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Bassmaster Classic brings a big catch to Houston area

March 22, 2017 GMT

Professional bass fishing’s annual pinnacle event plays out this week on Lake Conroe’s 21,000 flooded acres and the field of Houston’s Minute Maid Park as 52 of the past year’s most successful anglers in the high-stakes, high-profile arena of competitive bass fishing contend for the title of world champion in the 47th Bassmaster Classic.

The Friday-Sunday contest and associated events built around fishing for Texas’ and the nation’s most popular game fish are expected to draw more than 100,000 visitors including around 300 members of print and electronic media, generate $20 million or more in revenue for local businesses and shine a national spotlight on the state’s high-quality largemouth bass fishery.

It will be the first time the world championship, officially the Geico Bassmaster Classic, has been held on wholly Texas water; the 1979 Classic was held on Lake Texoma, a reservoir Texas shares with Oklahoma. And that has many Texas bass anglers, especially those who follow the professional bass tour or participate in competitive bass fishing ecstatic at the opportunity of seeing a Classic up close.

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“I’m 54 years old, but I’m as giddy as a kid before Christmas about the Classic coming to Conroe,” said Mark Hooker, a life-long bass angler who has fished bass tournaments for more than 20 years and coaches the highly competitive Montgomery High School Fishing Club in the state’s high school bass tournament series. “Bass fishing is huge in Texas. We have some of the best fishing in the country, and some of the best fishermen - Texas has had more fishermen in the Classic than any other state.

“This is a great chance to see the best fishermen in the world doing what they do best - see how they fish, the tackle they use, how they make decisions, how they rig their boats. It’s a great learning opportunity,” Hooker said. “It’s almost criminal that the Classic’s never been on a (wholly) Texas lake. But it is, now.”

“We’ve been wanting to bring the Classic to Texas for a long time,” said Michael Mulone, director of events and tourism partnerships for Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, the Alabama-based fishing organization that spawned the Classic and is primarily responsible for the rise and development of competitive bass fishing over the past nearly half-century. “Texas is a fantastic bass fishing state. We have more members in Texas (about 45,000 of BASS’ half-million members) than any other state. There’s an incredible amount of interest and support in the community.”

There certainly is. More than two-thirds of Texas’ 2.3 million licensed freshwater anglers primarily target largemouth bass, and most of the $3.6 billion in annual economic impact of those anglers is driven by bass fishing, a result of the state’s world-class bass fisheries.

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That interest drove discussions and negotiations that began in 2007 but heated up over the past four years between BASS, Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, Conroe Visitors and Convention Bureau and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. As a result, Houston becomes the second-largest city to host a Bassmaster Classic, just behind Chicago where the 2000 Classic was held.

As much spectacle and celebration of all things bass fishing as it is a fishing tournament, the Bassmaster Classic’s true Texas debut will be shared between Lake Conroe and Houston. Competing anglers, who qualified for the championship through their performance in BASS-run tournaments over the past year, will fish on Lake Conroe. They’ll leave each morning from the water adjacent to Lake Conroe Park, sent off by a crowd of what in past Classics has been more than a thousand fishing fans who gather to see anglers many consider celebrities on a par with other professional athletes.

But the weigh-in, an choreographed extravaganza BASS’ Mulone described as “a rock-and-roll concert where they weigh fish,” will happen on the field at Minute Maid Park. After the daily fishing period ends at 2 p.m., anglers will load their boats, livewells holding their fish, onto trailers for the 45-mile drive to downtown Houston where, like gladiators in chariots, they’ll be transported to a stage where their catches will be weighed and tallied.

Anglers will be allowed to weigh as many as five bass per day, with total weight over the three-day contest determining the winner. After the weigh-in, the live bass, which are carefully monitored and handled, will be turned over to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staff who will place the fish in oxygenated water tanks aboard trailers, haul those trailers back to Lake Conroe and release the fish.

“We have a nearly 100 percent survival of those fish,” BASS’s Mulone said.

Those daily weigh-ins at Minute Maid Park, scheduled to begin around 3:30 p.m. each day of the tournament, will be open to the public with no admission charge.

“This is something really cool and unique for Minute Maid Park, and we’re really happy to be involved in it,” Chris Massey, HCHSA’s director of events, said of the Bassmaster Classic weigh-in at the downtown Houston baseball stadium. “I’m a fisherman, so I’m excited about it from that level.”

Along with the opportunity to witness the spectacle of the daily weigh-ins, fishing fans heading to downtown Houston will have the chance to visit the Bassmaster Classic Outdoor Expo, a huge consumer-oriented show covering more than 300,000 square feet of the George R. Brown Convention Center with displays and booths of fishing tackle, boat and marine equipment and other outdoor recreation gear. The expo, which runs Friday through Sunday, is also open to the public at no charge.

But the main attraction of the Bassmaster Classic is the competition among the 52 anglers who have proven themselves to be the most skilled among the nation’s 30 million freshwater anglers at locating and catching the country’s most popular game fish.

The winner of the tournament - the angler who lands the heaviest total weight of largemouth bass (no more than five per day) over the three-day contest - gains more than the title and the $300,000 first place prize that comes with it. Winning the Bassmaster Classic is a life-changing event for professional bass anglers. The title of world champion cements their stature with the legions of fans who look to these professionals as arbiters of fishing tackle, tactics and technology. And that makes them invaluable to sponsors who know the value of associating their products with winners of the most prestigious prize in bass fishing.

“Just getting to the Classic is something every person who fishes a bass tournament dreams of,” Hooker said. “To win one is something only a handful of people will ever achieve. It’s the kind of thing that goes on your gravestone.”

This year’s field of Classic contenders includes some of the sport’s most famous names - professional anglers such as Kevin VanDam, who has qualified for 26 Classics and won four; Mike Iacconelli and Aaron Martens, both 18-time qualifiers; and Edwin Evers, who won the 2016 Classic.

The 52 competitors come from 22 states. Alabama has the most, with eight. But five Texas anglers will fish for the world championship. One of them, Keith Combs of Huntington, is pegged as a favorite to win.

Combs, who has won two Texas Bass Classics on Conroe, said earlier this year he would not be surprised to see Bassmaster Classic records broken during the Conroe contest.

I think it’ll take at least 65-70 pounds to win and it very easily could be more,” Combs said of the pending 2017 Bassmaster Classic during a day he spent scouting the lake earlier this year.

Then he added, “It’s going to be something to see.”

This year, Houston-area anglers get a chance to see it up close.