When the Bassmaster Classic comes to Knoxville March 24-26, it will pit 55 of the world's best anglers against each other in heated competition on the Tennessee River. It is the championship weekend for the world's premier bass tournament circuit, the B.A.S.S. Elite Series, and while professional anglers are on the water, more than 150,000 fishing fanatics will descend on K-Town to take part in the spectacle.
This is the 2023 Academy Sports+Outdoors Bassmaster Classic, "The Superbowl of Bass Fishing." Since 1971, this tournament has featured the best-of-the-best in the tournament world, and it has made heroes of the professional anglers who rise to the top after a grueling tournament season. On the water for three tournament days, pros fish with artificial lures for their heaviest five-fish daily limit. Fish are kept alive and healthy in aerated livewells on board high-tech bass boats and after daily weigh-ins, are released back to the river under the supervision of Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. On Championship Sunday, the angler with the heaviest cumulative weight of bass will be crowned Classic Champion.
While the pros are on the water, spectators from around the world take part in Bassmaster Classic events. Fan favorites include early morning blastoffs when high-powered fishing boats race away from Volunteer Landing in downtown Knoxville; daily weigh-ins when anglers tow their boats and live fish into the University of Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena for a tension-filled results show; and the Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo, which will fill the floors of the Knoxville Convention Center and the World's Fair Exhibition Hall with all things bass fishing. All Classic venues and events are open and free to the public.
Last time the Classic came to Knoxville in 2019, it generated an economic impact of $32.2 million for East Tennessee, according to the Visit Knoxville Sports Commission. Local favorite and Knoxville native, Ott Defoe, won the 2019 tournament, the $300,000 check and a giant championship trophy delivered on stage in a shower of glittering confetti.
A Classic championship has a way of setting up professional anglers for life. The big check is nothing to sneeze at, and the title of Classic champion comes with untold sponsorships and endorsements. It's the pinnacle of the sport, the achievement every young tournament angler dreams of while fishing pot tournaments at their local reservoir.
This year, several Tennessee anglers will vie for the title. They qualified for the championship tournament either through the Elite Series or by winning in B.A.S.S.'s Opens series, which is a circuit that feeds up-and-coming anglers into the big leagues.
> Fayetteville pro Brandon Lester is a fan favorite headed into the Classic, and he's an angler with Chattanooga roots. This will be his eighth appearance in the Classic, and as a former member of the UTC Mocs fishing team, he is very familiar with the Tennessee River, even if he does list Tim's Ford Lake as his homewater. Lester finished second in 2022 for the coveted Elite Series Angler of the Year (AOY) trophy, which is determined by points based on tournament finishes throughout the season.
> This is the fourth Classic appearance for David Mullins, of Mt. Carmel. Hailing from the northeastern corner of Tennessee, he grew up fishing the Tennessee River system on lakes Cherokee and Douglas just upstream of Knoxville. Mullins ranked 17 in the AOY standings for 2022, and with his proximity to Knoxville, you can bet he's familiar with the fishery.
> Tristan McCormick, of Burns, is a young gun. This will be his second appearance in the Classic. McCormick finished 35th in last year's Bassmaster Classic on Lake Hartwell. He qualified for that tournament by taking the one annual berth reserved for the top angler in college fishing. McCormick fished for Bethel University in McKenzie, Tennessee. It's a small Christian school that is a dominant force in college bass fishing.
> Chattanooga's own Buddy Gross will compete in his third Classic this year. He lists the Tennessee River as his favorite fishery, with obvious homewaters at the big-bass factory that is Chickamauga Lake. Gross is a 50-year-old angler with a long history in tournament fishing. Prior to earning his invite to the Elite Series, Gross won two FLW Tour Championships. He finished 20th in last year's Classic at Lake Hartwell and must be thrilled to compete this year on his favorite waters.
Chattanooga and B.A.S.S.
Chattanooga's involvement with B.A.S.S., the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, goes all the way back to the organization's beginnings.
Back in 1967, Ray Scott, the "godfather" of modern bass fishing, convinced 100 bass fishermen to pony up $100 each to compete for each other's cash in his All-American Bass tournament on Alabama's Smith Lake. That tournament was the origin of B.A.S.S. and the multi-billion-dollar industry that is bass fishing today.
B.A.S.S. and its publication, Bassmaster Magazine, were the organizational and promotional machine that drove the rise of tournament bass fishing. The Chattanooga Times, which later became the Chattanooga Times Free Press, had a small role to play at the very beginning. All of the following was gleaned from the writings of Chattanooga bass-tournament legend Harold Sharp.
At the same time Scott was organizing his early tournaments, The Chattanooga Bass club was forming. After competing in Scott's tournaments, Chattanoogans Bob Treadway, Harold Sharp and Glynn West started talking about forming a tournament club. Their first meeting was held at Jim Ashley's Chattanooga barber shop.
Willie King, who wrote the outdoors column in the Chattanooga Times, posted an announcement in the paper about the club meetings, and suddenly there were too many attendees to meet at the barber shop. Club member Bob Myers worked at America National Bank, and he reserved a meeting room in the bank building. That's where the Chattanooga Bass Club officially formed and at the same time became B.A.S.S.'s first affiliate chapter early in 1968.
The 19 Chattanooga Bass Club members, along with one man from Tulsa, Oklahoma, made up B.A.S.S.'s total membership of 20 anglers at the time. Sharp was elected president of the Chattanooga Bass Club, Ashley was vice president, Myers was the treasurer and Bob Sanford was public relations director.
King was on hand to cover the gathering at which Ray Scott pinned the first B.A.S.S patch ever issued on Sharp's shirt. The photo and an article appeared in a January, 1968 issue of the Times.
Those were the humble beginnings of an organization that now boasts more than half a million members worldwide.