Lynn Burkhead — Classic Countdown: Bass fishing Super Bowl back in Texomaland

Herald Democrat
After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the 51st Bassmaster Classic at Lake Ray Roberts to be rescheduled from spring to early summer, the Super Bowl of Bass Fishing is approaching quickly and begins its June 11-13 run three weeks from today. In the first of several stories previewing the Classic, Herald Democrat outdoors writer Lynn Burkhead takes a look at the event's second visit to the Texomaland region a generation after the 1979 Classic was held on Lake Texoma.

In the final year of the 1970s, Jimmy Carter was president, gasoline supplies and tensions in the Middle East occupied the news headlines, and bass fishing was king in Texomaland.

That’s because Ray Scott, the Barnum and Bailey of the bass fishing world and the man who helped create fishing tournaments and catch-and-release angling as we know it today, had brought the ninth edition of the Bassmaster Classic to town for a three-day run on Lake Texoma.

When Classic IX was staged from Sept. 22-24, 1979, interviews with Hall of Fame anglers like Bill Dance, Bobby Murray and Gary Klein, all saw modest crowds looking on as competitors talked into TV camera lenses of seeing plenty of baitfish, finding beautiful rocks and cover and hoping to catch enough bass to win a title that they knew would be very important for the success of their careers.

By the time the Classic was over on the 89,000-acre reservoir northwest of Denison, Hank Parker of Clover, S.C. — himself a future Hall of Famer — had won the first of his two career Classic crowns and captured a $25,000 winner’s check while fishing from the front deck of a red-and-white Ranger bass rig with a Mercury motor on the backend.

Parker, who had to borrow an early generation flipping stick from Gary Klein after he broke the one he possessed, ended up catching 12 keeper bass that were 14 inches or longer. When the scales tallied a three-day total of 31 pounds even, Parker was your champ, flipping was here to stay in the fishing world, and the Classic was on its way to becoming a dream for anyone who ever picked up a bass fishing rod.

All of this occurred not even a month after my late dad, Bill, a bass fishing enthusiast from Memphis, Tenn., had moved the family to Denison after accepting a job with Texas Instruments.

Being a middle schooler at Hughes Junior High — now B. McDaniel Intermediate School, where my wife taught and my three kids all attended — the Classic had literally visited my new backyard and I didn’t even know it. When I learned what I had missed, I figured my chance to see a hometown Classic had come and gone.

Until last year, that is, when officials with B.A.S.S. announced that they were bringing the 51st Classic to Lake Ray Roberts, the 25,600-acre reservoir just northeast of Denton. With part of its timber-choked waters pushing into southwestern Grayson County a little more than a half hour’s drive from Sherman and Denison, this year’s derby marks the third Classic visit to Texas, joining the Texoma Classic in 1979 and the Lake Conroe Classic in 2017.

It also marks the return of the Classic to Texomaland, even if it took a generation for that repeat visit to occur. While Fort Worth is the official host city — the Classic weigh-ins will take place at the Dickies Arena and the Classic Expo will occur in the Will Rogers Memorial Center — it’s still a backyard event in my book since it’s possible that the winning angler could pull his key fish from Grayson County waters.

Thankfully, that prospect is still possible after the deadly COVID-19 pandemic made the Classic’s return to the North Texas region anything but certain over the past year. While the bass fishing world returned to tournament competition last summer and fall after weeks of being shuttered due to the spring lockdowns and government health mandates, the idea that this year’s Ray Bob Classic could occur wasn’t a certainty even as 2020 ended and the New Year began.

So much so that officials with Fort Worth and B.A.S.S. agreed in early January to move the previously scheduled March 19-21 Classic to the middle of June. The hope in making the 2021 Classic a summer event centered around the idea that virus numbers would be declining by then because of the combination of mask wearing, vaccinations, developing herd immunity, and better treatments.

That gamble paid off and the Super Bowl of Bass Fishing is now less than a month away, with the Classic Kickoff Party scheduled to take place in Fort Worth’s historic Stockyards from 5 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, June 10.

The following morning at 6:15 a.m., bass fishing fans can watch the boats of this year’s 54 Classic qualifiers — including 2020 Angler of the Year Clark Wendlant of Leander, Texas — roar away from the launch ramps of the Ray Roberts Lake State Park Isle du Bois Unit near Pilot Point.

Afterwards, those same fans can head for Fort Worth and the Expo in the Will Rogers complex where all kinds of goodies and Classic gear will be on sale. Having covered several Classics in recent years, I can truthfully tell you that visiting the Expo and seeing dozens of bass fishing pros conducting seminars, signing autographs, and answering questions is one of the highlights of the modern day event.

During each of the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday competition days, fans will have the chance to watch the Classic unfold on their computer screens, tablets, and smartphones as hours of live streaming action takes place at Bassmaster.com as well as televised action on Fox Sports.

At the end of each afternoon’s competition during the June 11-13 derby on Ray Roberts, the excitement of the daily weigh-ins will arrive full force in the new Dickies Arena in downtown Cowtown. Fans can begin gathering in the facility to claim their seats at 3:15 p.m. with the actual weigh-in beginning at 4:30 p.m. each day. Be forewarned, you’ll want to get there early if you want a prime seating location.

With longtime emcee Dave Mercer occupying the weigh-in stage, the anglers will come into the arena with their boats and tow rigs, pull five bass from their live wells, and dream big as the crowd cheers and looks on. By Sunday afternoon, some fortunate angler will have figured out Ray Roberts better than anyone else and will have found 15 bass that weigh just enough to win the battle at the scales, claiming the iconic Classic trophy, cashing the $300,000 winner’s check, and getting buried in a rush of emotion and enough confetti to cover half of Tarrant County.

It’s an incredibly impressive event to witness on TV and the Internet, even more so in person. Thankfully, the opportunity to attend the bass fishing championship derby and see it all unfold is only three weeks away as the 51st Classic gets ready to descend on North Texas.

With that in mind, look for a Classic Countdown in this space between now and then, examining the lake, looking at the qualifiers, and predicting who might win. And as the competition unfolds at Lake Ray Roberts, expect daily updates at HeraldDemocrat.com.

Yours truly may have missed the championship bass fishing excitement the first time around when the Classic came to Texomaland’s backyard. But I can promise you that Lord willing, I don’t plan to make that mistake again.