(Ed. Note: Today’s article is by guest writer Heather Ryerson. As an aside, downtown was swamped this weekend and a large share of the credit goes to this event. Out of state cars, hotel parking lots filled, and people wearing fishing-related attire and lanyards filled restaurants, bars, and streets.)
Years of planning, preparing, and anticipating culminated in a spectacular event last weekend as Knoxville hosted the Bassmaster Classic for a second time. Fans came out in droves to witness this epic bass fishing battle setting the new attendance record for the event at 163,914 visitors beating the last record of 156,000 in Greenville, SC, for the 2022 tournament!
I met with Kim Bumpas, president of Visit Knoxville and we discussed the economic impact this event brings to each host city. In 2019, the last time we hosted Bassmaster in Knoxville, we set the record at 153,809 visitors with a $32 million impact on the community. With the conservative increase of 6.5%, we can assume the economic impact this year will be over $34 million, a considerable boost for Knoxville’s economy.
If you can even classify my knowledge at the novice level, I am a fishing novice. (What’s a level below beginner?) I can count on one hand the number of times I have been fishing, so I had a lot to learn as I met the professional anglers who qualified for this year’s tournament. One of the most important things I learned was they have a goal to return 100% live fish back to the water after weigh-ins each year. The tournament worked with TVA and TWRA to reach this goal.
Anglers descended on our city the weekend before the tournament began. This allows them to get to know the city, venue, and waterway before competing. I chatted a bit with Shane LeHew of North Caroline after the event. This was Shane’s 4th Bassmaster Classic since becoming Elite. At this stage of competition, it is a full-time job and investment for the anglers. Not surprisingly, Knoxville has been his favorite event venue to date! The proximity of the water to hotels and event spaces, in addition to the great food and walkability of our town, made it his top choice.
Many things contribute to success on the water. Weather conditions and fluctuations and water level are two of Mother Nature’s (and TVA’s) challenges to the men on the water. This year, the water level was lower than preferred, and the cold snap that went straight into late Spring temps did them no favors.
When I asked how much of the game is skill and how much is luck, the response was it’s a bit of both and a lot of intuition. Anglers must know the fish’s habits and how the conditions mentioned above affect their behavior. And they have to know their tools, bait, and boat and trust their gut. Each angler also has their own favored techniques and strengths, from using electronics, preferring shallow water, and perfecting different gear they use.
I perused the Expo all three days it was open and was stunned at the crowds and the massive amount of vendors and exhibitors throughout the Knoxville Convention Center and the World’s Fair Exhibition Hall. Hundreds of eager vendors sported their best fishing and boating wares, and thousands upon thousands were there to shop, watch and cheer on their favorite angler. If you saw folks walking downtown carrying 5-gallon buckets and fishing poles, you know they came from the Bassmaster expo. I have never seen that many 5-gallon buckets in one place!
The 54 anglers and their fans came from all over the country. Some traveled internationally from Canada, Australia, and Japan. For some anglers, this was their first trip to the Classic. For Gerald Swindell, AL native and two-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year, this marked his 20th! Many fans said this event was on their bucket list, and it did not disappoint! The commitment of fans to the sport is akin to any sport. They follow their favorite angler, know his techniques, records, and then head to this “NASCAR” of bass fishing to cheer them on!
While each competitor goes home with a bit of cash in their pocket, the grand prize is what they are all fighting for. The winner this year was Jeff Gustafson from Ontario, Canada. This was Jeff’s 4th Bassmaster Classic appearance taking home the $300k grand prize and coveted Ray Scott Trophy by bagging 42lbs 7oz over three days on the water. Jeff, AKA “Gussy”, also set a record of his own as the first-ever Canadian Bassmaster Champion!
This year had an additional perk for fans. The Dock Dog competition right outside the Maker Exchange and World’s Fair Park was in action all weekend. This event was a crowd-pleaser as dogs of all breeds jumped into a large pool of water to show off their retrieval skills, big air, and speed.
The weather could not have been more perfect to be outside, explore our city, and host the many events each weekend. As I walked the city, it was a pleasure to see so many happy tourists enjoying the place I call home. As for whether we will host the Bassmaster Classic again? I think our odds are pretty good. Perhaps by then, I’ll even learn to fish myself!