Two major Texas bass tournaments offer rare access for spectators
By Randy Brudnicki
"Well, it’s bass and boats
It’s water and cold
It’s the shout of the adoring crowd
It’s the stretch of the lines
The hundred grand prize
He’ll win in the final round
It’s jigs and frogs, fish under logs
Thumb the reel and then let it go
It’s the braid and the fluoro
The joy and the sorrow
And he’s called a bass pro."
Apologies to Garth Brooks, but every time I hear Rodeo, I can’t help but replace his lyrics about cowboys with my own words about bass tournament anglers. The sentiment is the same; the outcome is the same. Some make it. Most don’t, but many keep trying.
The bass pro will give up his family and a normal life just to pursue the dream of making it as a pro fisherman. As the lyrics go: “He’ll sell off everything he owns just to pay to play her game.”
It’s not an easy lifestyle, nor is it inexpensive. The travel is brutal, and dealing with the ever-changing elements wears you out. It can take five-digit amounts (if not nearly $100,000) per year to “pay to play” the bass game at the highest level.
Despite all this, there’s no shortage of people trying to make it in the world of bass.
Fans admire the toughness the top anglers show. Those who make it to the highest levels know that it takes drive and determination to get there, as well as skill.
Unlike rodeos, bass tournaments are not particularly spectator-friendly, but there are exceptions. Some pro events are made for fans — with more entertainment to offer than just watching the anglers take off in the morning or observing a live weigh-in.
Edwin Evers boat-flips a bass at the 2016 GEICO Bassmaster Classic.
The Bassmaster Classic
Texans are blessed this year with two of the most fan-friendly events. Watch the best anglers up close at the GEICO Bassmaster Classic near Houston (fishing on Lake Conroe) and at the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest (benefiting the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department) on Lake Sam Rayburn. B.A.S.S. (Bass Anglers Sportsman Society) manages both of these events.
Up to 200,000 fans are predicted to attend this year’s Classic on March 24-26, in part because Texas has so many B.A.S.S. members. Fans, however, come from all over the world.
“We are thrilled to be able to bring the GEICO Bassmaster Classic to Houston for the first time in the event’s 47-year history,” says Bruce Akin, B.A.S.S. CEO. “Texas is the largest state in terms of B.A.S.S. membership, and the Houston area is home to some of the most passionate anglers and conservationists among our more than 500,000 members.”
Not only can you watch the anglers at the Classic, but there’s also a world of tackle to explore. At last year’s event in Oklahoma, 143 exhibitors showed their wares. This year, more than 200 exhibitors are expected to fill 315,000 square feet of exhibit space in the George R. Brown Convention Center, making it the largest outdoor expo in Classic history.
Many companies introduce new products at the Classic; sometimes, you’ll be the first to buy them. It’s like heaven for tackle enthusiasts.
Lake Conroe area businesses are preparing for the influx of visitors, who go to the lake to watch the takeoff each morning and follow the anglers on the water. Plus, there’s a large support staff for the tourney. Local marinas are expecting a marked increase in boat launches on the days of competition.
The Bassmaster Classic will provide a big economic boost for Houston and Lake Conroe. Previous host cities have reported an average of $24 million in economic impact, including more than 11,000 hotel room nights. B.A.S.S. alone books nearly 4,000 hotel room nights for anglers, sponsors, staff, media and invited guests.
“National and international reporters will be here to cover the action on the lake, too. Many of them will be staying in Conroe,” says Harold Hutcheson, Conroe Convention and Visitors Bureau manager.
One interesting facet of bass tournaments is watching the pros dissect our Texas bass lakes. No matter what the conditions, someone figures it out and catches the big fish.
Some on-the-water spectators will take advantage of the opportunity to move in after the pro angler leaves a spot to mark the GPS coordinates. It may be an easy way to get new waypoints, but some anglers question whether it’s ethical. At the very least, be courteous and give the pros plenty of room to fish. Don’t drive over their spots while they are fishing and don’t move in to fish it after they leave. Sometimes the pros leave for a short time and return to fish the area again.
At 22,000 acres, Lake Conroe is the perfect size for an event of this magnitude — it’s large enough to accommodate 50-plus competitors with plenty of room to spare for spectator boats.
