I’m not a dedicated fisherman. I’ll go if someone will bait my hook, take me where the fish are practically jumping into the boat, then take the fish off and throw it back. That’s my idea of fishing. Oh, and it better be comfortably warm but not too hot. That’s why the hoopla over the Bassmaster Classic Tournament on Grand Lake, Feb. 22-24, seemed strange to me. But the more I learned about this gold-plated fishing event, the more intrigued I became.
It seems this competition is the equivalent of the Masters for golfers or the Super Bowl for pro football — just without green jackets or halftime extravaganzas. But it is a big deal for fishermen who have qualified through a number of run-up events. No women in this year’s competition. Though women are not excluded, none has ever qualified for the Classic.
B.A.S.S. — the Bass Angler Sportsman Society — was founded in Alabama in 1967. The organization held the first Bassmaster Classic in 1971. That year 24 fishermen were piled on a plane and delivered to a previously undisclosed destination (which turned out to be Lake Mead). This was to ensure that none of the competitors would be able to scope out the fishing spots. The anonymous location tradition lasted until 1977.
There was a great deal of interest in the competition and fans wanted in on the fun, so now the location is announced in advance. And fans do come. Northeast Oklahoma expects between 70,000 and 100,000 people attending various portions of the weekend activities.
The stars of the weekend are the 53 anglers who qualified for this year’s tournament. Competitors come from 21 states ranging from Maine to California, Florida to Idaho — and Zimbabwe. Alabama boasts the most qualifiers with eight. Texas, Tennessee and Florida each have four.
Three Oklahoma anglers are among those vying for prize money. Tommy Biffle of Wagoner will compete in his 18th Classic. Twice, in ’90 and ’94, he came in second.
For Edwin Evers of Talala, this is his 12th Classic. Jason Christie of Park Hill is making his debut in the tournament. Biffle’s runner-up wins were the closest any Oklahoman has come to winning the tournament.
The first-place fisherman will walk away with half a million dollars. The bottom of the pack finishers last year still won $10,000 each. Even wannabes can be winners with Bassmaster’s Fantasy fishing. Details can be found at www.bassmastersfantasy.com.
But back to the real world. What do spectators do at a fishing tournament? Events take place in Grove and in Tulsa. Die-hard fans flock to the morning launch when the anglers leave for the day’s fishing — 7 a.m. at Wolf Creek Park in Grove — Friday through Sunday. There will also be demo boat rides at the launch area during the tournament.
The city of Grove is hustling to complete construction of new floating boat ramps and paving of parking lots. A new dock is being assembled and portable “facilities” are being added. The town will be festooned with banners and shops will extend their hours to accommodate visitors. Citizens are scouring the lakeshore, cleaning up litter, to ready the area for national television coverage.
The BOK Center in Tulsa is the site for the daily weigh-ins. Each competitor will enter the arena in his boat — on a trailer and pulled by a truck, all suitably decorated with sponsor stickers. Entrance is free with doors opening at 3 p.m. each day. An emcee and entertainment keep the crowd occupied between weigh-ins. On Feb. 23-24, pre-weigh-in entertainment will include the Timberworks Lumberjack Show sponsored by Stihl. Watch speed carving, axe throwing and other feats. Just remember, these are professionals. Don’t try this at home! On the 24th, competitors from the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University and the University of Arkansas match catches in the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series weigh-in.
A huge Outdoors Expo occupies 150,000 square feet of the Tulsa Convention Center. Visitors can visit with expert anglers, watch the leader board and check out vendors displaying fishing equipment, boats and other out-of-doors accoutrements. Admission is free — and you could win a fishing trip with Mike Iaconelli, legendary angler and past Bassmaster Classic winner. During the event, shuttles will run between hotels, event venues and Tulsa’s entertainment areas.
Although Grand Lake has hosted a number of large tournaments, this is the first time a Bassmaster Classic will be headquartered in Oklahoma. You might fudge a bit by mentioning the 1979 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Texoma — but it’s officially listed as Pottsboro, Texas. Even if you’re not a big fishing fan, get out and check out some of the events. They’re all free. And you might just get hooked on fishing. For more information, go to www.bassmaster.com and www.tulsasports.org/bassmaster.
ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond resident.