Classic contender

Gary Klein has fished 26 Classics without a win. There have been so many missed chances and close calls. Kyle Carter

BASS Fantasy Fishing | 2009 Classic Archive | Photo galleries

SHREVEPORT, La. — Gary Klein sat on the front deck of his boat, his right leg crossed over his left, and leaned back on his hands.

His weathered, 51-year-old face showed the wear of 35 years fishing in the sun, his fingers scarred from years of lipping bass and tying line.

Behind the bifocals squeezed tight against the top of his nose, were perhaps the calmest eyes on the dock.

It was the final practice day for the 39th Bassmaster Classic. Klein has fished 26 of them. That's 26 practices, 26 angler meetings, 26 registrations, 26 media days — and roughly no titles, a record for Classic futility.

Yet he keeps qualifying, year after year. He has won eight BASS tournaments, pocketing nearly $1.7 million in purse money along the way. He's a pro's pro.

After all that, he may be remembered as the greatest angler without a Classic, a victim of his own success. Nobody busts out Guy Eaker, who started his career around the same time as Klein, because he hasn't won a Classic in his 10 trips.

None of that mattered to Klein on Wednesday. It may be his 27th try, but it might as well be his first. There's no head start for the guy who's been there the most without winning.

It's about this time every year — starting a week or so before the Classic — that he starts getting phone calls from media wanting to know how and why.

"It's flattering in a way, I guess, because people care," Klein said.

He cranked his 250hp motor, looked at his passenger and squinted as if in deep thought, something obviously profound on the tip of his tongue.

What was going through his head? Were the fish calling to him? Is this his year and he knows it?

"What was your name? Josh?" he asked, slightly ashamed either because he forgot the name or because he didn't care that he forgot the name.

It wasn't off-putting. If anything Klein's too kind and too caring. It didn't become bothersome until he started telling stories — 25-year-old stories — in incredible detail, and it was apparent that memory was not the issue.

Klein doesn't waste grey matter on frivolous information. There's too much history on the water to remember. Too many bass caught and missed, too many sacred spots he'll need in future tournaments. With one exception, the passenger was always remembered as "media guy."

This practice day — his 27th final Classic practice — was as much about what has happened as what will happen.

Spot No. 1 — 7:30 a.m.

There is no easy way through the hundreds of oxbows that branch off the Red River. If the stumps aren't sticking a foot-and-a-half out of the water, they're hiding a foot-and-a-half beneath.

On this early oxbow milk run, there wasn't a 10-second stretch when Klein wasn't getting pushed a certain direction, dodging a horizontal log or wiggling his way off a stump. Eventually, he dropped the trolling motor in front of a half-mile stretch of matted grass.

Matted grass…

"It looked a lot like what I'm fishing right now," Klein said, pointing to a stump and a stretch of tightly packed grass. "I'll never forget it."

It was Day Three of the 1986 Classic on the Tennessee River. Details like these, he remembers vividly.

This was a real tough Classic. I had been catching them on the lower end with a crankbait, but I only had one keeper when I got to this spot around 12:30.

There was a short stretch of grass, and I told my media guy, 'Between here and there, I'm going to win the Classic.'

I started flipping my way through there, and the first bite I got was a 3-1/2 pounder, so I put him in the livewell.

About 10 yards past that, I flipped a 5-pounder — that was big fish of the Classic. And when I put that fish in the box, I looked at my media guy and said, 'One more, and I'm going to win the Classic.'

I had about from here to that log left to fish [20 yards]. And I'm just doing what I'm doing here, going through real easy.

You've got to understand that equipment is always evolving. Back then I had a Zebco — I've always fished Zebco Quantum — and the reels were a plastic type reel.

I dropped a worm and jiggled, and the worm went down and — 'dink!' I set the line and when I did it broke a clutch in my reel, and my reel fluffed on me.

I couldn't turn the handle so I just reached down, grabbed the line and I pulled. It was a 4-pounder, and I pulled him all the way up onto the grass, and he went like that [waves his hand] and the worm popped out of his mouth.

It was so thick, I had to watch him flop on top of the grass for a while before he went back down. He had his whole body on top. You could take a picture of him.

That fish, I still dream about. That was the one that would have done it.

After two hours and two bites flipping grass in the first spot, Klein picked up the trolling motor and bounced his way back onto the main river. In that Tennessee River Classic, Klein finished in fourth place, 1 pound and 8 ounces behind champion Charlie Reed.

Spot No. 2 — 9:47 a.m.

It wasn't a bad start to the day, but Klein was hoping for more from his first spot. Still, good starts don't always lead to good finishes.

"My first Classic was in 1979, and I led it the first day," he said "I ended up fourth."

Spot No. 3 — 10:50 a.m.

Klein wasn't doing a whole lot of running up and down the river. Most travel time was spent banging stumps in the oxbows.

Before he even arrived in Shreveport, he decided not to lock to fish downriver on the Red.

He has a bad history with locks and the Classic.

It was Day One in the 1987 Classic on the Ohio River …

BASS didn't have any lock schedules, and there was this huge set of barges about 12 miles south of town. I was running 90 miles south of that, so I had to go through the lock.

