Bassmaster Classic Memories

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story and photos by Dan O’Sullivan – Bryan Kerchal photo courtesy B.A.S.S.

ClassicMemoriesBryanKerchalBecause we are on the eve of the 2013 Bassmaster Classic, the history of the biggest event in the sport has been swirling through my mind. I’m not going to try and tell you that I have an encyclopedic index of Bassmaster Classic in my mind like Ken Duke, Bassmaster Senior Editor, does. I research those facts when I need them, and contact Ken when I can’t find them.

The Classic to me has always been about telling the story to the readers, and as we will do next week in Tulsa, try to allow the anglers themselves to tell the story of the event through our Bassmaster Classic Raw coverage; as we have since the site launched. I’m a behind the scenes kind of guy, and this upcoming week is about the anglers.

With that perspective in mind, I tend to look back after a Classic has completed and allow myself to remember the experiential moments of the events. I am after all, a fan of this sport. I love the sport of tournament fishing, and while I turn off the fan in order to do my job professionally, I truly do allow myself to enjoy the moments as a fan at times while I’m covering an event.

I try not to allow it to interfere with my job, but I do experience things through that filter when I’m not directly in front of the anglers. When I’m looking through my lens at a launch ramp, or in the darkened arenas that host Classics is when I can experience those moments. backstage, in the media room and the press conferences is when the respect of those doing their jobs is paramount.

Over the years, happenings at Classic have indelibly lodged themselves in my mind. First, of course, as a fan, and secondly, as an industry person with the fan hidden slightly under the surface.

I have fished my whole life, and started fishing exclusively for bass when I was 12. I went on my first bass boat then with a friend of my dad’s who competed in tournaments throughout the western United States. I read the magazines and ordered from the catalogs, but because most of my life was entrenched in baseball; I didn’t start actively following tournaments until the late 80’s or early 90’s. ClassicMemoriesKVDRunningfromCrowd

That said, my first committed memory of a Bassmaster Classic starts with Robert Hamilton Jr. winning the 1992 Bassmaster Classic, then David Fritts and the “Fritts Blitz” in 1993. But, Classics became emotional to me the following year. These next three are from when I was just a fan.

Bryan Kerchal
I was 24 years old when Bryan Kerchal became the first Federation (now B.A.S.S. Nation) angler to win the Classic. At the time, I was a Federation member who dreamed of competing on the big stage of the Bassmaster Tournament Trail, and Kerchal showed many people that it was possible.
Of course, his tragic passing in December of that year further etched the memory in my mind, but the thought that there was hope out there for a dreamer was inspiring.

1995 AOY and Classic
Mark Davis became the first to win the Angler of the Year and the Bassmaster Classic in the same year. The thought that it hadn’t happened before that was remarkable, and to have Davis unite the titles in such a spectacular way was a fun event to watch.

1998 – The Crowning of Brauer
1998 was cool because it marked the year that Denny Brauer no longer had to be called “the best angler to have never won a Classic” anymore. Watching Brauer pick apart that shallow cover almost at will was unbelievable, and his emotion afterward was touching.

There were other events that were certainly enjoyable from then until 2008, when I covered my first Classic forBASS ZONE.com. However, being at the events, and having worked with many of the anglers at tour events and for articles made it a whole new experience. Each event since had something that was burned into my memory. here they are.

ClassicMemoriesReeseEmotions2008 – KVD’s Armada
My boat driver and I spent most of the first day on Lake Hartwell upriver. We saw and photographed many of the field that day, but at the weigh-in, I asked some of the leaders where I could find them the next day. Kevin VanDam told me to look for him on the main body, by the dam.

We drove much of the lower basin of Lake Hartwell, and began heading up lake in search of him when I saw a fleet of boats on the horizon. I pointed to them, and my boat driver shut down so that we could discuss. he told me that he thought it was the striper fishermen who had come out in force on the Saturday, but I asked him to head that way to look. As we got closer, I realized that VanDam was pushing his way through the fleet away from the bank to move to a new spot.

