"There's nothing quite like the CITGO Bassmaster Classic in fishing or any other sport," praised Jay Yelas, the 2002 Classic champion and 2003 CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year. "Everybody who loves bass fishing follows the Classic. They follow the road to the Classic throughout the year, and the most serious fans make it a point to experience the Classic firsthand."
No event in fishing can match the venerable Bassmaster Classic on a variety of fronts. It's the most prestigious, most watched, most exciting, most heavily anticipated, most publicized and, when it comes to career longevity, the most lucrative tournament of all. It is simply the most important contest in competitive fishing.
"It's amazing how far the Classic has come," said fishing legend Roland Martin, who owns BASS records for tournament victories (19) and Angler of the Year titles (nine). "It started as almost an afterthought for (BASS founder) Ray Scott something he put together at the last minute but it's really taken off.
"Today, for the pros, it's the one accomplishment that everybody shoots for. Making the Classic is the high-water mark in a fishing career."
For the past 34 years, the Classic has been in the memory-making business. It's on the Classic stage that dreams come true, instant fishing stars are born or careers are salvaged. There have been some unforgettable moments in the history of the coveted Classic that will be forever etched in the minds of fishing fans everywhere. Here are just a few.
Classic I (1971) The very first Classic has to be included in any nostalgic tour down fishing's memory lane. Former Alabama insurance salesman Ray Scott took the top 24 finishers in his fledgling Bass Anglers Sportsman Society tournament circuit to Lake Mead for the inaugural event. Scott kept the pros in the dark about the Classic site before announcing it 20,000 feet in the air. It was in the stark desert hills outside Las Vegas that Arkansas' Bobby Murray became the first Classic champion with a winning weight of 43 pounds, 11 ounces.
Classic V (1975) Who could forget the 1975 Classic on North Carolina's Currituck Sound when hurricane-force winds made the tournament a test of survival for many competitors? Jack Hains, a Louisiana crop-duster pilot, took home the top honors.
Classic VI (1976) The 1976 tournament on Alabama's Lake Guntersville signaled the emergence of one of professional fishing's biggest stars as Texan Rick Clunn scored the first of his unprecedented back-to-back Classic victories (he has gone on to win a record four Classics).
Classic VIII (1978) Bobby Murray became the second two-time Classic winner in 1978 on Mississippi's Ross Barnett Reservoir.
Classic XI (1979) Held on Alabama's Lake Montgomery, the 1981 Classic provided two firsts: the Montgomery Civic Center was the site of the sport's first indoor weigh-in, and 21-year-old Stanley Mitchell of Georgia became the youngest man to ever win fishing's biggest prize.
Classic XIV (1984) Rick Clunn was joined by then-Gov. Bill Clinton and Vice President George Bush on the Pine Bluff Civic Center stage to officially weigh the final installment of the largest catch in Classic history. Clunn ran away from the field with a record three-day catch of 75 pounds, nine ounces (more than 25 pounds ahead of his nearest pursuer). Those in the hushed arena will remember the emotional moments as Clunn recalled his childhood days spent fishing with his dad, who seemingly lay dying in a Texas hospital (he later recovered). Clunn's moving tribute to his father put the Classic's glory into its proper perspective.
Classic XIX (1989) The 1989 event on Virginia's James River is probably best remembered as the Classic that Jim Bitter literally let slip from his grasp rather than the second Classic won by Hank Parker. The Florida pro suffered the costly indignity of accidentally tossing a keeper-size bass overboard en route to the livewell. The fish, which twisted free, bounced off a tacklebox and fell into the water. It was his last fish of the day. Parker went on to win by a scant two ounces.
Classic XX (1990) In the third consecutive Classic held on the James River, Rick Clunn captured a record fourth world championship with the greatest last-minute charge in Classic history — catching 18 pounds, seven ounces to skyrocket him from 10th place and onto the victory stand.
Classic XXIV (1994) The 1994 Classic held on North Carolina's High Rock Lake brings forth conflicting emotions. It was the event in which 23-year-old Bryan Kerchal, a short order cook from Connecticut, became the first amateur representative of the BASS Federation program to ever win the sport's most prestigious event. It was also the most painful Classic memory. Just as Kerchal began fulfilling his enormous potential as one of the sport's greatest ambassadors, he was killed in a commuter plane crash near Raleigh, N.C. His untimely death came just five months after his amazing accomplishment in Greensboro.
Classic XXV (1995) Arkansas pro Mark Davis accomplished what may be the most impressive feat in BASS history. His victory in the 1995 event on High Rock Lake made him the first pro to win both the Classic and Angler of the Year titles in the same season.
Classic XXVI (1996) In one of the closest Classic shoot-outs in recent years, George Cochran became the fourth angler to win two or more Classics with a 1-pound victory on Alabama's Lay Lake.
Classic XXVII (1997) Dion Hibdon scores the closest victory in Classic history with a 1-ounce margin over Federation angler Dalton Bobo on Logan Martin in 1997. Bobo's margin of defeat was due to a single, four-ounce, dead fish penalty.
Classic XXXII (2002) Jay Yelas turns in one of the most dominant performances in Classic history with his wire-to-wire victory on Logan Martin. His total of 45-13 was more than 6 pounds ahead of his closest pursuer. In addition, Yelas became the first champion to take all three daily big-bass awards.
Classic XXXIV (2004) Bass fishing crowns its first international champion as Japanese pro Takahiro Omori scores a dramatic, final-hour victory on North Carolina's Lake Wylie last summer.