The U.S. Open 1981: An Event that Changed Bass Fishing – Part Two

Greg Hines holding $50,000 in cash on the third night of the 1981 U.S. Open. Photo Nov/Dec 1981 issue of Western Bass Magazine.

In Part One of this series we introduced the entrants of the event, talked a little about how it was a crap-shoot whether anyone would pay a $1,000 entry fee and finished by saying two anglers were spending copious amounts of time practicing for the event. Now we’ll look at the days leading up to the event along with the event itself.

 

Many months prior to the event it was quoted by a famous tournament organizer that, “There’s no way you’ll pull off a $1,000 entry tournament.” The naysayer couldn’t have been more wrong. Now the event had wheels – 161 of them to be exact – and there was no stopping the forward momentum.

An event of this magnitude, though, required a lot of planning and the folks at WBFA had their work cut out for them. The tournament would not only feature the main event itself, the tournament, but would also have a myriad of daily activities for the anglers’ wives and families. The event, as Vegas says, never slept.

Western Bass Fishing Association Staff 1981. Photo from the Western Bass 1981 U.S. Open Press Guide and Souvenir Program.

A Major Investment

In Part One of this article I mentioned that once anglers had committed to the event they started spending time on the water pre-fishing. Stren even held a “meeting” in May of ‘81 on Lake Mohave (just downstream of Mead) in order to give their eastern pro-staff, which included Roland Martin and Bobby Murray, a chance to meet and pick the brains of the western  pro-staff. The western anglers included Dee Thomas, Fred Kunkle, Fred Ward, Bobby Garland, John Bedwell, Bob Bringhurst and Okie Vaughn.

But there were other anglers putting a lot more into their practice time – namely Greg Hines and Don Doty, each veterans of Lake Mead.

This is where this article gets a bit personal for me. The shop I worked at during this time was a regular stop for Doty as well as other western pros. One day Doty came in with Hines and announced to all standing in the shop that we were looking at the anglers who would place first and second in the upcoming U.S. Open. Doty had always had an air of confidence about him but when he said he was paying Greg Hines to practice for the three months prior to the event, we took him a bit more seriously.

Hines would live on the lake and fish every day and Doty would go over on weekends, and any other time he could get away from his concrete business, to help.

National Stren pro-staffers meet at Lake Mohave in May of 1981, just prior to the first U.S. Open. Pictured (foreground L-R) Fred Ward, Roland Martin, Fred Kunkle and Stren’s Sam Waltz, (Rear L-R) John Bedwell, Bobby Murray, Dee Thomas, Bobby Garland, and Bob Bringhurst. Photo Western Bass Magazine Jul/Aug 1981 issue.

In the Hot Seat

Another caveat of the U.S. Open was the fact that the event would be taking place in one of the hottest regions of the country. Summer temperatures in the Mohave Desert rarely get below 100 degrees, even at night, and daytime temperatures soar above 115 degrees, often reaching 125 degree during the hottest part of the day. Couple this with ultra-low humidity and the conditions are ripe for sunstroke and dehydration.

Because of this, the WBFA staff held a meeting for all contestants in order for them to learn how to deal with the heat and what to do in the event they began to feel the symptoms of sunstroke.

Tom Stiles, the advertising and marketing director for WBFA, recalls the time.

“We had Paul Johnson from Berkley give a seminar on the effects of the heat,” he said. “We didn’t want anyone to suffer from heatstroke or any other ailment from the conditions. Unfortunately one angler, Tom Shockley if I remember right, suffered severe sunburns during the official practice period and was unable to fish the event.”

During the event the temperatures rose above 120 degrees each day. This lead Rick Clunn later to say, “The U.S. Open is the Iditarod of Bass Fishing,” obviously referring to the extremes of the event.

Weigh-in at Calville Bay Marina, Lake Mead. Photo Western Bass Magazine Sept/Oct 1981 Issue.

Wire-to-Wire Hines

Three months of practice paid off handsomely for Hines as he won the event from the start. During his lengthy practice, he and Doty had found that the bigger fish of Mead would eat a Zara Spook.

Hines opened up the first round with 14.57 pounds of fish to take a comfortable lead. But he wasn’t comfortable. Here are his words as spoken to writer, Mike Ebbing, right after the event. [Taken from the September/October 1981 issue of Western Bass Magazine.]

“Usually in tournaments, I’d say about 99-percent of the time, the first day leader doesn’t win. So I knew the odds were against me.”

Hines with his final 8.33-pound limit that won the event for him. Photo Western Bass Magazine Sept/Oct 1981 Issue.

“Being in the lead, I did look over my shoulder a lot to see who the challengers were behind me. But you can’t dwell on that. No matter what happens or who was behind me, I knew I still had to catch a good limit each day. I knew I couldn’t be worrying about who was behind me.”

The second day he continued his onslaught with the spook. His partner was future bait mogul Gary Yamamoto of Page, AZ.

