When my late father Bill Burkhead took a job with Texas Instruments in the late summer of 1979, I couldn’t imagine that I would be writing in this space today.
Back then, the late Lake Texoma angling expert Max Eggleston was occupying this spot every Friday for the Sherman Democrat while the late newspaper man John Clift manned the outdoor writer’s chair over at the Denison Herald.
After the pair of Texoma outdoor writing legends passed on from this life into eternity, the door eventually opened for me to take over the reins at the Sherman Democrat in the early 1990s. As I recall, my esteemed colleague J.B. Webb took over at the Denison Herald in the 1990s as well.
Now, years later and after the two newspapers merged into the Herald Democrat, we both continue to try and fill this page every Friday with pertinent outdoor news, how-to information, and a laugh or two along the way.
If gentlemen named Eggleston, Clift, and Webb have been a great part of the Herald Democrat’s long running outdoors legacy, then so too has the sport of bass fishing.
After all, the chasing of largemouth bass is one of the main drivers of the outdoors world in Texas and Oklahoma. From hallowed bass waters like Lake Fork, Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend, and Grand Lake, some of the top places to wet a line for laregemouths have been found on either side of the Red River.
And before you tune out, Lake Texoma has made a name for itself in the bass fishing world too — more on that in a minute.
The fisheries mentioned above — many of them arguably the best in the world for largemouths — have spawned plenty of innovations and careers too across the region.
Bass boats? In a major way, thank the folks at Skeeter, a company that has helped to lead bass rig innovation from the time the first boat was built by Holmes Thurmond in Shreveport, La. back in 1948 to Ben Cook’s moving of the company’s plants to the East Texas towns of Marshall, Longview, and now Kilgore.
Texas has made quite the impact in the bass fishing lure industry too. How about the local baits made by the old Whopper-Stopper Bait Company right here in Sherman or the Bomber Bait Company over in Gainesville? Then there was Lonnie Stanley’s Stanley Jig Company, a lure making legend that he started in College Station four decades ago. And don’t forget the plastic worm revolution that Nick Creme brought from Ohio to Tyler in the late 1950s.
Bass fishing has spawned a lot of household names in Texas, and nearby Oklahoma too. From state record holders Mark Stevenson and Barry St. Clair to outdoor writers like Ray Sasser and Joe Doggett to legendary tournament pros like Rick Clunn and Gary Klein to even a fish named Ethel (Stevenson’s former Texas state record bass from Lake Fork), the Lone Star State has made quite a splash for itself in that department.
If it sounds like I love the sport of bass fishing, that’s certainly true. In fact, by the time my dad moved our family to Denison in 1979, I was a dyed in the wool bass enthusiast like my father, enjoying all of our father-son fishing trips, watching TV bass stars like Bill Dance and Virgil Ward, reading Fishing Facts and Bassmaster magazines, and living for the smell of a tackle box filled with the scent of Tom Mann’s Jelly Worms.
The sport has also played a major role in the way my life has turned out too in a professional sense.
Because what I didn’t know when we arrived in North Texas so many years ago is that one day, the sport would help me make my living. Figuring out that I could write a little bit during my days at the University of North Texas, I soon found myself writing for Mike Hill and the Gainesville Daily Register and a couple of years later, for Rusty Hall and the Democrat.
Those early stories are painful to read now, but eventually, I suppose by sheer determination and repetition, I got proficient enough that someone other than my mom and my wife would read the drivel I cranked out in this space each week.
By 2001, my love of bass fishing and writing about it (and hunting too) had come full circle, as I was offered the chance to become an associate editor for ESPNOutdoors.com. Never having even dreamed of such an occupation, I suddenly found myself with a business card that got me through the front door to interview the budding greats of the sport, guys like Mike Iaconelli, Edwin Evers, and someone named Kevin VanDam.
In fact, one of my first assignments for ESPN Outdoors was to go and cover the 2001 Bassmaster Classic in New Orleans. You can’t imagine how wide-eyed I was when I got to ride out into the Louisiana Delta with Jay Yelas to be an official “observer.” I was even more wide-eyed a day or two later when KVD captured the first of his four Classic titles and I got to write the story for Bassmaster.com.
That led to a growing fascination with the Classic, the so-called Super Bowl of bass fishing, an event that unbeknownst to me, had actually come to the Texomaland area mere days after we set up shop in Denison in 1979.
While I’ve enjoyed watching—and covering—many other Classics since 2001, the one local Classic that came to the area I live in has become an object of fascination, ongoing research and conversation, even though I never saw eventual winner Hank Parker weigh in a single fish with B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott looking on barely 10 miles out my backdoor.
All of that leads to today, the start of the 50th Bassmaster Classic, a historic March 6-8, 2020 derby that has traveled many miles since Scott and his group brought the world’s best known bass derby to Texomaland a couple of generations ago.
Without a doubt, this year’s Classic will be one of the most interesting ones ever staged since it’s the first one to occur after the “Great Divorce” took many of the sport’s biggest names from the Bassmaster Elite Series tour to the Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour.
Defending champ Ott DeFoe won’t be there to try and win another title, KVD isn’t angling for his fifth Classic trophy, and Randy Howell isn’t there to fish a crankbait on a Guntersville bridge that he made famous a few years ago.
To be sure, there are still a number of well known anglers in this year’s Classic. But there are also many that I’m not familiar with too. In fact, for the first time in my lifetime, I won’t recognize many of the names of budding young talents walking across the stage as they try and forge their own place in bass fishing history at Alabama’s Lake Guntersville.
By Sunday afternoon, I’ll be glued to the action, waiting to see who caught them better than everyone else and who will rise from the Hot Seat to get a shower of confetti and hoist the sport’s most famous trophy.
All of that will remind me once again of one simple truth.
And that’s this, that I love the sport of bass fishing. Because some things never seem to change in life, especially when it comes down to a big green fish pulling hard at the end of some fishing line.