The playing field comprises the beginning of a river whose history changed the region with power, flood control and water storage. That's a fitting metaphor, as the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk offers life-changing potential with a career milestone, financial reward and personal fulfillment.
Just ask reigning Classic champ Jason Christie.
"Personally, when you have that feather in your hat, it makes you feel more confident," Christie said. "I had been close several times, so put me at peace with myself. I'm not satisfied, but I'm at peace.
"Professionally, it gave my sponsors the return on investment. They bet on me and it's worked out."
Where They'll Fish
Classic waters primarily include the 14,600-acre Fort Loudoun Lake and the 15,560-acre Tellico Lake. Loudoun begins the series of nine Tennessee River reservoirs and links to Tellico through a canal that passes beneath the U.S. Highway 321 Bridge. Both lakes are managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The Tennessee River headwaters are found near Knoxville at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad rivers. Tournament boundaries extend to the Interstate 40 bridge on the Holston and the Highway 168 bridge on the French Broad.
Covering 14,600 acres, Fort Loudoun begins the Tennessee River's 652-mile trek to its merger with the Ohio River. The lake's namesake dam includes a hydroelectric facility with a 60- by 360-foot lock that accommodates commercial and recreational traffic between Fort Loudoun and Watts Bar.
Located on the Little Tennessee River arm of Watts Bar—the next Tennessee River reservoir below Fort Loudoun Dam—Tellico is a deeper lake with greater clarity. Tellico Dam does not generate electricity; it diverts the river flow through the linking canal.
Barring any unforeseen weather anomaly, the field of 55 Classic competitors are looking at a largely prespawn event. Christie's good with that, as a spawning scenario does not pair well with the Classic's no-points, go-for-the-win mindset.
"I don't want to be doing any sight fishing in the Bassmaster Classic," he said. "There's just too much on the line to be sitting over the top of a fish and trying to get it to bite."
Also, Christie knows that, while the armada of spectator boats that will cluster around certain anglers can offer encouragement, the extra noise and water turbulence can create challenging conditions.
Christie's fellow Elite Brandon Lester lives about three hours from the Classic site. Spring officially begins the Monday of Classic week, but he's hopeful that forecasted weather patterns will actually hold the fish in the preferred prespawn stage.
"We have had some unseasonably warm weather here lately, but it's going to get back down into the 20s and then we're going to have some highs back into the 60s and lows in the high 30s," Lester said. "That's about typical for this time of the year, so I expect that water temperature to be around that mid 50-degree range (for Classic week)."
During the Classic's first visit to Fort Loudoun/Tellico in 2019, Tennessee pro Ott Defoe won with three limits of largemouth bass. This year's championship event will certainly see plenty of the big green ones, but anglers cannot overlook the smallmouth factor—particularly given the recent memory of Jeff "Gussie" Gustafson's 2021 Elite victory on these same waters.
Using forward facing sonar technology, the Canadian pro focused on a group of hefty smallmouth holding over deep rocks in the canal between Loudoun and Tellico. Turning in an eye-popping four-day weight of 63 pounds, Gustafson won by a 7-pound margin.
Gustafson's win was about a month earlier than the Classic's timing, so Gustafson's exact scenario may or may not be in play. Nevertheless, those big smallmouth haven't gone anywhere, so a diligent search could relocate the motherlode.
"With what Gussie did the last time (the Elites) were there, it's hard to know what's going to go down," Christie said. "I don't know if a guy can win with all smallmouth, but smallmouth will definitely play a roll in this event."
Noting that he expects to see several mixed bags of largemouth and smallmouth, Christie said the standard mix of rocks, docks, laydowns and gravel points will offer consistent opportunity. The smart game plans, he said, will put anglers in areas where they can catch both species.
Gustafson caught his winning weight with the moping technique (aka Damiki Rigging), which vertically presents a small jig with a baitfish body over suspended fish. Other likely baits will be crankbaits, jerkbaits, bladed jigs, Carolina rigs, Texas rigs and dropshots.
What Will It Take?
"I would take 50 pounds and stay home," Christie said of his winning weight expectation. "I think 16 3/4 pounds a day will do it.
"I think someone's going to catch a 20-pound bag, but it's going to be hard to catch that big of a bag for three days in a row. But if someone (averages) 16 a day, they're going to be hard to beat."
The Classic field will represent the Bassmaster Elite Series, St. Croix Bassmaster Opens, TNT Fireworks Bassmaster B.A.S.S. Nation Series, Strike King Bassmaster College Series and the Bassmaster Team Championship. Anglers can weigh five bass prepay and the heaviest three-day total wins the top prize of $300,000, with each competitor guaranteed $10,000.
The Classic activities begin with a free kickoff party (live music, games, concessions, fireworks) March 23 from 5 to 8 p.m. Eastern Time at the Knoxville Convention Center's outdoor Plaza Terrace. Competition will be March 24-26 with daily takeoffs from Volunteer Landing in downtown Knoxville at 7:15 a.m. Weigh-ins will be at Thompson-Boling Arena on the University of Tennessee campus at 3:15 p.m.
The free Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo will be March 24-26 at the Knoxville Convention Center and the adjacent World's Fair Exhibition Hall.