February 27, 2014
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
After the second day of the 2014 GEICO Bassmaster Classic, Springville’s Randy Howell and I were in the back of the media center in the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, pondering the possibilities of the third and final day of the Classic.
One of the top bass-fishing lakes in the nation, Lake Guntersville had proven ornery during the three-day event after a deluge in the Tennessee River valley dumped tons of fresh, muddy water into the reservoir that traverses some 75 miles in northeast Alabama.
Each day of the competition, the top 50-plus bass fishermen in the world had to adjust to the changing conditions.
Howell didn’t quite get the adjustment nailed on the second day, but came in with a five-fish limit at 18 pounds, 3 ounces. Howell said coming into the “Super Bowl of Bass Fishing” that he would have to catch at least 20 pounds a day to be in the running.
That less-than-stellar bag put him in 11th place, 9 pounds behind leader Edwin Evers of Talala, Okla. Howell trailed Guntersville expert Randall Tharp by 8 pounds, 15 ounces. Tharp, who lived in nearby Gardendale, Ala., for 18 years before moving to Port St. Joe, Fla., last July, said, “Day in and day out, Guntersville is the best bass lake in the nation.”
Ever the optimist, Howell said, “I don’t like to be in the lead. There’s too much pressure and too many people following you around. I like being back a little so people won’t pay attention to me. This is Guntersville. Anybody can catch a big bag at any time.”
Howell is a devout Christian who works as much as possible with King’s Home, which has facilities in north Alabama to care for youth, women and single mothers who are at risk. Howell had made arrangements with BASS before the Classic to have a special seating area for the youth from King’s Home to “Howl for Howell.”
“Some of these kids have been so abused, they can’t even communicate,” Howell said. “They can’t even look you in the face.”
Yet, they were able to cheer for their hero on the Classic stage each day, even though the tournament, to that point, hadn’t been his best.
Oh, but for one more chance.
As Howell headed out on the final day of the Classic last Sunday, he said a feeling of calm came over him and directed him to change his best-laid plans.
“My buddy, Adam Rogers, was with me and my wife, Robin, on the way out,” Howell said. “We prayed before I went out, and they told me not to second-guess my gut, to listen to that still, small voice. I took off running and there were people going to meet me at the Mill Creek Bridge. I was going to start there because I’d caught a lot of fish there. About a mile after take-off, I just had this overwhelming feeling. This voice in my head says, ‘Do you want to be good, or do you want to be great?’ I turned right and started going back to Spring Creek. When I did, I had this rush of peace come over me. I just felt it was going to happen.”
Instead of concentrating solely on the bridge structure, Howell focused on the rip-rap that lined the roadway near the bridge.
Throwing a red Rapala crankbait, he started catching fish on almost every cast. As the action continued, bass fishing fans started to line the roadway, cheering him on. Before long, he had a limit weighing more than 20 pounds in the livewell. But he knew he’d have to do better. He changed to a deeper-diving Livingston crankbait and managed to cull several fish. Knowing that anyone could catch a big bag, like BASS Nation angler Paul Mueller did (32-3) on Saturday, Howell continued his effort to improve his catch.
“I had a feeling and went to the back of the creek and caught a 6-pounder and I only won by a pound,” Howell said. “That’s probably what made the difference.”
Normally, BASS brings in the anglers with large catches late in the weigh-in. Not this time. Howell weighed in early. When BASS Tournament Director Trip Weldon announced 29 pounds, 2 ounces (67-8 total), the hometown crowd went wild.
“That was the best day of fishing I’ve ever had in my life,” Howell said. “That’s the heaviest bag I’ve ever weighed in.”
Now Howell had to sweat it out, fighting back tears as the remainder of the top anglers weighed their fish.
First came Mueller, a fishing guide from Connecticut who had established a single-day Classic record with his 32-3 catch on Saturday. Despite being one of the bigger limits of the week, Mueller’s Sunday catch of 24-11 couldn’t knock Howell out of the leader’s chair.
When Tharp couldn’t break 20 pounds, it was time for Evers to weigh in. He needed 20-3 to overtake Howell. When Weldon read out “18 pounds, 5 ounces,” the crowd erupted as Howell hoisted his hands to the sky.
“Who would have ever thought that I would win in front of the King’s Home crowd,” Howell said later, directing his comments to his supporters. “Who would have ever thought y’all would come to the Classic and I would win. Now you’ve got to come to every Classic.”
Howell also shared another source of inspiration for the Classic. He said he and his family, Robin and sons Laker and Oakley, were coming home from church last November when he asked his sons what they had learned. The younger son, Oakley, had filled out a prayer request card.
“On it he had written, ‘My Dad to win the Classic,’” the elder Howell said. “I taped that to my bathroom mirror in our house and looked at it every day.
“God is so awesome that his timing was this day. I can’t believe I won the Bassmaster Classic.”
Another Alabama angler who put in an impressive performance was Jordan Lee, who was representing Auburn through the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series. After a struggle on the first day with a catch of 13-7, Lee rebounded with catches of 24-0 and 24-10 to finish in sixth place, the highest ever in the Classic for a college angler.
The Vinemont resident figured out the fish had moved to the primrose grass in the shallow water in Seibold Branch. He started punching grass mats with a creature bait, and his fortunes quickly turned around.
“When I caught the five- and four-pounders on back-to-back flips, I knew that was the deal,” Lee said. “I went back and did the same thing (Sunday) and caught another 24-pound bag. I wish I had figured that out the first day. I might have won this tournament.
“But I’m tickled to death to be here. This is what I’ve always dreamed about – being on that stage. It was special for me. I felt like I could win it. I just didn’t have a good first day. To bounce back like I did, I’m the happiest kid in the world.”
Although some had predicted the Classic total weight record of 69-11, set by Kevin VanDam in New Orleans in 2011, would be broken at Guntersville, BASS’s Weldon said nobody expected the anglers would have to deal with the muddy water from the thunderstorms.
“Some of them struggled,” Weldon said. “But they made the adjustments. With the warm-up and the current, the perfect storm came together for them to catch the big bags. Guntersville is an incredible lake. It amazes me with the traffic and pressure it gets to produce like it does. Hats off to Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries for what they do managing the lake and the anglers for taking care of this resource.”
Damon Abernethy, Supervisor of Fisheries Development with Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, said Guntersville is indeed a special lake.
“Guntersville has had real steady grass coverage of 25 to 28 percent, which is right in the ideal range, and the bass population has flourished,” Abernethy said. “It’s a huge lake to begin with at nearly 70,000 acres. What makes Guntersville unique is that about 80 percent of that is good fish habitat. You can be a mile offshore and still be in 6 feet of water with grass and great habitat. Most lakes are not like that.”
PHOTOS: (BASS/Gary Tramontina) Bassmaster emcee Dave Mercer interviews Springville’s Randy Howell after Howell claimed the 2014 Bassmaster Classic title on Lake Guntersville. Howell’s family, (left to right) wife Robin and sons Oakley and Laker joined the celebration. Howell caught the majority of his fish on the final day along rip-rap at the Spring Creek bridge. Auburn’s Jordan Lee became the highest-finishing college angler in the Classic with a sixth-place finish.