Big bass and big star power preceded the 2021 Bassmaster Classic in North Texas.
This year's tournament included Deion Sanders, Marcus Spears, Jimmie Allen, Sheryl Swoopes, Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye (Maddie & Tae). Other familiar faces, like Duck Dynasty's Justin Martin and pro angler Greg Hackney were also in attendance, as was ESPN's Marty Smith, who helped host the event.
Lucky enough to get an invite, I had the privilege of even participating in the tournament alongside personalities I'd only ever seen on television or in my Spotify library.
A week prior to the event, I found out I was teamed up with WNBA legend Sheryl Swoopes and her brother Earl, both of whom were as determined as I was to take home a win.
However, there was a lot to do before we'd hit the water, starting with a stop at an Academy store to gear up.
Gearing Up at Academy
I've written about Academy Sports + Outdoors on more than one occasion, and for good reason. If you hunt or fish and live near one of their stores, take a drive out there as soon as you finish reading this article--it's always worth it.
While Academy sells equipment for just about any sport you can think of, outdoorsmen like myself have always revered its hunting and fishing sector as one the industry's best-kept secrets. Surely the secrecy has been ripped away by a massive surge in popularity, but success has only amplified Academy's best qualities.
What sets this brand apart is the attention they give to their own private labels, giving customers the best possible quality at an affordable price.
If you're already familiar with brands like Magellan Outdoors, Game Winner, Outdoor Gourmet and H2O XPRESS, you're probably no stranger to their bang-for-your-buck approach. But as customers' loyalty to these labels continues to grow rapidly, the folks at Academy see the benefit in offering an elevated tier of products, too.
Academy's Magellan Outdoors Pro line may be the single best installment I've seen across the fishing industry in the last year. Somehow still managing to keep the prices lower than most name brands, Academy now offers fishing apparel that's perfectly suitable for professional tournaments.
The Pro fishing lineup covers everything--hats, shirts, shorts, shoes, rainwear, jackets, bibs, etc.--but I was outfitted with some of the more versatile offerings.
For the tournament, I got to try out the Pro Angler Pieced Mossy Oak Camo Long Sleeve Crew T-shirt, the Men's Angler Hybrid Board Shorts and the Magellan Outdoors Men's Pro Angler Fishing Shoes.
Each piece was top-notch, offering the perfect combination of comfort and durability. The breathability of each became a blessing when temperatures started to heat up, too.
Additionally, Magellan welcomed an expansive line of women's fishing gear to their Pro lineup, which offers female anglers more variety ever before.
The H2O XPRESS lineup also got a facelift in the last year, seeing the biggest improvements in the baitcaster reel department. Even the most budget friendly option, the M3 Mettle, offers a 10 stainless-steel ball bearings and centrifugal braking system at a bargain of $59.99.
As the most expensive of the H2O XPRESS reels, the Tac-40 is still cheaper than most tournament-ready reels, and can stand up to just about anything else on the market.
To go with each of the newest reels is a complementary H2O XPRESS rod, also named the M3 Mettle, HD Ethos and Tac-40.
However, the rod that stood out perhaps the most was the newest Tac-40 rod that offers a one-piece, multi-modulus graphite blank. One of the more comfortable rods I've ever held, it offers some of the highest sensitivity on the market to ensure you never miss that big bite you're chasing after.
Anglers can also choose from the spinning rod equivalents if they typically avoid baitcasters.
Meat Church on Lake Lewisville
If you haven't spent much time in Texas, here's a pro tip for the next time you're here: go find some brisket. There is no place in the world that features as many world-famous barbecue joints as the Lone Star State, and brisket is undoubtedly the specialty.
After our store walkthrough, we all regrouped for dinner on the shores of Lake Lewisville, where we were treated to some excellent cooking from Matt Pittman, the man behind the mythical traveling barbecue brand, Meat Church.
As someone who's lived down here for the last five and a half years, I can confidently say I've been to most of the big ones, including Franklin Barbecue, Terry Black's BBQ, Pecan Lodge and Cattleack BBQ. Pittman's brisket was among the best I've ever had.
To set off the Texas experience, he also cooked up jalapeño poppers made with chorizo, smoked turkey, smoked sausage and some impeccable mac and cheese, as well as a variety of other sides.
It's hard to not make friends with fellow anglers when you're all accepting your fate for the next 12 hours as the price of stuffing yourself full of savory, remarkable food.
A few ambitious anglers walked down to the lake to throw out a couple of lines, but the majority of us just kept eating until our bodies wouldn't let us anymore.
Hitting the Water
When you throw a group of former professional athletes and famous musicians into the same competitive arena, you can safely assume they're going to take it seriously. And, that they did.
We were all divided up into six teams, each consisting of a guide, a media member and a celebrity, and several brought an extra guest.
Sanders, who largely goes by "Prime Time" even in casual conversation, brought Barstool Sports personality Sidney Wells along with him. Maddie and Tae each brought their fathers. And then, of course, Sheryl brought her brother Earl on the boat with me.
Competitive tension was high as soon as everyone stepped in the same room to hear the rules, and continued all the way to boats, where Sanders and Spears could be heard going back and forth with Sheryl about who would bring back more fish.
Of course, it wasn't until we were out on the water that Sheryl told me she hadn't actually gone bass fishing before and that she was relying on her brother and me to do the heavy lifting.
The lake was up six feet after a rash of rainstorms hit North Texas in the weeks leading up to the event, so we decided to throw chatterbaits at flooded brush, hoping to attract bass with vibrations through the murky water.
In just my second cast, I hooked into a bass that looked to be in the 5-pound range, only to watch it catch some air and throw my bait across the water.
Sheryl and Earl were taking the same approach, and doing so in what seemed like flawless fashion, but unfortunately never had any action. Meanwhile, our guide, James Caldemeyer, ultimately had the same fate as me, hooking into one solid bass but losing it right before getting it to the boat.
Because of the conditions, we thought we might not be the only ones striking out, as it felt like we were doing all the right things and just coming up short.
But around 10 a.m., a media boat dropped by and informed us that Spears had already caught a fish weighing at least 5 pounds, and that Sanders' boat had already hit their limit.
Now in desperation mode, we started trying everything from worms to topwater, and then even back to different-colored chatterbaits that got us some early action. But it ultimately wouldn't make any difference, leaving us with a dreadful walk of shame as one of only two boats that didn't catch a fish.
To no one's surprise, Sanders backed up his pre-tournament trash talk with a comfortable victory, which was followed by a heartfelt speech about his gratitude for the experience and his plans for charity.
After a tough day on the water and a big lunch, most of us were lucky enough to get a chance to talk to each of the celebrities for a little while before we all parted ways.
As cool as it was to bump elbows with them all, particularly Sanders, who played such a big role in my childhood, I still feel an itch for Sheryl, Earl and I to redeem ourselves one day. All I can hope is that our paths cross again--hopefully on the water!