NEW ORLEANS -- For professional fishermen, the Bassmaster Classic is widely regarded as the be-all end-all in competitive fishing. Why? For starters it's got a $500,000 purse, winning it will give your career a degree of longevity and qualifying for it is one of the most daunting tasks in bass fishing. The only thing more difficult than qualifying for the Classic is winning it. Win or lose, first time or 29th, the Classic makes an impression on all who compete.
Gary Klein is fishing his 29th Classic this year. That's more than any other competitor in the field. Despite his long, successful career and Classic berths, a Classic win has eluded him. Through all of this, he's one of the most humble anglers in the field.
In all of his Classics, Klein has many memories. Here are a few of his favorites:
"These are the things that I have remembered about the Classic.
"Obviously, I was in awe when I had my first opportunity to compete against the best anglers there were in the greatest venue that had ever been assembled for our sport: the Bassmaster Classic.
"I fished my first Classic in 1979 on Lake Texoma, and I led the very first day. I ended up finishing fourth in the event. Hank Parker won it with one of my flipping sticks. He only had one of them and he broke it, but I had seven and loaned him one of mine. That right there was a fun Classic.
"Another one that I remember was on the third day of competition at Lake Chickamauga in 1986. All that I needed was one more key bite and I had the Classic won. Well, I got the bite, set the hook, and the gear broke on my reel. The line backlashed and fluffed, I couldn't pull the handle.
"The fish was flopping on top of the mat - probably a 3 3/4-pounder - and I watched the hook pop out of its mouth. I finished fourth in that one by a pound and eight ounces.
"The other memorable one was at Louisville, Ky., on the Ohio River. George Cochran won. I think it was the lowest weight at that time. I think it was only 15 pounds or so. On the first day of the event, I'm running up the river and I've got nine or ten pounds in the livewell, and the lock was closed. This is even after I spoke with the lockmaster in the morning.
"He had assured me that if I got back in time the lock would be open, but it wasn't. That's the reason why B.A.S.S. created a lock schedule. I let it be known that happened, and the whole world heard about it.
"Moments like that are very, very special. Here I am in my 29th Classic, and that's also very special. These guys are good and the competition has been elevated. It gets harder and harder to qualify for the Classic, so to have been here this much is quite special."
Mark Davis is another long-tenured pro. However, he happens to have won a Classic. Within Davis' 1995 win on North Carolina's High Rock Lake lies his fondest Classic memory.
"When I won in 1995, I was throwing a big crankbait. I had a limit of fish on Day Two, and it was 10 or 11 o'clock. I hooked up and immediately thought, 'dang, this is a pretty good bass.' When it surfaced out there, I saw that I actually had two fish, one on each hook.
"One was about two pounds, and one was about 4 1/2 pounds. I didn't need the small one, but I need the 4 1/2. I was thinking about how I was going to land these without a dip net, because a lot of times when this happens you lose them both of them.
"Well, I was throwing 20-pound-test line, so I figures I'd ski 'em to the boat. So, I start just winching these fish with that line, and when I got 'em to the boat I used the momentum and swung 'em boat up.
"They both came out of the water and came off of the hooks simultaneously in the air. They both hit the gunnel of the boat, but the 2-pounder bounced and went in the lake, and the 4-pounder bounced and fell to the bottom of the boat.
"With that 4-pounder, I culled a 2-pounder and won the Classic. That was the second day, and there was no way I knew I was going to win, but if I hadn't have gotten that four-pound bass, I wouldn't have won it. Usually the little one stays and the big one comes off, but that time it was the other way around."
Tommy Biffle will have fished in 17 Classics at the conclusion of this event, but, like Klein, is still searching for a win. He's a fierce competitor and can't seem to recall too many fond memories.
"I guess the things I remember most are when I got beat," he said. "Those are my worst memories. But, when you're out there and you think you've got it won and come in and weigh your fish, and you're a few ounces short, that's the worst thing.
"The Classic offers the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. If you don't win, you're feeling pretty bad," he said.
Seven-time qualifier Terry Scroggins has a memory similar to Biffle's.
"This was in 2007 on Lake Toho in Florida. Going into the event, I was a heavy favorite. I went out the first day and didn't do so well. I think I had 11 or 12 pounds. But, the second day I found 'em and had a 30-pound stringer.
"On Day 3, though, we had a 50-mile-per-hour wind. That wind really shot down my high hopes and my chances at winning. There's nothing you can do in that situation, though.
"There is such a big difference between first and second in the Classic. For first, it can make your career. For second, it sets you back a pretty good pace."