[Editor’s note: To read Part Two, Classics XI-XX click here]
Of all the weeks in the bass fishing world this week is probably the most followed by fans of the sport. It’s Bassmaster Classic week, the time when the world championship of bass fishing takes place. Over the years the Classic has been held in the autumn, summer and now the later winter. But the season doesn’t matter – it’s the biggest event in our sport and one that has made household names out of nobodies for decades.
In the spirit of Classic week, we’re going to finish out the week looking back at the first 30 years of Classic history. We’ll look at the winners, the near misses, and the techniques/patterns that cemented the winners in Bassmaster Classic history.
So let’s move on to the first 10 years
1971: Bassmaster Classic I – Lake Mead, NV
By 1971 Ray Scott and B.A.S.S. had been holding tournaments for five years. For the 1970 season they’d awarded the first Angler of the Year (Bill Dance) but Ray Scott felt that something else was needed to elevate the sport and its anglers.
At the beginning of the 1971 Tour season Scott announced that he was working on year-end championship for the top anglers in the AOY race – a World Championship, so to speak. This year-end championship would be a mystery to all except a few knowing in B.A.S.S. management and the winner would become the world champion of bass fishing.
Little did Scott know at the time the magnitude this event would take on in the sport.
B.A.S.S. staff, outdoor writers and the top-24 anglers from the AOY race all met at Atlanta International Airport for the flight to who knows where. At 10,000 feet Ray Scott opened a letter and announced they were flying to Las Vegas, Nevada to fish the first Bassmaster Classic on Lake Mead.
Lake Mead was be a fishery unlike any the competitors had seen before. Its deep crystal-clear waters and lack of vegetation would prove to be a challenge not to mention the desert winds that have a tendency to blow for days. But this was the best group of anglers in the world and, as Scott said, “we won’t have the best anglers fishing the world championship at a fish hatchery.”
In the end, Bobby Murray (43-11) beat out Tom Mann (37-13) for the Classic I title. He caught his fish on a 1/4-ounce white Zorro spinnerbait made by Stan Sloan. George Oates placed in third with 34-01, 1971 AOY winner Roland Martin placed 4th (30-03) and Bobby Meador took 5th place with 28-03.
For his effort, Murray took home the winner-take-all prize of $10,000 but more importantly the first Bassmaster Classic title and trophy.
1972: Bassmaster Classic II – Percy Priest, TN
By 1972 the complexion of the Bassmaster Tour had changed all due to the first Bassmaster Classic held the year before. Not only were anglers vying for the Angler of the Year, more so they were trying to qualify for the Classic and it’s hefty payday.
Classic II was the second mystery championship held in as many years. This time, instead of the anglers and media meeting in Atlanta, they all met at the Memphis International Airport with thoughts of flying to some far-off destination. All those thoughts were diminished, though, when Scott opened the envelope and announced that Classic II would be fished on Tennessee’s Percy Priest Reservoir.
Percy Priest at the time was only five years old and considered one of the best fisheries in the U.S. Unfortunately, the bite was off and most anglers struggled to catch anything.
Such was the case with Don Butler on Day 1 where he only managed two fish. By noon the second day he didn’t have a fish in the well and then he moved into a cove in the Fate Sanders area of the lake. What he saw back there wouldn’t just boost his confidence, it would end up becoming the missing piece of the Classic II puzzle.
Butler would weigh limits of fish the last two days of the event for a 3-day total of 38-11. He caught his fish on his own Small Okiebug spinnerbait. Ricky Green placed second with 25-04 and Tom Mann, the first-day leader, took third place with 21-02. Jim Finley and Joe Wilson too fourth and fifth places respectively (20-10 and 19-02).
1973: Bassmaster Classic III – Clarks Hill, SC
Year three brought on the third mystery event in the short history of the Bassmaster Classic. But, instead of Scott announcing the lake once they reached 10,000 feet, he waited until they were over the lake to make his announcement. The lake was South Carolina’s Clarks Hill Reservoir.
This year instead of taking the top-24 from the AOY standings, Bassmaster bumped it up one and also for the first time added the first Federation angler to the mix – North Carolina’s Wendell Mann.
By year three the Classic had pretty much become a war of attrition. For the first two years each venue offered tough pickings for the competition and Classic III wouldn’t be any different.
In the end Arkansas pro Rayo Breckenridge would hold off a hard charging Bill Dance to walk away with the trophy. Breckenridge shared a small section of water with fellow competitor Don Norton and accumulated a weight of 52-08 over the three days. He caught his fish on a number of different baits that included cranks, worms and spinnerbaits.
