GREENVILLE, S.C. — At the Bassmaster Classic registration meeting at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Greenville, 54 jerseyed anglers grouped up tightly in ballroom chairs, like a school of blueback herring. Apparently, there is sometimes safety in numbers. Veteran Elite Series pro David Mullins was a lone exception to this rule, standing at the back of the room, chewing gum, blowing bubbles.
“I’m always in the back,” he said when asked about it. At first he cited a recent back surgery as the rationale for his apparent aloofness, but then thought better of it. “If you look at the pictures of any tournament meeting, I’m always in the back.”
In contrast to the Tennessee pro, who is fishing his third consecutive Classic, former Angler of the Year Brandon Palaniuk sat up front, so close to the speaker’s lectern that he could almost touch it. If nothing else, he could not be ignored. This is his 11th Classic, and third at Lake Hartwell, and despite the many accolades he’s received, the Idaho pro has come as close to the title as the runner-up, but has not been able to win. He’s a fan favorite, and despite being from as far across the continent as possible, many pundits also have him as a pre-tournament favorite. The eager beaver act is likely just enthusiasm, but it might also have some larger strategic significance.
“I like hanging out with the Japanese guys,” Palaniuk said, referring to Daisuke Aoki and Taku Ito. “I like to help them decipher what’s going on, and they always have good stories, new baits, and little tidbits of information.” While bass fishing is a solitary sport, and Hartwell is a huge playing field, any angler who wishes to claim the trophy is likely going to have to deal with other people. They might be other competitors in the same area. At the very least, anyone in contention going into the final day can expect to have a flotilla of spectators in his area. That’s been the case at past Hartwell Classics, and with temperatures in the upper 70s forecasted for the weekend, it’s a near certainty. “I love having a lot of people around,” Palaniuk added. “It means you’re doing well. You feed off the energy. Without the fans, we’re just a bunch of guys fishing for our own money.”
While one man will stand alone with the trophy on Sunday, 54 will leave comparatively empty-handed in what effectively amounts to a winner-take-all tournament. Finishing second or third, and having the winning fish escape your grip, or never bite at all, is a dark memory that can’t be erased, except with a win. That agony befell Jason Christie here in 2018, when he finished 3rd, just over a pound short of winner Jordan Lee. On the third day, he failed to weigh in a limit. It likewise happened to him in 2016, when he was the runner-up, albeit by a much larger margin. Fellow veteran Steve Kennedy knows that same pain. He said that last year at Ray Roberts, he tempted and lost an 8-pound-plus fish that would have changed his strategy, and potentially the outcome of the tournament. Like Christie, he also succumbed to Jordan Lee’s last-minute heroics. Kennedy finished second to his fellow Auburn grad at Lake Conroe in 2017, missing the title by 1 pound 9 ounces.
“I’ve choked twice,” Kennedy said bluntly. “That first day at Conroe I weighed in 17 pounds, but I should’ve had 30. I left three 6-pounders hanging back in the trees where I couldn’t get to them.”
That’s one form of indignity, but it’s not the only one that Kennedy’s experienced at a Classic. In his second qualification, here at Hartwell in 2008, he literally got left at the arena after weigh-in.
“I was the last boat out,” he recalled. “Then we got a late start to weigh-in. By the time I weighed in, went to the media room, got a snack and walked outside, the bus was there to take us to the boatyard, but the dude was like ‘We’re off the clock. We’re done.’ The doors to the arena were locked behind me. There was nobody in the parking lot, not a single car. I had to sit there for 15 or 20 minutes until a media guy came out, and gave me a ride to the boatyard.”
There’s nothing lonelier than being an also-ran at the Bassmaster Classic, but the counterbalancing possibility is the chance of a life-changing win. Neither Mullins, Palaniuk, Christie nor Kennedy has yet to accomplish that feat. There may be safety in numbers, but after the cocktail party niceties of registration and media day end, it’s every man for himself.