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Bassmaster Classic Back to Bama

By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
 
It was no surprise when the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) selected Lake Guntersville, already considered one of the top bass fishing lakes in the nation, as the site of the 2014 Bassmaster Classic. The question is what took so long for the event to make it back to this fertile Tennessee River reservoir.

The first Classic held at Guntersville was 36 years ago in 1976. There was no practice on Guntersville for the Classic contenders because B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott loaded the competitors on an airplane and didn’t reveal the tournament lake until the plane was in the air.

Much has changed since Rick Clunn of Texas claimed the first of his four Classic titles that year at Guntersville. Bass tournament fishing has gone from relative obscurity to the most celebrated outdoor sport in the world. A victory in the Classic is not only worth a top prize of $500,000, it usually means the winning angler is set in terms of sponsors and financial stability for the remainder of his career.

While the fishing will be at Guntersville, the daily weigh-ins and Outdoors Expo will return to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC) in downtown Birmingham, Ala., a familiar venue for the anglers and bass fishing fans alike. The 2014 event will mark the eighth time Birmingham has been the host city for the Classic. The outdoors show will be on two floors spread across 220,000 square feet. The BJCC arena, where the weigh-ins will be staged, can seat more than 17,000 people.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley joined B.A.S.S. co-owner Don Logan at a news conference last week in Birmingham to celebrate the announcement. Logan and fellow owners Jerry McKinnis and Jim Copeland purchased B.A.S.S. from ESPN in 2010 and moved the headquarters from Orlando to Birmingham in 2011.

“The Bassmaster Classic is a big catch for our state, and we are proud to welcome the Classic back to Alabama," Gov. Bentley said. “Some of the best fishing in the world can be found right here in Alabama. We have a wealth of natural resources, making Alabama a top destination for anglers and outdoor enthusiasts. The Bassmaster Classic will help us share our natural beauty and southern hospitality with a worldwide audience.”

Another news event was held at Guntersville, where B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin said he has a lifelong connection to Lake Guntersville, where he has spent many days fishing. His personal best bass at Guntersville weighed in at 10.5 pounds.

“I grew up just up the lake (from City Harbor),” Akin said. “I have a lot of fond memories and a lot of family still here. A year ago we moved B.A.S.S. back to Alabama. A few short months ago we were up the mountain (Guntersville State Park) to announce the Alabama Bass Trail.

“As everybody here knows, this is one of the hottest fishing spots in America. Bassmaster (magazine) came out with the 100 best bass lakes, and Guntersville came out as No. 3, so we’re proud to bring the Classic here. This will be the 12th time the Classic has been held in Alabama, which is twice as many as any other state.”

Obviously, the economic impact is huge for Guntersville, Birmingham and the whole state. Akin said the overall impact is about $24 million for the event, which will feature three days of competition.

“We book more than 50,000 rooms for people participating or coming to the Classic,” he said. “Last year in Shreveport, we had almost 100,000 people there for the weigh-ins, expo and launch. I expect Birmingham will shatter that record.”

The 2014 Classic field will be made up of 55 anglers who qualify for the event through the Elite Series, the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens, B.A.S.S. Federation Nation, Carhartt College Series and Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Weekend Series. One of those coveted spots will go to the winner of a new event, the Bassmaster Classic Wild Card tournament in December 2013.

Akin pointed out that fishing at Guntersville can be phenomenal. During the last Bassmaster Elite Series held at Guntersville, four anglers caught more than 100 pounds of fish in the four-day event, including eventual winner Aaron Martens of Leeds with 107.8 pounds.

Lake Guntersville is 67,900 acres with 890 miles of shoreline. Because of navigation requirements, the reservoir is maintained at a minimum winter elevation of 593 feet, which is only two feet less than summer pool. That also means the lake’s vegetation, which includes hydrilla, milfoil and primrose, can flourish and provide outstanding habitat for bass and other fish species.

“When you start talking about bass management, bass populations and bass angling, you can’t help but think of Lake Guntersville,” said Stan Cook, Fisheries Chief with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. “It is one of the top bass destinations in the world that is identified, like Bruce said, simply by the number of professional anglers who live here.”

One of those pro anglers who call Guntersville home is reigning Classic champion Chris Lane, who will attempt to defend his title at the 2013 Bassmaster Classic in Tulsa, Okla., as 53 of the world's best compete Feb. 22-24 on Grand Lake o' the Cherokees in the “Super Bowl” of bass fishing.

“There have been a lot of people who have put a lot of hard work into getting the Classic here,” said Lane, who won the 2012 Classic on the Red River. “To be here on Guntersville is a dream come true for a lot of people. To be able to compete in that event will be a dream come true for me and a lot of other anglers here. It’s not only home to me and other pro fishermen, it’s home to a lot of bass fishermen. It’s so neat because I know there will be record turnouts, because this lake has so much to offer and so many people fish it.

“To be the Classic champion is the most exciting road trip I’ve ever taken. It’s a life-changing experience.”

Pro angler Steve Kennedy of Auburn, who had a string of six straight Classic appearances broken this year, expects record numbers from the anglers in the Classic at Guntersville, set for Feb. 21-23, 2014.

“It’s going to be awesome,” Kennedy said. “The Classic record is 69-11 (pounds-ounces) that (Kevin) VanDam set in the Louisiana Delta. I think the tournament here on Guntersville is going to break that, barring some crazy snowstorm or something. It will be pre-spawn. They are going to be hungry and in the best condition they’ll be all year. There will be the potential for some 30-pound bags. I think it’s going to take at least 75 pounds to win it, and it could be 80 or 90 pounds. If we get a warm week leading up to it, it could be unbelievable. I just hope I make it.”

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Chris Lane, the Florida native who now calls Guntersville home, shows off his Bassmaster Classic championship trophy at last week’s announcement that the 2014 Classic will be held at Guntersville with the weigh-ins and other festivities in Birmingham. Bruce Akin, B.A.S.S. CEO, said the Classic is scheduled for Feb. 21-23, 2014, and expects the event to have an economic impact of at least $24 million for the state.

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