Bill Dance weighed in 48-14 and took second place while Don Norton held down the 3rd-place honors with 39-05. Russell Cook and Tom Mann fished out the top 5 with 39-00 and 37-01 respectively.
1974: Bassmaster Classic IV – Wheeler Lake, AL
The famous Tennessee River impoundment known as Wheeler Lake would be the site of Classic IV. Normally a phenomenal fishery known for giant smallmouths and ample largemouths, the fishery would again prove a challenge to anglers during Classic week.
When the dust had settled, Bassmaster rookie Tommy Martin would outshine the competition by more than four pounds. His fish were caught on a combination of Fleck spinnerbaits along with Bagley’s and Rebel crankbaits. His 3-day weight of 33-07 beat out day 2 leader Roger Moore who weighed in a total of 29-01. Third place went to Bobby Meador (24-08) and Ricky Green took the fourth spot with 22-04. Rounding out the top 5 was Federation angler Charlie Campbell with 22-02.
1975: Bassmaster Classic V – Currituck Sound, NC
The Bassmaster Classic V venue came as a surprise to all the anglers. No one except one angler, Paul Chamblee (NC), had ever heard of the place that’s nestled between the Outer Banks of North Carolina and the mainland.
Chamblee would have a resounding advantage over the rest of the 29 anglers in the field in that he grew up fishing the Sound with his grandfather. Would the home-court advantage pay off though? Almost.
Chamblee lead the first two days of the event and took a 6-pound lead into the final day. But high winds and rough water kept him from his prime area. Jack Hains, who had jumped from 10th place to second on day 2 was able to bring 6 fish to the scales – Chamblee blanked – thus garnering the win.
Hains caught his fish on a trio of baits, a 1/4-ounce Fleck spinnerbait, a Johnson Silver Minnow with a white pork chunk and a Fleck worm. His winning weight was 45-04. Marvin Baker also passed Chamblee and took the second spot with 39-12 while Chamblee took 3rd place with 38-07. Tommy Martin and Tom Mann finished 4th and 5th respectively with 33-01 and 32-15.
1976: Bassmaster Classic VI – Lake Guntersville, AL
The 1976 Classic would be the start of a new reign in Bassmaster history and Rick Clunn was the angler responsible for the change. Clunn had been fishing full time since the 1974 season and had made the prior two Classics but had yet to notch a win. The Guntersville Classic would change that.
Clunn started out the first day in 3rd place but a missed fish in a new area would make him step back and change gears. On day 2 he broke the record for a 1-day weight, 33-05 (10-fish limit) and went on to win the first of his four Classics with a total of 59-15.
Clunn relied on two baits for his win, a Bagley’s Honey B and a Fleck Weedwader spinnerbait he added weight to in order to get it around 1-ounce.
Bo Dowden, who led the event the first day placed second with 56-04 and Ricky Green placed third with 42-07. Billy Phillips and Tommy Martin rounded out the top 5 with 38-13 and 32-12 respectively.
1977: Bassmaster Classic VII – Lake Toho, FL
As tough as Classic VII ended up being, it was filled with records and firsts that would forever change the world championship in a number of ways. First off, it was the first Classic where the venue was announced prior to the event. Ray Scott knew he had a diamond with the Classic but the mystery-lake concept was keeping a lot of the media from covering it. By announcing it prior, he knew more of the sports media would cover it thus making it grow even more.
As for records that set apart Classic VII from the others was it produced to lowest total weight and number of fish weighed – 167 fish for 292-04 – breaking that record from the 1972 Percy Priest Classic. (records 1 and 2)
The other records that fell that week were all due to one angler, Rick Clunn.
This would become Clunn’s second Classic win (record 3) and in doing that he’d be the first person to win back-to-back Classics (record 4). He would also become the first angler to lead the Classic wire-to-wire (record 5) while also setting the bar for most Bassmaster cash winnings with $71,563.76 (record 6).
As you can see from the total weight and number of fish caught, this was a tough event. In fact, Clunn won it with a record-low weight of 27-07 (record 7), beating Bassmaster rookie Larry Nixon by 1-12.
Nixon, who weighed one of only two limits for the event, placed second with 25-11 and Bo Dowden took third place with 21-07. Roland Martin weighed in 19-09 for 4th place and Doug Odom rounded out the top 5 with 19-03.
Clunn reported catching his fish on a variety of baits including a Floyd’s Buzzer, a Johnson Silver Minnow (painted black) with a white bucktail and is only fish the last day was caught flipping a worm.
