(MCT) — For this week, Tulsa, Okla., will be the center of the bass fishing universe.
Now that bass fishing’s Greatest Show on Earth — the Bassmaster Classic — has rolled into town, February is no longer a dull, drab month in the Oklahoma city. It is filled with electricity as the world’s best pros go to Grand Lake to match wits with the bass and take a shot at instant fame.
Helicopters with film crews will buzz overhead. Spectators will pile into bass boats and follow their favorite pros on the water. Fishing-tackle companies will hawk the latest lures that you just can’t do without at the Expo, a giant sports show. An arena will be packed to the rafters with fans watching weigh-in ceremonies. And the winner will hoist a big trophy as confetti rains down once the three-day tournament is over on Feb. 24.
Just another bass tournament? Hardly. This is the biggest of them all.
“I’ve had people tell me that they don’t see what the big deal about the Classic is,” said Brent Chapman of Lake Quivira, one of the top fishermen in the field of 53. “They say they have been to Elite tournaments and that was enough.
“But that’s like comparing a regular-season NFL game to the Super Bowl. Anyone who loves to bass fish should go to the Classic at least once in their lifetime. It really is a show.”
The bass is America’s fish. And the Bassmaster Classic is America’s celebration of the popular green fish.
Each winter, tens of thousands of bass fishermen flock to the Classic to get an up-close look at their heroes. They get up early to join standing-room-only crowds at the boat ramp to watch the fishermen launch.
Tales of legendary fishermen such as Kevin VanDam speeding down a reservoir with as many as 25 boats trailing him aren’t unusual.
“When I launched my boat and followed some of the pros around, I was amazed at how well these guys can fish,” said Mike Myers, president of the Oklahoma B.A.S. S. Nation who has been to the last seven Classics. “They would pull into spots where you had gone in the past and never caught a bass, and they’d seine the water.
“It really shows the subtle differences between the weekend fishermen and the pros.”
Spectators also line up along barricades for autographs, they mob pros they see on the streets, and they form big cheering sections during weigh-ins in big arenas.
Forget star athletes and movie stars. For a week in one chosen city, the celebrity watch centers on pro bass fishing legends.
“I think the main reason people go to the Classic is to see their heroes,” said Dave Precht, vice president of publications and communications for B.A.S.S. That’s the thing that makes our sport so appealing — the accessibility to the pros.”
For many bass fishermen, making a pilgrimage to the Bassmaster Classic is a trip that can’t be missed.
When Rodney Blank of LaGrange, Ga., joined B.A.S.S. in 1993 as a budding bass fisherman, he just assumed that everyone who followed the sport went to the Classic. So he started a tradition that has proved long-lasting.
He hasn’t missed a Classic since attending the 1993 event. And his career as a bass fisherman has progressed greatly.
He laughs when he recalls how he got started fishing for bass — from the seat of a Wave Runner. After attending that first Classic, he went out and bought a bass boat and a truck to haul it. He got engaged to his future wife, Amy, in that boat.
Now the Blanks, both airline attendants, travel together to every Classic. There was a setback when Amy developed a kidney disease and needed a transplant. But as fate would have it, Rodney’s kidneys were a match and he donated one to his wife.
Amy now is healthy enough to accompany Rodney to the Classic, and they look forward to visiting different lakes and shows.
“When I went to my first few Classics, I was just awestruck,” Rodney said. “I was an autograph hound. I got autographs from all of these famous fishermen I had read about in Bassmaster magazine and I got to talk to them about fishing.
“It really was a spectacle.”
That’s not to say that the Bassmaster Classic has always had that kind of fan appeal, though.
Some remember the days when Ray Scott, who formed B.A.S.S., struggled to just get people interested.
“Ray started by holding the Classic at a mystery lake,” Precht said. “He didn’t tell the fishermen which lake they would be fishing until the last minute.
“He figured that would level the playing field. But at that first Classic in 1971, there weren’t very many fans — just a few people at the boat dock.”
The Classic’s following steadily grew when Scott eliminated the mystery-lake concept and staged the event at announced venues. Ever the promoter, Scott would have side attractions at the Classic, including contests for the women who could bring in the best recipe and dish.
Later, the Classic had its first weigh-in at an indoor arena. But even then, crowds weren’t great.
As the sport grew, so did the Classic. In the 2009 Classic at Shreveport, La., 137,000 people attended the championship event and its side shows, setting a record.
Officials at Grand Lake and Tulsa are hoping to break that attendance record. They were granted the Classic because they met all the criteria — a lake with an outstanding bass population, an arena for weigh-ins, a convention center for the Expo and plenty of lodging for the thousands of people who will stream into town.
Kansas’ presence will be felt at the Classic.
The state has the region’s only two qualifiers — Chapman and Casey Scanlon of Lenexa. Because of the Classic’s relative proximity to the Kansas City area, both will have large cheering sections.
The Chapmaniacs, the nickname for Chapman’s followers, will be wearing color-coordinated T -shirts and will be out in force.
Scanlon, who will be fishing in his first Classic, also will have family, friends and fans at the Classic.
At stake in the tournament is a $500,000 check for first place and plenty of earning power from new sponsorships, bonuses from existing sponsors and speaking engagements. It can be a bit daunting for fishermen who aren’t accustomed to the hoopla surrounding the Classic.
But it all comes down to the fishing.
“You have to block out all of the distractions and approach this as just another tournament,” Chapman said.
FIVE TO WATCH OKLAHOMA’S CLASSIC WEEK
BRENT CHAPMAN: This may be the year for Chapman, a Lake Quivira pro. He is coming off a season when he was the Angler of the Year, and he knows Grand Lake well.
EDWIN EVERS: Evers, who lives in Talala, Okla., has a home lake advantage. He also is familiar with Grand and has finished fourth and third at the lake in previous Elite bass tournaments.
KEVIN VANDAM: The pro from Kalamazoo, Mich., is one of the all-time greats in the sport. He has won four Bassmaster Classics, and he won an Elite tournament at Grand in 2007.
TOMMY BIFFLE: Biffle, who lives in Wagoner, Okla., is another local favorite. He is an expert at flipping and knows plenty of places to fish on Grand. He has finished second in two Classics.
JASON CHRISTIE: Christie lives only an hour from Grand Lake in Park Hill, Okla., and knows the reservoir as well as anyone in the field. But he’s a Classic rookie, and that could play a part.
WHAT: The Bassmaster Classic, bass fishing’s biggest event. The championship tournament will feature 53 of the world’s top pros.
WHERE: Competition will be on Grand Lake. Weigh-ins, the Expo sports show and other activities will be based in Tulsa.
WHEN: Practice will be Monday through Wednesday. Media day will be Thursday, and the tournament will be Friday through Sunday. The expo will take place the three days of the competition.
LAUNCH SITE/WEIGH-INS: Wolf Creek ramp on 16th Street In Grove, Okla. Launches will begin at 7 a.m. CST each day of the tournament. Weigh-in ceremonies will be at the BOK Center, 200 S. Denver in Tulsa. Doors will open at 3 p.m. each day.
OUTDOOR EXPO: The sports show will be at the Convention Center at 100 Civic Center in Tulsa. A Sooner classic
Grand Lake, Tulsa go bass-crazy as fishing’s biggest event goes to northeast Oklahoma.