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The Biggest Splash in Sports

The Super Bowl of fishing — the Bassmaster Classic — returns to Alabama this month with 56 of the top anglers in the country and 100,000 spectators on the shores of Lake Guntersville.

Guntersville resident Chris Lane, winner of the 2012 Bassmaster Classic in Shreveport, La., said wearing the crown of his sport was a life-changing experience. While he initially felt relief when his reign was over, he soon found himself charging hard to win the competition again.

Guntersville resident Chris Lane, winner of the 2012 Bassmaster Classic in Shreveport, La., said wearing the crown of his sport was a life-changing experience. While he initially felt relief when his reign was over, he soon found himself charging hard to win the competition again.

For Randy Howell and other professional anglers, nothing would help their careers more than winning what’s known as the Super Bowl of bass fishing — the Bassmaster Classic.

“It’s the biggest thing we have in our sport,” says Howell, a 41-year-old Springville resident who will be fishing in the event for the 12th time when it kicks off in late February at Lake Guntersville. “The Bassmaster Classic has always been the biggest thing we have in our sport and probably will always be.

“It’s the one showcase event of the year. Not only does it have the largest cash payout (the total purse is more than $1 million), but it also gets the most media coverage for the fishing world. Anglers want to win it more than any other prize in the sport. You only get one chance a year, and you only get that chance if you qualify for it. Just to get into the Classic is a great thing.”

The Bassmaster Classic has been in different locations since it was first held in 1971, and this will be the 12th time it will take place in Alabama. The 2014 event includes a three-day fishing tournament at Lake Guntersville, an exposition during that time at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex and an evening weigh-in of fish there from each day’s catch. The Birmingham-based Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.), which owns the event, expects a turnout of more than 100,000 for this year’s Classic and an economic impact of $24 million.

Guntersville resident Chris Lane says there was a huge, immediate impact on his life after winning the 2012 Bassmaster Classic in Shreveport, La. There was a lot more money coming in and a much busier schedule because of interviews and other commitments. When he relinquished the crown last year, “At first I felt relieved,” Lane says, “because there are some extra things I feel like are required of a Classic champion, and they do require a time commitment. But at the same time, I wanted that crown back.”

Lane and Howell both emphasize the importance of the Bassmaster Classic to relationships with sponsors and partners. The event’s first prize of $300,000 is one thing, but endorsements are more lucrative than prize money. Along with exposure they bring sponsors by their Bassmaster Classic presence, Howell and Lane also leverage their own Web sites and social media as major communication tools. Howell, for example, has more than 31,000 followers on Facebook.

“Aside from time on the water, probably the most important thing for me to run my business is to keep all my partners and sponsors informed and aware of what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis,” Howell says. “With the media now, especially social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and my Web site, it makes it easier to show them what we’re doing. And that’s important for us to do — to show our companies that we bring value to them and that we’re working to be sure they’re getting a good return on their investment in us.”

Lane left a good job as an outside salesman to become a professional angler, and he feels the people skills he learned in sales have served him well. “To be a professional angler, you’re going to have to sell sponsorships, and when you’re selling sponsorships, you’re basically selling yourself,” he says. “I learned a lot about relationships with people when I was in outside sales, and there is no question that has helped me working with sponsors. I am blessed to have my team of sponsors.”

Lane moved his family from Florida to Guntersville because of the excellent bass fishing there. The man-made lake, completed in 1939, has almost 890 miles of shoreline, 67,900 acres of surface and abundant weed beds that make great fish habitat. B.A.S.S. ranks Lake Guntersville as the third best in the nation for bass fishing.

Lane has fished since he was large enough to hold a rod and reel. He qualified for his first Bassmaster Classic in 2008 and finished almost dead last that year before his big win two years ago.

“I had worked to be in the Classic practically all my life, and you have to put your whole life of fishing experience together for something like the Classic,” Lane says.

“Mentally, you have to be ready to win, but four years ago, I was just excited to be there. I was starstruck, really. Now, it’s different for me. I’ve won a Classic, and I want to win again. The first day of the tournament I’ll have some goose bumps, of course, because it’s the Bassmaster Classic and it’s on my home lake at Guntersville. But at the end of the day, I know I have a job to do, and that’s to give it everything I have to do the best I can.”

Other Alabama anglers joining Lane and Howell in this year’s Bassmaster Classic include:

Steve Kennedy, 44, from Auburn, who has made more than $1 million in B.A.S.S. competitions and is making his seventh Bassmaster Classic appearance.

Aaron Martens, 42, from Leeds, has qualified for the Bassmaster Classic 15 times and finished second in 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2011. He moved to Alabama from California to take advantage of excellent bass fishing here. The winner of almost $2 million in B.A.S.S. competitions, Martens stays fit by running marathons.

Gerald Swindle, 45, from Warrior, will be in his 14th Bassmaster Classic. He has earned almost $1.5 million in B.A.S.S. competitions and has finished in the Top 10 in 41 of the tournaments in which he has entered.

Greg Vinson, 36, from Wetumpka, will be fishing in his third Bassmaster Classic. He placed second in the 2012 event and has almost half a million dollars in B.A.S.S earnings.

Making their first Bassmaster Classic appearance are: Coby Carden, 41, from Shelby; David Kilgore, 40, from Jasper; and Jordan Lee, 22, a native of Cullman and an Auburn University angler.

Outboard motors thunder at Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees in February 2013 as fishermen prepare to take off during the 2013 Bassmaster Classic in Tulsa, Okla. Cliff Pace of Petal, Miss., was the top winner that year.
 

Step into the stream (or mosh pit) of fishing

OK, so you’ve never experienced a Bassmaster Classic — what might you expect if you venture out to this year’s event? For starters, it’s open to the public at no charge. You probably would find it interesting, and who knows? The scope of the event and zeal of its fans might just blow you out of the water.

It starts early morning on Friday, Feb. 21 at Lake Guntersville, when 56 of the nation’s top bass anglers rev up their boats’ engines and “blast off” to their preferred fishing areas. Chances are it will be cold, maybe even frigid, but local officials in Guntersville are planning for 8,000 to 10,000 people being at the blast off each of the event’s three days.

Large parking areas for spectators and shuttles to the lake’s harbor are in place. Blast-off hours are 7 to 8:30, but you might consider arriving in Guntersville earlier to fully absorb the prelaunch excitement and magnitude of the event. Anglers will fish for about seven and a half hours, with check-in for the first flight at 2:45 p.m.

If you plan to use your own boat to observe the fishing, remember there will be hundreds of others there over the course of the weekend. Also keep in mind that Lake Guntersville is large, the anglers might not stay in one spot very long and there is no guarantee you will see what you expect to see. 

In Birmingham that Friday, thousands of fishing enthusiasts will descend on the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex’s Exhibition Hall for the Bassmaster Classic Expo, which runs through Sunday. The expo provides a fishing wonderland of exhibits and product demonstrations throughout 220,000 square feet of exhibition space. Visiting the expo, with access to the big-screen updates from Guntersville, will give you an indication of the enormity of bass fishing’s popularity.

Friday through Sunday nights, large crowds are expected at the convention complex auditorium for high-energy weigh-in presentations of each day’s catch from the tournament. The Sunday night weigh-in, in particular, is something like a bass fishing rock concert. Guntersville and Birmingham hotels are booked near capacity during the event, so you may have to look to nearby towns for accommodations.

For more information before or during the event, visit bassmaster.com. You might also try marshallcountycvb.com or birminghamal.org.

Charlie Ingram is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

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