Memories of the Classic linger as warm weather nears

Column by Larry LaGrange

I’ve been a faithful member of the Bass Anglers Sportsman’s Society for a long time. When I send in my dues, I get some merchandise such as a fishing tackle, a hat, and maybe some other item. This time I got a DVD of six of the most memorable BASS Classics, the year end tournament for the top qualifying anglers.

The opening segment covered the first Classic, held on Lake Mead just east of Las Vegas in 1971. The founder and energetic promoter of BASS was a former Alabama insurance salesman, Ray Scott. He formed BASS in 1967 and at first held tournaments at various southern locations for his anglers, who were mostly from the South. He had an inspiration to hold a big money event at the season’s end to determine the world champion bass fisherman. He leveled the playing field by limiting the 24 qualifying anglers to ten pounds of tackle, equipping them with identical boats, and holding the event on a challenging lake very few if any of the anglers had ever seen, much less fished.

The anglers boarded their flight in Atlanta and in dramatic fashion, Scott kept the location of the lake a carefully guarded secret until their Delta jet was 12,000 feet aloft. The tension built as Scott opened the envelope, ala the Academy Awards, to announce the Lake Mead location, followed by much hooting and hollering by the 24.

But then they grew still and contemplated fishing a lake that’s crystal clear and 400 feet deep in places, as Scott related, very much unlike the southern waters they were accustomed to.

“You wouldn’t expect the World Series to be held on a Little League diamond,” Scott told the passengers. “We are going to a lake that will be a true challenge for the world’s best bass fishermen.”

The eager group landed and headed down the Vegas Strip to their hotel. The next morning they hit the lake early for a practice round in their identical red and white Rebel bass boats.

The bright sun and gin-clear water made the fishing tough. For three days, Tom Mann and Bobby Murray fought a tight battle. Roland Martin’s six pound, nine ounce lunker was the big bass of the tournament, but it was Mann and Murray dueling for most weight. Mann caught more bass, but Murray had larger ones, which resulted in a winning tally of 43 pounds, 11 ounces. The champion’s share was an astounding amount, for 1971, of $10,000.

A Classic has been held every year since, and while some details have changed, the hoopla and hype surrounding the event haven’t. But now the anglers know months in advance where it will be held, they have unlimited use of tackle, and they can use their own boats. The first place share of the prize money has exploded to $300,000, but the total value to the winner is over a million considering resulting appearances and sponsor endorsements. If you win a Classic, it pretty much makes your career, assuming you know how to market yourself.

This year’s event is March 15-17 on the Tennessee River near Knoxville. Many of the Classic qualifiers have decided to join the competing Bass Pro tournament trail, but they will still fish this Classic. Quite a few big names jumped the BASS ship and signed on with the new tour, sponsored in part by Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris. Chad Morgenthaler, whose major sponsor is Jasper Engines, is one of the 75 anglers invited to the original BASS Elite trail, and he gladly accepted.

Watching the DVD brought back memories of the only Classic weigh in that I’ve attended, back in 1987. On a Sunday afternoon in August, the boats and anglers were towed into Louisville’s gigantic Freedom Hall, and a raucous crowd of maybe 15,000 greeted them. The fans were pumped to see who could figure out the very difficult puzzle of catching bass on the Ohio River and its embayments in the middle of summer. In three days, winner George Cochran scratched out 14 bass that weighed 15 pounds, 5 ounces, one of the Classic’s lowest winning weights ever. Still, it was quite a show.

This year’s event will be televised on ESPN2. Day One is March 30 at 11 a.m. Day Two is April 6 at 11 a.m., and Championship Sunday is being aired April 13 at 10 a.m.

By the time you finish watching the Classic, it will be full on fishing season. Got your equipment ready?

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