By Todd Ceisner
With the Bassmaster Classic creeping closer and closer, it’s fair to say the excitement and anticipation are likely on the rise for the 52 anglers set to compete at the Tennessee River in less than three weeks.
For the three Tennessee natives in the field, no doubt there’s excitement and anticipation, but also the pressure that comes with hailing from the state where the tournament will occur. How Ott DeFoe, Wesley Strader and Brandon Lester manage it all could play a role in how they fare when the event unfolds March 15-17. Jacob Wheeler is the fourth Tennessee resident in the field this year, but he relocated there from his native Indiana in the last couple years.
This will be the 49th edition of the Classic and just four have been won by anglers competing in their home state. Boyd Duckett was the first to do it in 2007 when he won at Lay Lake in Alabama. Randy Howell (2014 at Lake Guntersville), Casey Ashley (2015 at Lake Hartwell) and Edwin Evers (2016 at Grand Lake) then turned it into a trend before Jordan Lee stepped in to win the last two Classics outside of his native Alabama.
For DeFoe and Strader, this Classic will be particularly meaningful being that the tournament waters – Fort Loudoun and Tellico lakes – make up part of the fabric of who they are as fishermen.
DeFoe is a Knoxville native and fished the lakes consistently when he was younger and early in his career when he competed on the FLW Tour. Typically, he opts to not visit the Classic venue before it goes off limits, but knowing it’d been a while since he launched a boat on that section of the river, he spent a few days riding around prior to it going off limits at the end of December.
“I wanted to re-familiarize myself with it,” he said. “To put in perspective how long it had been, when I got out there, it occurred to me that I had not looked at the lake before with Side Imaging.”
For Strader, who resides in Spring City and calls Watts Bar Lake his home waters, he will always feel a connection to the Fort Loudoun and Tellico stretch of the river.
“It was basically my training grounds for tournament fishing,” he said. “Between Watts Bar and Fort Loudoun, I probably have more experience there than any other bodies of water. They fish similar, too.
“I have lots of hours on that lake. It used to be one of the best lakes on the system, then the grass went away and it tapered off. It’s always the best in the spring, though.”
Brandon Lester is excited to compete in a Classic in his home state.
Lester hails from Fayetteville, Tenn., which is considered part of middle Tennessee and sits much closer to Guntersville (90 minutes) versus Knoxville (3 1/2 hours), but he’s just as amped about having a home-state Classic as his fellow Tennesseans. He doesn’t possess near the experience on the tournament waters as DeFoe and Strader, but he also spent a few days there before the calendar flipped to 2019.
“Being a middle Tennessee guy, we drive by a ton of stuff to get there, but I think it’s gonna be a good time of year to hit it,” Lester said. “There will be a ton of fish caught with a wide variety of things going on.”
This will be Lester’s fourth Classic, but he knows it’ll feel much different than the others simply because he’ll be close to home.
“I will probably feel a little more pressure going into the tournament but when we start fishing, it’s truly just another day of fishing,” he said. “I will put my heart and soul into it like I always do, but it’s just fishing. When I get out there and start fishing, all the nerves will work themselves out. I’m comfortable with all of that now. I’d say it’s same for all of the guys, I think.”
Have to Make It Now
Last April, when Knoxville was announced as the 2019 Classic host city with the Tennessee River serving as the tournament waters, Elite Series anglers who hail from the Volunteer State probably all had the same thought: “Sweet! A Classic at home, but now I have to do all I can to qualify.”
Only one Elite Series event had been held at that point on the calendar, so there were plenty of chances to accumulate points towards a Classic berth.
“Back then, it was ‘Now, I have to make it.’ I had to make sure I did my job all year to make it in,” said DeFoe, who had a stellar year and finished 4th in points to clinch a spot in what will be his seventh straight Classic. “At this point, it’s just waiting on it to get here. To know it’s a couple weeks out, it’s hard to believe it’s almost here now.”
Strader made it by finishing 35th in points while Lester, who finished 51st in Elite Series points, earned a spot via his finish at the Bassmaster Opens Championship.
“I’m a lot more excited about it now that I made it,” Strader said. “I’m way more excited than I’d be if I wasn’t fishing it.”
Added Lester: “I’m much more excited now. When it was announced, it was like, ‘That’s really cool it’s in Tennessee,’ but then you’re like, ‘Oh gosh, I need to be in it.’ I tried to not put any more pressure on myself and even though I haven’t spent a lot of time on those lakes, I still wanted to make a Classic in my home state. I’m definitely more excited about it now. It was a big relief when I finally qualified for it. I took the hard road, but made it happen.”
Wesley Strader is concerned he might have too much history at Fort Loudoun and Tellico lakes heading into this year's Classic.
What To Expect
This will be the third Classic staged in Tennessee and it’s expected to be among the best attended due to Knoxville’s location and proximity to other bass fishing hotbeds. While many BassFans will come to root on an angler or two or to just take in the spectacle, the Tennessee contingent knows they’ll have a spotlight on them.
It won’t be anything new for any of them, though. DeFoe has competed in numerous tournaments across Tennessee throughout his career – he won two Bassmaster Opens at Douglas Lake – but the Classic is a different animal altogether. There are no points on the line. Finishing 2nd pays well, but winning the Classic can cement an angler’s legacy.
“In other tournaments here, I have been blessed to have really good events in them,” DeFoe said. “On one hand, it seems like I know how to handle it, but on the other hand you have to go out and catch them every day. It’s different because those events were points events or all about winning in the Opens. It was important to not have a bad tournament. In the Classic, if you’re not going to win, it doesn’t matter where you finish.
“While I’ve had some good finishes in the Classic, I’ve never fished it like you should. I just fished it to not work the Expo on Sunday basically. It’s not an event where you get on the winning pattern in practice. You have to figure it out in the tournament. I feel like I have been close in a couple where I have been one bite away from winning. I didn’t necessarily push myself in a way I feel like I should.
"At 9 a.m. on day 1 last year, I went to water I’d never been to before in my life. I did not have a good practice and wound up having a good event. I intend to go for it at this one. For the foreseeable future, this will probably be my last Classic and I intend to fish it with no regrets. I want nothing less than a win, but whatever will be is God’s will.”
Strader is aware of the attention he’ll receive being one of the home-state competitors, but he'll try to focus on what he has control over and that’s his decisions on the water, which could be impacted by the soaking rains the area has received over the past month.
“It’s the Classic, so I’m going to try to not let the pressure get to me,” Strader said. “There will be a lot of hometown people expecting you to do well, but we have gotten a ton of rain, so it all will be about the conditions and weather-related and being able to adjust those conditions. I’m just trying to not put any more pressure on myself than is already there.
“Sometimes, the problem with a place you know so well is you know too many places to fish. That’s one of the worst parts of tournament fishing, but sometimes when you have a crappy practice, you get out there and piece it together during the tournament.”
> Asked what’s one thing that will surprise people about this Classic, both Strader and DeFoe predicted the attendance record set last year in Greenville, S.C., could be in jeopardy while Lester thinks this could be the first spring Classic in which smallmouth are a factor.