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Super Bowl of fishing is ‘part of the American lifestyle’

Kevin VanDam, a professional bass angler from Kalamazoo, Mich., lifts up his world championship trophy after winning his fourth Bassmaster Classic Title, on Feb. 20, 2011, in New Orleans. Photo by John N. Felsher
Kevin VanDam, a professional bass angler from Kalamazoo, Mich., lifts up his world championship trophy after winning his fourth Bassmaster Classic Title, on Feb. 20, 2011, in New Orleans. Photo by John N. Felsher

By John N. Felsher

Called by many the “Super Bowl of Fishing,” the 44th annual Bassmaster Classic returns home to Alabama when the best anglers in the world gather to fish Lake Guntersville Feb. 21-23.

The biggest event in professional bass fishing started in Alabama. In 1967, Ray Scott of Pintlala started collecting membership fees for an organization dedicated to people who like to catch largemouth bass. He dubbed the organization the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, better known as B.A.S.S. Scott established the first headquarters for his organization in Montgomery.

In the late 1960s, Scott organized fishing tournaments and gave away prizes to anglers who caught the heaviest stringers of bass. In 1971, he created a championship for those anglers and called it the Bassmaster Classic. Thus began four decades and counting of professional bass fishing at the highest level.

Today, B.A.S.S. officials announce the Classic venue a year in advance, but in those days, Scott kept the tournament location secret to keep competition equal. In October 1971, Scott picked 24 anglers and flew them and their wives to Atlanta. There, they boarded a chartered plane with about 30 outdoor writers, destination unknown. The group landed in Las Vegas, Nev., to fish Lake Mead.

When it ended, Bobby Murray, a 26-year-old competitor from Hot Springs, Ark., made history by becoming the first Bassmaster Classic champion in history. For the effort, he collected a check for $10,000. Legendary lure maker Tom Mann of Eufaula, Ala., took second.

“It was a mystery flight,” Murray remembers years later. “When the airplane reached 10,000 feet, they told us where we were going. We could pack 10 pounds of tackle and four rods. They were trying to make the playing field as fair as they could. Before the first Classic, not one of the 24 anglers had ever been on Lake Mead.”

At the time, few people knew anything about professional bass fishing. When a brief story about a guy winning $10,000 for catching bass in Nevada went over the news wires, few editors believed it. Who would get paid to catch fish and then release them?

Now, the 56 anglers from 23 states fishing the 2014 Bassmaster Classic will compete for a share of the $1 million purse, plus potentially millions more in endorsement contracts. This year, the Classic competitors will fan out over the 69,100-acre Lake Guntersville. After three days of practice, they will begin their daily competition each morning at 7 a.m. at the Guntersville City Harbor. All 56 competitors fish the first two days. Only the top 25 anglers fish the final day.

While the original competitors weighed their fish on a floating boat dock before about 30 writers and 30 spectators, thousands of fans and hundreds of journalists will gather in the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Arena to watch the 2014 Bassmaster Classic. The free public weigh-ins will begin at 3 p.m. daily.

“We had more than 100,000 people attend the 2013 Classic in Tulsa,” says Michael Mulone, a B.A.S.S. spokesman. “This will be one of our biggest Classics in size and scope. We’ll use more expo space in Birmingham than we’ve ever used before and all events are free. The Bassmaster Classic is not just a fishing tournament. It’s part of the American lifestyle.”

While waiting for their favorite professional anglers to return with their catches, fishing fans might also wish to visit the Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo. Hundreds of companies will put up displays for fishing fans to peruse. The free expo will be from noon to 8 p.m. Feb. 21, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Feb. 22, and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 23.

At the Expo, visitors can explore more than 220,000-square feet of exhibit space at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex and attend seminars on different topics at sponsor booths.

“At the Expo, people can mingle with their favorite professional anglers and prominent people in the fishing industry like Bill Dance, Hank Parker and others,” Mulone says. “Most people are not going to play in an NFL game and throw a football like Peyton Manning, race against Jimmy Johnson in NASCAR or compete against Tiger Woods on a golf course, but they can all use the exact same equipment in exactly the same place as Kevin VanDam to catch bass.”

Visit www.bassmaster.com/classic.