The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Bassmaster Classic

HOUSTON— Jordan Lee hoisted the trophy with an emphatic roar. In a pyrotechnic sea of fire and flame, two words glowed on the trophy’s base: World Champion. Lee is 25 years old.

This Bassmaster Classic will go down as one of the most memorable in recent years. Lee rallied back from 37th place on Day 1 to claim bass fishing bragging rights, a $300,000 payday and a place in history. On the final day, his motor broke down; he fished those critical hours stranded in one spot. The future champion caught a ride back to the ramp on a spectators boat, and when he weighed in on the field of the Houston Astros, his bag of 27 pounds, 4 ounces carried him to victory.

A few nights earlier, Lee sauntered to the basement of Minute Maid Park, to a room with waiting media and competitors. At the end of Day 1, he’d weighed just 8 pounds 6 ounces, and he looked glum, a little perplexed at the end of a savagely windy first day on Lake Conroe.

48 hours later, he was champion.

The Good

Jordan Lee— His story will lead headlines across the nation this week: the improbable comeback, a tale of perseverance and talent and luck coming together at just the right time. But there are a few more themes from Houston that probably won’t make the papers.

The Youth Movement— Lee’s win puts a cherry on top of a groundswell of youth movement in the bass industry. The movement isn’t new, but it is gaining momentum and support from manufacturers. Shimano unveiled a scholarship program for young anglers interested in a career in the fishing industry (not just become pro fishermen, but finding a job as an engineer or a marketing rep or any number of positions that one can find in this world.) St. Croix Rods focused their Bassmaster Classic Expo branding on their new, Bass X line, which is geared specifically towards young bass anglers (complete with a Snapchat overlay at the Expo). Enigma Fishing is offering 40-percent off of all products to kids across the board.

Tournament bass fishing is expensive, but every year, manufacturers appear to be making more of an effort to lower the bar of entry and raise the rewards for kids who want to build a life on the water. The movement coincides nicely with the American Sportfishing Association’s R3 initiative for recruiting anglers.

The fans— Crowds reached the upper deck of the 41,000 seat Major League Baseball stadium on the second and third days of weigh-in. There was little chance of filling that massive park to the rafters, and some people seemed disappointed that many of the 18,000 seats allotted for the weigh-in weren’t filled, but bass fishing still made an admirable showing that looked great on camera, at least when the lenses were pointed to the crowd.

The Expo— Despite some early grumblings about crowd size at the Bassmaster Classic Expo, most manufactures thought the turnout was “good.” The George R. Brown Convention Center is a large venue that managed and spread the Expo crowds out well. I overheard a few people clamor about Birmingham, but Texas showed itself well.

The food— There’s no doubt that the fishing industry is filled with bbq aficionados. In one case, I found myself in a room with bbq ambassadors from the nation’s meccas: Kansas City, North Carolina, Memphis. And we all agreed that, while brisket might still not technically qualify as bbq in our minds, all of the beef we devoured in Texas was exceptional.

Minute Maid Park—From the moment Minute Maid Park was announced as 2017’s weigh-in venue, people whispered about the 2000 weigh-in disaster in Chicago. “It will be like Soldier Field,” they said. It wasn’t. Minute Maid Park proved a first-class facility, and it easily outclassed many of the NBA and college basketball arenas I used to visit in a former life. Any time you put an arena-sized crowd in a stadium, you’ll have some empty seats; but the park’s proximity to the convention center and hotels, combined with the respectable crowd, made it a win from my perspective.

Raising Fishing’s profile— I’ve heard some rumblings that Houston was too big, that the Bassmaster Classic shouldn’t be in any city larger than Nashville. I don’t agree. Everywhere I went, non-fishing fans asked me what I was doing in Houston. Even if I only talked bass fishing to a handful of them, multiply that by the 100,000 visitors expected for the Classic, and you have a massive awareness campaign in an area rife with people who might not fish regularly. Limiting the Classic to only mid-size cities would be a step backwards for awareness. (Besides, Nashville is too busy admiring itself in the mirror to worry about bass anglers.)

The Bad

Convention fees— I lauded Houston as a potential venue for ICAST after 2020, and I still stand by the city’s walkability, the amenities of the convention district and its proximity to the state’s Texas-sized bevy of anglers. However, exhibitors at the Bassmaster Classic Expo were unhappy about the additional costs—some of them significant—associated with the convention center. Exhibitors were reportedly charged an excess fee by the pound for their displays—that’s something that hit motor and boat manufacturers particularly hard.

ICAST exhibits almost universally dwarf those at the Bassmaster Classic Expo, and a repeat scenario there would be a non-starter.

