Lynn Burkhead — North Texas shined at the 51st Bassmaster Classic
With the dust settling from last weekend’s 51st Bassmaster Classic, it’s time to try and figure out where the event ranks in the history books of the Super Bowl of Bass Fishing.
The answer to that question is surprisingly high. For starters, the Classic at Lake Ray Roberts was won by Hank Cherry, a North Carolinian who weighed in 15 bass over three days weighing 50 pounds, 15 ounces, good enough to hold off several charging anglers and etch his name in the record books as only the fourth man to ever win back-to-back Classics.
While the 47-year old angler from Lincolnton, N.C. has only won four B.A.S.S. events in his career now, half of them have been Classics as he joins Rick Clunn, Kevin VanDam, and Jordan Lee as the only anglers to ever pull off the feat of consecutive Classic wins.
To put that in perspective, Clunn and VanDam are widely regarded as the sport’s G.O.A.T.’s — Clunn dominated the early days of B.A.S.S. competition en route to 16 tournament wins while KVD dominated prior to leaving for the Bass Pro Tour with 25 career B.A.S.S. victories — and Lee is on his way to a Hall of Fame career as well.
Now add Cherry’s name to the list after he won his fourth event in a nine-year long career while boosting his earnings beyond the $1 million mark thanks to his $300,000 payday in Fort Worth last weekend.
But Cherry isn’t the only one to win big at the 2021 Classic. The tournament’s venue, Lake Ray Roberts, also won big if you ask me, cementing its reputation as a worthy spot that’s indeed tough to fish but a place that also rewards anglers with plenty of bass that fit emcee Dave Mercer’s patented on-stage call of “G-G-G-G-G-I-A-N-T bass!”
True to form, Ray Roberts was stingy on fish numbers as the late blooming spring kept fish from grouping up offshore, the four-foot high lake level and miles of flooded bushes kept fish scattered throughout the event, and the weather ran the gamut of warm and windy on Day One to wild and stormy on Day Two to blistering hot and still on Day Three.
True to form, a fishing fan on TexasFishingForum.com indicated that Cherry had told him that Ray Roberts was among the toughest fisheries he had ever competed on. But then again, Cherry also landed his personal best largemouth while practicing at Ray Roberts, a 10-pound, 13-ounce behemoth.
There’s no doubt that Ray Roberts wasn’t the “catch-a-bass on every other cast” derby that seems to take place on some spots around the country. But then again, the U.S. Open golf tournament is never held at a -20 under par venue, instead being set up at spots where the fairways are tight, the rough is Grand Canyon deep, and the greens are maddeningly difficult to read.
And in my estimation, anytime a world or national title is being settled, that’s the way it ought to be — tough, demanding, and rewarding for those who can survive several days of championship competition. So, tough, or not, Ray Roberts proved challenging, fair, and wide open to any and all Classic anglers who came seeking the sport’s biggest trophy.
Another winner from the 2021 Classic was the city of Fort Worth and the North Texas region. Before the event — and coming out of the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic where mask mandates, lockdowns, and fear of the deadly virus squelched big gatherings — no one really knew what to expect in terms of attendance and enthusiasm at the first truly big outdoors event in the nation in more than a year.
Since the pandemic began, everything from the Pope and Young Convention to trade shows like ICAST and the SHOT Show and even the annual Texas Trophy Hunters Extravaganza had been shuttered in the name of health and public safety.
That caused officials with B.A.S.S. and the city of Fort Worth to gamble back in January, postponing the Classic from its original mid-March dates — when the fishing would have likely been at its best — and hoping that a mid-June Classic would allow for a full fan experience.
Even so — and with vaccination numbers going up and coronavirus cases coming down — no one really knew what to expect as Classic #51 arrived in Cowtown. In fact, one published estimate I saw prior to the event suggested that more than 70,000 spectators would attend.
That might sound impressive to some, but it would have paled when compared to the Classic’s record attendance of 153,809 fans that saw hometown hero Ott DeFoe win the 2019 Classic in Knoxville. It would also be far less than last year’s 123,000+ that gathered in Birmingham for the 50th Classic and Cherry’s first win — just days before the world shut down due to COVID-19, by the way — and the 115,000 fans that showed up in Houston for Jordan Lee’s 2017 Classic win.
Part of that expectation for Fort Worth was due to the unknown as Texas and America came out from under the worst of the pandemic’s effects and normal life has slowly resumed. And part of that was due to the fact that Texas hasn’t always supported B.A.S.S. events like they do in the deep South — see the sparsely attended 2016 BASSfest event on Lake Texoma for proof of that.
But from the get-go last weekend, it was apparent that the 2021 Classic was going to be special as numerous fans showed up for last Friday’s opening round launch at Ray Roberts State Park Isle du Bois Unit near Pilot Point.
Included in that opening day crowd was U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas political figure who gave the opening invocation as probably more than 2,000 spectators looked on and roared their approval while the 54 competitors revved up their boats and Texas angler and defending B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year Clark Wendlandt led everyone out onto the flooded Ray Roberts.
While the hybrid style weigh-ins at Dickies Arena — due to fish care concerns, bags were weighed at the lake the first two days and anglers brought two “show fish” to the Fort Worth stage — caused light weigh-in attendance on Friday and Saturday, the crowds next door at the Bassmaster Classic Expo at the Will Rogers Memorial Center were insane.
Added all together, B.A.S.S. officials made the announcement at mid-week that Fort Worth had reeled in 147,197 fishing fans at Classic #51, the second highest attendance figure ever recorded in Classic history.
Included in that attendance were such notable fishing figures as Kevin VanDam, Edwin Evers, Scott Suggs, Bill Dance, Jimmy Houston, and Hank Parker, the winner of the 1979 Classic on Lake Texoma. Justin Martin of Duck Dynasty fame was also at the Classic, as were officials with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. There was even one high ranking official from a rival fishing organization that was seen strolling the aisles in Fort Worth, proving the lure of the post-pandemic event.
The Ray Bob Classic was also successful for those who couldn’t attend the festivities in Fort Worth. According to a B.A.S.S. press release, more than 1.6 million viewers tuned in for Fox Sport’s inaugural live airing of Classic competition on Saturday morning, one of the highest numbers for a Bassmaster telecast in over a decade. Internet viewers from more than 170 countries also took to Bassmaster.com in huge numbers, watching live streaming action, hearing expert commentary, reading blog posts, viewing photo galleries, and checking Bass Trakk results.
At the end of the day however, the real winner from the 51st Bassmaster Classic at Lake Ray Roberts was the sport itself, and the legions of fans that watch and support their favorite anglers, brands, and circuits. In the aftermath of a deadly pandemic year that won’t be forgotten anytime soon, a little green fish brought the world together once again.
“The entire event is a celebration of sportfishing and the outdoors, and we’re thankful for everyone who gathered with us in Texas to celebrate fishing and make this Classic such a success,” said B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin.
Amen to that. And Ray Roberts and the North Texas region, take your bow. Hopefully, last weekend was the first, and certainly not the last, Bassmaster Classic to ever visit your flooded shores.