Tournament exhibit halls give fans a chance to see the latest fishing gear.
The Texas Connection
Five Texans are competing in this year’s Classic. The father-son duo of Alton Jones (former Classic champion) and Alton Jones Jr. (who qualified through the Bassmaster Open circuit) will compete, as well as Todd Faircloth of Jasper, former Classic winner Takahiro Omori of Emory and Keith Combs from Huntington.
If you play Fantasy Fishing, put Combs high on your list. He’s won two Toyota Texas Bass Classics on Conroe, in 2011 and 2013. On top of that, he is fishing well right now, finishing second in the Elite series Angler of the Year standings last season.
Fishing in the Classic is not only for full-time pros. Amateurs can make their way into the Classic by competing in the College Series, Team Series and local B.A.S.S.-affiliated clubs to earn places in state and regional championships, and finishing at the top in the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship. The 2016 B.A.S.S. Nation Championship was also held on Lake Conroe in November, so the three qualifiers from that event will have considerable experience on Lake Conroe and could pull off a win.
Life B.A.S.S. and B.A.S.S. Nation members qualify for special perks at the Bassmaster Classic. They get early entrance into the Classic’s Outdoors Expo, personalized credentials, a gift bag, access to a special lounge and priority entry to the weigh-ins every day.
Largemouth bass are the stars of the show at the Toyota Texas Bass Classic, which this year has become the Toyota Bassmater Texas Fest.
The Bassmaster Texas Fest
The other popular tournament coming to Texas is the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest, May 17-21, at Cassels-Boykin Park in Zavalla. This event is a merger of the former Toyota Texas Fest and Toyota Texas Bass Classic with the B.A.S.S. BASSfest.
“Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest will combine the best features of the Toyota Texas Bass Classic and our own BASSfest tournament, both of which have become immensely popular among anglers and fishing fans,” Akin says. “Texas Fest will host a special Fan Appreciation Day offering anglers and their families opportunities to meet, greet and learn from the world’s best professional anglers.”
This smaller and more intimate setting will let attendees meet and learn from the anglers. Here, too, fans can attend an expo with fishing-related exhibitors.
The Texas Fest event follows the format made popular by the Toyota Texas Bass Classic. Even though Sam Rayburn is not a slot lake (with size restrictions on fish kept), the anglers’ marshals will weigh and record the bass in the boat. Then the fish will be immediately released. Each pro angler will be permitted to bring one bass longer than 21 inches to the weigh-in.
“TPWD’s role in the event will not change,” explains Dave Terre of TPWD’s inland fisheries. “The Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest will still be a benefit event for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. We will still showcase a ‘fish-friendly’ catch/weigh/immediate-release format, but now with more than 100 anglers — two times more than TTBCs of the past.”
Families who want to engage and learn about the outdoors and fishing can explore the Outdoor Adventures Area. Donations from the tournament sponsors will continue to be invested in TPWD youth fishing outreach programs, like Neighborhood Fishin’.
Pro bass anglers are a friendly bunch. It’s easy to talk to them; you might even get a selfie with your favorite angler.
“Bass fishing fans who attend the GEICO Bassmaster Classic or a Bassmaster Elite Series tournament are invariably impressed with how accessible the world’s top professional anglers are,” Akin says.
Two other national bass events are also on tap this year in Texas. The FLW pro anglers will be on Lake Travis in February, and the Bassmaster Elites return to Toledo Bend in April.
Make your plans now to attend these world-class fishing events. It’s a rare treat to have them so close to home. Don’t forget to take an extra bag to hold all that new gear!
2017 Bassmaster Classic March 24-26
This will be the first Classic to be held wholly within Texas. (The 1979 Classic took place on Lake Texoma on the Texas-Oklahoma border.)
The field is cut from 52 anglers to the top 25 on Sunday, the final day.
The Classic is a no-entry-fee tournament open only to top-ranked anglers who qualified through one of several B.A.S.S. tournament circuits.
First-place prize is $300,000. The total prize payout is more than
Takeoffs occur from Lake Conroe Park.
Weigh-ins take place each afternoon in Minute Maid Park, home of the Astros, in downtown Houston (501 Crawford St.).
The Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo will be held all three days in the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston (1001 Avenida De Las Americas).