As in the day, the U.S. Open was a pro-on-pro draw event. Hines, having taken a commanding lead early in the event, had no problem convincing Yamamoto to fish his water and take his boat. Here are his words as told to Nick Sisley in the November/December 1981 issue of Western Bass Magazine.

“…. He had caught his limit on worms the first day but his weight was around 7 1/2 pounds. He knew I was catching bigger fish, so he wanted to go with me to fish my way and my style.”

Don Doty with two fish from his third-day stringer. Photo Western Bass Magazine Sept/Oct 1981 Issue.

Hines took an even bigger lead weighing in 14.97 pounds. His total for two days was 29.54.

The third day of the event Hines was Hines’ toughest. The previous two rounds he’d caught over 20 fish a day, in the third round he barely scratched a limit. His fish weighed a little over 12 pounds. He held a 9-pound lead going into the final round.

The last day his partner was a writer from the Arizona Republic. He had the boat all to himself and knew he only needed a decent limit of fish to win the event. Here are his words as spoken to Nick Sisley in the same article referenced above.

“I was happy for that draw. There was no pressure of having a partner who wanted to do something else. I wanted to win the tournament going away. I knew I still had fish in my area that I had missed the day before. I worked those areas carefully for three hours. The fish were turned off, plus I missed three nice ones. At that time I figured if I could catch a few bass I could win the tournament, so I drove all the way up above Echo Bay to a muddy channel I know up there. The first trip down that shoreline I caught a limit of fish.”

Dee Thomas is awarded third place. Photo Western Bass Magazine Sept/Oct 1981 Issue.

“I was using a Mann’s Jelly Worm – a 6-incher. That meant I had changed baits and style of fishing completely. I turned around and came back down the same bank with an Arkie Jig and pork rind and caught a total of 12 to 15 bass in about 10 minutes. At that point in time I knew I had a seven- or eight-pound limit and I was quite confident I would win the tournament. I sat down, had a soft drink, relaxed a little bit, yelled a lot, talked a little.”

Hines ended up weighing his smallest limit of the event, 8.33 pounds, but won by 4 1/2 pounds. His final weight for the event was 49.71.

Below are the top-30 anglers for the event.

1981 U.S. Open Final Standings
Place
Angler, State
Weight, lbs
Award, $
1
Greg Hines, CA
49.71
$50,000
2
Don Doty, CA
45.25
$20,000
3
Dee Thomas, CA
42.82
$11,000
4
Rich Tauber, CA
40.55
$8,000
5
Bobby Garland, UT
40.48
$6,000
6
Basil Bacon, MO
38.82
$5,000
7
Okie Vaughn, AZ
38.23
$4,500
8
Gary Klein, CA
36.38
$4,000
9
Byron Frankenberger, CA
36.11
$3,500
10
Don Geigle, AZ
34.64
$3,000
11
Cliff Craft, GA
34.48
$2,000
12
Roger Moore, MO
34.42
$2,000
13
Guido Hibdon, MO
34.31
$2,000
14
Tom Mann, AL
34.09
$2,000
15
Larry Nixon, AR
34.03
$2,000
16
Bobby Sandberg, CA
33.93
$2,000
17
Fred Ward, AZ
33.86
$2,000
18
Don Butler, OK
33.09
$2,000
19
Dwayne Watson, UT
33.08
$2,000
20
Wayne Ball, AR
32.88
$2,000
21
Frank Shubert, CA
32.82
$1,000
22
Tommy Martin, TX
32.65
$1,000
23
Fred Kunkle, CA
32.21
$1,000
24
Dan Myers, NV
31.96
$1,000
25
Bobby Murray, AR
31.85
$1,000
26
Jeff Munson, CA
31.81
$1,000
27
Ron Haskell, CA
31.40
$1,000
28
Jimmy Houston, OK
31.01
$1,000
29
Neal Parker, KY
30.22
$1,000
30
Bo Dowden, LA
30.02
$1,000
Daily Big Fish
Daily Big Stringer
Day 1
Gary Robson, CA - 5.22
Day 1
Greg Hines, CA - 14.57
Day 2
Cliff Craft, GA - 4.87
Day 2
Greg Hines, CA - 14.73
Day 3
John Bedwell, CA - 6.22
Day 3
Don Doty, CA - 12.74
Day 4
Wayne Ball, AR - 4.34
Day 4
Dee Thomas, CA - 13.29

A New Dawn

After all was said and done, the first U.S. Open paid out over $180,000 in cash and prizes setting the tone for the future of bass fishing. The Bass Master Classic wouldn’t pay out a $50,000 top prize until 1985. The first Open proved that anglers were willing to put up the big bucks for a chance to win a year’s worth of salary and, hopefully, all the industry attention that comes with winning an event of this stature.

Part three of this series will cover the bait that won the Open and how this tournament took it from the chopping block back to the shelves of the tackle stores.