Lynn Burkhead — Classic Countdown: It's time for bass fishing's Super Bowl on Ray Roberts

Herald Democrat

When the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society brought the Bassmaster Classic to Lake Texoma in September 1979, my late dad Bill had just moved our family to Denison a few weeks earlier.

While the Classic wasn’t the “Super Bowl of Bass Fishing” derby back then that it is today, it was still a pretty good event when B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott brought 25 anglers to the local reservoir to try their luck on a lake better known for striped bass than largemouths.

With weigh-ins held in a lakeside boat ramp parking lot, the Texoma Classic was eventually won by future Hall of Famer Hank Parker — who relied on a flipping stick borrowed from Gary Klein — to outlast the field and claim the $25,000 top prize with three days’ worth of bass that weighed 31-pounds even.

While the Texoma Classic weights weren’t impressive, the field certainly was, littered with current and future stars of the sport. Runner-up Basil Bacon finished three pounds behind Parker, but he would go on to a Hall of Fame career with two B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year titles and designing tackle that cemented his place forever more in bass fishing lore.

Rick Clunn — a Hall of Famer with a record 32 Classic appearances and four Classic titles to his credit now — finished in 3rd place with 23-12. One spot behind was Klein — himself a Hall of Famer with two AOY titles and 30 Classic appearances — in 4th place at 23-11.

Other notable Hall of Fame anglers at the 1979 Classic included Roland Martin — who won a record nine AOY titles — as he finished in sixth  with 19-9; Tommy Martin (the 1974 Classic champ) in seventh place with 18-13; Bill Dance (a two-time AOY winner and TV fishing superstar) in eighth at 18-3; and Forest Wood (the founder of Ranger Bass Boats) in ninth with 17-10.

There were plenty of other bass fishing stars in the Texoma field too, anglers that included 1971 and 1978 Classic champ Bobby Murray; 1973 Classic champ Rayo Breckenridge; 1982 Classic champ Paul Elias; 1983 Classic champ Larry Nixon; and 2000 Classic champ Woo Daves.

It was quite simply a “Who’s Who” list of bass fishing talent assembled for the Texoma Classic. And I missed it all, even if it took place barely 10 miles outside my back door.

So, you can imagine my excitement — and determination not to make the same mistake again — when B.A.S.S. announced that they would be bringing the 2021 Classic back to Texomaland, staging the 51st event on Lake Ray Roberts, the 25,600-acre reservoir that partially spills into Grayson County.

I’ll admit that the thought of the Classic at Ray Roberts made this bass fishing fan / outdoor media guy a little bit giddy after the announcement was made. Ray Bob is a tough fishery, for sure, but one that makes up for a lack of overall bass numbers with plenty of lunkers.

While bucketmouths like the 15.18-pound lake record or the other five ShareLunkers weighing 13-plus pounds are rare, the lake has plenty of fish in the 5-10 pound range, the kind of lunkers that can shake up a weigh-in and cause the crowd to roar as the Fox Sports TV cameras look on.

That possibility loomed large given the original dates of the 51st Classic, a derby that was to have occurred at Ray Bob from March 19-21 this year. That would have been almost perfect for the springtime spawn, giving us a Classic that might be remembered for years to come.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep the world days later, shuttering life as we know it — including professional bass fishing derbies — for weeks and months to come. Much of last spring and summer, as bass fishing circuits hit the pause button, it was far from certain whether the Ray Roberts Classic would ever happen.

And even as recently as the beginning of this year, I often wondered whether I would ever be writing this column since the coronavirus scourge continued to sweep across our world. Things were deadly serious then — my good friend John Waitt passed away in early January from the dreadful virus — and I doubted almost daily whether fans or media would be allowed in if the Ray Roberts Classic even took place.

Because of that, officials with B.A.S.S. and the host city of Fort Worth decided to postpone the Classic until mid-June, hoping that the virus trends would be going in the right direction as case numbers fell, vaccinations increased, and treatments improved. Their gamble paid off and now, a full fan and media experience will take place as the tournament launches Friday morning at 6:15 a.m. from the boat ramp at the Ray Roberts State Park Isle du Bois Unit near Pilot Point.

Having seriously paid attention to the Classic for many years now — and having covered several since I traveled to New Orleans in 2001 to report on Kevin VanDam winning the first of his four Classic crowns — I can honestly tell you that I really don’t know what to expect over the next three days.

The B.A.S.S. angling field is different now than it was a few years ago since VanDam, Klein, and others have moved on to the Bass Pro Tour. There is no shortage of fantastic bass pros on the Elite Series circuit however, and the Classic field of 54 anglers is littered with big-name talents.

The fishery at Ray Roberts is also a bit of a mystery since the lake is several weeks behind schedule thanks to historic winter weather in February and weeks of cloudy, rainy weather. As the Classic kicks off Friday morning, the lake is more than three feet above normal and water temps are a few degrees cooler than you would expect in mid-June.

That leads to plenty of question marks about whether the lake impounded in 1987 will show off and produce plenty of big bucketmouths heading for the scales at the Dickies Arena in Fort Worth? Or will Ray Roberts be stingy and offer up few bass and plenty of yawns in a Classic that could fish like a spring tournament, a summer derby, a little of both, or none of the above?

And then there’s the mystery of the Texas bass fishing fans and whether they will show up as the world moves slowly away from pandemic restrictions. Previous Classics have featured more than 130,000 fans in attendance — the attendance record was in Knoxville in 2019 when more than 153,000 fans gathered to watch hometown hero Ott DeFoe win — but that almost certainly won’t be the case here.

One reason is the post-pandemic nature of event attendance right now. Another is that the 2016 Bassmaster BASSfest —kind of a mini-Classic — was poorly attended at Lake Texoma even though the DFW Metroplex wasn’t that far away. And some of it is due to the fact that the 2017 Classic at Lake Conroe in Houston drew only 115,000-plus fans, again a disappointment.

What will all of that mean for this weekend? I’ve read officials think 70,000 or so fans might show up at the daily blast-offs, the Expo and the weigh-ins.

For those who do attend — and I plan to be one of them — they should see an intriguing, if not exciting, Classic derby unfold on Ray Roberts.

In the end, it might not be a bass fishing party for 100,000-plus like it could have been without COVID-19, but it will still be a good and memorable show. I’d expect several bags in the 20-plus pound range, a winning weight total between 55-65 pounds and a winner with some Texas roots. That’s why my pick for the 51st Classic is defending B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year Clark Wendlandt, the Cedar Park resident with a Hall of Fame career and a TV show called Hunting & Fishing Texas.

Whether Clark wins — or Seth Feider, Brandon Palaniuk, Cody Bird, Chris Zaldain or some other B.A.S.S. pro whose angling life is about to change — it’s a can’t miss event at Ray Bob, one that will quite literally unfold here in Texomaland’s backyard.

While the sport is certainly different now than it was 42 years ago when the Classic came to Texomaland the first time, the 2021 Classic will always be memorable for North Texas residents, thanks to a multitude of reasons. And hopefully, those reasons will include a local water body showing off with some truly big bass being caught.

Pandemic or not, the 51st Bassmaster Classic is finally here at Ray Roberts. Let the party finally begin!