role in its outcome.
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For the Lake Conroe Classic, there are five Texans (or at least “Texans”) in the field and few more who didn’t make it, but who would have made a great storyline. Here’s a look at each.
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Hold a tournament in Texas these days, and Keith Combs is everybody’s man to beat. His Elite Series win at Falcon Lake and wins at the Toyota Texas Bass Classic (now the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest) show that he can catch bass just about anywhere in the state. And his Falcon win came at about the same time of year, so he’s an angler for all seasons.
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This is Combs’ sixth Classic and fourth in a row. Last year he posted his first top 10 Classic finish, and for several years he’s finished high in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. Combs is ready for a breakthrough performance and a major title. If it comes this year in Houston, no one will be surprised. He’s on just about everyone’s list as the pre-tournament favorite.
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Another thing Combs (and the other Texans in the field) have going for them is the latest Bassmaster Classic trend — homegrown winners. Each of the last three champs (Randy Howell in 2014 on Guntersville, Casey Ashley in 2015 on Hartwell and Edwin Evers in 2016 on Grand) won in his home state. That’s three times in three years after it had been done only once in the previous 43-year history of the Classic (in 2007 when Boyd Duckett won on Alabama’s Lay Lake). The home jinx is over. How long will the home water advantage last?
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If Keith Combs would benefit from his first major title (a Classic or AOY), such a thing would positively transform Todd Faircloth’s career. Easily one of the five or six best anglers over the past two decades, Faircloth still slips under the radar because he doesn’t have a Classic win or AOY on his résumé. A win at Conroe would shine a spotlight on what has already been a stellar career.
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With 15 Classic appearances and five Elite Series wins, Faircloth’s talent is top-notch. His best finish in the championship was third in 2010, but he’s finished in the top 10 seven times, including six times in the past seven Classics, yet no one seems to be talking about that! Think he’s ready for a breakthrough?
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Faircloth’s career has strangely paralleled that of Edwin Evers. The two broke in at about the same time, are roughly the same age (Evers is about a year older), both fished their first Classic in 2000 (where they finished 31st and 32nd!), and they’ve been to almost the same number of Classics (Evers has one more). Last year, of course, Evers picked up a Classic win at home on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake. It was his 15th Classic appearance. Is it a coincidence that Faircloth will be at home in Texas this year … in his 15th Classic? Well, of course it is … but you get the eerie point. Cue the “Twilight Zone” theme music!
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Two “Texans” in this year’s Classic field have won this derby before. Alton Jones is the only one of them to be born in Texas (Baylor), and he is the more recent champion, having earned his trophy on Lake Hartwell in 2008. One more win would put him on a very short list of multiple winners with Rick Clunn (4), Kevin VanDam (4), George Cochran (2), Bobby Murray (2) and Hank Parker (2).
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This will be Jones’ 18th Classic appearance. Only 10 anglers have been to more championships. Fishing this one in Texas will carry special meaning for two reasons — he’s at home and he’s fishing with his son.
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At 53, Jones is one of the oldest anglers in this year’s Classic, though not quite old enough to become the oldest champion in history. He’s also the father of one of the other competitors — the eponymous Alton Jones Jr., who is fishing his first Classic.
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Alton Jones Jr. earned his way to the Classic by winning the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open on the Red River. At 24, he’s one of the youngest anglers in the tournament — and a rookie — but don’t count him out. He obviously has a great pedigree, knows a lot about the Classic experience because he’s watched his father go through it, and rookies have won eight Classics (though it hasn’t happened in a decade).
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It’s only the 10th time in Classic history that a father and son have both qualified for a Bassmaster Classic and the Jones’ are just the fifth father-son combo to compete in the very same championship. It last happened in 2004 with Denny and Chad Brauer. The only father-son duo to both win the Classic was Guido and Dion Hibdon in 1988 and 1997, respectively. And for what it’s worth, Guido won the ’88 Classic as Dion made his debut. History could repeat itself for the Joneses … especially since they’re fishing close to home.