1978: Bassmaster Classic VIII – Ross Barnett, MS
By 1978 Ross Barnett had become a staple on the Bassmaster Tour – this year, though, instead of being an Invitational venue, the eighth annual Bassmaster Classic would be held there.
Classic VIII wouldn’t break any records but it would crown another two-time Classic Champion – this time Bobby Murray, winner of the first Bassmaster Classic.
The “Rez” that year had become a tough fishery with a water drawdown and heavy pressure. Most of the anglers had figured out in practice that the fish were in the pads but Murray took that pattern and dissected it further. He had a hunch that the better fish would be adjacent to deeper water but couldn’t get his weedless spoon, a bait used for years to fish pad fields, deep enough to connect with the fish he saw in his head.
In order to get his spoon a little deeper, he recalled a trick that he was shown a few months earlier by fellow Arkansas guide and competitor David Owens – placing a Hildebrandt spinner shaft in front of the spoon. (Note: This rig, known as the Arkansas Rig, was developed in 1978 by Ricky Green who showed it to Tommy Martin who showed it to Owens who showed it to Murray)
Between the Arkansas rig and a deep, pad-lined sinkhole, Murray was able to put together the winning 3-day string of fish that would make him only the second angler to win two Classics. Over the course of the event Murray weighed 14 fish for 37-09, beating Rick Clunn (12 fish for 31-10) by a little under six pounds.
Jerry Rhyne came in 3rd place with 30-00 and Cliff Craft placed fourth with 28-12. Tommy Martin filled out the top 5 with 27-11.
1979: Bassmaster Classic IX – Lake Texoma, TX
Hank Parker may have only been fishing Bassmaster events for two years by the time Classic IX rolled around but he was a seasoned tournament angler. His first year on the Tour he made the Classic, his second year he not only qualified for the event, he won it.
But things could have been a lot different for Parker if not for some intervention by a couple of other anglers – those being Forrest Wood and Gary Klein. In an earlier piece we did on flipping, we talked with Parker about the 1979 Classic and how that win came to be. Here are Parkers words from that story.
“That Classic would have turned out a lot differently if not for two events,” Parker said. “First, the water was perfect for throwing a blade and that’s a bait I’d had great success with over the years.
“I’d been throwing it without much success and then I ran into Forrest Wood. He told me he’d caught two fish flipping and lost a couple others.
“After that I fished an incredible area and didn’t get a bite on the blade. I thought to myself, ‘they had to be there.’ I went back and flipped the same area I’d just gone through and caught three fish on four flips. I had 11 or 12 pounds which was amazing for Texoma at the time.
“By 10:30 in the morning I had 16 pounds and left it alone. In the process I’d also broken my only flipping stick, a prototype that I was testing and had to switch to a 6-foot pistol-grip rod. I caught a couple fish using that rod but it was by no means the right equipment.
“After the weigh-in, I went to Harold Sharp and asked him if I could get another rod. Back in those days, you were given a weight limit on tackle and a limit on the number of rods you could use. Because I had brought a flipping stick with me, Harold decided it would be okay if I went out and got another rod. Back then, though, you couldn’t find a flipping stick at most tackle shops.
“I knew Gary [Klein] had a few so I went and asked him if I could borrow one of his. He said yes and that’s what helped me win. Gary really came to my rescue. I really doubt I could have won it if I had to fish that 6-foot rod.”
Parker would end up winning the event with 31-00 over the course of three days. Basil Bacon, who blanked the first day, rallied for 2nd place (28-00) while Rick Clunn took the 3rd-place honors with 23-12. Gary Klein placed fourth in his first Classic with 23-11 and Ricky Green sealed the top 5 with 19-15.
1980: Bassmaster Classic X – St. Lawrence River, NY
If Classic IX cemented flippings’ place in bass fishing, Classic X was responsible for putting the jig-n-pig back in the limelight. Maybe a more correct statement would be, Bo Dowden, winner of Classic X, gave the lowly pig skin its second life.
Dowden, who had finished in 2nd and 3rd place in two previous Classics would finally hoist the winner’s trophy at Classic X. He became the second angler in the history of the world championship to lead wire-to-wire and at the end beat out Roland Martin by a little over 10 pounds. Dowden, who relied solely on the jig, finished the event catching one of two 15-fish limits for a total of 54-10. Roland Martin, who weighed the only other 3-day limit, weighed in 44-01.
Cliff Craft took the third spot with 41-00 and Hank Parker finished in 4th place with 35-11. Basil Bacon rounded out the top 5 with 34-05.
In the second part of this series looking back at Classic history we’ll cover Classics XI through XX. We hope you join us.