As fans of bass fishing, we all know by now the major events that occurred last month at the Bassmaster Classic: the top producing patterns, the best lures, the pros’ struggles and triumphs. But I’ve often wondered, what’s it really like to win?
In the past, I’ve always been mesmerized by the coverage of the winner’s final day, reported as best as possible by Bassmaster Television. But imagine being there, in the boat, as the story unfolds.
And before and after each Classic, we often read of the fame and fortune that accompany such a victory. We’ve seen past winners on Letterman, and reported in the national news. We’ve heard of untold riches bestowed on the winner, and sales of millions of Classic-winning lures. Reports are that Classic winners are in such demand as seminar speakers they can nearly name their price.
As fans, we need to experience more of the whirlwind and get an inside scoop of what it’s really like to win the Classic.
Randy Howell couldn’t be a better candidate to give us the scoop. Randy’s straight-as-an-arrow honest and doesn’t mind sharing the details. And his win came in unusual fashion, as he climbed from nearly out of contention to capture the crown with final-day heroics.
But what were really unique were Howell’s experiences throughout the day and how he believes they all came into fruition. You see, it seems Howell credits what occurred as part of a master plan, credible only to God himself. From what I learned in a recent interview, he may, in fact, be right.
This week and next, we will dive deeper into Howell’s win, how it all came to be, and its result on his career. We’ll start with the sequence of events that earned Howell the right to be called World Champion, as I attempted to climb into the boat with him on that final day. By now, the fishing was nearly ending, and the events of the day that would determine history had already occurred, though nobody knew it.
“I knew when I culled a 5-pounder I had experienced a special day,” Howell told me. Guntersville’s famous bass population had indeed come forth, and Howell caught them until he could improve no more. But the thought of winning the tournament hadn’t really crossed his mind. “I didn’t go out there to win,” he said.
During a brief mid-morning lull in the fishing, Howell had had an idea. He dug in his rod box and pulled out the single prototype Livingston Lure he owned, and would later make famous. Throughout the day, Howell would make 19 trips to the livewell with fish surpassing 4 pounds, most falling victim to the fateful crankbait.
Yet all day, while fishing in front of hundreds of spectators both afloat and standing on the causeway near where he cranked, no one had yelled, “You’re going to win the Classic” or “You’re the man, Randy!”
No fan had checked BASSTrakk online and notified Howell of his position. Undoubtedly many were aware of what was taking place, but they all just watched, and an unassuming Howell just fished. His wife, Robin, was there too; just watching. She claims the fans’ silence was far from coincidence. In fact, she feels such a pressure-free atmosphere was the only way he could have won.
Howell's hoarse voice, tired from a now-relentless speaking schedule, reiterated on the phone, “I never lost any fish, not even a little one.” I mentioned to him that maybe he had forgotten while in the big-bass bedlam. He assured me neither he, nor the multiple on-board cameras, had missed any details.
When he hit the dock, camera crews and TV reporters flocked to Howell, giving him an indication that something special was, indeed, taking place. In the back of his mind, he felt a strange aura. “It was just too good of a day for something big not to happen.” But at last, he scoffed at the idea.
When I sat in the stands of the coliseum weigh-in, I could see in Howell’s eyes what was taking place on stage those final moments. It had finally started to materialize in his head: The possibility that he could, in fact, win the Bassmaster Classic. Howell simply could not allow the idea to take hold.
One by one, challengers fell by the wayside. No one could top Howell's miraculous weight – a nearly 30-pound stringer. He squeezed his eyes tightly closed, shaking his head back and forth in disbelief as B.A.S.S. emcee Dave Mercer announced the possibility. Howell felt he might be dreaming and, at any moment, was going to wake up, disappointment in the back of his mind as he set out for another day of pre-fishing in the predawn chill, or a continued mind-numbing road trip.
The outcome of the Classic remains a mystery to everyone involved until the final fish is weighed, but previous indications were that Howell would finish no higher than 2nd, behind B.A.S.S. Nation strongman Paul Mueller. After Mueller failed to top Howell’s weight, Mercer turned with a revealing look in his eye, despite the leaders yet to weigh.
As Howell put it, “He seemed to give it away."
One by one, the finalists continued to fall. Howell had beaten them all. In the end, one of the sport's most modest players hoisted the 40-pound Classic trophy overhead and lived a dream that he had been awoken from so many times before.
I had to know the course of events that immediately followed. I had watched Howell being whisked by later that evening, went to shake his hand, and he instead insisted on a hug. He already looked like a changed man; this was rock-star stuff, complete with an entourage and “people." No one, except the previous winners of this monster event, could understand what happens as this all unfolds. As I further inquired, Howell did his best to give me the blow by blow.
Immediately following the weigh-in, he was quickly taken behind the stage by B.A.S.S. event coordinators. There, hungry press members were granted a few quick interviews. Then Howell and his family were granted 15 minutes of time alone in a room with close friends. After a series of hugs and celebrations, all but Randy, Robin, and their children were removed from the room to give the Howells a few minutes to let it all soak in. Could it possibly be real?
Robin held it together. Knowing ultra-emotional Randy, I’m guessing he did not.
From there, Howell was escorted to the Classic press conference. Following hundreds of questions and thousands of photographs, he was taken out the back door and driven to his hotel. Entering a semi-private access, he was led to his room, where an additional group of well-wishers congratulated him.
With no time to waste, Howell was shuffled to the Champions Toast function. By now, it was 9:30, he still hadn’t eaten a thing, and he described himself as in continued denial. He mentioned that he actually had to ask Robin if it was all really happening. It was just so surreal.
Following the big celebration, Howell found himself amongst the fans, most of which were already knee-deep in beer at the hotel lobby bar. After enough photos to surely fill everyone’s Facebook wall, he finally escaped to the function inside, held by the folks at Livingston Lures, who were likely feeling like co-champions. Finally, around 11 p.m., Randy ate for the first time that day. He made it back to his hotel room around 1:30 Monday morning.
There, he and his wife finally sat, quietly, together. And finally, they both cried.
It was true; all of it. It had really happened.
Randy Howell had won the Bassmaster Classic in his home state of Alabama. He had done so despite the stadium crowd making it blatantly obvious that he was the overwhelming fan favorite. He had brought more recognition to his charitable, faith-driven title sponsor, King’s Home, than ever thought possible, resulting in thousands of dollars in immediate donations. And he had done so with one, single prototype crankbait; never even assuming he had a chance.
Next week, we’ll dive deeper into the business side of the win. We’ll talk about the unique fact that Howell gained incredible exposure not only for Livingston Lures, but also for competitor Rapala, and we’ll learn of their response. We’ll explore his hectic speaking schedule and hear the guidance given to him by former Classic champions, including one regarded as the greatest ever.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)