By Todd Ceisner
When it comes to the Bassmaster Classic, everything is different from the run-of-the-mill Elite Series tournament.
The field is smaller. The stakes, however, are much, much higher. The weigh-in is held inside an arena, where the lights are brighter and unforgiving, the music louder. Even the tournament week is structured differently. The venue was off limits since Dec. 31, 2019 prior to a three-day practice session last weekend. Two off days are followed by another practice day followed by another day off before the cast for cash begins.
It’s just … different.
For the 29 first-timers in this year’s Classic field, managing all the Classic nuance becomes part of the broader challenge. Many of them have fished and/or won championship-level events before, including the Forrest Wood Cup, but the unique atmosphere that surrounds the Classic puts it in a class by itself.
Newcomers to the Classic often have different viewpoints on what a successful showing will look like. Some adopt the win-or-nothing mindset. Others will say making the top-25 cut will suffice, leaving them with a building block for future Classic appearances.
“The week is ever changing so you have to embrace the whole week,” said Patrick Walters, a South Carolina native. “It’s the Classic. You can’t look at the off days and media stuff as a handicap because everybody goes through it. Plus, it’s March and the fish are pre-spawn with the ever-changing conditions.”
Walters qualified for the Classic during his rookie year on the Elite Series, but this won’t be his first taste of an event with a $300,000 top prize. Walters competed in the 2015 Cup after winning the FLW College Fishing championship. His take on what success will look like this week is simple.
“Winning,” Walters said. “Having a good tournament and winning. I’m looking forward to it. Consistency pays the bills and they pay $10,000 from 30th down to last. I’m not shooting for the middle.”
Walters said Classic preparations have been a little more challenging from the standpoint that Guntersville can throw a vast array of curveballs at an angler and he wanted to be prepared for anything.
“I have prepared a lot more (than normal),” he said. “I have five times as many rods as normal. That can be a hindrance because you have so much stuff. I made sure to take stuff out of the boat Monday morning but it’s Guntersville and there could be 1,000 patterns going on. You can catch them doing anything here. In Florida, you might need five tackle boxes. Here they could be shallow, deep or in between. I have an idea of where they’ll be.”
Walters said he watched the Classic coverage on television as a kid, citing Skeet Reese’s win at the Red River in 2009 and Kevin VanDam’s victory at the Louisiana Delta in 2011 as seminal events for him.
“Those shallow-water power-fishing derbies just resonate with me more,” he said.
It wasn’t until 2015, though, when fellow South Carolinian Casey Ashley won at Lake Hartwell that Walters started to feel the urge to be on that stage one day.
“It was sentimental because I was there,” Walters said. “After that, I said I’m going to do what I can to get on that stage.”
David Mullins, a normally even-keeled competitor, is trying to maintain that same stoic approach this week.
“I haven’t done anything different,” Mullins said. “My mindset is still the same. I haven’t fished or prepared any different.”
As a result, he’s not putting any undue pressure on himself to be in contention come Sunday.
“Just a strong finish is what I’m after,” he said. “There ain’t but one place you want to be in this one, though. Having a chance to win is all you can ask for.”
Mullins said he followed the sport and, by extension, the Classic as a blue-collar kid growing up in Tennessee. He never imagined himself one day competing in it.
“It’s something I never thought I’d have the opportunity to be in,” he said. “My eyes were opened when Aaron Martens invited me to the Lay Lake Classic (in 2010). I saw it first-hand and was back stage with his family. That’s when I was like, ‘I’d like a chance to do this.’”
While Mullins acknowledges he has little to compare the Classic Experience to, he’s going to fall back on what he learned from some of the tournament success he’s had recently to guide him this week.
“I think what will help is just my doing it and continuing to learn each year,” he said. “I had two chances to win last year and I learned from being under that pressure. Even winning that (Bassmaster) Open and being in the lead entering day 3. I try to learn from every tournament.”
Just Like Home
Darold Gleason is on the water upwards of 300 days per year as a guide at Toledo Bend and a tournament angler. He’s used to fishing heavily pressured water and working around other boats. That’s why part of his Classic prep centered on finding areas that he hopes will keep him away from crowds. Easier said than done in the Classic, not to mention at Guntersville.
“There are definitely some similarities and that was part of my strategy with all these boats out there,” Gleason said. “I tried to find more isolated stuff if I could. I might go look at more community areas (on Wednesday). The biggest thing I try to do in crowds is put blinders on. You try not to look 300 yards away and watch someone land one with nothing in my livewell. If I do my job, what goes around you doesn’t hurt you.”
He doesn’t anticipate the pressure of the event getting to him at all.
“Having the pressure of two strangers paying you a lot of money to go catch fish every day is something I’m used to,” he said. “I’m more comfortable (in my boat) than anywhere else.”
Gleason is also trying to treat the week the same as he does other multi-day tournaments, but he also realizes this is a potential once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I try to prep for all of them the same way,” he said. “I tried to do more internet research because there’s a ton of information about Guntersville in the spring. I wouldn’t say I went overboard compared to other tournaments. That doesn’t mean this isn’t the biggest event ever. I have a format that works for me. When I get here, I try to be one of the first in the water and last off the water. I try to be one of the hardest working guys. It just helps me mentally.”
Gleason’s Classic ticket was punched more than a year ago – he won a Bassmaster Open at Toledo Bend – so he’s had ample time to get a game plan together for Guntersville and all that comes with the Classic.
“I have had a lot of time to think about it,” he said. “I am aware of how big the moment is, so we’re just going to roll with everything.”