wanted to leave a legacy for them. For them to see me fish with all those
guys they look up to is very rewarding and self-gratifying.”
I’m more Lugar than Scroggins. This, too, is my first Classic. I’ve been
told it’s eye-opening. It’s already proven to be vocabulary-stretching.
For example: “I was flipping near the riprap and all I caught was some
squeaker. I’m fixin’ to get some groceries and hit them springs.” Roughly
translated: “I was casting into thick vegetation near the rocks along the
bridge abutments, but all I caught was a bass not legally long enough to
bring to the weigh-in. I’m ready to get something to eat and go to bed.”
1, 2, 3 … BLAST OFF!
Day one of the Classic dawns cold. Along with the competitors, family
members, friends, and the rest of the 3,000-odd crowd at the docks,
we’re all up before sunrise. Lake Guntersville is 85 miles north of
Birmingham, an hour-and-a-half drive through flatlands and town after
town of strip malls. For Alabama as well as for the local businesses of
Guntersville, publicity for future revenue from the event is significant.
The state will see a $20 million boost from this Classic.
Shortly after a watery sun has thrown light on the gathered masses,
the anglers circle one by one in front of the stands to cheers and a brief
biography read by the master of ceremonies. They all get the deserved
fuss, but the biggest cheers are reserved for the well-known faces, the
ones who’ve won and placed time and time again. Kevin VanDam, like
Oprah, is so well-known in his field that he goes simply by KVD. Today
the biggest cheer is for homeboy Chris Lane, who lives here on the lake.
For Lane, who made his home here five years ago, it’s an emotional
moment, one he’ll tear up remembering on the stage in Birmingham
tonight. “It took me an hour to get it out of my head,” he admits.
Another former Bassmaster champ who lives on the lake, Boyd
Duckett won the Classic in 2007 and was the first to win in home-state
waters. There’s a third local competitor, the one college qualifier Jordan
Lee, whose extraordinary story includes being the brother of last year’s
college qualifier, Matt Lee (see Online Extra).
By 8 a.m. they’re all off. An army of shiny fast boats speeding out
to the spots they’ve scouted, followed by hundreds of other bass boats
– legions of fans who adore these guys watching their every cast, hoping to learn how to fish better, or just happy for the chance to see their
heroes go to work.
THE HUNT IS ON
My boat driver, Bobby McDonald, is a retired schoolteacher and avid
bass fisherman from Birmingham who’s fished Lake Guntersville for over
30 years. He pushes a cowl up over his nose and face, and pulls on thick
ski gloves. I take it as a sign to zip up the various layers I’m wearing and
put on my hat. For the first 34 years, the Bassmaster Classic was held in
summer or fall, but in 2006 it was moved to late winter. McDonald asks
if there’s anyone in particular I’m trying to track down. Terry Scroggins,
Jeff Lugar, Jordan Lee? No, he hasn’t seen any of them yet this morn-
ing. It’s a big lake – 69,000 acres – and they can pretty much fish any-
where they want. I try one last name, hometown favorite Chris Lane.
McDonald brightens. We blast off. He guns his bass boat out past the
breakwater and across the cold gray water sparkling like crystal, pushing
the throttle up, 30, 40 … 60 mph, as the cold bites deep. Abruptly, we
round a cove and he pulls back. Before us are about 50 boats, all quiet
and using trolling motors, loaded with mostly men bundled up against
the weather. They’re watching Chris Lane cast and recast, talking to each
other about what they’ve seen him catch, or not catch, this morning.
This is like spotting rare birds. You come around a corner, and there’s
an angler quietly casting with a handful of spectators around them if
they’re not well-known, or a flotilla if they are. The psychedelic paint jobs
of their boats, touting sponsors, become the plumage that identifies them.
They seem oblivious to the watchers, marshals, or cameraman sitting
silently aboard. Occasionally, as if startled by our presence, they pack up
and tear across the water at 70-plus mph, heading for their next spot. We
watch and chase several anglers until it’s time to head back to the dock.
Suddenly, from behind us, a boat whooshes by at speed, a huge and
distinctive “Auburn” painted along its side. “It’s Jordan Lee!” I squeal
like a ‘60s schoolgirl who’s just spotted Paul McCartney. Bobby pushes
the throttle in pursuit. Lee’s boat is too fast for us, his wake hard to
distinguish from the other fish paparazzi and groupies who’ve joined
the chase. It’s not altogether lost on me that there’s something slightly
insane about chasing a 21-year-old around a lake in Alabama in the dead
of winter, as he chases an 18-inch fish.
By the time we round the bend under the bridge near Guntersville,
he’s on his second or third cast. “It’s not looking like a great day for
him,” one of the men watching from a boat tells us. We’ll have to wait
for the weigh-in to know for sure. Meanwhile, Bobby and I amuse
ourselves by waving at the remote-controlled hovercraft camera circling
Lee’s boat. When we start gesturing and pulling silly faces, it makes its
way toward us – likely our only shot at ever appearing on ESPN.
THE REAL SHOW BEGINS
The fishermen’s last cast is at 2 p.m. and then it’s a helter-skelter race to
get the boats back on trailers and the miles eaten up to the Birmingham-
DID YOU KNOW?
■ The Classic takes place over three days. All fish are
caught under catch-and-release rules, must measure at
least 12 inches (or the state minimum size), and be alive
at the time they’re presented for weigh-in.
■ After each day’s fishing, the boats, fish, and fishermen
must trailer back to the convention center for weigh-in.
Every day’s catch is limited to five fish. A dead fish equals
a weight penalty.
■ After a second-day cut, the 25 top anglers, based on total
weight, advance to the third day. The highest total weight
wins the competition.
■ Largest bass caught: 11 lbs., 10 oz., Preston Clark, 2006
■ Heaviest Classic daily weight: 69 lbs., 11 oz., Kevin
VanDam, 2011. KVD won the Classic four times.
■ Heaviest daily weight: 32 lbs., 3oz., Paul Mueller, 2014
■ 43 of the 55 contenders in the 2014 Classic were
BoatU.S. Angler members.
■ The first foreign national to win a Classic was Japanese
pro Takahiro Omori, 2004.
■ Since 2000, each Classic has attracted approximately
300 working media. The event is covered on ESPN2.
■ Only one amateur angler has won the Classic, Bryan
Kerchal, 1994. Tragically, he was killed in a plane crash
five months later.
■ For members interested in the fishing division of BoatU.S.