Ah, the Classic. Bass fishing’s undisputed Super Bowl. No event brings more excitement to our sport; nowhere is the tension so high.
I’ve seen the Classic turn veteran grinders back into Red Man-league rookies. I’ve seen it bring tears to the eyes of men who didn’t cry at their mother’s funeral, yet make others so mad, I was genuinely worried for their well-being.
At this time next week, I’ll be en route, like many press observers, for my chance at an inside window into the brains of some of the best in the world. You’ll have to wait until then for my winning prediction. Turning loose my Nostradamus-like brain now just wouldn’t be fair to all of those playing fantasy.
Instead, let’s take a quick walk down memory lane; deep into the archives of Classics past. These moments helped mold me, and likely many of you, into a true bass junkie. Forgive me for not going further back than about puberty, as I have no right speaking as a child of the conquests of men like Bill Dance, Roland Martin or Bobby Murray. But believe me, there have been plenty of barn-burners since their time.
While we’ve looked at a many of these in the past, let’s take a peak at a few Classic memories otherwise left out, yet no less memorable. These events, in fact, proved to be more impactful than many.
> 1988 on the James River, won by Guido Hibdon:
This was likely the first time professional bass fishing had ever seen a championship performance played out with a spinning rod. Hibdon, a long time Ozark hustler with a family tree practically dating back to subsistence hunting and fishing, solidified himself as one of the best anglers in the world at this time. Even more dramatic was the near miss by hometown crowd favorite Woo Daves.
The weigh-in arena produced more excitement than ever before, and possibly since, for a bass fishing event; one that Ray Scott himself couldn’t have scripted any better. Woo was the last angler to enter, and the only one who could beat Guido. He needed a paltry 8-13, but came up short with five bass weighing just 8-06.
Hibdon took home the title and went on to be an innovator in shallow-water finesse fishing techniques. Just as important to fans like me, his win showed that a local hero, with no more than good nature, patience and a pocketful of homemade lures, could make it in the flashy world of pro bass.
> 1998 on High Rock Lake, won by Denny Brauer:
Up until this time, Deny Brauer was known by everyone in the bass fishing community as “the best fisherman to never win a Classic.” His career was as star-studded as any angler in the sport, and in his previous 15 attempts at the title, Brauer had racked up several Top-10s.
Thus, the 1998 stop at High Rock became the magnification of the pro bass streak for hard-core fans like me. Here was proof that confidence, combined with a proven skill set, could take a fisherman above and beyond all other competitors. Brauer had won back-to-back Top 100 events the preceding year, he claimed the FLW Angler of the Year title, nearly did the same for the B.A.S.S. circuit and, with the Classic win, became the richest man in the sport.
Newcomers to pro bass may not have realized there was such a dynasty before VanDam. Even more compelling was the fact that Brauer orchestrated such, primarily, with one technique. He forever solidified the notion that flippers could always compete, and that there’s always a few bass – and often big bass – shallow.
I often think about Brauer and the ’98 event when contemplating the current chances of guys like Faircloth, Evers and Martens. I’m sure I’m not alone.
> 2011 on the Louisiana Delta, won by Kevin VanDam:
Although VanDam had won the Classic three times prior, this event put him on a higher level. With his fourth win, he tied Rick Clunn’s record for most Classic victories. Today, VanDam continues to look poised to take the title outright.
VanDam dominated the 2011 Classic, winning by 10 pounds and setting the all-time weight record for the 15-fish era. But,what stands out most in memory is the way the other competitors reacted, and the way KVD played his hand.
“Kevin had his lucky horseshoe in his pocket,” was a phrase I vividly remember a fellow competitor, who shared water with VanDam throughout the event, using to justify the champion’s outcome. VanDam couldn’t care less. Throughout the entire show, he acted as if the Classic was just another tournament: one he came to win with unstoppable drive.
For the first time, it appeared a competitor completely shook off any Classic jitters and truly fished to win. His performance was one characterized by staying a step ahead of the crowd with frequent lure changes and relentless casting and retrieving – power-fishing perfection.
Without question, VanDam has propelled the sport of competitive fishing more than anyone in its history. Not only has he brought the athleticism and skill characteristics to the forefront with fans, he has molded his fellow competitors into incredibly skilled machines. Everyone owes him.
It’s Classic time, boys and girls. At this time next week, I’ll be preparing to climb aboard a boat for a day that will forever change a man’s life, the outcome controlled by nothing but his ability to catch bass.
And, once again, I’m reminded just how cool that really is.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)