It'll be impossible to ignore the hubbub when the 49th Bassmaster Classic comes to Knoxville March 15-17. The Classic is the world championship of the sport — dubbed "The Super Bowl of Bass Fishing" — and brings with it more than 100,000 fans as well as a massive fishing expo to be held at the downtown Knoxville Convention Center and the World's Fair Exhibition Hall.
The field features 52 of the world's best bass anglers who qualified through the 2018 B.A.S.S tournament season. For the one fisherman who wins The Classic, it is a truly life-changing event. The top prize is a $300,000 payout, and the star power generated from Classic victories has turned past winners into millionaires.
Competitors will launch out of Volunteer Landing downtown each morning of the event in high-tech bass boats capable of running more than 70 mph. Tournament waters are sprawling and include Fort Loudoun and Tellico lakes as well as the Tennessee River upstream of the Fort Loudoun Dam and short stretches of the Holston and French Broad rivers.
With the mid-March timing, bass should be pushing into the shallow backwaters to feed and spawn, so the fishing should be good as anglers try to catch the heaviest five-fish limit each day of the three-day tournament. The cumulative weight determines the winners.
Caught bass are kept healthy in aerated livewells and will be transported at the end of each fishing day, with the anglers and their boats, to the University of Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena. After weigh-ins, the fish are released back into the river.
There will be plenty to see and do, all within walking distance in downtown Knoxville. Admission to everything is free.
Fans regularly launch their own boats to watch the action on the water. Obviously, there is etiquette involved. Don't try to launch a boat from Volunteer Landing, and give anglers some space. They're fishing for their livelihood.
Early risers can watch the powerful bass rigs blast off each morning from Volunteer Landing. There is room for an audience of thousands, but fans should show up early for the 7:40 a.m. takeoff to secure a good view.
Weigh-ins are also exciting. At the end of the final-day weigh-in, the 2019 Bassmaster Classic champion will be crowned before thousands of fans and confetti cannons. The doors of Thompson-Boling Arena open to the public at 3:15 p.m. each day.
During tournament downtime, fans should visit the Classic Outdoors Expo. All three days, the floors of the convention center and exhibition hall will be bustling with fishing vendors.
For more information on the 2019 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK'S Sporting Goods, visit bassmaster.com.
Four Tennessee anglers qualified for this year's Bassmaster Classic. All of them are very familiar with the Tennessee River, and each has a chance to make a name for himself on the sport's biggest stage.
Ott DeFoe, of Knoxville, hopes to improve on an impressive sixth-place finish in last year's Classic. He is the hometown favorite and will be fishing waters familiar to him since he was a 12-year-old competing with the East Tennessee Bass Anglers club.
DeFoe was the first Tennessee angler to accept an invitation to the prestigious B.A.S.S. Elite Series in 2010. He followed that up with a Rookie of the Year award in 2011 and has since amassed more than $1.3 million in winnings. DeFoe finished fourth in the Elite Series Angler of The Year standings in 2018 — he's on a hot streak.
Brandon Lester hails from Fayetteville, Tenn. The stretch of the Tennessee River in Knoxville might not be his home waters, but he knows the river well. While a student at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, Lester spent countless hours fishing the river in Chattanooga, and it made him formidable in riverine environments.
Consistency has been Lester's strength since going pro. He might not be a regular on the podium, but he earns a check at most tournaments. He was invited to the B.A.S.S. Elite Series in 2014 and has since amassed close to $500,000 in winnings.
Lester has qualified to fish the Classic every year since joining the Elite Series. He's due for a big victory, and a Classic win would catapult him to super-stardom.
Wesley Strader, of Spring City, Tenn., was a force on the FLW Tour for 20 years. He qualified for the B.A.S.S. Elite Series in 2018 and quickly racked up some very impressive statistics, with three wins and nine top-10 finishes in a single season.
Strader might is another hometown favorite. He grew up fishing the Tennessee River at Watts Bar Lake and turned pro in the late 1990s after suffering a near-fatal accident while working as a lineman for TVA.
Strader has a lot of tournament experience, but he's a relative newcomer to the biggest stage with just two Classic appearances. A Classic title would be a big notch in Strader's already impressive belt.
Jacob Wheeler lives just up the river from Chattanooga in Harrison, Tenn. He was a young phenomenon in high school, when he captured angler-of-the-year and state championship titles as well as Junior Bassmaster Classic appearances.
He blossomed as a pro in 2011, when at age 20 he became the youngest angler to ever win the BFL All-American. He followed that up by dominating the competition at the 2012 FLW Forest Wood Cup to become the youngest angler ever to win that tour's championship.
Wheeler was invited to join the Elite Series in 2017. He's had two previous Classic appearances, finishing 14th in 2015 and seventh in 2018.