Economic impact questions— “Does Houston care enough to have this event back?” Our Managing Editor, Ken Duke posed that question to me on the Expo floor. The Bassmaster Classic is estimated to have a $22-24 million impact on the city, bringing in 100,000 visitors. “But is that enough?” Duke asked.

I think it is. Granted, it’s not the Super Bowl, which was estimated to have a (questionable) $350 million impact on the city, or the NCAA Final Four, which Houston officials thought would bring in $150 million last year. But the Bassmaster Classic is a big deal. For perspective, last weekend’s NCAA Sweet 16 and Elite 8 featuring UCLA, Butler, Kentucky and North Carolina was expected to bring in just $5 million to Memphis.

The Ugly

Competitor intro music— Good Lord. I spent a thousand words and two days trying to rank the list from 52 down to number 1. This was a brutal process in masochism that resulted in just a handful of excerpts:

Randy Howell, No. 52— DPB and Randy Howell, “Champion Song”. What is this? The song starts with a howl, then launches into a dubstep beat with nonsensical ramblings about sponsors. We hear you howlin’ Randy, but literally stealing the nWo Wolfpac song would have been better.

Skeet Reese: No. 51.— Cupid “Cupid Shuffle”. You hated this song at your third cousin’s wedding. Skeet Reese is here to remind you that you still hate it at the Bassmaster Classic.

Steve Kennedy: No. 48 — Justin Timberlake/Gwen Stefani/Ron Funches “Hair up” (Theme from Trolls). I asked Steve why he picked this song. He said he’d never heard it. Not that it matters when you’re cashing a $50,000 check for second place.

Casey Ashley, Andy Montgomery, Drew Benton, and Jason Christie: No 40-36 — Is this Eric Church? Is this Jason Aldean? Is this a song you wrote yourself? Seriously, I can’t tell. These modern country singles all rank the same because they all sound the same.

Randall Tharp: No. 25 — R.L. Burnside “Someday Baby”. Burnside was a legitimate blues legend, propelling this choice into the Top 25 despite a lack of crowd pop potential. This song feels like the musical version of a fine, Texas brisket. It was released in 2004, just a few months before Burnside died.

Chris Zaldain: No. 23— Tupac “California Love”. Chris Zaldain is from California. This song should have scored lower for lack of originality, but it’s such a banger on the big stage.

Matt Herren: No. 17— Creedence Clearwater Revival “Up Around the Bend”. Herren edges out fellow Fogerty fan Jesse Wiggins (No. 29) by choosing the verifiably most lit track from Cosmo’s Factory, which might be the most listenable album owned by the entire Classic field.

Will Hardy II: No. 10— Saliva “Ladies and Gentlemen”. An uninspired basketball arena staple, but a solid choice and the highest ranking modern rock song on the list. This song will get you hyped, which is a point half the field seemed to miss, and a requirement for the Top 10.

Brett Hite: No. 9— Everlast “Folsom Prison Blues”. Hite scores big with a slightly obscure, super dope remix on a Johnny Cash favorite. The music works doubly well because Hite’s boat, like Cash’s wardrobe, is black.

Gerald Swindle: No. 7— The Party Boyz “Flex”. This is an absolutely ridiculous song. On its own, it’s one of the worst hip-hop hits of the past two decades. Paired with the reigning Bassmaster Angler of the Year? It’s hilarious. Points.

Jordan Lee: No. 3— Rick Ross “Push It”. The mental image of Lee riding around with the Bassmaster Classic trophy in the passenger seat, windows down, blasting Rick Ross through rural Alabama satisfies my soul. And it’s not too far off from reality. Ross made his millions pushing Miami up the charts, but he was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and “The Boss” returns to the rural south regularly.

Justin Lucas: No. 2— Andy Mineo “You Can’t Stop Me”. This track is sick. Take notes, people: this is how you incorporate dubstep. Mineo combines epic instrumentals with a fast flow and phenomenal lyrics. Christian music—mostly limited to the mid-40s of this list, because it’s all in 4/4 time held together with an acoustic guitar—makes a surprising comeback for the No. 2 spot.

James Elam: No. 1— Nirvana “In Bloom”. An extremely unusual choice showing, creativity, understanding of the moment, and good musical taste. Believe me, when the opening riff hits on an arena-sized sound system, this song is electric. It rocks the crowd. It thumps your chest. It’s like the musical incarnation of a 10 pound bass slamming a frog. Crank it up to 11, throw on your favorite ripped jeans and flannel shirt and lose yourself in a time when rock n’ roll was still badass.