It is the Classic that has launched pro angling careers of fishermen such as Rick Clunn, Hank Parker and Mike Iaconelli.
This year’s Classic will be Friday through Sunday on Lake Guntersville. Daily weigh-ins and the Outdoor Sport Show will be at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. It’s an event that has plenty of history.
In 1967, Ray Scott was an insurance salesman from Montgomery. One rainy day in a Mississippi hotel room he considered the idea of a fishing organization exclusively for bass anglers. Later that year, he held the All-American Invitational tournament on Beaver Lake in Arkansas.
“I had no idea tournament bass fishing would be where it is today,” Scott said. “I had some help from folks and things began to fall in place.”
Scott’s goal was to have tournament fishing along similar lines to that of golf, where anglers could earn payday by catching a few green fish. Today, custom wrapped boats, high-horsepower outboards, fancy fishing shirts with plenty of TV coverage make the Classic something special.
Some of the early Classics were tailored more for the anglers than spectators, with an element of surprise thrown in to spice things up.
At the first Classic in 1971 the lake and destination were not revealed to anyone until the chartered Delta jet was airborne from Atlanta. Once in the air Scott revealed the Classic tournament waters as Lake Mead near Las Vegas.
“We wanted the Classic to have a level field for all the anglers,” said Scott. “We found a Lake we knew that would provide an equal opportunity for the best anglers.”
This method was sure to be fair that no angler would have an advantage on scouting out any honey holes before the tournament. Of course, few spectators and reporters attended these early events. Bobby Murray won this first Classic in 1971 in a winner-take-all event. He took home a $10,000 cash prize. In this year’s Classic, anglers from 26th place and down will pocket $10,000.
In the early years, anglers held down regular jobs and fished tournaments on the side. It wasn’t long before the sport began to grow as word spread that fishermen could win some bucks by catching bass.
The 1976 Classic was held on a November day on Lake Guntersville. Weigh-ins were held in the parking lot of the launch site. A young Clunn claimed his first of four Classic titles. Also, it was the final year of the mystery lakes. The Classic location would be announced ahead of time to allow planning for reporters and bass fans.
Over the years, the growth of the sport has caused many changes in tournaments and how they are conducted. One of the biggest contributors to the changes in major bass tournaments has been TV. In 2001, ESPN acquired BASS and brought tournament bass angling into the living rooms of millions of fishing fans.
The first few Classics only saw a handful of reporters, mostly newspapers, covering the tournament. As the popularity and prestige grew so did the media coverage. Today, close to 100 reporters and outdoor writers will cover the Classic. News crews from as far away as Japan are in Birmingham to bring the story of the next world champion bass angler.
Innovations from B.A.S.S.
The Bass Anglers Sportsmen Society is responsible for many fishing innovations and environmental issues. Scott and B.A.S.S. gathered their group of grass-roots anglers to take on polluters across the nation. In 1970, the organization filed more than 200 lawsuits to get folks to clean up the lakes and rivers.
The program, “Don’t Kill Your Catch” was started in 1972. Catch and release was the rule for all B.A.S.S.-affiliated events. The catch-and-release idea was picked up from trout fishing.
“I was at a trout fishing event in Colorado,” Scott said. “I saw how the trout anglers were careful with their fish and then released it back into the river. I said we can do that with bass.”
The concept for catch and release spawned the idea of aerated tanks or livewells in bass boats. The bass could be caught and kept alive in the aerated tanks until weigh-in. Then after the weigh-in is complete, the fish are returned to the lake. Great care is taken by the anglers and tournament workers to ensure the bass handled properly and kept alive.
Another innovation developed and implemented by B.A.S.S. was the engine cut-off switch -- now known as the kill switch. All tournament boats must have a working main engine cut-off switch to be allowed in the event.
Even under the current economic conditions, sponsors continue to support BASS and its anglers. A few pros have had to forgo their fishing careers because of lost sponsorships. On the other hand, some new companies have emerged and while a few others have culled back on sponsor dollars.
In 1992, Larry Nixon of Arkansas was the first B.A.S.S. angler to top the $1 million dollar mark in career winnings from tournaments. It took him 16 years to complete that task. Today, there are 36 anglers with more than one million dollars in earnings.
Consistent top placing anglers can pocket some big bucks from tournament purses. Denny Brauer, Skeet Reese and Clunn have won more than $2 million each just from bass tournaments. It took Brauer, who started in the BASS early days, 20 years to make to the $1 million mark. Today, Kevin VanDam has pocketed more than $5 million in earnings. This indicates how much the payouts have increased in recent years.
Sponsors for anglers are not just products related to fishing. As an example, Gerald Swindle of Warrior has sports clothing and other products along with his fishing sponsors. He is very marketable. Swindle won the 2004 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year.
According to Bassmaster Magazine, Swindle brings home more than $500,000 a year just from endorsement contracts. Any tournament winnings are just gravy. Most pros are well under this amount of money from sponsors with many under $100,000. The pros are reluctant to discuss sponsorship money in general because of contract agreements with their individual sponsors.
Of course, not every pro angler brings home that kind of green. Every year, pro anglers drop off the Elite Series Tour because of the expenses. Entry fees alone for one season are $55,000, and add in the cost of travel, meals and gas, expenses for a tournament angler can exceed $85,000.
TV has probably been the biggest influence in rise of sponsors and sponsor money. In the late 1990s, there were only about two to four hours of TV coverage total for the Classic. This weekend, ESPN will offer more than nine hours of programming focusing just on the Classic and the anglers.
Scott may have never dreamed tournament bass fishing would ever be at the level it is today. Hundreds of bass fans come to the lakeshore in sub-freezing temperatures just to watch the anglers take off for a day of fishing. Thousands more will crowd into an arena to watch the pros in some colorful shirts splattered with sponsors hold up some bass.
What is the Classic? It is the biggest tournament of any angler’s life -- it is the Big Show, the Big Dance. The Classic is a media frenzy, thousands of casts, hundreds of bass and one check worth $300,000 to the winner. The Classic is the pinnacle of tournament bass fishing.
Charles Johnson is the Star’s outdoors editor. You can reach Charles at ChrJohn7@aol.com.