THE CONROE CLASSIC by Matt Williams

TEXAS FRESHWATER by Matt Williams
February 25, 2017
COMMENTARY by Kendal Hemphill
February 25, 2017

Bass fishing eyes all over the planet will be zeroed in on Texas later this month—more specifically Lake Conroe near Houston—as the Bassmaster Classic comes to the Lone Star state for the first time in nearly four decades.

Fittingly called pro bass fishing’s “Super Bowl,” the ‘Classic is considered by many to be the sport’s marquee event. That’s because it brings together some of bass fishing’s biggest names and places them in a championship setting where there is always plenty of electricity in the air. Seldom does a Bassmaster Classic come and go without producing a few fireworks along with some good ol’ fashioned drama as pros go at it for three days in hope of walking away with a life-changing pay day and a title that can solidify a career.

Lake Conroe, impounded in 1973, is a 20,118-acre reservoir on the West Fork of the San Jacinto River.

Winning the 2017 Bassmaster Classic will pay a whopping $300,000—$275,000 more than when Hank Parker won the last Texas Classic in 1979 at Lake Texoma in Pottsboro.

That’s mucho bucks, indeed. But it’s only a drop in the bucket when compared the bargaining potential a modern-day ‘Classic win brings to a resume it terms of sponsorship deals, endorsement contracts and other gigs that come with the territory.

It’s been said that a Classic win can be worth as much as $1 million to a guy who plays his cards right. I don’t have a clue how much money Kevin VanDam has banked from his four ‘Classic wins, but my guess is $4 million isn’t even in the ballpark. Not even close.

Four-time Bassmaster Classic champ Kevin VanDam fished Conroe for the Toyota Texas Bass Classic and said at the time that the lake was one of the best in the country.

It will be cool see someone strike it rich in Texas off something besides gas, oil or real estate. That’s especially true if it’s having fun and catching bass on a lake like Conroe, a 20,000-acre reservoir. The reservoir sits in the shadows of downtown Houston and offers gobs of potential for producing record-shattering sacks.

Impounded in 1973 in Walker and Montgomery counties, Conroe isn’t necessarily the best big bass lake in the state, but is certainly among the top contenders.

Pro angler Gerald Swindle fishes along one of the many bulkheads surrounding Lake Conroe.

To wit:

Only four other Texas lakes have produced more entries for the Toyota ShareLunker program than Conroe has. Fork is undisputed leader with 257, followed by Sam Rayburn (26), Alan Henry (26) and Austin (20.)

Conroe has produced 17 ShareLunker entries over the years, including the current lake record 15.93 pounder that was caught on Jan. 30, 2009 by Ricky Bearden of Conroe. Bearden said he caught the big fish at around noon while practicing for an Ignition Bass Club tournament to be held the following day. He was fishing in the back of Weir Creek when the monster bass gobbled up the Texas-rigged black Zoom Trick Worm he was fishing in about two feet of water.

Bearden’s fish was one of five Conroe ShareLunkers turned in between Jan. 2008 and Feb. 2009, and it eclipsed the former lake record of 14.91 pounds set in March 1997 by Bill Boyett. Conroe’s most recent ShareLunker, a 13.14 pounder, was caught in April 2015 by David Perciful of Conroe. That fish was reportedly caught out of six feet of water on a Texas rigged lizard.

 Interestingly, Conroe also holds the state record for the biggest bass ever collected by fisheries biologists during an electrofishing survey. The bass weighed 14.1 pounds and was taken around a shallow boat dock in 1998.

Case in point: There are some giants finning around out there, and my guess is any one of the 52 anglers who will be competing in the upcoming Bassmaster Classic on March 24 to 26 would kill to bring such a fish to the scales at bass fishing’s Big Show.

Keith Combs of Huntington is among them. Combs is a six-time Classic qualifier who has what is arguably the richest history on Conroe of any angler in the field. He won Toyota Texas Bass Classic titles there in 2011-13 and finished third in the 2012 TTBC.

