For Ryan Lavigne, this is the week he’s been dreaming of his entire fishing life.
It’s the Bassmaster Classic, and the Gonzales angler, who qualified through a long and trying series of Bassmaster-affiliated club tournaments, is in Houston this week for his first Classic.
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For national touring pro Greg Hackney, who lives only a stone’s throw from Lavigne, it’s Classic No. 14, and for Cliff Crochet, the Pierre Part angler who’s picked up the nickname “Cajun Baby,” Friday’s first day of this “Super Bowl of Bass Fishing” is his fourth Classic start. So, same old, same old.
“Well, almost,” Hackney said. “I’m probably less hyped-up now because I know the routine.”
Then he laughed — well, more like a chuckle mixed with Hackney’s sudden realization of the surge of media coverage, the excitement of as many as 20,000 bass-fishing fans packed into an arena waiting for the best bass anglers on the planet to show just what a good day, and sometimes bad day, they had on the water.
In this case, that arena is Minute Maid Park, where the Houston Astros will open their season in a handful of days, a downtown sports temple more than an hour’s drive from Lake Conroe, the east Texas reservoir that will test the mettle of the 51 Classic-qualifying bass fishermen.
Hackney’s chuckle belied his low-key approach: “You know this is still ‘the Classic,’ and it’s easy to say it’s just another tournament until it gets here.
“Once Classic week starts, it’s different from other tournaments,” Hackney said. “You get three full days of practice, and then the rush starts. So much goes into the Classic that you don’t have in any other tournament.”
Hackney and Crochet compete with the top anglers in the Bassmaster Elite circuit. Hackney qualified through the Elites. Crochet had to wait until the last of the Bassmaster Opens, a win on the last day in the last of three Central Open events, this one held on his home waters of the Atchafalaya Basin, to make the Classic field. Hackney finished second in that tournament.
The Opens are three days. The Elite Series take four days to determine a winner.
“The added pressure in the Classic comes because you always seem to be in a hurry. The days seem to be shorter, and what adds to the pressure is that everybody around the Classic is hyped up, and that adds to your anxiety,” Hackney said.
For Crochet, the three previous Classic experiences taught him one lesson.
“What’s different about the Classic is that it doesn’t matter if you finish second or dead last; the only thing that matters is winning,” Crochet said. “I’ve been here before, and yeah, I’m excited — and I’m thankful for making this one — but I need a defining moment for my (fishing) career, and the Classic is a place where you can define your career.”
The Central Open win had to help, and Crochet said it proved to him he could win a Bassmaster event. It was the first time he cashed the winner’s check in a major tournament.
Hackney and Crochet both said traveling across one state line, not three, four or five, to get to Classic waters helps them. Houston and Conroe are much closer than northeast Oklahoma and western South Carolina, sites of the last two Classics.
And a change in the Elite Series structure — there have been two tournaments already in 2017 — helps, too.
“It’s big that we didn’t have to drive across the country, maybe five hours from the house,” Hackney said. “And in past years, you had to spend so much time loading everything for the Classic, making sure everything was working (on the boat). But this year the truck and boat have been loaded for two months, and I’ve used the boat and we’re not practicing for the first event of the year. I feel like I’m more in a (fishing) groove. We’re not coming off a four-month layoff to fish the biggest event of the year.”
Crochet said more familiar surroundings will be a big help, that Conroe is more like fishing at home than the cold-water and cold-weather conditions of the three classics he’s fished.
“This should be a shallow-water, power-fishing tournament, and that’s what we do here (in south Louisiana),” Crochet said. “The stable weather helps me, because the weather at the other classics changed every day and that when you have to start thinking a whole bunch. It’s big deal mentally and I feel like being closer to home and fishing in my comfort zone is a big help.
“I know I’ll have to change things in this Classic, but experience of being here has taught me how to make the more subtle changes you need to make," Crochet said. "It’s a big positive for me."
-The trio of Hackney, Crochet and Lavigne is the first time three Louisiana anglers have made the Classic field since 2003 when Hackney, Minden veteran Homer Humphreys and Covington’s Roger Boler were Classic qualifiers.
- Hackney's best Classic finish was fifth in 2008, and Crochet's came in his first Classic, a 13th-place spot.
- Hackney made a strong bid for his second Toyota Angler of the Year (his first AOY came in 2015), but his first-day catch was disqualified in the Elite’s New York tournament and he slipped from the top of the 110-angler Elite field to finish fifth in the 2016 standings.
- Crochet’s first Classic came after he finished in the top three in the Central Open points standings in 2010. Oddly his finish in the last tournament that year came in the Atchafalaya Basin, where he rallied from sixth place on the final day in the 2016’s Central Open to win and take one of three spots given to winners of the three Central Open events. He rallied from 27th place after the first day to put together 16-pound, 4-ounce catch the second day and a solid 18-4 haul the final day for a 46-6 total. Hackney was second at 42-4.
- All three south Louisiana anglers said to expect big catches for the 43rd Classic. Kevin VanDam's 2011 win — a 69-11 total — from Lake Cataouatchie in the New Orleans Classic continues to be the top five-bass-a-day Classic record. Edwin Evers is the defending champion. His 60-7 total won in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Back in 1984, with a daily limit of seven bass, legendary angler Rick Clunn won with a 75-9 catch on the Arkansas River out of Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
- Bassmaster officials said to expect the Classic weigh-in show at Minute Maid Park to begin near 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday — but with travel time from Lake Conroe, the first angler to bring bass to the scales likely will be later in the afternoon. Weigh-ins will be carried live on bassmaster.com, along with throughout-the-day updates.
- The Bassmaster Classic Outdoor Expo is set to run Friday through Sunday at the George Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston. There are no admission fees to the weigh-in or the Expo.