Big Easy beckons world's best bass anglers

Rick Clunn 

The Big Easy is accustomed to hosting championship events like the Super Bowl. In fact, New Orleans has hosted the NFL's biggest party eight times since 1970, when the Kansas City Chiefs ascended to pro football's pinnacle.

So there should be little surprise that the land of the French Quarter will once again host a major sporting championship event.

But the only pigskin you'll find Aug. 2-4 might be the pork rind in the tackle boxes of the 45 qualifiers for this year's B.A.S.S. Masters Classic.

For the second time in three years, the Super Bowl of bass fishing will invade the bayou country as the world's best bass fishermen vie for the coveted Classic crown, the $100,000 top prize, and as much as $1 million in endorsements.

"We are delighted to be returning to New Orleans," B.A.S.S. Inc. CEO Helen Sevier stated in a release. "New Orleans was the site of one of the best-attended Classics in the history of the event. With the history, culture, and cuisine the city has to offer, our anglers and fans have a lot to look forward to."

At the 1999 Classic that Sevier referred to, South Carolina angler Davy Hite beat the stifling heat and humidity for the win. The 1997 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year ascended to pro angling's pinnacle with a 55 pound, 10 ounce victory, some 9 pounds, 15 ounces better than runner-up Denny Brauer.

Unfortunately, Hite was unable to qualify for a return trip to the bayou in 2001. But you can be sure that few in this year's strong field are lamenting his temporary demise.

A look at this year's Classic field finds plenty of angling heavyweights looking to claim the title. And don't overlook the upstart anglers who are hoping that New Orleans becomes their stepping stone to fishing's top rung.

Among the favorites to win is Kalamazoo, Mich., angler Kevin Van Dam. The three time B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year barely missed out last month on another AOY title eventually won by Mark Davis.

VanDam believes that his experiences in Louisiana since the 1999 Classic and a recent runner-up finish at the FLW Tour stop in Shreveport help his quest for his first Classic title.

"I'm really looking forward to going back to New Orleans. Davy blew it out last time, but I've made the top 10 in later tournaments there," VanDam said. "I'm learning a lot out there about how to fish these hot, shallow water fisheries and how to get them in the boat."

If VanDam is a favorite to notch his first win, don't count out the angler who nipped him for 2001 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year honors. Mark Davis missed out on the 2000 Classic, but he has come storming back this year and is chomping at the bit to reclaim the trophy he won in 1995.

"It's very important to get back in the Classic," said the Mount Ida, Ark., angler. "Last year, if you were a college football coach, you would call it a major rebuilding year for me."

Davis isn't kidding about the rebuilding part.

"I actually had surgery for tendonitis in my elbow and I had surgery on my right shoulder to repair a torn labrum," Davis said.

"With those surgeries and the recovery, it took me out of the Classic due to injuries I received fishing. I still should have qualified for the Classic, but I physically couldn't do what I needed to do to qualify."

But that's last year and a healthy Davis has received his invitation to this summer's big bash on the bayou.

So has four-time Classic champ Rick Clunn. Much to the chagrin of his angling competitors, the Ava, Mo., pro and 2001 MegaBucks champ looks like he's already got his game face on.

Clunn isn't looking to catch a solid limit for the final weigh-in at the Louisiana Superdome. Instead, he's willing to trade quantity for quality, believing that could be the ticket to his fifth Classic trophy.

"Tiger Woods doesn't take the conservative shot," Clunn said. "He goes for the win. It's the same here. You've got to go for the win and you've got to have the courage to go for the win."

There's little doubt that this year's Classic on the Louisiana bayou promises to be red-hot, in more ways than one.

Think you know who will win the BASS Masters Classic? Sign up today to play the Fantasy Bass Challenge for your chance to win prizes.