According to Combs, Conroe is the ideal spot for a Classic for several reasons. For starters, the location is golden. “Pro bass fishing’s fan base is exponential in Texas, so from that standpoint it is going to blow everything else away,” Combs said. “Bass fishing is huge here, especially around the Houston area.”

Next comes the fishing. As earlier mentioned, there are plenty of heavyweight bass swimming around in Conroe and those anglers who figure how to unlock the code are sure to bring some big girls to the scales.

“That’s the thing that sets Conroe apart from a lot of the other lakes where we’ve fished the Classic,” he said. “It’s got some giants and I’m really looking for it to show out on the big fish side. This will be a tournament where the guy who catches a 10-pounder probably won’t win big bass for the day. I think you’ll see some 10-pound-plus fish at the scales each day, and just about every angler who comes through the arena with a limit will probably have a six or seven pound kicker.”

Combs added that he expects to see plenty of 20-plus pound bags caught over the course of the event. The Texas pro also thinks Kevin VanDam’s Classic weight record (69 pounds, 11 ounces) for the five-fish daily limit era will be in serious jeopardy.

“I’m really looking for it (the weight record) to fall,” Combs said. “I’m thinking the upper 60s or low 70s will do it, but there is the potential for it to be a whole lot more. There will be a bunch of big fish caught. There could be a new record set for the biggest fish, too. It wouldn’t surprise me to see some fish 11 pounds or better weighed in.”

 

Following the Classic

General Information

  The 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic is the 47th world championship of bass fishing.

  It is conducted by B.A.S.S. LLC, the world’s largest fishing organization with more than 500,000 members worldwide.

  The Bassmaster Classic is considered the “Super Bowl” of Bass Fishing.

  A total of 52 anglers will compete at the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic.

  The Classic is a no-entry-fee tournament open only to top-ranked anglers who qualify through one of several B.A.S.S. tournament circuits.

  First-place prize is $300,000.

  The total prize payout for the Classic is more than $1 million.

Schedule of Events:

(All times are local)

Friday, March 24:

  7:20 a.m.: Take off

  Noon to 8 p.m.: Bassmaster Classic Expo presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods Opens at GRB Convention Center

  3 p.m.: Doors open to general public for weigh-in

Saturday, March 25:

  7:20 a.m.: Take off

  10 a.m. to 7 p.m.: Expo opens at GRB Convention Center

  TBD: Doors open to general public for weigh-in

  TBD: Bassmaster High School Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods

Sunday, March 26:

  7:20 a.m.: Take off

  10 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Expo opens at GRB Convention Center

  TBD: Doors open to general public for weigh-in

  TBD: Carhartt Bassmaster College Classic presented by Bass Pro Shops

Venues:

  Lake Conroe has never hosted the GEICO Bassmaster Classic.

  This will be the first Classic ever to be held wholly within the state. The 1979 Classic took place on Lake Texoma on the Texas-Oklahoma border.

  Daily weigh-ins will take place each afternoon in Minute Maid Park, home of the Astros, in downtown Houston (501 Crawford St., Houston, TX 77002). 

  The Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods will be held Friday through Sunday, March 24-26, in the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston (1001 Avenida De Las Americas, Houston, TX 77010).

  The Bassmaster Classic has a huge economic impact on the host city and state.

  For the past Classic, total attendance at the Classic venues has averaged more than 100,000.

  The economic impact of a Classic is typically between $20 million and $24 million.

  Approximately 5,000 hotel rooms will be utilized by people attending the Classic.

The Competition

  Anglers can weigh in up to five black bass per day, 16-inch minimum length limit.

  The heaviest cumulative weight over three days wins.

  All bass will be released alive back into Lake Conroe.

  The full field of 52 anglers competes Friday and Saturday. Field is cut to the Top 25 on Sunday, the final day.

  Five Classic competitors call Texas home: Keith Combs of Huntington, Takahiro Omori of Emory, Todd Faircloth of Jasper and father-and-son competitors Alton Jones Sr. and Alton Jones Jr., both of Lorena.

—Matt Williams

 

—story by Matt Williams 

 

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