My first Bassmaster Classic memory is from 1985. The Classic returned to the Arkansas River in Pine Bluff that year, following Rick Clunn's complete domination there the previous year.
I was a first-year news editor for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and was chosen to accompany one of the pros as a press angler.
The writers and anglers met before the tournament began for the pairings meeting. I got a slip of paper with a number on it as I entered the room.
The process then began, matching 40 writers with 40 fishermen.
My first-day draw was a young up-and-coming angler from just upriver named George Cochran of North Little Rock, Ark.
Cochran shook my hand firmly when we met, a big smile crossing his face.
"I'm glad you're a big, strong, stout fellow," he said. "I may need some of that muscle where we're going tomorrow."
At 27 years old, I was 6'5" and 212 pounds of ripped muscle. (Now, I'm just a torn-up 50-year-old.)
That night at dinner, my friend Cliff Shelby, an advertising executive for Ranger Boats, asked me who I was fishing with the next day.
"George Cochran," I said. "I don't know anything about him."
"One of the nicest guys on the tournament trail," Shelby said. "He could win this thing, too. He certainly knows the river well, and he's a great fisherman. He'll win a Classic, sooner or later."
At dawn the next morning, I sat in a beautiful new Ranger bass boat, making small talk with Cochran, trying to feel him out. He was polite but understandably preoccupied.
We launched at Slackwater Harbor, the place where Clunn caught three stringers of huge fish the previous year. Cochran's plan was to fish the harbor for the first two hours, then go to another place he'd found during practice fishing.
Press anglers can fish if they want, but Cochran asked me to "just to watch" for a while. I could tell he was nervous and wanted to get off to a good start. I quickly agreed. There was no way I was going to mess him up by catching fish he needed.
I'd never fished with a pro before. Wow, was I in for a treat!
Cochran maneuvered the boat at the head of two barges, moored side by side. There wasn't more than 6 inches separating them. His cast was true — right down the split between them — and his spinnerbait brought in a 2-pounder.
You could see the tension in his shoulders begin to melt away.
Next, we came upon a piling, and Cochran deftly pitched the spinner between and under the standing logs that made the structure.
The water blew up as if a mortar shell had hit.
The rod bent, and Cochran turned the fish, its huge dark-green back appeared as thick as a man's thigh.
Then it was gone!
I don't remember if the line broke, the hook bent or if the huge bass just shook it off. I'm sure Cochran could tell you to this day what happened, like a pitcher recalling his pitch hit for a game winning home run years ago.
That monster bass was gone.
Cochran bent over, hands on his knees, like a gassed sprinter.
"That's the tournament, right there," he moaned.
He struggled halfheartedly in the harbor for another 45 minutes, then pulled up the trolling motor and said, "Let's head to my creek. I need a limit fast."
More than an hour and one lock and dam later, we were nudging into a narrow creek mouth lined with standing cypress.
"I hope the water doesn't go down while we're in here, or we're in trouble," he said. "I need a limit of fish, and then we'll head back to the harbor and I'll try to pick up a kicker while we're waiting to weigh in. Man, I wish I'd landed that fish earlier."
We picked our way up the creek. It got narrower as we went.
"Go ahead and fish behind me," Cochran said. "You might find the right combination to make them bite."
He was fishing a plastic worm.
I didn't want to fish. Realizing how much was at stake, I didn't want to mess him up. So I rummaged around in my tackle box, pretending I was looking for something.
"Come on. Get your bait in the water," Cochran said without looking back at me. "I need some help finding what they're hitting."
I was still nervous about messing him up, so I put on something so outrageous it wouldn't catch a thing.
I threaded a yellow plastic worm onto a chartreuse spinnerbait.
Two feeble casts later, covering structure he'd already fished, I landed a 2-pounder.
Cochran landed a fish at the same time.
He looked back as I opened the livewell for him.
"What did you catch him on?" he asked.
I sheepishly showed him my rig. He stared at it for a moment.
"I wouldn't be caught dead fishing that," he said and went back to fishing his worm.
We fished on moving further up the creek. The water was getting so shallow I'd soon have to knock the mud off my bait after each retrieve.
Cochran was locked in, completely concentrating. Then all of a sudden, looking at his watch, he said, "Gotta go."
Now the fun started.
The width of the creek was about a length and a half of the boat, but all the narrower because of the trees and deadfalls. Just to get the boat turned around required Cochran on the push pole and me over the side, thigh-deep in the mud, pushing. Now I knew why he was so happy to have me at the pairings meeting.
We pushed and rested, pushed and rested, until we got into a patch of relatively treeless open water.
I pulled myself back onboard, and Cochran fired up the motor. It screamed as it threw up a 12-foot roostertail of mud. We inched forward. I worked the push pole while he worked the throttle. Slowly we moved down the creek.
I learned later that Cochran is considered a master shallow water fisherman. (I'd been in deeper water in my bathtub.)
We moved a few hundred more feet and the high pitch of the boat motor alarm forced us to shut it down. It was overheating. Time was quickly becoming a problem. If we couldn't get back by weigh-in, Cochran faced a penalty.
Now, again, Cochran worked the push pole while I bailed out and pushed the boat from behind. Inch by inch we moved, all the while giving the motor a chance to cool down. Once it did, Cochran would fire it up and go until it overheated again. Finally, within sight of the creek mouth, it gave out altogether.
By this time, I was armpit deep in water. I kept pushing, and we made it to the creek mouth. Unknowingly, I stepped off the ledge and slid underwater into the swift river current. The alert Cochran prodded me with the push pole and pulled me back onboard.
I was exhausted.
I lay on the deck gasping for breath. The motor still didn't work, but Cochran flagged down another angler, and he towed us back to the weigh-in.
Cochran caught four bass out of that little creek. There was no time to catch a kicker before weigh-in.
Press anglers who caught a fish had to show up at the weigh-in. I was so tired I don't remember much about it, other than Ray Scott asking me onstage what it was like out there. My shirt and pants were wet and muddy.
"Worst day of my life," I mumbled. "Worst day of my life."
Cochran went on to catch limits on Day Two and Three and finish third to Jack Chancellor. He later told the press he lost the tournament on Day One when he failed to land that harbor monster and failed to get a limit out of that damn creek (my word choice, not his). Chancellor beat him by 10-10.
Being young, I recovered and wound up with a friend for life in George Cochran, one of the humblest men I've ever met. Like Cliff Shelby predicted, Cochran won his Classic in 1987 and cemented his standing as one of the best of the best by winning it again in 1996.
We've fished a few more times over the years but never again in a creek.
No, never again will I be caught up a creek with George Cochran.