I had this one ditch, and I was fishing about 4 miles off the river in this slough. I was catching them flipping.

Sammy Lee was my press partner that day. Basil Bacon, Guy Eaker, we were all going through the locks, and we talked to the lock master and asked what time do we need to be here to get back through. He said, 'If you guys are here at 12:30, I'll get you through.'

I felt good about that. These were 45-minute locks. The first day of the Classic, I ran down there and it was pretty good. I get a couple 3's and a 3-1/2, and I look at Sammy and say, 'I can win the Classic.'

This is about at 10:30. I had to stop and get gas on the way back out, so I had to decide, do I leave now with three nice fish in the livewell, or do I stay and try to really solidify this thing in one day. I stayed and fished because the lock master said we could get through.

I get to the lock at about 12:15 and the lock's closing. I see water about halfway up the lock. I knew I was screwed. All nine of us were late. I was 9 minutes late and lost all the fish in my livewell to late penalties.

I was pretty livid.

I never went up and talked to the lock master. Basil was idling back out and said, 'Hey guys, we're screwed.'

I should have went up there myself and said, 'Hey, guys, reverse this lock and I'll give you and everybody in that lock booth $100 bills.'

But I didn't. I was mad, so I just sat out there.

To make a long story short, George Cochran won the whole tournament with a little over 15 pounds. I finished in 19h with only two days of fishing, and I didn't lock again because I was too mad.

So far, the day of practice was treating him about as well as the '87 Classic. By the end of his third stop — almost 3 ½ hours into the morning — Klein had three bites and shook them all off. It was the only three bites he'd get all day.

Spot No. 4 — 11:15 a.m.

The bite was slow, but Klein did pick up a duck hunting decoy for his nephews in California. It was in a pile of trash near the bank that Klein hoped bass were using for cover.

He was casting for an 8-pounder, but the decoy was a nice consolation prize.

This is also the stop where media guy asked a semi-rhetorical question, and got too honest of an answer.

Media guy: "Is the Classic issue a monkey that you feel on your back, or is it just people like me who keep asking you about it?"

Klein: "Exactly. I can finish my career without a Classic and it will be successful. But I do believe with all my heart that there is a Classic in my future."

Stop No. 5 — Noon

It was the last day of practice, so Klein already had his go-to spots scoped out. He spent Wednesday looking for new ones that wouldn't be affected by the droves of spectator boats that will no doubt follow the anglers all weekend.

He had seen the spectators spoil a Classic pattern before. It was the 1992 Classic on Logan Martin Lake …

We didn't know what boat pressure was before that tournament. We had never had to deal with it.

I was in third or fourth after the first day with 17 or 18 pounds, working a short stretch of bank within sight of the launch ramp.

I take off the second day, get my stuff ready, start fishing and all the sudden tons of waves started hitting the bank. I look back and see a few boats, but I don't think anything of it. I've got visions of winning this thing, so I just run around the corner of the bank and start fishing again, and they follow me.

This time, I turn around and boats are everywhere. My media guy counted 47 boats. We had never seen anything like that.

Spot No. 6 — 2:08 p.m.

Things were getting a little dicey at this point. Klein hadn't had a bite in four hours, but he was sticking to the plan.

"I'd rather have no bites than one bite," he said. "At least then I can eliminate it."

Spot No. 7 — 2:55 p.m.

Klein was eliminating another spot when Mike Iaconelli flew by on his way back upriver to check in.

Iaconelli … he reminds Klein of the one time he let himself feel a Classic victory. He made an emotional mistake. He tasted it at the 2003 Classic in the Louisiana Delta, but it wasn't real …

The one Iaconelli beat me in '03 — I fished 100 percent. Every bite I saw, I got. He beat me fair and square on that.

That was a good Classic, and it just wasn't meant for me to win. But the final day weigh-in was tough.

I didn't know what Iaconelli had. All I knew was I had enough to where I thought this was it. The guys in the tunnel were saying it was close.

When I weighed in, I was in the lead and it was only Iaconelli that could beat me. So for that brief window of time, I got to experience what it might be like.

Even when he was walking up to weigh his fish, I didn't think he had enough to beat me.

I'm real good about not allowing myself to believe until it's over with, but I was kind of drifting off in that realm of, 'I've got this thing won.' And it didn't happen.

Not that it was a letdown, but I had the emotions of victory, and that right there really leaves you wanting to finish it off. I want that back.

Back at the dock — 3:30 p.m.

Check-in mirrored what it will be on the first day of the tournament Friday, with the first flight due back at 3:30 p.m.

Klein didn't consider the day a complete loss, but he hadn't done what he set out to do, which was find some water to fall back on.

"I didn't touch any of my best water today," he said. "I just don't know if I've got something that will hold up for three days."

Wednesday was bad, but there's always Friday. As for his chance at winning this year, he got straight to the point.

"If I was to win it, it wouldn't surprise anybody," Klein said as he put his equipment away. "People expect me win, it's just a matter of when."

If not this year, there's always next.

BASS Fantasy Fishing | 2009 Classic Archive | Photo galleries