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If Takahiro Omori doesn’t look or sound like a native Texan, it’s because he got to the Lone Star State by way of Tokyo. He and Alton Jones Sr. are the only “Texans” in this year’s field to have tasted Classic victory. Omori won in 2004 on Lake Wylie. That’s just one of his many accomplishments as a tournament pro.
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Omori is competing in his 12th Classic. When he won in 2004, he became the first foreign national to win the championship. In the years since no one has joined him on that list, though plenty of international anglers have tried.
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Omori has six career B.A.S.S. wins, including a 2016 Elite victory, but a second Classic title would be transformative. His 2004 win helped bring competitive bass fishing to a larger international stage, but Omori was mostly unknown in his native Japan at that time; all his fishing accomplishments had come in the U.S. If he were to win again, he’d get an even bigger hero’s welcome as he toured the world with the trophy.
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Rick Clunn may have been born in California (Raisin City, to be exact), but he began building his bass fishing reputation while living in Conroe and Montgomery, Texas, and guiding on Lake Conroe. In fact, he earned all four of his Classic titles while a resident of Texas. No one personifies bass fishing’s biggest championship quite like Clunn, and no one dominates the Classic record book like he does.
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For starters, there are his four wins in three different decades (a record), 32 Classic appearances (a record) including 28 in a row (another record). He also holds top marks for heaviest Classic daily catch (33-5 in 1976), tournament catch (75-9 in 1984) and biggest comeback (in 1990). Record, record, record. Clunn has also caught more bass than any other Classic competitor in history and — very briefly — held the record for biggest bass … on two different occasions, 30 years apart! In 1976 his 7-13 was bested moments later by Ricky Green’s 8-9, and in 2006 his 10-10 was topped by Preston Clark the same day.
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After winning the Elite Series season opener on the St. Johns River last year, Clunn was looking good to qualify for his 33rd championship, but things didn’t pan out and we’re denied the chance of seeing this legend win number five on his old stomping grounds. Can you even imagine the crowd at the final weigh-in in Houston if Clunn was in the hunt? Just the thought of it should have fishing fans thinking about what might have been.
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Gary Klein is another Californian by birth who moved to Texas. He’s been living there since the 1980s in Irving, Montgomery and Weatherford. With 30 career appearances, he ranks second to Clunn, but lacks a win. The chance to do it at home would have been a fitting end to his Classic drought.
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Klein made it to his first Classic in 1979 and loaned Hank Parker the flipping rod he used to win that event on Lake Texoma. AOY titles in 1989 and 1993 rank as Klein’s greatest professional achievements, but he’d trade them both for a Classic win. Few realize how close he came to tying Clunn’s seeming untouchable record of 28 consecutive Classic appearances. Klein posted 17 straight between 1984 and 2000 and another 10 in a row between 2002 and 2011. If he hadn’t narrowly missed qualifying in 2001, he would share the record. In 2016, Klein was 48th in the AOY standings, missing the final Classic berth by just 16 points — a few ounces here and there.
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Just like Clunn and Klein, James Niggemeyer was born in California and moved to Texas. Like other transplants, he says “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.” Niggemeyer made the pilgrimage in 2001 and has qualified for three Classics, won one Bassmaster Tour event (the predecessor to the Elite Series) and a Central Open on Toledo Bend. A disappointing 2016 keeps him out of the Classic, where he would have been a popular fan and pundit pick.
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Between 2001 and 2011, Kelly Jordon (a natural born Texan from Abilene) was automatic — qualifying for nine Classics in 11 years. Since then he’s come close, but failed to qualify. In 2016, he ranked 50th in the AOY standings, a slim 45 points out of the championship. With four career B.A.S.S. wins, including an Elite trophy in 2006, Jordon will be back but he’ll have to watch this year’s Classic fireworks from the sidelines.