I told my driver to spin quickly so that we could get on his tail and ahead of the other boats. He did, and we got to his next spot about a mile away. I removed my camera from the storage box and began shooting, I asked my driver to count the boats behind us that were following VanDam; his answer was 58. It was a huge fleet, and I couldn’t believe he could concentrate amongst all of that.

2009 Reese’s Emotions
Being from northern California, I’ve known Skeet Reese for some time. I remember being an am in Pro-Am tournaments in the early 90’s, and over the years we’ve done significant amounts of work, and I’m fortunate, because of the people they are, to call his family friends.

At the end of 2008, Reese launched his website, www.skeetreeseinc.com, and I was able to write features ClassicMemoriesNiggemeyerSickfor the site. when I arrived for media day at the Classic, he said he wasn’t sure how to quantify his practice. He wasn’t sure if his event would be good, or not. Of course, history would show that it would go great, as he would win the event.

But, the win, and the fact that it made him only the 12th angler to win the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year and the Bassmaster Classic trophy in their careers, was not what made a memory for me. It was seeing Skeet, the man, let his guard down in front of all of those fans on stage.

Being able to stand in front of those people with his newly earned trophy and let his eyes water, then head backstage and experience it all again with his wife Kim and daughters was a moment I won’t ever forget. It was likely the closest I’ll ever be to experience a championship of that magnitude with someone I had worked with, and I was happy for all of them.

ClassicMemoriesSwindleandOldham2010 – Sick as a Dog
James Niggemeyer is another angler that I’ve done a lot with over the years, and we’ve become friends as well. His 2010 Classic was memorable for a couple of reasons. First, he got walking pneumonia and was only able to spend a half a day practicing. With medicines and rest, he was able to recover enough to participate in the official practice day, and with some advice from fellow competitor Alton Jones, Niggemeyer managed to post quality sacks to be in the top 12 after two days, eventually finishing 18th.

It was a gutsy performance and it had to make him feel proud considering his circumstances; it sure left an impression on me.

2011 – Two Moments
Two things stand out from the 2011 Classic in New Orleans to me. They are Gerald Swindle hosting cancer patient Kevin Oldham on stage and Brandon Palaniuk’s tribute to Kerchal.

Swindle brought pancreatic cancer patient Oldham on stage with him during the second day weigh-in, and there was probably not a dry eye in the house. I couldn’t see through my lens because of the tears, and looking through the pictures later, it had the same effect on Swindle. It was a brave thing for him to do because it brought back all of the memories of him losing his brother to the same disease a couple years prior, and for him to do it took courage and a heart like few share.

The happening was arranged by Terry Brown at Wired2Fish and Don Barone of B.A.S.S. and Wired2Fish, ClassicMemoriesPalaniukKerchalTributeand while Oldham passed away only a short time later, he left a mark on all of us.

Palaniuk made his presence known on the water with a top five finish in his first Classic, but he also showed a perspective on the sport. As the reigning Federation Nation National Champion, Palaniuk used the stage on the final day to pay tribute to Kerchal.

He removed one of Kerchal’s fish whistles from his pocket and blew it on stage. Again, I couldn’t see through my lens for the tears, and it made me a fan of Palaniuk’s immediately. he has gone on to show that his respect for the sport is genuine, and it is great to watch.

2012 – Lane Brothers
Watching brothers Chris and Bobby Lane celebrate Chris’ victory at the Red River was so much fun. It is especially enjoyable when you consider that both anglers were in position to win heading into the final day. When Bobby struggled on the final day, he instantly became a fan of his brother’s, and when Chris weighed in and won, Bobby burst from backstage and the brothers celebrated together.

ClassicMemoriesLaneBrothersIt was an awesome moment that a family shared with the world, yet they seemed as though they were in their own. I was really happy to be there for that.

So, the 2013 Classic is almost upon us, I wonder what memories will be made there?