By John N. Felsher
When the top 56 professional bass anglers in the world compete in the 2014 Bassmaster Classic, one will take home a check for $500,000 and possibly millions more in endorsement contracts. Regardless of who wins, though, Alabama will reap the benefit.
The 44th annual Bassmaster Classic will take place in Birmingham and on Lake Guntersville from Feb. 21-23. The competitors will run out of Guntersville City Harbor to fish the 69,100-acre lake for three days and bring their daily catches to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Arena, located at 2100 Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard North in Birmingham, for the official public weigh-ins.
When the “Super Bowl of Fishing” comes to town, it makes a huge impact. Besides the anglers, thousands of fans, media and others will pour into Birmingham. Many fans from surrounding cities and states only come in for one day, but many anglers bring their families and stay more than a week. In addition, representatives from hundreds of companies around the world will gather for the Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo, held in conjunction with the tournament weigh-ins at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
“More than 100,000 people attended the 2013 Classic in Tulsa, Okla.,” says Michael Mulone, a B.A.S.S. spokesman. “When we bring a Bassmaster Classic to a state, there’s a sense of pride for both the state and B.A.S.S. The B.A.S.S. staff alone books nearly 4,000 hotel rooms. That doesn’t count all the companies bringing exhibits to the event or fans coming from out of town. When a Bassmaster Classic comes to a town, it usually leaves about a $21 to 24 million economic impact. The lion’s share of the economic impact will be in the Birmingham metropolitan area.”
Birmingham hosted seven previous Classics, most recently in 2010 when Kevin Van Dam of Kalamazoo, Mich., won on Lay Lake. The 2014 Classic will be the 12th such event held in Alabama since 1971, more than twice as many as any other state. The hosting Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, better known as B.A.S.S., began in Montgomery and now calls Birmingham home.
Although Bassmaster magazine ranks Lake Guntersville Number 4 on its list of the top 100 bass lakes in the nation, the largest lake in Alabama only hosted one previous Bassmaster Classic. In 1976, Rick Clunn of Ava, Mo., won his first of four Classics on the Tennessee River impoundment.
While the Bassmaster Classic hasn’t visited Lake Guntersville in 38 years, other major tournaments ran on the lake. In 2010, former Bassmaster Classic champion Skeet Reese from Auburn, Calif., caught more than 100 pounds of bass during three days of competitive fishing. The year before, Aaron Martens won a Bassmasters Elite Series tournament on Lake Guntersville with more than 107 pounds.
Martens, of Leeds, heads a pack of nine Alabama anglers vying to win the big event in their home state. Originally from a suburb of Los Angeles, Martens moved to Alabama because of the great fishing the state offers.
“We moved to Alabama to be more centrally located to the lakes we normally fish,” he says. “Alabama is beautiful and the people are really nice. Alabama, particularly the Birmingham area, is the heart of bass fishing in America. This area has a lot of great lakes and rivers to fish.”
Martens fished in 14 previous Classics since 1999 and placed second in four of them, losing twice to Kevin VanDam. In 2002, he placed second behind Jay Yelas on Lay Lake. In 2013, he earned his second Angler of the Year title. During his career, he earned more than $2 million in tournaments winnings with six victories in B.A.S.S. events.
The home team also includes Chris Lane of Guntersville, the only former Bassmaster Classic champion from Alabama fishing the current event. Lane will make his fourth Classic appearance, having won five events since 2000 including the 2012 Bassmaster Classic on the Red River in Shreveport, La. Lane grew up in central Florida, but moved to Alabama in 2009. He’ll compete against his brother, Bobby, from Lakeland, Fla.
“It’s a fantastic feeling to compete in my hometown,” the former champion says. “Competitive bass fishing has a lot of roots in Alabama. This is where B.A.S.S. originated. As far as I’m concerned, Lake Guntersville is the best bass lake in the country. I look for records to fall for the amount of people coming to the amount of boats on the water watching their favorite anglers to the amount of weight coming to the scales.”
Other Alabama competitors include Gerald Swindle of Warrior fishing his 14th Classic. Randy Howell of Springville fished 11 previous Classics. Steve Kennedy of Auburn competed in six Classics and Greg Vinson of Wetumpka will make his second appearance. Coby Carden of Shelby and David Kilgore of Jasper will each fish their first Classics.
Also making his first Classic appearance, Jordan Lee will represent Auburn University. The 22-year-old student from Cullman qualified for his first Classic by winning the 2013 Carhartt College Series National Championship. The youngest competitor this year, Lee was the runner-up to his brother Matt in the 2012 Carhartt College Series, making the second year in a row that Auburn University sent a student to fish the big show.
Fans watching the weigh-ins should see some impressive catches with so many excellent anglers competing in one of the best bass fishing lakes in the nation at the best time to catch monster bass. In late winter, bass normally reach their largest size of the year as females swell with eggs before the spring spawn. A big female largemouth in February could carry several additional pounds of eggs before she deposits them into a nest in March or April. To avoid depleting the resource, tournament will release any bass brought to the scales.
“It’s going to be a tough tournament,” Martens says. “The best anglers in the world will be fishing it at the right time of the year. One of the things I look forward to when fishing a Classic is meeting people. We get to meet a lot of fans from all over at these events.”
All year long, Lake Guntersville gives up numerous bass in the 3- to 8-pound range and some in the 9- to 12-pound range. Charlie Bertus of Huntsville landed the official lake record largemouth, a 14.50-pound lunker he caught on Feb. 21, 1990. In 2010, Duanne McQueen of Stockbridge, Ga., landed the lake record smallmouth, a 5.85-pounder.
“Late February is a great time to fish Lake Guntersville, but it all depends upon the weather,” Lane says. “I’m expecting some giant limits of bass. I think it will probably take about five bass weighing 25 to 30 pounds per day to win. I think the big bass might be in the 10- to 12-pound range. The lake has some giant bass so it wouldn’t surprise me if someone caught a bass in the teens.”
For complete schedules and more information on the 2014 Bassmaster Classic, visit www.bassmaster.com/classic.