Back in November, we solicited information from readers about the history of the Operation Bass Golden Blend tournament series. We’d put together a basic outline of the circuit’s history, but we had little meat to put on those bones. Thanks to one of our great readers and supporters, Andy Williamson, we have a bit more to add.
In that original article, we mentioned Jim Bitter’s 1990 win on Lake Chickamauga. Specificially, we explained that “[t]he win marked a strong period in Bitter’s career, as he’d won MegaBucks IV on the Harris Chain two years earlier.” Left unsaid was the fact that it came on the heels of what is for many – fairly or unfairly – the defining moment of Bitter’s long career, his failure to win the 1989 Bassmaster Classic. As you may recall, Bitter had the winning fish in his hand, but when he went to re-measure it under the gaze of Tim Tucker’s camera, it slipped from his hand and back into the James River. Hank Parker ended up beating him by two ounces. Gone were not only the lasting glory of a Classic win, but also the $50,000 top prize.
While Bitter managed to earn four of his five B.A.S.S. wins after that fateful James River Classic, he never again finished better than 9th in the Classic itself, despite six more attempts. Nevertheless, his 1990 Golden Blend win at Chickamauga made up for the short-term cash deficit, as he won not only fifty grand, but also a truck.
The tournament was held on Tennessee’s Lake Chickamauga, which was then loaded with submerged aquatic vegetation (specifically milfoil) as it is now, but which went through a down cycle in the intervening period. When Bitter won, it was hardly the fishery that has produced numerous double digits in the past few years. When it began, there were 120 anglers in the field, 60 from each of Red Man’s two divisions. Bitter led through the opening rounds.
Once the field was knocked down to 30 contestants on Friday, he led Day One of the tournament’s next phase with only three fish for 9 pounds 13 ounces. That meant that arguably any member of the field could stage a comeback with a big bag on Saturday, and with a stacked roster behind him he’d have to catch them well on Day Two – included among his pursuers were prior and future Classic, FWC and All-American champions including Rick Clunn, Tommy Biffle, Guido Hibdon, Denny Brauer, Joe Thomas, David Fritts, Paul Elias and Shaw Grigsby.
Only third-place finisher Mickey Bruce exceeded Bitter’s Day One catch on Day Two, on the strength of his 10-pound bag. Bitter’s traveling partner, Bernie Schultz, was the runner-up and he had 9-13, exactly what Bitter had weighed the prior day. Meanwhile, Bitter once again had the best weight of the day (and the tournament) with a limit that totaled 14-02. He beat his closest competitor by exactly 6 pounds.
Bitter’s fish in Soddy Creek were a 25 minute ride away, and he told Operation Bass writer Joey Monteleone that he could only get them bite his ½ ounce Stanley spinnerbait when he could “get the bait to flow through without touching the vegetation.” While most of the top finishers used spinnerbaits in the grass, many of them in the same areas, Bitter’s best area was unique because it “had clay knolls with gravel surrounded by vegetation. The big fish were right out in the open.”
His spinnerbait had a size 4 ½ gold willowleaf and a size 3/12 silver Colorado. He fished it on Browning rods and Browning/Lew’s reels. After catching a 4-pounder almost immediately, and a smaller keeper shortly thereafter, he underwent a long lull before adding three quality fish in the afternoon. “Almost five hours and about 1,500 casts after the first fish,” Monteleone wrote, “Jim Bitter slid the fish into the live-well that would make him, at least for this year, the best of the best, the Golden Blend Diamond Invitational Champion.”
While Bitter, Schultz and Bruce finished 1-2-3 with spinnerbaits, 4th place finisher John Derochers of Georgia came used a 1/8 ounce Rat-L-Trap over the grass.
Bitter, who had previously won a Megabucks event in his home state of Florida, went on to win Bassmaster tournaments on four very different waterways – the Potomac, Sam Rayburn, Minnetonka and the Hudson River.
In 1991, Operation Bass held its final Golden Blend event, once again a season-ending championship, this time on Alabama’s Lake Tuscaloosa. The Orlando Sentinel reported that “Financial reasons are forcing the trail to be discontinued after four years.” This time, the field was limited to 40 anglers, 20 from each of the eastern and western divisions. Bitter once again qualified
”I think it (being the defending champion) will have a positive effect on me,” Bitter told Joe Williams of the Sentinel. ”I have gone through it once and won it once. I know what it is like. I would like to go out as the only person to have won it two times in a row.”
Williams noted that despite the substantial purse, which had gone up to $150,000, the Classic was still the sport’s premier event:
“Although twice would be nice for Bitter, the significance of winning this classic would be more for personal satisfaction than for monetary gain. BASS Classic champions are assured of all kinds of endorsements and sponsorships. Golden Blend Classic champions get a nice paycheck, but little else is thrown their way, as Bitter has found out.
“‘I guess it just doesn’t measure up to the BASS Classic,’ Bitter said. ‘It doesn’t open a lot of doors like winning the BASS Classic might. I don’t think winning last year amounted to much.'”
Bitter did not earn a second championship. Zell Rowland claimed the 1991 championship with 10 bass that weighed 23-03. As the Tulsa World newspaper reported, like Bitter’s championship, Rowland’s came on the heels of some major misfortune:
“They include having his boat and trailer sail over a mountain cliff in Nevada, having his boat hull split open while fishing a tournament, having his boat, trailer and van roll into the lake and sink, and having a new customized Chevy Suburban truck – a prize just won in a 1986 tournament – stolen and stripped less than a week after he won it.”
Fortunately for Zell, the check he won was for three times as much as Bitter’s 1990 winnings. That can enable an angler to overlook a lot of past mishaps. Unlike 1990, when spinnerbaits were the predominant tool, in 1991, most of the bass were caught sight fishing. Second through fifth place were occupied by Paul Elias, Randy Dearman, Shaw Grigsby and Guido Hibdon, respectively. Dion Hibdon had originally been 3rd, but his Day Two weight was disqualified when it was learned that his observer helped him to land a bass.
Tulsa World reported that “[a]ll of the top five finishers used Lucky Strike G4 tube baits rigged with Shaw Grigsby High Performance hooks. That rig has become a standard part of many professional tournament anglers’ tackle because it is so effective for catching bedding bass in the springtime.”